A better workhouse (or the joys of doing a prequel)

You know you’re in sympathy with your protagonist when you need to put him in a workhouse, and the one to hand has horrible conditions and you want to move the whole plot to a borough with a better workhouse so he’ll be more comfortable.

I’m researching my fourth mystery, which is a prequel to the first one. It’s 1860. I’ve already set up that the character spent time as a boy in a workhouse, and that he was allowed to work in a gasworks, where the murder occurs. I’ve also set up that the policeman on the case is a Detective Sergeant who’ll make Inspector by the end of the book. So it all becomes about location: the Detective Sergeant’s station house, the boy’s workhouse, and the gasworks all need to be in proximity to each other.

Because the boy’s father is in Queen’s Bench Prison for debt, I initially looked at Southwark, and was able to find the Phoenix Gasworks on the river and St. Saviour’s workhouse less than a mile away. The Division M station, hard upon the prison, was a wonderfully rowdy place where the young constables living there raised a ruckus and were often told to pipe down by the police court next door, and likely frequented the brothel on the other side.

But that puts me in Southwark, where my first mystery is already set, and half the fun for me is exploring new parts of Victorian London in each book. And in 1860 most (possibly all) detectives were run out of Scotland Yard, north of the river in Westminster, so likely detective sergeants were too, although the whole detective division had actually begun in Bow Street, near Covent Garden. I just got some books on police history, so I’ll have an idea soon how it was set up.

As it happens, my first book puts the inspector’s old home in Covent Garden (it’s not published yet — I can change it). Covent Garden would be a new area for me, but the workhouse near there is St Martin’s in the Fields, which was so horrible that the Lancet ran articles about it and it was shut down a few years later. Children died there of preventable diseases because of the filth. I can’t put the boy there, can I? Especially once I found out that in Kensington there was actually a good workhouse, with a school and medical facilities . . .

Let’s just say it’s very strange when you start worrying this way about a character.

 

 

 

Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

It has been a standard narrative that America panicked on Halloween eve of 1938. That night, Orson Welles presented his radio program rendition of War of the World’s, H. G. Wells’ 1898 tale of the Martians attacking Earth. Some people believed the broadcast was real news, either having missed the opening and interruptions where Welles clearly said it was fiction, or misinterpreting as they became paralyzed with fear. Those near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, packed to evacuate. Millions, it is said, were terrified.

Articles and books have been written about this phenomenon, the most famous if which is Hadley Catril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic , originally published in 1940. It’s the text often used to support the story of the panic, since Catril was a respected social psychologist. It also didn’t hurt that the Martians landed near Princeton, where he taught.

People love telling the story of their stupid fellow Americans who fell for the Halloween trick; it’s used as an example of how gullible the public is, how fearful everyone was of what was happening in Europe at the time, how mass hysteria is created through media. These days, it’s fun to see it as an example of “fake news”.

Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way. Read the first part of Catril’s book, and he’s very clear. Although the publisher says “a million” were infected with terror, and he says “thousands” at the beginning of the book, he is quick to note that his sample size of interviewees was 153, two-thirds of whom were self-selected from people who said they panicked.

Every so often (usually on anniversaries of the radio broadcast), the panic myth is revived. The Library of Congress has an article on how the panic didn’t happen, and there are other places on the web where one can find some debunking. But as the WST article points out, when the tale is kept alive (as with the 2013 PBS documentary) it’s hard to get the truth in there. A current article explores the faith people have in their own trusted sources, in the context of the panic. It’s a good article, but it seems to assume the panic really happened.

Why did the myth take off so fast in the first place? One reason is that Orson Welles was a wonderful publicity hound who encouraged it. Another is that it sold newspapers. Radio competed with print for people’s attention, so the papers were happy to blame the broadcaster and Welles for being irresponsible.

Of more interest is what happened in 1940, when both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, and recorded a radio program together. Two years before, when asked about his book and the panic in America, Wells had reportedly been firm that he had not authorized the radio network to change place names. In 1926 in Britain there had been a radio scare when a fictional 12-minute broadcast had caused some to believe that London was being attacked, and Wells didn’t want to be seen to condone the same thing happening in America.

Two years later, he considered the radio show had just been a hoax, but he said that Americans could have their fun because “you haven’t got the war right under your chins”. Although the double interview is awkward at the beginning, by the end both Wells and Welles are clear that alienating Russia, despite its autocratic government under Stalin, would not be a good idea.

