Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

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.

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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.

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