BBC History Magazine

Fevered existence


Joad R Wren (pictured) discusses All the Colours You Cannot Name, his tale of love and loss in the plague-afflicted London of 1666

This is your first novel. Were there parallels with writing historical non-fiction, or did the process surprise you?

The writing process could not have been more different from the long library-bound slogs. I had recently had Covid and was commuting to Paris to teach at the Sorbonne. The novel was written in a few weeks, mostly on trains or in cheap restaurant­s. I was living a fevered, dissociate­d existence.

What inspired you to set the novel in London of 1666?

It’s a period I know well, and I was looking for a way of thinking about Covid, about cognitive impairment and emotional dysregulat­ion. A love story set at this time offered every opportunit­y.

What sources did you draw upon to depict this setting?

The map of London attributed to Ralph Agas, first printed in 1561, was invaluable. It’s extraordin­arily evocative: you can get lost in it. William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old St Paul’s (1841) was also in my mind, and Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). And hundreds of pamphlets from this time. The central characters are printers, and I use the machinery of presswork to ground their lives and keep their feet on the earth.

What atmosphere and sense of place did you want to convey?

I wanted to make London’s streets and buildings feel substantia­l, and I wanted to capture the seriousnes­s of religious belief, the sense that tough theologica­l issues, about salvation and providence, mattered. Using this hyper-realistic approach, I hoped to evoke the sense of being shaken by collective trauma and how difficult that could make processing love and grief. It’s very emotional.

All the Colours You Cannot Name by Joad R Wren

Seren, 300 pages, £9.99

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