There’s an interesting historical pattern to the popularity of both Wells’ novel and Welles’ radio show. In 1898, there were small wars in a number of places, interest in eugenics, and a fascination with space and Mars in particular. In 1938, war was about to begin in Europe, and Germany was on the move. Hollywood made a major motion picture of War of the Worlds in 1953, and Catril’s book was reprinted in 1954, during McCarthyism. The 1970s saw another revival, at a time of hijackings and terrorism. And now again when reality TV, extremism in pop culture, the decline of civil society, and a gullible public are current issues, the story is here again.

War of the Worlds may be timeless; the story of the panic shouldn’t be.

 

Why are books so big?

I’ve got my ISBN numbers, my copy is nearing the post-edit phase, and I’m writing blurbs and looking at covers. I’ve joined the Alliance for Independent Authors. My account is set up at Ingram Spark, and I plan to do Draft to Digital for the ebooks. I will market widely, including through ‘Zon, but won’t have them publish my books.

Being a paper person, I want to see my work in print, not just online or on backlit devices. And although I would have preferred to have my work offset press printed, I can’t afford that and have to go with Print on Demand. Nevertheless, the book can be the size I want: Ingram has tons of sizes to choose from. It’s like standing in the cereal aisle — there are too many choices. No, really, it’s like standing the cold remedies aisle: will this work? what’s in it? what will be the side effects?

Even before I started studying the Victorian era, I was a fan of smaller books. Not teeny-tiny gift books on dogs or motherhood, but 19th or early 20th century size. Collins Classics were 4 x 6 until the 1950s, when they went bigger (4.5 x 7.25) , apparently for college use. Modern Library and Everyman’s Library books were also small, as were all the fiction novels I grew up with, many of which I still have. My old paperbacks are mostly a similar size.

Why were these books small? Paper is expensive, for one thing. The books published near the end of the 19th century by the University Tutorial Press (the arm of William Brigg’s correspondence college) can be taken apart to see that the covers are actually comprised of pages from older books, pressed together. You don’t waste paper.

A lot of text was printed on each page, to save paper but also to have room for a full novel (or even a three-novel set) without making a smaller book into a cube.

Books were also, before the era of transistor radios, portable entertainment. They still are. You can take a book with you for the waiting room, the train, the park.

Since I’ve been teaching, over 30 years now, textbooks have gotten larger and larger, even though the amount of text has gotten smaller. [In addition to issuing new editions for minor changes, textbook publishers have created huge margin spaces in which they print their own notes, I presume to make up for the fact that students don’t gloss texts anymore. One reason students don’t highlight or take notes in a textbook, of course, is because they are either renting the book (not possible 20 years ago) or intend to sell it afterward (easier now than ever). The more students try to avoid the cost of new textbooks, the higher the prices go, until recently with e-book textbooks, which make it even harder to take notes.]

But it’s the fiction paperback books that are a problem. They are now large and unwieldy. Almost all are “trade paperbacks”, which were the more expensive big versions I never bought. They were and are heavy and too large to put in your bag; to me they weren’t portable, because they were the same size as the hardbacks, only paper. You can’t hold them in one hand while drinking your cocoa in the other.

And, as with textbooks, this isn’t because there is more text in them. On the contrary, despite climate change concern, the vast pages have tons of white space: huge margins, massive line spacing, big kerning between letters, large fonts. The first few I bought I thought were an aberration, but it’s the norm. The books get shorter, but the format gets bigger, the prices get higher ($14.95 is typical). But it’s the waste that gets to me.

When I complain to people my age, they say are pleased with the new formats as their eyes age. Well, mine are aging too. Think about a 19th century book, with its tiny print, in an era without progressive lenses, and most importantly with much lower levels of light than we have today (I think this is why people used to read outdoors more — think of all those plays where the heroine is in the garden, reading a book.) We have much brighter sources of light now — we can deal better with smaller print than ever before, but we need it enlarged to kindergarten size? I think not.

I also don’t think a demand for larger print has been behind the change — the number of Large Print books at our local library hasn’t changed in decades. More likely it’s the money, the idea that something bigger is better, and the novels are shorter because people have a shorter attention span. Readers want a “quick read”, but you can’t charge them $15 for a novella unless you package it as a big book. And now that so many people are reading on their backlit device, physical books are becoming niche, so paper books need to be even bigger to attract attention, like boxes for cereal and toys (walk by the book section at Target to see what I mean).

