A mini-lecture and a book

As a recently retired history professor, I cannot help a little lecturing when there is confusion. My heart is breaking for those suffering in the eastern Mediterranean, so as an author and historian I’m naturally going to recommend a book as my contribution to the peace process.

The conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis is not thousands of years old, despite the epic storytelling. Rather it goes back to the end of the Ottoman Empire, which was huge.

The entire area in conflict today was part of the Ottoman Empire which oppressed everyone equally. Jewish, Christian, and Orthodox enclaves could conduct their own affairs and patrol their own communities, so long as they paid their taxes and followed Ottoman law. It was kind of like the Pax Romana – a big empire forbidding autonomy but allowing significant freedoms. Any breaking of the peace was punished.

The Ottoman Empire sealed their doom when they chose to support Germany in World War I, and the victorious European powers divided it up. Although Prince Faisal of Arabia had united the Arab tribes under his control and was prepared to rule a pan-Arab state (surely you’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia?), the victors would not allow this sort of power to emerge. Instead they divided the area into mandates, which were like semi-autonomous colonies. Palestine was one of these, controlled by Great Britain.

World War II put an end to mandates, as people under colonial rule helped their oppressors then rebelled against their rule. Violence in Palestine had been on the increase, and although Britain had promised a Jewish state, it became impossible. By 1947, the brand spanking new United Nations did some partitioning to prevent war. Palestine was under Palestinian Arab control, Israel under Israeli Jewish control.

Israel agreed to the partition and announced their new state. The Palestinians didn’t, and attacked Israel. You can read about all the wars since then, but they resulted from creating nationalisms (Palestinian, Israeli) where there hadn’t been any, which in my experience always causes trouble. Today’s horror is the latest version.

So what’s the book? The Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin, is a 1989 book by a Pulitzer Prize author, so it’s readable. It focuses on that time after World War I, when the modern Middle East was created, and how it happened. Highly recommended!

Mr. Wells and the gorilla

It begins, as these things often do, with a search for a source. Wellsians, as we style ourselves, are familiar with this picture of H.G. hanging with a gorilla skeleton,

What I didn’t realize was how far back Wells was dealing with gorillas. In his Experiment in Autobiography, he relates a childhood terror caused by reading a book:

There was Wood’s Natural History, also copiously illustrated and full of exciting and terrifying facts. I conceived a profound fear of the gorilla, of which there was a fearsome picture, which came out of the book at times after dark and followed me noiselessly about the house. The half landing was a favourite lurking place for this terror. I passed it whistling, but wary and then ran for my life up the next flight.

Seeking out this book, I came upon copies of an Illustrated Natural History by Rev. J. G. Woods in several different editions. The 1853 edition did not have a gorilla at all, nor did the 1854 or 1858 editions. Wells dated his experience around 1874, when he was about eight years old. I found the beast in the 1872 edition, then went backwards till I found him in the 1859 edition.

He doesn’t look that fearsome to me, but I am not an 8-year-old boy laid up with a broken leg. In later editions, they show a gorilla family that is far less daunting.

The reason for all this searching? I needed a footnote for a chapter I’m writing on Wells, so I needed the most likely edition. The 1859 edition makes sense, since Wells’s father had brought it home from the Bromley Literary Institute, and they probably had older books. But as soon as I saw the engraving (by the Dalziel Brothers, featured in my novel Murder at an Exhibition) I knew that was the monster.

In light of this, the photo of Wells with his insouciant arm around a gorilla skeleton is more than just that of a cocky fellow. He had overcome his fear and was now hob-nobbing with the quadrumana.

Sad news from Midhurst

Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop in Midhurst, West Sussex, reported to me this morning on a North Street fire, which has consumed much of the 400-year-old Angel Inn and nearby buildings.


My photo from a few years ago, with the Angel Inn on the far right and the Olde Tea Shoppe next door.
Image: Hilton Holloway by way of Sussex Live

There were no severe injuries. Most people, including Ukranian women and children being housed at the hotel, were evacuated, and 14 units responded to the blaze. In its usual community spirit, Midhurst is making sure everyone is being tended to.

For historians, the loss of buildings that are centuries old is heartbreaking. For Wellsians, this is a disaster as well.  H.G. Wells had a history with Midhurst that began in 1881, when he came there to apprentice with chemist Samual Cowap and took some night classes with Horace Byatt, the new headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School. He then joined the school officially as a pupil-teacher, living at Byatt’s house (which I have determined is now 6 South Street).

