The Dance of Death: A Tale of the Plague and the Fire

Recommended reading for the self isolating, taken from my latest, The Author Who Outsold Dickens

As soon as the epic serial, The Tower of London concluded at the end of 1840, its author, the flamboyant ‘Lancashire Novelist’ William Harrison Ainsworth, threw an enormous celebratory party and promptly began the next serial, Old St. Paul’s, A Tale of the Plague and the Fire, the first instalment of which appeared in The Sunday Times on January 3, 1841. Ainsworth received £1,000 for his labours (the equivalent of around £60,000 today), the copyright reverting to him on completion.

The success of The Tower of London had left booksellers clamouring for a similar sequel, and Ainsworth had written to his best friend, the Manchester lawyer James Crossley, in early-December that ‘I commence a new Romance with the New Year, under the title of The Plague of London. If you have any other tract relating to the period, or to the Fire, I shall feel obliged by the loan of it’, indicating he was already quite advanced in his preparations, having been studying Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, which he had borrowed from his old friend.[i] As Ainsworth’s letters to Crossley show, it was the latter’s Defoe collection that was the inspiration for the new project. This is freely acknowledged in the ‘Advertisement’ that prefaces the novel:

THE portion of the ensuing Tale relating to the Grocer of Wood-street, and his manner of victualling his house, and shutting up himself and his family within it during the worst part of the Pestilence of 1665, is founded on a narrative, which I have followed pretty closely in most of its details, contained in a very rare little volume, entitled, ‘Preparations against the Plague, both of Soul and Body’, the authorship of which I have no hesitation in assigning to DEFOE. Indeed, I venture to pronounce it his masterpiece. It is strange that this matchless performance should have hitherto escaped attention, and that it should not have been reprinted with some one of the countless impressions of the ‘History of the Plague of London’, to which it forms an almost necessary accompaniment…

For my acquaintance with this narrative, as well as for the suggestion of its application to the present purpose, I am indebted to my friend, Mr. JAMES CROSSLEY, of Manchester.[ii]

The attribution of Due Preparations for the Plague (1722) to Defoe is an astute piece of literary scholarship, as its authorship is nowadays unquestioned. This gave Ainsworth the idea for the character of Stephen Bloundel, the Puritan grocer who seals his house, while his principal source of reference was Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (also 1722). Defoe’s novel is a remarkably immediate account of the Summer of 1665, a sleight of hand attributed to a first-hand witness (‘H.F.’), but in fact written from contemporary accounts and records, embellished with fictional episodes which the author insists are all real. Defoe presents his Journal as a true history, but it is rather a historical novel. Anticipating Scott, Defoe, through a relatively neutral narrator, examines the effect on basic humanity of such a dehumanising experience. ‘H.F.’ is not a hero so much as a camera, turned upon an entire city in decay and despair.

Ainsworth’s rewrite of Defoe (adding the closure of the Fire of London) was another bestseller. It was also generally applauded by reviewers, and Ainsworth appended the best of these to the advertisement for the launch of Ainsworth’s Magazine and the novelised version of Old St. Paul’s. Bell’s Life of London notes the Defoe connection and Ainsworth’s dramatic development:

Although the horrors of the Plague and the Fire have already been described by various writers, and especially by Defoe, Mr. Ainsworth has in these volumes clothed those events in a manner the most exciting.

The Courier similarly applauds Ainsworth’s talent for weaving an engaging story out of the historical record without taking too many liberties with the facts:

In this work, Mr. Ainsworth has portrayed many of the horrible incidents of the Great Plague with historical fidelity. He places his principal characters in the midst of that dreadful scourge, and makes the plot depend in a great measure for its progress and development on the circumstances common to the time. The scenes described are all founded on well-authenticated accounts, presented by Mr. Ainsworth with a forcible semblance of reality, which his pen can so well accomplish.

The Atlas appreciates the horror, as well as the narrative pacing:

Two of the most appalling events in the history of London have been drawn into the work before us – the Plague and the Fire, and treated in Mr. Ainsworth’s usual graphic style. It argues in favour of the skill with which these scourges of the great city are treated, that several of the descriptive passages made us literally shudder … Mr. Ainsworth does not fatigue his readers with long accounts of places, and scenes, and events. He always mixes up his descriptions with vivid action, and never lets his narrative pause for a moment. This is one of the secrets of his success.

