The Fever and the Flame anthologises two novels for younger readers, At the Sign of the Sugared Plum and Petals in the Ashes, set in and around Restoration London. The first volume recounts the adventures of Hannah, a young woman who travels to London to work with her sister Sarah in her confectioner’s shop in 1665. Through her outsider’s eyes we witness the spread of the plague as well as experience a first tentative romance with apothecary’s assistant Tom and explore the city. Eventually London becomes too dangerous for Hannah and Sarah and they’re able to flee, taking with them a child of a noblewoman to family in the relative safety of the countryside. In the second book, which directly continues Hannah’s story, after surviving being quarantined in a plague house, she eventually returns to London, this time with younger sister Anne, to re-open the shop and to find out if Tom survived the plague. He has, and is now performing in a travelling magic show. Their being reunited is threatened by a fire which soon overtakes the city. Again they are separated and Hannah must flee again, before being reunited with both Tom and the rest of her family.
These are brisk books, setting up Restoration London and its pleasures (theatre, fashion, gallants) well and Hooper has a way with colourful supporting characters even if the plotting is sometimes reliant on coincidence (people have a habit of being in the right place at the right time). Nevertheless, there’s plenty of reliable period detail employed and it’s interesting to be able to see the ways she distinguishes the slow apocalypse of the plague from the speed of the fire. Decent use is made of straightforward sources (Pepys’ diaries are used for incidental detail throughout) and there’s some useful peritextial material: notes on both the plague and the fire, as well as on Hooper’s resources as well as a handful of period recipes and a glossary.
I admit to wincing when a significant series of events was set during the Bartholomew Fair of 1666 (which didn’t take place either in ’65 or ’66 – they were cancelled for fear of the gatherings spreading the plague); in her notes, Hooper justifies her decision to use this, which is interesting to see, though it doesn’t make sense in the context of the drama to have done this. Mind you, the Fair is fascinating and I understand the temptation.
That grumble aside, these are books which dramatise history well, which don’t talk down to the readership, and there’s a pleasing sense of danger evident too: Hooper isn’t afraid to make plain the dangers as well as some of the temptations of the era.
Hooper, Mary. 2003. At the Sign of the Sugared Plum (London: Bloomsbury), 160 pages, 978-0747586705
Hooper, Mary. 2004. Petals in the Ashes (London: Bloomsbury), 184 pages, 978-0747586705
Anthologised as The Fever and the Flame, 2006.