London (1997) is Edward Rutherfurd's third novel. I reviewed his début Sarum (1987) last year and concluded that he has gone on to write better books. I'm skipping his second novel for the moment. Ruska (1991) is the odd one out in his bibliography so far, it's the only one that is not set in an English speaking part of the world. I've read it a number of years ago and I may reread it at some point in the future. Given the size of these novels, London weighs in at over 1300 pages in mass market paperback and that is a few pages less than Sarum, I decided to read London first. Like all Rutherfurd's novels, London takes the Mitchener approach to historical fiction, in this case covering twenty-one centuries following the lives of a number of fictional families.
Where Rutherfurd covered ten-thousand years of history in his first novel, he takes a slightly less ambitions approach this time. After a brief section detailing the geological history of the region, the story kicks off in 54 BC with Ceasar's invasion of Britain. It ends with an epilogue set in 1997. The period up to the Norman invasion in 1066 takes up less than 200 pages, a lot of which seems to be tied to archaeological finds in the region. I suspect it would be interesting to visit the Museum of London with these sections as a guide. The emphasis of the novel is on medieval and early modern history of the city. Given the enormous amount of historical material available on this topic Rutherfurd could probably have written another book as big as this one. It's obvious a selection had to be made and Rutherfurd has chosen to stay very close to developments in the city, not letting himself get distracted by events in the rest of the world.
London is one of three novels set in relatively close to each other in the south of England. In Sarum he covered the Salisbury Plain region, in London the city of that name and in The Forest (2000), the first book by Rutherfurd I've read and still something of a favourite of mine, the New Forest region. One of the things that struck me, now that I've read all three, is how careful the author is not to repeat himself. The history of these places is of course tightly linked to that of England as a whole. Major decisions by kings and parliaments affected the whole nation and sometimes reached far outside the borders of the Kingdom. It would have been easy to focus on these periods of upheaval that most readers would remember from their history classes. Although Rutherfurd doesn't ignore them completely, he shows that there is a wealth of historical material that is much less well known but, for a lot of readers, will fit in nicely with what they do know of the history of England.
One of the parts I thought particularly interesting was the section London Bridge, which in part deals with the Peasant Rebellion of 1381. It was a curious affair really. The rebels could have razed the city and the King would not have been able to stop them. It's very hard to adopt the mindset of a medieval peasant but I guess it shows how deeply ingrained the feudal structure of society was. Despite Ball's preaching it would take centuries for the last remnants of it to disappear from the legal system. It's the King overstepping is bounds in the existing framework that triggers the rebellion as much as a desire for greater freedom that causes the rebellion. What the leader of the rebellion did to cause his eventual death is still a bit of a mystery. Rutherfurd gives us his own interpretation of what might have happened here, one of many instances where his fictional characters play a small part in the history of the city.
A second part that receives a lot of attention are the religious conflicts in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Rutherfurd pays a lot of attention to the slightly absurd events that lead up to the establishment of the Anglican Church and the consequences of its inability to decide whether to seek reconciliation with the Catholic Church or develop into a full-fledged protestant form of Christianity. The religious struggles in England took quite a different path than those in on the continent. Rutherfurd pays attention the the Puritans in particular, and the influence they had on the development of what would become the United States.
The City is portrayed as a place of trade for almost its entire history. There's a lot of attention to the workings of guilds, trade and the rise of finance and banking that has made London one of the financial hotspots of the world. The rise and fall of generations of merchants, the ways to make or loose their fortune, is the backbone of the story really. I guess we see London more as a city of finance these days, in this novel Rutherfurd makes the link between them very clear. The brief mentioning of the South Sea Bubble of 1720 forms a nice link to Rutherfurd's most recent novel New York.
If there is an overarching theme to the entire novel, the treatment of women is probably it. Throughout the novel there are plenty of instances that detail the place of women in society and Rutherfurd makes it clear that for most of history, a woman's options were limited indeed. Forced marriages, being considered property, the risks of childbirth and sexual violence, not much is spared the female characters in this book. Rutherfurd sticks to the historical framework. These women know their place in society, know what they can expect and to a large extend accept this, or at least don't attempt to stretch custom and law beyond what could be reasonably expected. It's interesting to see how views of what would make a good wife or husband shifts over time. Personally I think it is one of the strengths of this novel but that is something not all readers will agree on. One of the last sections of the novel, The Suffragette, partly deals with the struggle for women's right to vote. Reading this novel I got the feeling Rutherfurd was building up to this.
On the whole I thought London was a better novel than Sarum. It's more balanced I suppose. Rutherfurd doesn't need to make to many large jumps in history since there is plenty of material from the Norman Conquest onwards. It makes the ride a bit smoother. I thought the way Rutherfurd managed to keep the attention focussed on the city, always using the outlook of London's citizens on events in the wider world in his story very well done. With twenty-one different sections set in different periods and using different characters, the novel is still quite a challenging read. It helps to have some knowledge of the general history of England. Even if you know more than a bit, there is still quite a lot of new things to learn in this novel. I enjoyed reading this book a lot but I have to admit, Rutherfurd's way of telling a story is one that doesn't suit all readers. If you are tempted to try it, London is probably a better introduction to his work than Sarum.
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Arrow Books
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1997