And the Observer pays a huge compliment:

We are glad to meet Mr. Ainsworth again in the region of historical romance, a department of literature in which he has already distinguished himself above almost every author of the day … He has interwoven historical facts into a web of most pleasing fiction, thereby investing history herself with new attraction.

Even old adversary the Athenaeum revised its earlier opinions:

We prefer the two first volumes of “Old St. Paul’s” to any previous work of their author. Treated as a tale of adventure, the test of which is the hold retained on the reader, these volumes have great merit. The reader who has once opened them will hardly be disposed to lay them down again.

Finally, the Court Journal paid the highest tribute possible: ‘Mr. Ainsworth is the Defoe of his day’.[iii]

While such accolades have vanished into obscurity, R.H. Horne’s predictable rejection of this novel endures. A friend of Dickens’, Horne detested what he saw as Ainsworth’s vulgar and lightweight fiction. Unfortunately for Ainsworth’s reputation, many twentieth century literary historians took these remarks at face value, discouraging both academics and general readers from looking at this apocalyptic tour de force:

‘Old St. Paul’s, a tale of the Plague and the Fire’, is a diluted imitation of some parts of Defoe’s ‘Plague in London’, varied with libertine adventures of Lord Rochester and his associates. It is generally dull, except when it is revolting.[iv]

In short, some people just don’t get gothic horror, and contemporary reviews of Hammer films often took the same tone.[v] Once again, the literary elite failed to understand popular fiction.

Old St. Paul’s is a ‘disaster story’ worthy of Hollywood, where an all-star cast is introduced merely to be decimated by the plague, the fire and each other in an apocalypse of biblical proportions, again based around a famous national monument. It is divided into six books, each separately dated between April 1665 and September 1666. Manchester man Leonard Holt, a grocer’s apprentice, is in love with his master’s daughter, Amabel Bloundel. His rival is a young aristocrat, Maurice Wyvil (later revealed to be John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester), whom she meets in secret in the cathedral. Bloundel’s hypochondriac servant, Blaize, offers some comic relief through his faith in a variety of quack remedies.

As the plague progresses, the cathedral is turned into a pesthouse and London becomes an eerie wasteland where victims of the illness are preyed upon by unscrupulous and opportunist characters such as the coffin-maker Anselm Chowles and Mother Malmaynes, the plague nurse, who hasten their patients’ ends in order to loot their properties. Bloundel decides to seal his family within their house, and Leonard finds himself wandering the wasteland, finally catching, but surviving, the plague. Rochester, meanwhile, tricks Amabel into a phoney marriage and deflowers her. On learning the truth, Amabel falls into a fever and dies. The beautiful daughter of a blind piper, Nizza Macascree, falls for Leonard and this initially unrequited love grows after Amabel’s death. Nizza is actually Lady Isabella Argentine, so marriage seems out of the question. After an interlude of nine months, religious zealots fire the city, and Leonard saves the life of King Charles II. He is rewarded with a title and marries Isabella. The Bloundels survive their ordeals, while Chowles and Malmaynes die horribly in the vaults of St Paul’s in a sea of molten lead. Leonard lives to see St Paul’s rebuilt by Wren.

The Book of Revelations is as much present as Defoe’s Journal, the destruction of London often articulated in biblical terms by characters. The first book therefore opens with a sermon on the day of judgement. This would appeal to the middle-class Victorian audience, who could take the moral high ground while enjoying the licentiousness. Although Rochester’s filthy poetry is not cited, the debauchery begins well with the Earl and his cronies playing cards for each other’s wives while the city falls apart, before being relegated to a subplot like a Restoration comedy played out in parallel with the main through line, suddenly and surprisingly turning nasty at its conclusion. Ainsworth again uses prophesy to turn the history into tragedy, the fanatical Solomon Eagle – another historical figure – screaming ‘The wrath of Heaven is at hand’ from the roof of Saint Paul’s, a flaming brazier on his head.[vi]

