Whitechapel and the limits of history

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/a39e15cfbbce6cf71875f6844b7446de.pngThe show Whitechapel began airing over a dozen years ago, but I am only now getting around to seeing it on the advice of a friend. Normally, I don’t watch shows with a lot of violence — I prefer the victims to be dead when I get there — but given the Victorian connection I decided to simply avert my eyes (and turn down the sound) when attacks occurred.

The first season focuses on a Ripper copycat. Gee, haven’t we done that before? I liked it better when it was the real Ripper (and H.G. Wells) jumping into the future, in Time After Time. But in this case, the historical connections are part of the story, with a Ripperologist providing deep information that could help the police predict the murders.

Since Hallie Rubenhold’s wonderful book The Five wouldn’t be published for another ten years, it wasn’t surprising that all the Ripper’s victims are considered to be prostitutes. Rubenhold did away with that bias in her 2015 book, because the actual evidence about the victims shows it wasn’t true (in fact, the main commonality seemed to be problems with alcohol).

The Ripperologist in the show makes a living off of his book about Jack and the Ripper tours he conducts in the East End of London. An ethical question that emerges is the extent to which he is contributing to the copycat murders by providing so many sordid details in his books and tours. But aside from the issue of whether information influences behavior, what was most interesting was the way the police (with his help) attempt to prevent the third, fourth and fifth murders by knowing a version of what’s going to happen.

——Spoiler Alert—— (in case you haven’t watched TV since 2009)———

They fail to stop two of the murders, the first one because the copycat idea isn’t fully accepted by the police. For the second one they get very close, but a diversion keeps the police away from Mitre Square, where Catherine Eddowes was killed in 1888. What I saw happening was not the diversion, which was blamed on the Ripperologist, but the difficulty of using history to predict what’s going to happen. Even with the fullest sets of facts available, and the closest similarity to those facts, history does not repeat itself.

Naturally I spend much time watching mystery shows, and anything with a Victorian setting. Whitechapel had just a bit of Victorianism to it, mostly in digging up the past to solve a modern crime. Although hardly any of the locations of the 1888 murders look the same now, the production designer did a great job using streets in Whitechapel that have a 19th century feel, so one got the sensation of history overlapping. It was definitely worth a watch.

 

 

New Year's update from Grousable Books

Hello, and a happy New Year to all my subscribers!

It’s been a crazy time here preparing multiple books, but I think I have a handle on it. Murder at an Exhibition was recently released. It’s an art history mystery, with illustrator Jo Harris and her friend Bridget helping to solve the murder of a photographer. Photography, while not exactly brand new in 1863, was at a stage where it was being used for record-keeping, artistic endeavor, and more nefarious activities, just as the internet is today.

So I will reveal more soon about the context of the story, art, and London in 1863. For now, check out the map:

You’ll see the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti way over in Chelsea, on Cheyne Walk. Rossetti will help Jo with the case, and I love it when real historical people and fictional characters team up!

Murder on the Pneumatic Railway, the third Tommy Jones Mystery and the one featuring Tommy as one of the friends who solve a murder, is in the editing stage and will be released in spring. Before that, Grousable Books is pushing for a Valentine’s Day release of Lydia Greenwood’s historical romance, A Heart Purloined. It’s a light-hearted romance with plenty of history and mystery, so look for that soon.

The best New Year to everyone. I have seen some people saying good riddance to 2022, but for me it was a heck of a lot better than 2021 in a number of ways. Looking forward to seeing what’s next!

 

5 best books on Victorian medicine

Looking for what to read as background for my mystery Murder at Old St. Thomas’s? Take a look at my recommended book list on Victorian medicine, written for Shepherd Books.

The challenge was to narrow this to five books that would related to my novel, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, without directly referencing my book. It was fun!

At Old St. Thomas's -- December 8

In anticipation of my Conversation to benefit the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in London, which will take place in Zoom on December 8 at 7pm British time, I am posting here about the history of the old hospital and its time in Surrey Gardens. I will be talking about some of this during my presentation. This is a re-post from March of 2020, as I was starting to write the book. Enjoy!


St. Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.

 

Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)

 

A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.

 

View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]

Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?

 

It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.

Never on Sunday

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

Deeply embedded in the plot of Murder at an Exhibition (recently released) 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.

Interview on George Cramer's blog

I was delighted to be interviewed by fellow author George Cramer for his blog!

LISA M. LANE -Author and Historian – Author George Cramer 

It’s so fun to get to answer questions about what I do, since I so love doing it.

On Victorian female painters

I have been notoriously lax in my advancement of the feminist cause. I just assume that women were far more active historically than they have been portrayed. Those who control the media control the message. But at the same time I do notice when women have important public roles to play, and in writing fiction I have made sure that my Victorian females have a great deal of agency.

That’s not wishful thinking. It’s simply that the ordinary academic practice of history tends to believe its sources, without looking at all of them. That’s human. So I just want to say up front, it takes quite a bit to get my feminist hackles up. I’m a humanist.

