Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1677
First published: 1841
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: Mid-seventeenth century
Stephen Bloundel, a London grocer
Amabel, his daughter
Leonard Holt, his apprentice
Maurice Wyvil, in reality the Earl of Rochester
Sir Paul Parravicin, a bravo and bully
Nizza Macascree, a beggar’s daughter
Judith Malmayns, a wicked nurse
In 1665, the year of the great plague, Stephen Bloundel, a London grocer, gathered his household together and prayed for salvation. The grocer had a daughter, Amabel, a beauty who attracted attention wherever she went. The grocer’s apprentice, Leonard Holt, was in love with her. Maurice Wyvil, of whom Mr. Bloundel disapproved, was also reputedly in love with her; he and Amabel met secretly. With the help of Lydyard, his companion, Wyvil secretly plotted to dishonor Amabel in order to win a wager. Actually, Wyvil and Lydyard were the infamous philanderers, the Earl of Rochester and Sir George Etherege. Their companions were men of low character, Sir Paul Parravicin and Major Pillichody.
Two people who profited by the pestilence were Chowles, a coffin maker, and Judith Malmayns, a nurse who robbed her patients and hid her plunder in a secret niche in St. Faith Cathedral, where her husband Matthew was a sexton.
Dr. Hodges attended the plague-stricken young Stephen Bloundel and identified Amabel’s pursuer as the Earl of Rochester, who while pressing his suit with Amabel was also wooing an heiress, Mistress Mallet. To soothe the distraught Amabel, Dr. Hodges urged her to accept Leonard Holt. She promised to marry the apprentice a month after Stephen’s disease had passed.
Stephen recovered, and Leonard pressed Amabel to marry him, but the girl could not bring herself to set a date for the wedding. Secretly, she longed for Rochester. After failing in one design to kidnap Amabel, the nobleman succeeded in carrying her off willingly to the vaults of St. Paul’s, with Leonard in pursuit. In the cathedral, Leonard met a blind beggar, Mike Macascree, and his daughter Nizza, a young beauty. Leonard traced Amabel and her captor to Judith Malmayns, who during a search of the cathedral managed to trick Leonard and lock him in a tower. Nizza helped to release him in time to break up the wedding of Amabel and the Earl of Rochester. When Bloundel found his daughter in the cathedral, Leonard received all blame for the mischief.
While Parravicin looked at Nizza with hungry eyes, she nursed Leonard, who had been attacked by the plague. When the girl tried to persuade Judith Malmayns to care for the sick man, the evil woman demanded money. From her bosom, Nizza drew a gold piece that Judith seemed to recognize, but Nizza’s father said she must not give it away because it had belonged to her dead mother. Parravicin recognized that Nizza was in love with Leonard, and he paid Judith to do away with the apprentice.
Bloundel planned to close off his house from the city until the plague had passed. In the meantime, he allowed no one to enter, and anyone who left would not be readmitted. Leonard had returned to the house, but his stay there was short. When Parravicin kidnaped Nizza, Leonard left the house to save her. Dr. Hodges allowed the apprentice to stay at his home. Leonard eventually found Nizza ill with the plague but otherwise unharmed.
Leonard overheard Rochester plotting with Pillichody and Etherege to kidnap Amabel again. Because the girl was languishing away in the boarded-up house, Dr. Hodges planned to remove her to the country, where fresh air might improve her health. When the Bloundels made plans to have Leonard escort her to an aunt at Ashdown Lodge, a hidden figure overheard all. Fully recovered from the plague, Nizza offered to accompany Amabel to the country. Nizza and Leonard came upon a sick man carrying his dead child to the plague pit. In gratitude toward Leonard for helping him, the man gave him a ring. The dying man seemed to find Nizza’s face familiar.
While the two women and Leonard were at Ashdown Lodge, King Charles arrived. Amabel asked him to command Rochester to cease his attentions, and King Charles complied. When the king saw Nizza, he asked her to be his mistress, but she was saved when Parravicin entered. When the two girls fled from Ashdown Lodge, King Charles became angered and withdrew his restraining command to Rochester. The girls were followed and kidnaped.
After recovering from a second attack of the pestilence, Leonard returned to deathridden London to report the fate of Amabel and Nizza to Bloundel. At St. Paul’s, he met the man whose child he had helped to bury. The man, Thirlby, was trying to find Nizza. He also held a strange influence over Judith Malmayns, but he would not tell Leonard why. Thirlby went to Nizza’s father; Leonard gathered from the conversation that Thirlby was Nizza’s real father.