Protagonist Leonard Holt witnesses the city’s death and rebirth. As he wanders the urban wasteland, much like Defoe’s observer, civilisation increasingly unravels before his eyes:

As Leonard passed Saint Michael’s church, in Basinghall-street, he perceived, to his great surprise, that it was lighted up, and at first supposed some service was going on within it, but on approaching he heard strains of lively and most irreverent music issuing from within. Pushing open the door, he entered the sacred edifice, and found it occupied by a party of twenty young men, accompanied by a like number of females, some of whom were playing at dice and cards, some drinking, others singing Bacchanalian melodies, others dancing along the aisles…

Holt is appalled, but when he calls of the revellers to repent one of them replies, ‘Do you know whom you address? These gentlemen are the brotherhood of Saint Michael, and I am the principal.’[vii]

Everywhere Holt goes he encounters chaos, violence and death. The beast that lives beneath the veneer of civilised society is loose. If people fall in the street, passers-by step over them, Malmaynes and Chowles rob and murder the sick with impunity, law and order is replaced by mob violence, the churches have closed, and the aristocracy has withdrawn into orgy to await the end. Foreshadowing Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), the cathedral hosts the danse macabre:

In the midst of the nave … stood a number of grotesque figures, apparelled in fantastic garbs, and each attended by a skeleton. Some of the latter grisly shapes were playing on tambours, others on psalteries, others on rebecs – every instrument producing the strangest sound imaginable…[viii]

Old St. Paul’s is not so much gothic as darkly carnivalesque. The world is turned upside down and nurses kill their patients, undertakers their clients; grocers hoard food, sex results in death not life, monks blaspheme, and the dead throw their own wakes. Pain, despair, death and decay are celebrated in their every aspect.

The chapter entitled ‘The Dance of Death’ immediately precedes the heart of the novel, the central image of the plague pit. Despite himself, Holt is grimly fascinated; like Defoe’s observer, he must look:

Strange and fantastic thoughts possessed him. He fancied that the legs and arms moved, – that the eyes of some of the corpses opened and glared at him – and that the whole rotting mass was endowed with animation.[ix]

But reality is even worse that the supernatural fantasy, and he is brought back to his senses by the workman-like dumping of more bodies. London is a necropolis, and, unlike the Tower of London, even St Paul’s is not inviolate; it burns like everything else.

The plague pit is symbolic of human misery on a scale more recognisable to a modern reader. The mass grave is a twentieth century icon, a symbol of war, famine, toxic spills, terrorist attacks, and ethnic cleansing. The horror of Ainsworth’s imagery throughout the three historical novels of 1840-41 reminds us that there is not a single civilisation, including the British Empire, that is not built upon a foundation of human bones. Old St. Paul’s concludes on an image of rebirth, but it is the plague pits that remain longest in the memory.

You can find a more detailed reading of Old St. Paul’s on my academic blog here

For more on Mr. Ainsworth, please take a look at my book – Cheers!

Keep Safe. Stay Well. 🙂


[i] Ainsworth, letter to Crossley, December 7, 1840.

[ii] Ainsworth, W.H. (1841). Old Saint Paul’s; A Tale of The Plague and The Fire. 3 vols. London: Hugh Cunningham, v–vi.

[iii] All reviews quoted from the advertisement for ‘New Periodical Works Preparing for Publication by Mr. Cunningham, 1, St. Martin’s Place, Trafalgar Square’, December 1841.

[iv] Horne, R.H. (1844). A New Spirit of the Age. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder and Co, 2, 404.

[v] When cinemagoers were queuing round the block to see Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, for example, film critic C.A. Lejeune of the Observer described it as ‘among the half-dozen most repulsive films I have ever encountered’. Qtd. in McCarty, John. (1984). Splatter Movies. London: Columbus, 20.

[vi] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s, II, 102.

[vii] Ainsworth, Old St Paul’s, II, 172–174.

[viii] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s, II, 129–130.

[ix] Ainsworth, Old St. Paul’s, II, 162–163.


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