But as I look into the Pre-Raphaelites, I have found myself getting annoyed with the focus on the men. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais — there are women who took their names, but they are seen as muses alone. No one says “Rossetti” and means Christina, Dante Gabriel’s highly published and respected poet sister. No one says Millais and means Lady Millais, or “Burne-Jones” and means Georgina, an accomplished artist, or “Morris” and means Jane, a talented embroiderer. Why, when most of them published or exhibited their own work? I’m not even sure the men themselves saw them as sidelines — there is much evidence of respect and collaboration. And yet in most of the books, the men’s work is emphasized, and the women’s downgraded. Most of the explorations of the women’s work are recent, like Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, or the National Portrait Gallery exhibit.

For inspiration and amusement, I’ve been looking at the portrayal of the Pre-Raphaelites in cinema and television, so I’m watching Desperate Romantics. It was made in 2009, not exactly a bad time for feminism. But even there, little mention is made of anything the women themselves created or exhibited. I realize it’s set early (1850s), but the writer didn’t even imbue them with any ambition.

Jane Morris embroidery

by Georgiana Burne-Jones

Clerk Saunders, by Elizabeth Siddall

I thought perhaps I’d look into their lives a bit, see whether they would make good characters in my book, or whether the tale I’ll tell could be through their eyes, instead of the men’s. I don’t know much about the art history of this period, so I’m investigating. My book is set in 1863, so I thought I’d see what the Royal Academy of Arts was doing then. I found The Royal Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, a great resource that for 1863 discussed several of the key works including Millais, comparing his dark work in The Eve of St Anges to the lightness of a painting by Edward Matthew Ward. And then I saw in the Context section:

For some critics, Henrietta Ward’s picture of Mary Queen of Scots surpassed her husband’s efforts, and the Mutrie sisters were described as “still supreme among flower-painters”.

Who’s Henrietta Ward? I tried to search her by name and “Mary Queen of Scots”. I found an engraving from the Illustrated London News of it, but not the painting. So then I found the Royal Academy of Arts catalogue for that exhibition on HathiTrust. I wondered whether she’d be listed like the male painters, as “H. Ward”. I found the work, and her name as “Mrs. E. M. Ward”, and she had half a dozen works in the exhibition. I looked her up at the NPG, but there’s not a lot there. I found a review in the Athaeneum, which said:

They used “Mrs.” but referred to the artist as a male. How strange.

I thought I’d pick at random another female, since they are so clever indicated with “Miss” and “Mrs.” Item 571, Always welcome, by Mrs. J. F. Pasmore. Started searching on Google. “Mrs. J. F. Passmore painting 1863”. Very frustrating. I had spelled the name wrong. Then I stumbled on this at an antiques dealer site:

And here’s the description:


Middle initial and last name spelling confusion aside, she “also exhibited paintings”? Hers is in the Royal Academy exhibition, but I can’t find a copy of Always welcome online (there are plenty of paintings around by John F., mostly for sale). And this website attributes the above painting to him anyway, not her. So now I don’t know what to think. Maybe this is just a picture of her.

I don’t like to class everyone together: all women, all men. Some women had extraordinary power, both in the home and out of it. Others were taken advantage of. This sort of problem makes one wonder whether it’s the sources or the perception. Looking at the sources, I find more and more evidence of women’s agency. But finding those sources seems inordinately difficult.

 

 

What the Dickens?

Funny the things that happen when you’re a historian just trying to read a book, and the ways in which being a historian can get in the way of a good read. I recently joined the Victorians! forum on Goodreads. People there read Victorian-era books.

I’ve read some of those myself, including a few by Charles Dickens. I’ve read The Old Curiosity Shop (which someone spoiled for me, thinking everyone knows the ending), A Christmas Carol (of course), and Hard Times (ok, so I listened to the audiobook). The rest await me, eight or so volumes on the shelf. I figured Oliver Twist would be next. Then I saw that the Victorian group would be reading Nicholas Nickleby.

I’m not much of a joiner, but I thought it might be fun. I’ve never read with a group, never been in a book group or anything. The closest I get is reading the “book group questions” at the back of  novels.

But I didn’t have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I could have downloaded it from Internet Archive, but I don’t like reading things on a screen. Ironic, isn’t it? Backlit screens are for work, but reading for pleasure is different. I want a book in my hand, turning its pages, absorbing its history.

One site for second-hand books is abebooks.com. But I’m very choosy, because to me books are historical objects. My first preference is for a book published during the author’s lifetime, so “publication date ascending” is my go-to sort. Ending 1870, when he died. Whoa! the prices! How could Dickens be fetching such prices? OK, maybe not 1870. . . But even with an edition from 1920, we’re talking some money.

