A glorious map of London

I’ve been enchanted by a map of London in 1851. Click on it to take a look, but be sure to use the little square in the upper right to zoom in!

London as seen from a balloon

Isn’t it amazing? It’s like having Google Street view for 1851.

What does this make possible? Well, for a writer, I can see the streeets, see the buildings all together and how they mesh with each other (most London buildings are attached). I can see where the gasworks were and how they related to the neighborhood around them, very important to my “work in progress”, as they call it.

The scale is what is truly extraordinary. It is fairly easy to find etchings or paintings of certain buildings, or neighborhoods, but they’re decontextualized. In London especially, one walks from slum conditions to lovely parks and squares in minutes. That was true in the 19th century (see Booth’s map from later in the century) and is true now. When I walk the city, I am always astonished at how short the distance is between one place I want to be and another, and that there are surprises around every corner. Here you can see some of those, from the air.

And, of course, it’s very steampunk-ish to get this wonderful illustration from a balloon flight!


A thumb-print among wagtails

I confess I am struggling to write my current mystery, and when this happens I sometimes allow myself to disappear down rabbit holes of historical research, following a trail.

Deciding that my victim was to be poisoned instead of garroted (which would have been unlikely for the accused to have achieved), I began researching poisons. Arsenic would be the obvious choice, but I was tired of arsenic: in 1860 it was in everything from wallpaper to rat poison, and there had been an accidental case of poisoning in commercial candy in Bradford two years before. The more I read about it, the more I realized it was appropriate for a slow poisoning, given in small doses over time to look like a natural illness. I needed a quick death. So, cyanide. It turns out many people cannot detect the trademark “burnt almond” smell, and it was quick and easy to obtain as “prussic acid”.

A bottle lying around the victim’s flat? Perhaps. If so, finger-prints would be nice. But everyone knows 1860 is too early for that; it wasn’t until 1887 that finger-prints were part of police methods. As a historian, however, I’m aware that things are often known earlier than we suspect. So what was the state of forensic science in 1860? Wikipedia mentioned that Sir William Herschel was doing it in 1858:

I followed that footnote and sure enough, I found The Origin of Finger-printing by Sir William Herschel, explaining how he knew that finger-printing ideas were much older, and that there had been isolated cases of a handprint or even a tooth being used to verify identity.

Sir Francis Galton, however, has pointed out that in our own times the engraver Bewick had a fancy for engraving his thumb-mark, with his name attached, as vignettes, or as colophones, in books which he published. As a boy I had loved Bewick on Birds: I regret that it is not now to be found in our library. Galton’s remark has reminded me that I used to see a thumb-mark there, as well as I recollect, in an ornamental title-page.

So naturally I had to find Bewick on Birds, in my library of the web. They had a copy of A History of British Birds (1832) at Google Books and I looked through the first few pages, but no luck. Certainly it wasn’t on any title page. So I image searched for “Bewick Bird thumb-print” and found two images. The Cleveland Art Museum said it was on page 180, so I went to look at a prettier version, at the Wellcome Collection, an 1847 edition. Not in the title pages nor on page 180, so I began scrolling through every single page.

Bird after bird scrolled by. Each bird had his/her portrait at the top of a section, then at the bottom of each section was some other illustration: a house in the snow, a team of oxen ploughing. Some of these images were rather strange, like one man carrying another, or a funnel in a bottle. But on a page about the Wagtail, which had no bird image at all, it was at the bottom:

A lovely thumb-print which, I must assume, was Thomas Bewick’s.  (I have a bit of a soft spot for Bewick anyway, not because I know his bird books but because I’m very fond of the Bewick’s wren. One nested on a counter outside my kitchen, and I accidentally flooded her out watering a plant, and since then I watch for them and am more careful, understanding that they nest a few feet from the ground and sing the most lovely song.)

Obviously Sir William’s memory was a bit off as to the thumb-print’s location, but there it is.

So now I have every intention of working Herschel and Bewick and finger-prints somehow into my mystery. When writing fiction, research rabbit holes are rarely traversed in vain.

Now, about that prussic acid . . .

Six degrees of Wells

It’s odd how even when one avoids H. G. Wells, it’s hard to get too far. Here’s an obscure connection, just for fun.

I was listening to a half-hour BBC documentary program on the Hollywood Cricket Club, mostly because it mentioned David Niven and Errol Flynn, but also because Jim Carter narrated. It had nothing at all to do with H.G. Wells. I have been taking a break, the pandemic having curtailed much of my research.

Apparently the club was founded by Charles Aubrey Smith, and actor I’ve seen in many movies but whose name I didn’t know.

Look familiar? He was in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda, The Four Feathers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and And Then There Were None. Plus dozens more.

Now take a look at him in 1895:

Aha, a cricketer! And this was the year he started acting.

So it turns out it’s less than six degrees of separation to Wells.

He was a bowler for Sussex County between 1882 and 1892, 20 years after Joseph Wells (H.G.’s father) had done his double hat trick for Kent (4 wickets in 4 balls). It’s a small world, cricket — he would have know who Joseph Wells was.

And according to Wikipedia, in 1920 Smith was in a British film called The Bump. It was written by A. A. Milne. If you read this blog, you know that H.G. Wells was Milne’s teacher at Henley House School, which was run by A.A.’s father.

So it could be serendipity. Or perhaps more things are connected to Wells than one would expect.


2 comments to Six degrees of Wells

  • Eric Kuniholm

    Years ago I became enamored of Patrick O’Brian’s adventures of Napoleonic era sail. Coincidentally, last year I happened to be Googling one of my old British schoolteachers (Eton House School, 1967), a Nikolai Tolstoy, nephew of Leo, himself a sometime novelist and historian, and what did I find but that Nikolai Tolstoy had been Patrick O’Brian’s step son, and had written a tell-all biography of his stepfather–two degrees of separation therefore from one of my favorite historical novelists. My takeaway from both our examples is that the such coincidences are rendered inevitable by the restricted world of the British upper class and all who come into contact with them.

    • Lisa M Lane

      LOL with the exception that Wells was lower-middle class, I’m with you. Perhaps it’s just in who is connected to them.

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.


2 comments to Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

  • This is an interesting post. I didn’t know about this. It reminded me of the more harmless spaghetti tree April’s Fool joke that the BBC broadcast, and which many people believed.

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology

I gave this 35-minute talk to the Long Nineteenth Century group last week. Its full title is Three Wonders of Victorian Technology, or how a little communication, education, and sanitation goes a long way. In it I discuss the London Pneumatic Despatch Company, the Magic Lantern, and the flush toilet. Enjoy!

Three Wonders of Victorian Technology from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

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.

2 comments to Notes on history and historical fiction, Part III

  • jmm

    Postmodern theory (which a friend calls “practicing philosophy without a license”)has been combined with politics and moral crusades, resulting in a pervasive disregard of the idea that facts matter (or even exist). It’s a disturbing trend in American society, a retreat from the intellectually demanding scientific method in favor of easy emotional response. In this context, efforts to promote study in the STEM disciplines seem both doomed and ironic.

    Racism, sexism, and fear of the ‘other’ are based entirely on feelings. Nobody seems to consider that when arguing for the primacy of feelings over reason.

    • Lisa M Lane

      The horrible part is, they don’t even need to “argue” the primary of feelings over reason, since reason is dismissed already as a framework.

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