But his mother (the daughter of a Midhurst innkeeper, according to Wells) apprenticed him to a draper in Southsea. He begged Byatt to return, and in 1883 he came back as a student assistant, taking a room over the sweet shop (The Olde Tea Shoppe). He and his fellow student assistant were fed wonderful meals by the owner, Mrs. Walton.

Mrs. Walton is portrayed in Wells’ Wheels of Chance, as is his bedroom there, although it wasn’t diamond paned:

The room had a curtained recess and a chest of drawers, for presently it was to be his bedroom, and the day part of it was decorated with framed Oddfellows’ certificates and giltbacked books and portraits, and kettle-holders, and all kinds of beautiful things made out of wool; very comfortable it was indeed. The window was lead framed and diamond paned, and through it one saw the corner of the vicarage and a pleasant hill crest, in dusky silhouette against the twilight sky.

The Angel Hotel was next door, and here he barely changes Mrs. Walton’s name:

We left Mr. Hoopdriver at the door of the little tea, toy, and tobacco shop. You must not think that a strain is put on coincidence when I tell you that next door to Mrs. Wardor’s—that was the name of the bright-eyed, little old lady with whom Mr. Hoopdriver had stopped—is the Angel Hotel, and in the Angel Hotel, on the night that Mr. Hoopdriver reached Midhurst, were ‘Mr.’ and ‘Miss’ Beaumont, our Bechamel and Jessie Milton.

These are not the only examples, of course. Midhurst pops in and out of Mr. Wells’s work, and the surrounding area is featured in everything from The Time Machine to Tono Bungay. In his autobiography, it’s clear that he spent some of the happiest times of his life there.

The Angel is a landmark for West Sussex and the surrounding area, and the town boasts the headquarters of the South Downs National Park and the Cowdray Ruins. Rebuilding the Angel is already being discussed, but it’s still quite sad. This photo from Sussex Live shows the extraordinary damage.

Wells’ Pocket History of the World

I came across (and purchased immediately) a Wells book I hadn’t seen before: his Pocket History of the World.

It was published in 1941, so two years after the war had begun and five years before Wells died. He promises in the introduction that it is not a condensation of his Outline of History, but it does seem to be a revised version of his Short History of the World, with one obvious exception: time.

Here is the end of the contents of A Short History of the World:


Because it was written in 1922, it ends there. But the Pocket History (like my own history classes) must revise the end:

This does seem to be new material, and it comes out the same length as the old in terms of page count, because so many images have been removed. The Second World War, already called that in 1941, is happening as he’s publishing. That section ends:

The criticism of British military effort would be amusing if so many people hadn’t died during the failure. And his note of hope is interesting, and prescient (Wells is always prescient) since the Allies will ultimately win. But the interesting part is the final chapter, “The Crisis of Human Adaptation”, both in its evolutionary tone and its content. The beginning seems to be original to this pocket edition, or at least I cannot find it anywhere else:

It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that at present mankind as a species is demented and that nothing is so urgent upon us as the recovery of mental self-control. We call an individual insane if his ruling ideas are so much out of adjustment to his circumstances that he is in danger to himself and others. This definition of insanity seems to cover the entire human species at the present time, and it is no figure of speech but a plain statement of fact, that man has to “pull his mind together” or perish.

This is the voice of Wells in the 1940s, to my mind. He goes on to explain that in the book is traced the steady growth of humanity, especially in terms of inventions and science, but he asks the reader to review what he’s said about economics, where “adventurers and speculators” continue to hold sway. Until a “vast and systematic collective mental effort” gets money organized:

…quite apart from the monstrous dangers of our insane international life, we suffer an insecurity that may some day seem incredible, in our blundering economic circumstances. No common many nowadays is safe anywhere from impoverishment and want.

But what’s interesting is what isn’t there after these paragraphs–a revision of his thought based on a second world war. Instead, following his statement about economics, he merely repeats much of the last chapter of his Short History of the World, which pushed for a world democratic order, derided the League of Nations and the “patched-up system of conferences”, and proclaimed that man was still adolescent, with “undisciplined strength” but not enough knowledge. He concludes with mankind’s enjoyment in nature and artistic creations as hopeful signs (again repeated from the 1922 Short History). But as the war progresses I see his view as less and less optimistic, until we get to his final book (Mind at the End of Its Tether).

Also in 1941, Wells wrote a preface to his 1908 novel War in the Air, at the end of which he wrote:

Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: “I told you so. You damned fools.” (The italics are mine.)

I believe his patience had run out.


A late night with Mr. Wells

Or, rather, a late night with Mr. Kaempffert, a name that Wells would just love.