I knew Mr. Dickens was not getting a cut from my purchase, but I’m not a huge fan of him as a person, despite Simon Callow’s brilliant portrayal in Dr Who. As a historian, I try very hard to separate the creator from his creation. Where would I be with Rousseau if I cared about how he gave up his own children to foundling hospitals? Or if I ignored the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson because I was busy judging how he lived? People are not their ideas. We are all flawed. Good ideas survive long past the person’s lifetime.

Dickens is somewhat different because I went to his house. Not while he was there, of course, but several years ago. It’s a shrine to him.  I found this bizarre, because it was really her house. His wife, Catherine. She raised his ten (!) children. She wrote the best-selling menu book What Shall We Have for Dinner?

Since 2016, the museum has made a huge effort to include her in the house’s story. The problem is that Mr. Dickens, who was having an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, didn’t want his wife anymore. After she discovered the affair in 1858, he turned the situation on her, separated from her, and dissed her all over London. He even tried to get her committed to an asylum. (I’ve begun reading Lillian Nayder’s 2011 biography rehabilitating her reputation. I feel I must.)

I’ve learned that you cannot be a Victorianist without enjoying, or even reveling in, Charles Dickens. Certainly I admire his detailed portrayal of the era, the wonderful characterizations, the turns of phrase that make you chuckle aloud. He wrote so fast, and so much, that I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of his talent. But the hagiographic approach to him annoys me anyway.

So I clicked past the volume of Nicholas Nickleby that said “Works by Charles Dickens” on the spine, because it was part of a collection. I scrolled beyond the $1,000 matched sets of his work. I searched for the small 8vo versions I prefer, but there aren’t any because the novel is too long. I finally found one I liked and ordered it. I do not hold it against Dickens that I spent so much time looking for a book I hadn’t wanted to read, by an author I personally dislike, just to join a discussion with a group I do not know. It’s just another case of a historian making things more complicated than they need to be.

Mystery tropes

I watch quite a few British/Canadian/Australian mysteries on television, so much so that I’ve been keeping a list of tropes. A lot of mystery programs (Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise, Father Brown, Murder She Hoped, even the Kiwi series Brokenwood Mysteries) have similar settings for murder.

For example, there’s the one at the flying school, the one at the dance competition, the one with chefs in a restaurant, the one with the amateur theatre group. People get murdered when checking into health spas, joining hunting parties, and (gulp) attending author book signings. Sometimes there’s an unusual arrangement assumed to be a motive: the breakup of the band, the tontine (where whoever hasn’t died inherits everything), the dinner to which everyone was invited individually.

Back in the fourth grade, I gave up cursive writing and pens, only using either when it was required. I am trying now to revive both, with a fountain pen, a lovely journal given me by a friend, and mystery plots and ideas. Here’s the first page of tropes (please bear with my handwriting, obviously):

What this creates is a treasure trove of settings and/or a list of what to either imitate or avoid when writing a story. For me, it’s helpful to see the patterns. Many of these seem designed to limit the number of possible suspects. For example, if you have a murder at a music festival, there could be thousands of suspects. How does your detective narrow down? If one of the organizers is killed, they will tend to cast their gaze on the other organizers rather than attendees. This may or may not work, but it allows a lot of people to go home.

Since this is not how I write my mysteries, which sort of grow organically, it’s interesting to see how mysteries can be mass-produced through the recycling of settings.

Luckily, I don’t think that boarded-up operating theatre, the National Gallery, or pneumatic railway are likely to appear on the list any time soon. But about those 19th century health spas . . .

Forthcoming: H.G. Wells on Science Education

Amidst my Victorian mysteries is the book I’ve spent five years putting together: a collection of the writings of H. G. Wells on the subject of science teaching.

Most of the 80 articles in this book have not been republished since they originally appeared in places like The Journal of Education, The University Correspondent, and The Saturday Review. Most of them were written before Wells published The Time Machine and became a well-known author of scientific romances, then later more polemical works and a history of the world. Many of the articles had to be rounded up in different British libraries, including the Bromley Library, the Bodleian in Oxford, the Cambridge University Library, and the British Library in both London and Wetherby.

Herbert George Wells originally wanted to be a science teacher, a difficult goal considering his lower middle class origins. Through independent study, he was able to win grants and scholarships and attend the Normal School of Science (now Imperial College) to study biology under T.H. Huxley. His first published book was not science fiction; it was The Text-book of Biology, volumes one and two, written for the University Correspondence College, where he was a tutor for William Briggs, a pioneer of distance education.

From the time he started at the Normal School until his success as a fiction author over ten years later, Wells was both subject to and wrote critiques about the vagaries of science education. He abhorred cramming for exams instead of gaining knowledge, railed against the continued emphasis on classics over science in the schools, and worried about British educational weakness as compared to other nations. His remarks will seem familiar to many in education today, and of interest to Wells fans, science teachers, students, and Victorianists. They appear in this book transcribed, annotated, and footnoted.

Publication date was September 21, Wells’s birthday. It is my first hard-cover release.

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