At a cost to the economy, 1862

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is set in London in 1862, which was the year of an Exhibition. Although it was not as beloved as the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London was extraordinary, as I noted in a previous post.

In addition to celebrating industrial and artistic achievement, the Exhibition also hosted meetings of several international groups. This included the International Congress of Charities, Correction and Philanthropy. On June 13, the speaker was Sarah Parker Remond.

A free person of color born in Massachusetts, Remond was anti-slavery from an early age. It is reputed that she made her first speech against the practice when she was 16. Her parents were successful business people. They were active in anti-slavery societies, and made sure their children got a good education, despite the lack of good schools for non-white children.

Sarah was already known as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society (founded by William Lloyd Garrison) before she was asked to go to London in 1858. Her intention was to get a better education, and she enrolled at the Bedford College for Women while continuing to lecture. While she was there, the American Civil War began.

Her speech at the Exhibition in 1862 emphasized support for emancipation, and by implication the Union blockade against the Confederacy. Britain had declared itself neutral in the conflict, and British ships continued to bring in products to northern ports. She pointed out how the British cotton industry used the products of slaves, although Britain itself had outlawed slavery in 1824. The British Parliament had further passed the Slavery Trade Act of 1873 and were actively involved in confiscating slave ships, but were continuing to benefit from the manufacture of cotton grown by slaves in America. She said,

Let no diplomacy of statesmen, no intimidation of slaveholders, no scarcity of cotton, no fear of slave insurrections, prevent the people of Great Britain from maintaining their position as the friend of the oppressed negro, which they deservedly occupied previous to the disastrous civil war.

This was despite the fact that she recognized that:

Thousands among the commercial, manufacturing, and working classes, on both sides of the Atlantic, are dependent upon cotton for all material prosperity. . .

As the result of the efforts of Remond and others like her, Britain respected the Union blockade of the Southern states. But the result of the decline in raw cotton importation was mill closures and starvation in places like Lancashire. There it’s become known as the Lancashire Cotton Famine.

In 1862, as now, the problem was not just that economic strain had thrown people out of work. It was that there was not enough of a social safety net to provide for them when they lost their jobs. The British government engaged in some compensation experiments, including minor funds distributed directly (similar to today’s stimulus checks), but it was minimal and in many cases never reached the people who needed it. The new Poor Laws had funded workhouses rather than “outdoor” relief to help people at home. Ultimately, some relief occurred when the government provided money to local councils, who then created new opportunities for employment in public works. But that wasn’t until 1864. Before that any efforts were supported primarily by private charity (similar to today’s GoFundMe), partly out of a suspicion of increased government activity*.

In 1862 the issue was the moral culpability involved in profiting from slave labor. Now it is the moral culpability of forcing workers into plague conditions. Jobs that take place indoors have the greatest risk of infection, while those outdoors have the least. Safer jobs could include massive infrastructure repair on America’s roads, bridges, and parks. Designs could be implemented to move commercial, educational, and political enterprises into better ventilated conditions.

Perhaps public works, and a bit of advice from Miss Nightingale (see previous post), might be an answer beyond 1864.

 

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* Hall, Rosalind. “A Poor Cotton Weyver: Poverty and the Cotton Famine in Clitheroe.” Social History 28, no. 2 (2003): 233.

Interview with Paper Lantern Writers

So excited to have an interview with Paper Lantern Writers!

https://www.paperlanternwriters.com/blog/words-with-a-wordsmith-lisa-m-lane

 

San Diego Book Festival

Just some pics from my stint at the Partners in Crime (San Diego chapter of Sisters in Crime) table yesterday at the San Diego Book Festival. The gentleman running things is Carl Vonderau, head of the chapter. A beautiful day for this event.

Editing hours

Editing ones own work is always difficult, but even more so whether there are decisions to be made and things to look up, rather than just errors to fix, in the final pass. For example, in one recent three-hour session, even though I’d already had two professional edits of the novel, I spent time:

  • finding out how I spelled “moustache” in the first book
  • looking up greetings appropriate for an afternoon tea party / art exhibit
  • learning how to force an em-dash to stay with a quotation mark on the same line in Word (you can’t)
  • deciding whether it should be M.P. or MP
  • removing the word “so” everywhere because I use it too much
  • looking up whether they would have called it a comforter in 1863 (yes)
  • changing colloquial phrases (“gone up” to “been increased”)
  • realizing the appalling necessity of a thesaurus

All of which make for a better book. It’s a little different than grabbing a red pen and making some marks, and really shouldn’t be done by someone else. And I admit to some frustration that I missed things, as in “how could I not have caught that on the first four reads?” But it’s all part of the journey.