Why do I care, other than the price and the waste? Because I’m about to publish mine, and have to decide what size they’ll be. The “trim size” determines the number of pages and the spine width and design. I have read widely on the subject of trim size, but I have no experience, like someone trying to pronounce a word they’ve only seen written. I have bought a number of self-published books, and find the quality execrable. Because most authors are at pains to not appear amateurish, they don’t indicate whether it’s ‘Zon, Ingram, or someone else who’s done the printing. But in general I notice books where the text isn’t centered properly on the page (with an obvious gutter), bright white paper that looks like photocopy paper instead of cream-colored book paper, and type that looks like what it is: reproduced digital text rather than printing. Choice of paper is also a big deal.

I walk around the house with a ruler, measuring books. I’d be bucking trends to go less than 6 x 9 for non-fiction, or 5.5 x 8 for fiction. If I’m going a bit large to be trendy, the biggest I would want would be 5.06 x 7.81, the UK “B” popular size. But I could choose an old paperback size; Ingram has 4 x 6 and various sizes up to 5 x 7. I just can’t decide. Much of the paper I’ve seen is thick and shiny, so it doesn’t bend well in a smaller book . A new option is “groundwood”, which is essential newsprint and looks like it, but at least it isn’t bright.

It seems silly to fuss, because if I’m lucky my books might sell a dozen copies, so it’s mostly to please myself. But nevertheless, it’s a puzzlement.

 

When a historian writes fiction

Of what use is it to know that if you were in Durham in 1869, you could go Thomas Bainbridge in Framwellgate in the early morning and find him baking bread? It is extremely useful, if your character needs a job that starts at 4 am.

Authors of fiction sometimes talk about “world building”, especially with fantasy. A believable world has to be created, with its own history, culture, and consistency. For historical fiction, it’s a little different, because the places were really there, and in many cases still exist.

There is disagreement among authors of historical fiction of how accurate one needs to be. I’ve read quite a few historical novels that do what I’m trying to avoid, treating the locations as mere settings for stories that could take place anywhere, anytime. In fact, I began writing historical fiction out of total frustration at several novels which, although supposedly set in Victorian England, did not in any way rely on that time or place for the story. I set out to do better.

I’ve done well with London, because I’ve found old maps for the years where my stories are set, from map-sellers, on the web, and in guidebooks. Street names may change, but often the street is still there. The 1860s and 70s were times of great change, so I have to be careful.


For example, there was no Piccadilly Circus or Oxford Circus in 1869 — it was Regent Circus (south) and Regent Circus (north) — apparently the whole Regent development project didn’t work out quite right. Shaftesbury Avenue hadn’t been cut through yet, the Holborn Viaduct hadn’t been built — this stuff is pretty easy, and fun to research.

In my current WIP (Work in Progress), the third novel in my trilogy of cozy Victorian mysteries, quite a bit of the book takes place in Durham in 1870. Durham is one of my favorite places on the planet, so it’s important to me that it be accurate. I want my character, who is fictional, to encounter places and people who actually existed. Because I was trained in the discipline of social and economic history, when he visits a business, I want it to have been a business that was really there.

I began by searching the web to find directories of Durham, because I’d discovered that directories of London listed both businesses and street listings, with who lived on a particular street. Durham, it turns out, had the same, plus a Slater’s Commercial directory, but I couldn’t find any for 1869/70 (the story takes place in April 1870). I tried using the two I could find, for 1852 and 1879, but of course these wouldn’t be fully accurate. While I was happy to find names and areas of towns where certain types of people lived, I didn’t have the actual facts for that year.

The Durham County Records Office came to my rescue*. I cannot go there right now, or I’d just look them up for myself. They charge £50/hour for research, but the Archivist suggested I go for a quarter hour and see how much they could do. And they did a lot!

I have listings of types of businesses, and their addresses. I wanted a character to live in Neville Street, because I stayed there and know the street. He’s an engineer for the coal mines. So I was able to see whether his sort of people (class and vocation) would have lived on Neville Street, and yes!

And then there’s just the fun stuff, like the fact that I’ve walked past this place a lot:

I can make sure there’s a bath house somewhere, since one character arrives in town having spent much time traveling. I can see how there are many Hendersons, because I want a scene at their carpet mill and I suspect the family must have been a huge employer and influence (turns out John was busy representing Durham in the House of Commons at the time).