And this man loved Wells. But he was very hard to find.

It began after midnight with an article I found that I wanted to use for my chapter of the Oxford Handbook on H. G. Wells. Wells is famously known to have written that human history is a race between education and catastrophe. In seeking interpretations other than the obvious, I came upon an article from 2017 by Jeffrey Di Leo entitled “Catastrophic Education: Saving the World with H. G. Wells”. In this article, he wrote:

Upon his death on 13 August 1946, the New York Times concluded his obituary with the claim that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.

This was cited to a (Slater 70), which was in Leo’s bibliography as

Salter, Arthur. (1980). Apostle of a World Society. In Hammond, J. R. (Ed.), H. G. Wells: Interviews and Recollections. Barnes and Noble Books.

So I go looking for Salter’s chapter, and neither it nor the book are online or in JSTOR, but I find it in the Internet Archive, not for download but only checkout. So I check it out and it’s kind of small and hard to read, and I want to keep it and file it. My screenshot to pdf skills being somewhat rusty, that took over half an hour, but I had it. It began with

The obituary leader on H. G. Wells in the New York Times concluded with the statement that he was the greatest public teacher of our time.

I plugged parts of the phrase into Google, and discovered that absolutely everyone who had used anything like this sentence had cited Salter.

An item in Modern Fiction Studies by Richard Costa, reviewing a book on Wells by John Reed, said:

…an anonymous New York Times editorial writer was right when, at the time of Wells’s death, he called him the “greatest public teacher of his time.”

I can only search Reed’s book online at Google Books, and only in a limited capacity. The phrases “public teacher” and “anonymous” yield no results.

Salter, unfortunately, had not cited the New York Times. Because I’m a historian, I wanted the primary source. I wasn’t there yet.

By now it was 2 a.m., and I kinda thought I should go to bed. But with a mystery unsolved? Perish the thought.

So naturally I search the New York Times for the day of his death (August 13, 1946) and find the obituary. There are two, one longer and one shorter, and neither has the quotation or anything like it. So where did Salter get it? I eat a few more fruit jellies and start searching for phrases at the New York Times archive, which luckily I can access as part-time faculty at the college.

It appears on August 25. It is not anonymous at all — it is an “In Memoriam” feature written by a Waldemar Kaempffert. It concludes with:

Anyone who is familiar with the vast output of Wells or only with the “Outline of History,” “Work,” “Wealth and Happiness of Mankind,” the “Anatomy of Frustration” and “Open Conspiracy” will probably agree that he was the greatest public teacher of his time.

This is hardly the resounding declaration claimed by everyone citing Salter, but at least it’s primary.

Other than not using the Oxford comma (and that may well be an editorial decision), Waldemar Kaempffert is unknown to me. But that’s a search for another day. Or night.

An epiphany while working with Wells

One of my current projects is a chapter on H. G. Wells and education, which I’m writing for the Oxford Handbook on H. G. Wells. I have been struggling a bit with this. Each chapter of these Handbooks features an expert on the subject making an argument about their topic. My argument from the start has been pretty clear: that whatever else Wells might say he is doing, he is always trying to educate people.

young HG WellsMy expertise in this area is very much focused on the years of Wells’ life before he wrote The Time Machine at age 29. His work prior to that was very much focused on education, first his own and then the pupils he taught as a pupil-teacher, schoolmaster, and tutor. He wrote extensively on education, drawing on his own experiences as a student, first in a dame school and then a commercial academy, and then his job as a teacher. I have recently republished 81 of the articles he wrote on science teaching, pulling them together in a book for the first time. However, since I’m writing the only chapter on education for the Handbook, I need to extend my coverage from The Time Machine in 1895 forward to his death in 1946.

Thus I need not only an argument, but explanations when Wells’ work shifts, or seems to shift, to the other topics he wrote about. In addition to the scientific romances of his earlier career, he published books on science (his first published book was a biology text-book), sociology, history, peace, war, politics, and many other topics besides. He wrote novels and short stories. He gave speeches and wrote articles and columns for journals and magazines. He was ridiculously prolific, and not all of it was directly about education. I need more than an argument — I need an approach.

So I have been thinking. A lot. Instead of writing, which makes me feel like I’m procrastinating. People often ask me: why Wells? I have tried in vain to recall when I first discovered that he had tutored biology by post as a young man. As someone who had specialized in teaching online for over two decades, I felt an immediate kinship to a man who carried examination books with him everywhere, grading in coffee shops and omnibuses before sending the corrected papers back to distant students. I honestly don’t think I’d read any of his books or stories before I started researching his experiences at the University Correspondence College. I was a distance educator relating to another distance educator over a gap of 120 years.

