Monday, February 08, 2010

"The tightly packed books burned for a week," or, Yet another way in which it could be worse!

At the close of my post over the weekend about packing my library, I noted that it could be worse: I could be in the position of Robinson Crusoe, limited to a handful of books saved from the seas. Yesterday, however, while reading Jenny Uglow's incredibly good new book about Charles II in the 1660s, A Gambling Man, I was reminded that water is at most the second-greatest foe of books--and that, yes, things could always be much worse:
When the Great Fire roared down Ludgate Hill it swept into a printing house in King's Head Court, off Shoe Lane. John Ogilby's entire stock went up in flames, including the manuscript of his twelve-book epic Carolies--"the pride, divertisement, business and sole comfort of my age."
And that's not even the worst of it:
Many booksellers and publishers, whose shops clustered around St Paul's churchyard, were ruined the same day. Some had placed their stock in Christ Church and Stationer's Hall, where the loss amounted to over £150,000. Others had taken their books and the sheets ready for binding to St Faith's Church, in the cathedral crypt. The great private library of Samuel Cromleholme, High Master of St Paul's School, was also stored here. It was thought to be safe, but the burning roof timbers crashed through the floor into the vault and the tightly packed books burned for a week. Wren's mentor John Wilkins, who had been rector of St Lawrence Jury since 1662, lost his house, his possessions and the manuscript of the Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language on which he had been working for years, and which he had to reconstruct from a proof. Richard Baxter reported that the libraries of most of the ministers in the City were burnt and from his home, six miles from London, he could see "the half burnt leaves of books " whirling in the wind. Pepys's favorite bookseller Kirton lost his house, shop and thousands of pounds' worth of books. He died a year later, having never recovered from the shock.
Uglow's chapter on the Great Fire of London is incredibly gripping. I mostly know the fire from Pepys's irreplaceable eyewitness account, Peter Ackroyd's description in London: A Biography, and other assorted histories; the range of sources and perspectives Uglow brings to her telling brings the scope and ferocity of the fire to life like none I've encountered, from its origins--when the Lord Mayor said, "Pish! A woman might piss it out!"--to its end, when
All the City's finest buildings and churches had vanished: men were bemused and lost, lacking the familiar landmarks. Even the waters in the broken fountains seemed to boil, and evil-smelling smoke swirled up from wells and cellars like fumes from hell.
Uglow pays particular attention to the actions of Charles himself during the fire, which, remarkably, he fought on the front lines all night with his brother, the Duke of York:
[F]ilthy, smoke-blackened, and tired, Charles toured the fireposts, wielding buckets and shovels with the men. Many contemporary accounts mention his bravery and energy, "even labouring in person, & being present," as Evelyn put it, "to command, order, reward, and encourage Workemen; by which he shewed his affection to his people, & gained theirs." The king and duke, wrote Clarendon,
who rode from one place to another, and put themselves in great dangers among the burning and falling houses, to give advice and direction what was to be done, underwent as much fatigue as the meanest, and had as little sleep or rest; and the faces of all men appeared ghastly and in the highest confusion.
Where citizens had fled, Charles and James took charge themselves, exposing themselves to flames and smoke and the danger of falling buildings.
The most memorable of all the many anecdotes and details that Uglow assembles, however, appears at the end of the chapter--which one can't help but read in a rush, the end coming as an almost physical relief--when the fire has finally petered out:
It was a scene of horror, but also one of wonder, a natural curiosity drawing the observant men of the Royal Society. In the broken tombs in St Paul's, they observed the mummified bodies of bishops buried two centuries before, while in the tomb of Dean Colet, a more recent burial, his lead coffin was found to be full of a curious liquor that had conserved the body. "Mr Wyle and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and it was a kind of insipid taste, something of an ironish taste. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like brawn."
They made scientists out of some very stern stuff back in those days. And, to bring this post back around to where I started: I may have had to pack up all my books, but at least I didn't have to watch them burn, then drink insipid tombwater!

No comments:

Post a Comment