I already know how far a walk it is from place to place, because I’ve walked it, but I looked up the phases of the moon for those days (and asked a friend of mine who’s an astronomer to be sure of its location for my moonlit scene), researched which hymns might have been used for the Easter Service (and hopefully at Durham Cathedral), and who might have lived at the old mill house by the river. I’ve checked the shape of vent doors on the range in the kitchen, whether or not they would have had bottled beer (yes), and what St Cuthbert’s shrine would have looked like then rather than now.

But I can’t finish the book because I don’t have a proper railway timetable for that year, which has made some people laugh at me and shake their heads. Too bad — if it isn’t real to me, I can’t write it, and whether the readers know it’s fact or not, I get a thrill out of knowing that it really was Mrs Duncan who ran the Durham County Advertiser and that the fever ward of the workhouse was added on in summer and so must have been being built in April.

And that’s what happens when a historian writes fiction.

 


*George Walker, The Durham Directory and Alamanack for 1869, Durham County Record Office (subsequently ‘DRO‘), Londonderry Estate Archives, D/Lo/J 59

 

Wells and Doyle in Southsea

In May of 1881, 15-year-old H. G. Wells was an apprentice at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea (Portsmouth). It was a large, popular shop at 9 Kings Road, a place for men to get good clothes and other necessities. Wells was miserable there, living in the basement with other indentured lads and doing duties he was completely unsuited for. His experience there was the source of his novel Kipps.

In June of the following year, a 23-year-old named Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Portsmouth, looking to set up a medical practice. He did so at No.1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, in Southsea. He had tried to make his way in Plymouth, but according to this fell out with his partner, and came to Southsea with little money and no connections.

Kings Road, where the Drapery Emporium was, turns into Elm Grove as you walk along — they are two branches of the same street. Southsea was not that large in the 1880s. As Doyle’s practice expanded, it is very likely he would have required clothing suiting his station, and thus it is entirely possible he would have met the young clerk at Hyde’s.

In the summer of the following year, Wells finally convinced his mother to let him abandon the apprenticeship and left town, while Doyle remained and became active in public life there.

There is no evidence that Wells and Doyle met in Southsea, and neither mentions having done so to my knowledge. That isn’t surprising since neither was much of anybody yet. Doyle was spending his frequently unoccupied time writing stories.

They did meet later, and even were members together on the Allahakbarries, a literary cricket team founded by J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) in 1890 that wasn’t very good but contained people like G. K. Chesterton and P. G. Wodehouse, and other authors who liked using their initials. (Wells was a member but refused to play, which is odd since his father was a famous bowler.)

On a sideline, it was reading J.M. Barrie’s book When a Man’s Single (1888) that inspired Wells to stop writing articles about science teaching and instead write fiction stories for money.

On another sideline, A. A. Milne was also on the Allahakbarries cricket team. He was the son of J.V. Milne, who had run Henley House School and had employed H. G. Wells as science master in 1889. A. A. Milne was one of Wells’s pupils.

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part III

Recently the New York Times published an article, “For Literary Novelists, the Past is Pressing“, about the revival of historical fiction. In examining its recent popularity, Jonathan Lee mentions novels that apply today’s culture wars and public moral codes to the past, such as novels showing the horrors of slavery, and puts forth the idea that our own time is so unsettling that putting a story in the past avoids difficult issues from the present. We might wish to encounter historical wrongs, but it’s easier to do it from a distance. He closes with: “A new generation of writers may find in the past better ways to capture the present.”

Using history to explain the present isn’t doing history, of course, not like academic historians do. Historians use history to explain the past. We want to know how the people of the 19th century, for example, explained themselves.

But the topics that may interest us do originate in the present. They must — historians live in the present, and it is impossible not to be interested in the issues of our own time. But the curiosity of historians is about how people lived then, what they believed, how they behaved, what they wanted from life. Right?

Not exactly. The discipline of history has trends and schools, and has changed over time. Historians often have axes to grind, and become historians precisely because they have a beef. When a historian creates one interpretation (such as the idea that the American Constitution represented intellectual enlightenment), another comes along with a different interpretation (that it represents the interests of wealthy landholders). There are conservative, Marxist, and classically liberal historians, and they work within these philosophical paradigms.

Does this mean, as Henry Ford was quoted as saying, that history is bunk? That it’s all fiction anyway, because historians are biased?

