The great virtue of Margarette Lincoln’s new book, London and the 17th Century: The Making of the World’s Greatest City (Yale University Press £25), is to show us a world in flux, says Ian Bostridge in the Financial Times, “and what we recognise as a sort of modernity coming into being”. Despite “the chaos and catastrophe” that dominated 17th-century London – civil war, “devastating” plague and fire, “all in the matter of a few decades” – the city “rose to a European, even global eminence, which it has retained to this day”. London in 1600 was a “nervous backwater”, but by 1700 it was creating “networks of trade and exchange that were to make it what it is today. Too big; too dominant; too expensive.”
Lincoln manoeuvres deftly between the political narrative and a broader cultural, social and economic analysis, says Ian Archer in the TLS. She is as confident in handling political transition as she is with London’s thriving coffee-house culture and “its turbulent maritime community”. Diaries and letters provide “further texture” and “fresh insight”. Alongside Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn are Evelyn’s wife, Mary (who writes of the Thames freezing over: “Cracking of the Ice, and whistling winds… which… may possibly freese our wits as well as our penns”); Covent Garden barber Thomas Rugge; Wapping shipmaster Thomas Bowery; and cloth dealer Sir William Turner. Eastcheap artisan Nehemiah Wallington writes in despair of the plague in 1630: “Oh this is terrible and fearefull to those that be living; when we consider how the infection is derived from one to another by waies and means neither visible nor sencible that no man knows where he shall be safe.”
Despite the vast death toll, the city’s population of 200,000 in 1600 had risen to almost half a million by the century’s end, says Nigel Jones in The Spectator, “swollen by people from the provinces seeking work and by Protestants fleeing persecution in Europe.” The “sheer volume of dazzling data” sometimes seems “overwhelming”. But if you want to know “how it felt to be in the city when it previously faced and overcame such epochal events”, then this is the book for you.
It is impossible to read Sorrow and Bliss (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99) and not be moved, says Clare Clark in The Guardian – Meg Mason’s second novel “finds humour in the darkest of situations. It is also impossible not to laugh out loud.” Martha Friel is 40, “clever, compassionate, hilarious” and “devastatingly sharp-eyed”. She has few friends, but is adored by her husband, Patrick, and very close to her sister Ingrid. Eight years “and several pages later”, Patrick leaves her. That Martha hurts the people “who love her best is something that causes her great anguish”, but also something she seems incapable of preventing. Sorrow and Bliss has been justly compared to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: “Both perform that peculiar miracle of making us care deeply… for a character who does unforgiveable things.”
It is a novel “about” mental illness in the same way it is “about” families, marriage and the nature of love, says India Knight in The Sunday Times. It makes you understand “the pitch-black depths of that kind of blank despair and the Sisyphean slog of trying to live with it, better than anything I’ve read before”. Its “beautifully understated, airy style conceals the fiercest intelligence… It’s unforgettable.”
Available as an audiobook on Kobo, narrated by Emilia Fox.