At last, Leonard traced Nizza through Parravicin and reported his suspicions about Thirlby to the villain. Parravicin seemed greatly agitated. When Leonard went to Nizza, he again found her ill. He also told her about Thirlby.
Thirlby revealed his story: he had married Isabella Morley after killing her husband. She bore a son and a daughter, but Thirlby treated the little girl so harshly that Isabella gave her, Nizza, or little Isabella, to Mike Macascree to care for. Thirlby confessed that the son was Sir Paul Parravicin. Judith Malmayns was Thirlby’s half sister.
Rochester abducted Amabel and daily implored her to marry him. Stricken by the plague, he constantly called her name until she, convinced he really loved her, consented to marry him. When he told her a month later that he had tricked her and intended to cast her off, the unhappy girl lost her reason. Her nurse, Judith Malmayns, however, had witnessed the marriage ceremony and knew that it had been performed by a real priest, not a mock priest, as Rochester believed. She infected Amabel with the plague in the hope of winning his favor. Rochester repented during her illness and acknowledged her as his wife. After her death, he promptly married Mistress Mallet.
The plague slowly passed. Leonard still suffered shock from Amabel’s death but was nursed back to health by Bloundel.
A few months later, Leonard became the grocer’s partner. When the great fire of London broke out, he thought of a plan to check the progress of the flames. Gaining an audience with King Charles in Whitehall, he proposed that houses nearest to the flames be blown up. The king took Leonard with him to inspect the progress of the fire. During the journey, Leonard earned King Charles’s gratitude by saving him from death under a falling building. The fire raged on, destroying even the great cathedral of St. Paul, designed by Inigo Jones. The king promised that a new cathedral designed by Christopher Wren would rise on that site.
Leonard was rewarded for his heroism when King Charles dubbed him Baron Argentine and thus elevated him to a station worthy of Isabella, the former Nizza Macascree.
Among the lesser nineteenth century novelists, William Harrison Ainsworth seems to merit a special place in the reader’s esteem. Although his stories are often melodramatic and lacking in sound literary values, he is a master in his use of setting as a pertinent locale; that is, the action of the novel is inherently dependent upon atmosphere and scene. In this novel, his picture of plague-ridden London is excellent, and the effect of fear on the part of the citizens of London creates a compelling atmosphere for his plot. At every climax, the plague controls the scene. Like Dickens and other of his Victorian contemporaries, Ainsworth does not hesitate to make full use of sentiment and melodrama.
OLD ST. PAUL’S: A TALE OF THE PLAGUE AND THE FIRE was based primarily on Daniel Defoe’s JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR and another lesser-known book about the plague by Defoe. Although some characters and much description are the same, the tone and style of the books are vastly different. Defoe was the great Realist, concerned more than anything else with accurate description, however grotesque it might seem; Ainsworth, however, was a Romantic novelist, using the material as it suited him to develop the particular tale that he had in mind. He takes, for example, the piper who was carted off by mistake as a dead man, blinds him, and gives him a beautiful daughter who turns out to be the child of a nobleman. Although the background of the novel is Realistic, the actions of the characters are highly stylized according to the conventions of Victorian fiction. Ainsworth was not an innovator; he accepted contemporary notions of characterization and sentiment and used them in his work. OLD ST. PAUL’S thus presents a double vision of both the seventeenth century in which it is set and the nineteenth century, when it was written.
In the Romantic tradition, the villains in the novel, such as the Earl of Rochester and Paul Parravicin, are thoroughly wicked, and the virtuous, such as Stephen and Leonard, entirely noble. By the same token, the foolish, such as Blaize, are complete simpletons, and the wise are extraordinarily perceptive. The outlines of the novel are bold and sharp with little shading, but within its limitations, the book is both interesting and entertaining. The melodramatic plot, ingenious and complicated, is well handled and moves swiftly. Ainsworth obviously knew his readership and understood how to write for it. At the time this novel appeared, his works were nearly as popular as the novels of Dickens. Ainsworth never allowed his historical data to overwhelm him but used it with skill as he needed it. This story of murder, love, and treachery seems almost to achieve a symbolic power unimagined by its author as it moves against the background of the plague and the great, cleansing fire that followed.