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History (and Literature) Lite
on February 28, 2001
Rutherford takes on the formidable task of relating 2,000 years of London history and must be given some credit for the result. He has obviously done a great deal of research of his subject and doesn't overburden the reader with an overly detailed , dry, scholastic recounting here. Considering the amount of ground he covers, (taking us from the period of Roman occupation to the German Blitzkrieg), he does so rather economically. The problem lies in his failure to provide us with a coherent narrative. His framing device of a hidden hoard of gold Roman coins comes off as contrived. His method of detailing generational threads leaves a lot to be desired. Though he strives for at least a quasi-realistic approach, how often, in real life, do succeeding generations mirror their ancestors to a degree they do here? Rutherford's approach is in fact anti-Darwinian. There is very little in the way of variation as one generation succeeds another. The offspring are practically clones of their forbears, with the same attitudes, attributes and overall composition. The bad seeds spawn more bad seeds. The good, honest, simple folk likewise pass on their exact characteristics to their children. Normally, in family trees, there is at least nominal deviation. Not so in Rutherford's London. The device makes it easier for the reader to make connections as the eras pass forth, but true history, we remind ourselves, doesn't happen this way.
The book, therefore, succeeds as a primer in the history of a city. We are given the relevant details of the Roman conquest, medieval revolt, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Great Plague, followed shortly thereafter by the Great Fire, etc., etc. Keep in mind, however, that it is a primer only. In some respects the drawbacks are similar to those faced by Lady Antonia Fraser in her book, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England. Just as the reader becomes engrossed, or at the least engaged, in the period depicted, the author skips on to a different era and a new story. Of course, in Fraser's defense, she does treat the Royals in much more depth in all of her other books.
If you enjoy Rutherford's accounts, please look to authors such as Daniel Defoe (on the Plague), Samuel Pepys (The Plague, the Fire and the Resoration in general). For amusement, as well as insight, you can't go wrong with Boswell's London Journal or his life of Samuel Johnson. For a compelling account of the Wat Tyler revolt in medieval London, turn to Tuchman or Froissart. A better contemporary novel depicting Restoration London is Rose Tremain's book, Restoration, which can be found here on Amazon. For the most vivid account of London in the 18th century, turn to Jonathan Swift's poem, "A Description of a City Shower." If you want the history, without the fiction, there have been at least four full-scale London histories written in the past decade, most notable among them is Stephen Inman's A History of London.