As I conducted my research into his writings between 1897 and 1946, I was starting to lose that focus, getting tangled up in the polemics which became  his mode of communication in his later years. It seemed as though he began with science and teaching journalism (he always considered himself a journalist of sorts), then wrote novels for fun and profit, then more polemic works from a particularly Wellsian socialist point of view, ending with a book whose title I just love: Mind at the End of Its Tether. Many of his later writings were done in frustration at humanity’s inability to conduct its affairs in a rational manner.

wounded men in trenchesAlthough there is much overlap in his works before and after World War I, that conflict provides a likely breaking point between his earlier and later works. Even when they were frightening, pre-war scientific romances such as War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr Moreau retained their optimism in the form of a protagonist horrified at what was happening. His “conversation novels” and what I consider more feminist works (especially Ann Veronica) also have a strain of optimism. But after the war, the novels become more and more direct in their criticism of humanity. Wells seems to have taken the senselessness and mass deaths of the Great War as a sign of the end of civilization. He was not alone in this, of course. But it’s almost as if Wells took it personally, and his work becomes more and more polemical, diagnosing society’s ills and demanding remedies.

Mr. Wells and I have a few things in common, not the least of which is frustration when teaching students. His teaching years occurred when science was new to the university curriculum; mine during the first decades of the internet. We both blamed poor teaching methodology for why students seemed to learn so little, and were in ongoing conflict against curricular stagnation. We both developed new techniques to teach at a distance (although I never created anything as visceral as Wells’ kitchen-table biology lab). If the Great War was his bending point, the election of our 45th president in 2016 was mine. From those points it became difficult to believe that we, as teachers, had made any difference at all. When Wells met his Waterloo, he was 48. I was 53. We had both seen a lot, and been teaching long enough to have developed it as an art. If we’d been making any difference, how could humanity have gone so wrong?

books - Outline of HistoryWells’ The Outline of History (1920) and A Short History of the World (1922) were published right after WWI. It seems clear to me now they were an attempt to teach people about the past so humanity could avoid mistakes. I’ve been teaching history since 1989. For both of us, education has always been the answer to everything. If things go wrong, and people do awful things, it’s because they just aren’t educated enough. They literally don’t know any better.

It’s the connection between my experience and that of Wells that started me on my Wellsian quest, and it will be that connection that guides this chapter. The fear is that ones efforts as a teacher are useless, and if that’s true there is a possibility that mankind might be ineducable. That is far scarier than Martians blasting the planet or men becoming invisible to commit crimes. When his book War in the Air was republished in 1941, during the Second World War, Wells wrote in the preface that he wanted his epitaph to be “I told you so. You damned fools.” While this has been interpreted as relating to his many prophecies about technology, I think it is more about education.


NaNo and Lydia Greenwood

Why has it been so long since my last post? Well, I’ll tell you. I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.

For the blessedly uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s always November. Since 1999, writers and would-be writers from all over the country, and now the world, try to write a novel of 50,000 words from scratch in one month. It’s a challenge, to be sure, and I wanted to see if I could do it just for the hell of it.

My typical Victorian mysteries simply cannot be done in a month because of all the research involved. And my workflow is such that just writing without stopping continually to research is impossible. But how about a different genre?

It occurred to me that romance is very popular, that no (or very little) research need be involved, and that if it came out well I could publish it somewhere I would never put my mysteries, such as Kindle Unlimited or Wattpad. I happen to have discovered that a colleague from our local chapter of the Historical Novel Society was thinking of doing the same thing, so we’re both doing it.

Yes, I said romance. No, I have never written romance before. I am concerned enough that I’m using a pen name: Lydia Greenwood.

For NaNo, the word count is everything. You write as fast and best as you can, but shouldn’t go back or edit much as you go, or you won’t make the word count. I made it harder (but more useful) for myself by making my goal 65,000 words instead, which is closer to novel-length. What makes it even more difficult is that I am what they call a “pantser” — even when I try to create an outline of the plot to guide me, I end up just writing off the cuff instead, having little idea where I’m going.

I did try to create an outline in the last week of October, following a romance template, but it was quickly abandoned.

NaNo writers can register at the central website, and there are many local groups that meet both online and at local places. You can have as much or as little support as you wish. I have several “buddies” at the site, but we only have time to contact each other occasionally, and I don’t need the pep talks provided. I did attend a great presentation by Hank Phillippi Ryan, sponsored by Sisters in Crime, on the “Muddle in the Middle” (that middle of the book where things can slow down and get draggy). Got a few ideas of how to add excitement.

