The works of G.A. Henty formed a staple of my childhood literary diet, and When London Burned is one of my favorites. Although Henty’s works are strongly formulaic, there’s no denying his formula’s power to create engrossing, rollicking adventures with an undercurrent of history.
Set in the 1600s, When London Burned follows the life of Cyril Shenstone, the son of a petty English noble who chose the losing side in the English Civil War, and carried his Royalist sentiments into exile in France, along with his wife and infant son. By the time Cyril is a young “lad” (as Henty would say), King Charles II has been invited back to the throne, and Sir Shenstone eagerly brings his boy back to England, expecting the new king to restore his lands to him.
Tragedy follows tragedy. Not only is King Charles, constrained by parliament, unable to return the Shenstone lands to the family, but Cyril’s father dies, leaving Cyril to make his own way in the world as an accountant.
In true Henty spirit, the young orphan is not daunted by his poverty. In fact, with his intelligence, diligence, and endearing humility, he quickly gains friends (hence the formula’s required “sidekick”) and standing.
From there, Cyril moves from adventure to adventure, be it catching thieves in his employer / landlord’s shop, fighting the Dutch for King Charles, getting kidnapped and awaking trussed up in the belly of a ship, fighting the Great Fire of London (1666), or contracting the dreaded Black Death.
I will not deceive you: the first time I read this book, I did not trust Mr. Henty, and peaked at the last few pages to reassure myself my poor Cyril would survive the ghastly trial of the Bubonic Plague.
Sometimes you just need a good, old-fashioned book full of swash-buckling (whatever that is), fighting the Dutch, minor English gentry brought low by circumstances…and of course, the Plague! Cyril is a clever lad, competent beyond his years, whose deeds take him from London’s back alleys to shipboard combat to audiences with the king.
Here is a book you can open knowing you’ll have hours and hours of active, plot-twisting fun – from an author who wasn’t afraid to urge his young readers to be upstanding men of character, true to their morals and their country.
Ebook versions of When London Burned may be downloaded for FREE from Project Gutenberg, here, or read online (this is because G.A. Henty has been dead since 1902, and under United States copyright law his works are in the public domain).