Not exactly. Bias is natural, and it is the conflict of various biases that moves knowledge forward. Historians are trained to consider the evidence, all the evidence, even if they don’t like it. They are trained to analyze each other’s arguments in order to counter them. Some do this better, or more thoroughly, than others. And most do it within the context of the bias they’ve been taught.

Unfortunately, right now historians are being trained in post-modernist approaches which counter the Enlightenment-based focus on reason and evidence. This undermines the entire idea of doing history, and leads to an emphasis on emotion, intuition, and zealotry. Wrongs must be corrected, evil must be exposed and uprooted. How people might have felt is more important than what they said or did. It’s a reflection of the current post-modern societal ideas, which question whether facts are real and wants to punish people who think the “wrong” way.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

This is an unfortunate trend for history, but it’s a great trend for fiction. Historical fiction allows writers to emote all they want about the past (or about the present set in the past), and for readers to enjoy feeling empathetically horrified and morally superior. Combine this with the escapism of binge-reading series of books featuring fatally flawed emotional characters, and the ease of loading a zillion novels onto ones device, it’s no wonder historical fiction is becoming more popular.

Johnathan Lee is right: the carthartic effect of setting our polarized views in the past is selling books. It’s a shame it isn’t doing anything truly historical.

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part II

As I continue my new avocation of writing (thus far unpublished) novels, there is no avoiding history. Even my first book, a novella, was split between the present and the 1880s, and the mysteries are set in 1860s. This makes them historical fiction, or historical mysteries.

One of the reasons I began writing mysteries is because I read some novels that I believe misused the historical past, stories that could have taken place in any time, including the present. For these authors, the past just seemed to be a setting, where you could use hansom cabs and hoop skirts for effect. In some of these novels, people spoke anachronistically, but even when they didn’t the possible sounds and smells of the place simply weren’t there.

To me that’s the difference between using the past as a setting and setting a story in the past. My books are set deeply within the past. The reader should have a sense of what things were like in 19th century London. It’s not enough to have the clop-clopping of horses and the misting of fog. I want the click of door latches, the smell of tanneries, the gray light on London Bridge. The street names and omnibus routes must be correct for 1863, not 1880 or 2020. I want to show the city being torn up for sewers, the distinctions in how people of different classes might behave, the way women in skirts dealt with toileting. And it all must be based on fact, on historical research.

I recently joined the Historical Novel Society, and in the first week on the Facebook group there was an argument about how accurate a writer of historical fiction needed to be, and another about whether the show Bridgerton was worth watching. It was distressingly easy for me to take sides.

I would say “no” on Bridgerton, but that has nothing to do with the color-blind casting. In my research I keep stumbling on evidence of both women and people with various differences having more agency and being more visible than is portrayed in the movies and television shows of the last century. So it’s possible that some of the things that don’t seem “real” (a black man hob-nobbing with other upper middle-class snobs) might actually be more accurate for the time.

A great deal of what we “know” about the past comes from prescriptive documents, works designed to convince people to correct their behavior. I try to teach my students that when they read a law code punishing adultery, theft, and trespassing, there must be a great deal of adultery, theft, and trespassing going on in the society. Otherwise there’d be no need for a law.
So if you find a lot of literature telling women that their role is to be very good at managing a household, you can be damn sure that a lot of women aren’t doing that but are doing other things. We are discovering that more and more artworks and literature were created by women using the names of men, for example.

No, my problem with Bridgerton, and many contemporary historical novels, is that the historical setting is ignored as an influence on the characters, and sometimes even on the plot.

I think I first noticed this trend in the movie Elizabeth, the 1998 film with Cate Blanchett. As I was watching her being attacked by her poisoned gown, I was thinking wait, what about the motives of the assassin? How can we tell this story without the religious or political context? It seemed to be all about the emotions and reactions of the characters. We could have been in 12th century France or early 20th century China. It could have been Macbeth. The Emotions of Elizabeth was not what I came to see.

Movies and books that use the past just as a setting for telling a story are not, to me, historical fiction. They’re just fiction. In the next post, I’ll talk about the recent revival in the popularity of historical fiction, and where it might come from.

Part III

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part I

This post will be the first in a series examining the differences between history and historical fiction.

Surely that’s ridiculous, you say. History is what really happened. Historical fiction is just made-up stories. Alas, as I tell my students about historical events, “it’s more complicated than you think”.

First, history as an academic discipline is not what really happened. We have a limited historical record for a particular era, a mix of archaeology, material culture, and written work (diaries, newspapers, letters, etc.). We have lists of events that most people agree actually occurred, because we can trace the lead-up to them and the impact afterward. What historians do is interpret the historical record, trying to create meaning that informs us about the past.