I did some reading about how to write a romance, and have concluded that there are some other challenges with a mystery writer doing romance:

1. The tendency to start with a dead body

OK, yes, I do, but only because he’s died without a designated heir and that’s part of the romance. Nobody has been murdered — at least, so far.

2. The desire to have an underlying puzzle

I could not for the life of me figure out what two people could do while falling in love that would be remotely interesting to an outsider. But if they solve a mystery together — aha!

3. The feeling there must be an antagonist

I learned that the couple must experience not only the opportunity to be together, but obstacles throughout that make the relationship unlikely or tricky, which adds an element of suspense. In mysteries, this would be an antagonist trying to stop them. Yeah, he’s in there, not trying to stop them from falling in love, but from getting what they want.

4. The confusion of goals

Each main character is supposed to have a goal, so in a romance it should be a goal other than to fall in love and have a romance. See why I ended up with a mystery back story? They must both want something for which love would get in the way. Love is inconvenient when you’re trying to do something else.

5. The burden of not being a romantic

I’m not a romantic, although I’m certainly not averse to candlelight and chocolates (the latter being more important, of course). Love can make people unsure of themselves and too daring at the same time. They do things they’d never do, experiencing a transformation of self that may be overly attached to the other person’s actions. I prefer motives like jealousy, money, revenge, hatred. So it’s more difficult for me to understand my characters, even as they write their own stories.

So wish me luck. I’m at 41,316 words and have taken time out to write this post. What will happen next? Where has our hero disappeared to? Will my heroine get the help she needs to undo the entail on her grandfather’s house? Will she find the miniature? And how can my hero and heroine have a relationship if he lies like a carpet and she swears like a hostler?

Ask Lydia Greenwood.

Destroying history by post

This set of four 78 records was released in 1946. It survived McCarthyism, Elvis, the Vietnam War, the Reagan years, grunge, 9/11, and the election of a complete moron to the presidency, but it could not survive an eBay shop not knowing how to pack records properly for shipping.

Historical service announcement: Don’t ship antique objects without proper padding and boxing. Assume the postal service will toss it on the porch–they’re underpaid and shouldn’t have to care about your stuff. If you don’t know whether something is an antique, that means it was made a long time ago. Look it up.

Dating Victorian forensic science

In my Victorian mysteries, the question of poison occasionally arises. Most Victorian poisoning stories use arsenic, because it was everywhere. Yes, it was in rat poison, but also in face lotion (stronger than Clearasil), wallpaper, and fabric (a cool green was made from copper arsenic pigment*), and it was easy to obtain. Arsenic, I’ve learned, is a very slow poison. It’s perfect for killing your husband over six months and making it look like he died of natural causes. It’s not going to cause your victim to keel over as he’s drinking tea, which is what I wanted. But eventually my detective must figure out what happened, so the question is: what did they know about detecting poison in the 1860s?

A casual internet search suggests very little was known in the 1860s. Most sites say that the only poison that could be discovered post-mortem was arsenic. That’s because of the Marsh Test, famously created after Dr. Marsh’s frustration at having a clear sample that wasn’t long-lasting enough to show a jury.

Looking for information on forensic science, after Marsh, leads to the late 19th century (1880s and 90s) as the time when fingerprinting, chemical testing, blood analysis, etc. came onto the scene. The implication is that there wasn’t much going on until then.

And then I discover that Dr. William Guy, who appears as a character in my first mystery, was Professor of Forensic Science at King’s College, London. If the field was that new, it seems to me, there wouldn’t be that title. I was looking for books from the 1860s that might have forensics information in them, and I found two by Guy, both written in 1861: Principles of Forensic Medicine (2nd edition!) and On the Colour-Tests for Strychnia, from lectures he had given. Aha!

For me, the story of doing historical research has always been this: whatever you think was “invented” at a particular time, its actual invention and use was earlier. We tend to rely on patents, which may be years later. That’s why I prefer contemporary journals and medical texts instead. Primary sources may not be more accurate (they usually show one point of view, after all), but they are proof of ideas in circulation.

I only knew William Guy for his public health measures, so I am again pleased at how Victorian professionals could be involved in so many different aspects of their calling. Now, to see what’s motivating my poisoner…


*Wallpaper with arsenic could be used in children’s rooms, which sounds horrific until you realize that it was toxic to bedbugs and other critters that bite children. This doesn’t make it ok, just explicable.