Well, today’s the day when things got serious: I sent off my prologue and first three chapters to a literary agent. I won’t say which one here, since I might not get anywhere and will then look a total fule. But if I do, you’ll be the first to know. I should get a yay or nay before Christmas.
I also had to include a synopsis, ie 500 words, summarising the book (87,000 words). It was incredibly difficult, but after much headscratching and at least six attempts, I was pleased with the end result. Here it is, for your delectation:
Conflagration: The Burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834
A new government is in power at Westminster. Politicians are unpopular. Radical, reforming legislation is being passed. Government departments are being hit by cuts or being closed down, while on the streets people are concerned about threats of terrorism and police brutality towards protesters. The year is not 2010, but 1834 and the 800-year old Houses of Parliament are about to be destroyed by the most significant fire in London between 1666 and the Blitz.
When workmen begin burning a huge pile of tally sticks in the furnaces under the House of Lords’ chamber at dawn on 16 October 1834, they set off a chain of events which changes the nation forever. Throughout the day there are increasing signals of danger, but no-one is inclined (or has the power) to intervene. A vast chimney fire explodes out of the building some twelve hours later, so enormous that it can be seen by the King at Windsor, and from stagecoaches on top of the South Downs. No one who witnesses the fire ever forgets it.
In front of hundreds of thousands of witnesses including cabinet ministers, sweeps, soldiers, civil servants, poets, coalheavers, journalists, sailors, labourers, surgeons, waterboatmen, architects, clergymen, antiquarians and inventors, the blaze destroys Parliament’s glorious old buildings and their contents. They include St Stephen’s Chapel (the House of Commons) and its cloisters, the Lesser Hall (the House of Lords) and its Armada Tapestries, and the Painted Chamber, once one of the sights of medieval Europe. Westminster Hall is saved only through monumental effort and a lucky change of wind direction. Amazingly, no-one is killed, but many are injured and the historic losses – which include the records of the House of Commons – are devastating. While some people are ruined by the fire, just as many thrive from it.
The blaze is finally brought under control at three in the morning, though it continues to burn for days afterwards. It has a huge impact on contemporary politics, government, culture and the popular imagination. Two great Turner paintings, Dickens’ early work, a Public Record Office for the United Kingdom, the first Metropolitan Fire Brigade and, of course, a new Houses of Parliament all rise from the ashes. Yet today, this national catastrophe is a forgotten disaster, not least because Barry and Pugin’s monumental new Palace of Westminster has obliterated all memory of its predecessor.
This book is an attempt to redress that balance, tracking the fire, its causes and consequences, hour by hour, over the course of a day and a night. In the process, its political and social context is revealed, including details of the slums of Westminster and the frenzied expansion of the West End; the plight of the London Irish; child labour, sinecures and corruption in high places; firefighting techniques and floating engines; the Great Reform Act and the new Poor Law; Captain Swing and arson at York Minster; the cruising grounds of gay London; the parlous state of public buildings and records in the Georgian period; and above all the symbolism which many contemporaries saw in the spectacular fall of a national icon.