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Peter Ackroyd: The Great Fire of London

With Peter Ackroyd, you would think that this book is about the Great Fire of London, the one in which London, according to the rhyme,”burnt like rotten sticks”. Actually, this novel, Ackroyd’s first, is set in contemporary London and is about a film-maker who wants to make a film of Dickens’ novel, set in a real prison (Little Dorrit is, of course, set in the Marshalsea Prison, which was destroyed by fire in 1885). It is natural to expect Ackroyd to adopt Little Dorrit as his sub-text. Ackroyd has, of course, written a very substantial biography of Dickens, and they both share an interest, if not an obsession, with the dark side of London.

The film-maker, Spenser Spender, is trying to get finance for his film of Little Dorrit but others are also interested in the book, including Rowan Phillips, an English literature lecturer, Audrey Skelton who meets Little Dorrit in a séance and her friend Tim Coleman and Job Penstone, a lecturer in Victorian social history The novel is written like a first novel, as we get involved in some obvious relationship problems, as the protagonists dip into London mysteries and try to complete the film. As this is Ackroyd, we know that the past is going to creep into the present in a probably unpleasant way and, given, the title of the book the outcome is fairly obvious. Ackroyd will go on to write better books but this is a good one to start with and sets all his favorite themes.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Hamish Hamilton