Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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...

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