If we say something about that past (such as most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took an omnibus or cab) then we must possess the factual support for that. If we say that most workers in London in 1860 walked to work rather than took a cab because they were too poor to pay for a cab, that’s a conclusion based on facts about wages and cab fares, but it’s an interpretation. Another historian could say that no, most workers walked because the streets were so jammed with traffic that if they hadn’t walked they would have been late for work. That historian could back up his/her thesis with facts.

London Bridge, 1890

History is a living discipline because for each historian who creates a thesis with meaning, another will come along and try to defeat or amend it by either using different sources or the same sources from a different perspective. The growth of historical knowledge through these arguments is called historiography.

So if history as a discipline isn’t what really happened, then is historical fiction just made up stories? Yes, it can be, but some writers of historical fiction prefer to create a more authentic atmosphere by engaging in research. In some cases this is the same kind of research historians do: finding 1860 guidebooks showing cab fares, articles in the Times about London traffic, Dickens novels where characters talk about their wages. But instead of participating in the academy of ideas, fiction writers are doing this research to make their plot or characters more real.

Some do deep research, on par with academic historians. Others do just enough to give their story some realistic elements, and they are happy to change things or people if the historical information doesn’t suit their purposes. The historical facts, in other words, are at the service of the story the author is trying to tell, not the quest for some sort of historical truth.

A really good non-fiction book

In non-fiction (books filed in the History section at the bookstore), the recent trend is to try to make it more exciting for readers, to read “like fiction”. Now anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction will tell you there are many talented non-fiction authors who do intensive research in their subjects even when they aren’t historians. They also try to have a lively writing style, and recently many non-fiction books contain more speculation than a historian would accept. Some even put dialogue in the mouths of historic figures, or say things like “Benjamin Franklin never had a dog, but it he had it would have been a retriever”. This approach comes so close to fiction that it blurs the borders between history and historical fiction.

So the division isn’t clear-cut. In the next post, I’ll talk about the use of the historical past as a setting for fiction.

Part II

 

Never on Sunday

or at least not until the 1890s at the National Gallery.

I had just completed the first draft of Murder at an Exhibition, the second book of what should eventually become the Tommy Jones Mystery trilogy. I’m working now on the editing.

Deeply embedded in the plot is the idea that the National Gallery in London was closed on Sundays. The murder victim has special permission to be there on Sundays, and is murdered there on the quiet. The action takes place in 1863.

As a fiction writer, I admit to keeping much rougher notes than I do as a historian. I had looked through a couple of guidebooks of the era, and had confirmed, to my satisfaction, that the gallery was open six days a week, with four for the public and two for students only (which two days differed by guidebook, strangely). No source mentioned Sundays, so I kept writing.

Then a wrench appeared in the works.

I love how many free lectures there have been during the pandemic, and I recently attended one about the Victorian art world. The speaker noted that in 1845, the National Gallery opened on Sundays to encourage working people, who worked six days a week. The speaker also said that the grubbiness of the working people caused problems, leading to a Select Committee meeting in 1850.

The speaker used this image:

This shows working men viewing pictures at the gallery in 1870. I know that the National Gallery offered many free days, so there’s no reason this had to be on a Sunday. But it made me uncomfortable. Her talk led me to believe that perhaps the National Gallery had been open on Sundays in 1863, ruining my story.

Members of the Facebook group for the Historical Novel Society helped me out, not just with their own information but their encouragement to contact the National Gallery, where a wonderful assistant actually sent me their record of opening hours for their whole history as they knew it. No Sundays in 1863.

But the speaker had been so sure. Could there have been a trial run? I researched through Hansard, which has the debates of the House of Commons, and found much arguing about opening both the National Gallery and the British Museum on Sundays, but no conclusion. So I posted at the Victoria listserv, a place where every Victorianist who’s anybody meets up. Several members helpfully responded with books and records. I’m now 99.9% sure the Gallery was closed.

Yes, I know, if it’s this much trouble for me to confirm, I should be comfortable just showing it was closed on Sundays. It’s a fictional work, not a research project. Except that all my fictional works are research projects. Whether it’s important to the reader or not, it is ridiculously important to me that the facts be accurate, and if they’re not accurate then I’d better have a damned good reason why, and an Author’s Note. That’s just how I roll.