Murder at Old St. Thomas's featured for May

My book Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is featured at Bookfunnel for May:

Visiting 1862: The International Exhibition

Murder at Old St. Thomas’s is set in 1862, so I did quite a bit of research. For me, this was stepping back 25 years from my usual research area, so I found a lot of surprises, in addition to this novel technique for social distancing:


The first thing to do after putting on my crinoline was to find good maps of London, big maps where you can see street names and even buildings:

Guide to the what? The International Exhibition of 1862. Although the Great Exhibition of 1851, with its Crystal Palace, is more famous, this one was supposed to be even bigger. You can see the catalogue here. It took place in South Kensington, on Cromwell Road, where the Natural History Museum would be later.

The Victorianist blog has some good information, and points out that the death of Prince Albert in December 1861 put a damper on the whole proceedings from the start. And it says the building, above, cost £300,000 but the cost was covered by the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851. My studies of Victorian science education claim that the entire system of British science education was basically financed by the same pool. Which makes me think that the money from the Great Exhibition of 1851 is like pieces of the cross. There is no possible way that they made enough profit in 1851 to fund everything that’s been claimed.

Another page with information is here.

And look, they even had cameras then:

The Exhibition caused a lot of traffic snarls, especially in west London. And it really was international, with exhibitors and visitors coming from all over the globe. More in my next post…

 

Home health tips from Florence Nightingale

While she was not writing about people quarantined in their homes, Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing (1859) were about caring for people in their homes, and doing it well.

Nightingale is known, of course, for her service during the Crimean War and her active reform of nursing and hospital hygiene in the mid-Victorian era. She’s the one who realized that many deaths in military hospitals were unnecessary, caused by unhygenic conditions rather than wounds or injury. And she came to this conclusion when aneasthetics were in early days, and antiseptics as yet unknown (Joseph Lister would start his famous work after the war).

Contrary to her “lady with the lamp” image, Nightingale was a no-nonsense, if not actually abrasive, person. She was once even cussed out by a doctor who might have been the first woman to get a medical degree in Britain, except that s/he identified as a man (more on this person in a future post).

I have had a copy of Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing for awhile. I don’t even recall why I bought it. I assumed it was a book for teaching nurses, since Nightingale founded her school of nursing at St. Thomas’s Hospital. But it’s a book about nursing, not just in hospitals, but in the home. And her emphasis, not surprisingly, in on creating healthy conditions.

It is also not surprising that this was considered a job for women, and in my opinion this book should reside on a shelf alongside Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in series at the same time, and printed as a book only two years later. Most people know that Ms. Nightingale was a big advocate of fresh air. In fact, the odd configuration of the new St. Thomas’s Hospital, opened in 1867, was the result of her promotion of cross-ventilation.

Have you ever opened a window for fresh air, and it became so chilly you wished you could leave the heat on? Nightingale recommends this, or at least keeping the fire going with a window open, so that an ill person can have fresh air. She points out that you can keep the patient warm with blankets, and safely allow fresh cold air into the room.

Her book also notes that opening doors and windows is to no avail if the air that comes in isn’t fresh. If your room opens onto a utility closet, or you leave your chamber pot open under the bed (oh those master bathrooms!), or your window overlooks a refuse heap, you are not doing any good with air. Ill people really should be taken out into the garden to get a little sun and air, which I see done all too seldom. I’ve been in elder nursing homes where the windows don’t open and the only outside is a little paving of cement in a courtyard. Nightingale was not a fan of courtyards — the air isn’t fresh enough, going round and round.

Too much bedding, too many visitors

All of her advice was based not only on her experience, but on research and statistics. Her faith in scientific endeavor was firm. In the early 1860s, when the plot was being hatched for passing the Contagious Diseases Act, she argued against it based on statistics. The idea was that preliminary arrest and examination of prostitutes would prevent venereal disease in the military. The act would give the police power to arrest any woman they suspected of being a prostitute. Many who were against the idea argued on the basis of feminine modesty, or the inappropriateness of making a private disease a public issue, or the likely abuses by the police. Nightingale argued on facts: everywhere that harsh measures arresting and examining prostitutes had been enforced by a state, the V.D. numbers had actually increased rather than decreased.

Her household nursing advice seems so common-sense, and yet is often ignored, then and now. She had to recommend that damp towels be spread out to dry, that one not chit-chat inanely with someone who wasn’t feeling well, and that one should always sit beside the sickbed rather than hovering over it, forcing the ill person to crane their neck. And here’s more:

  • Reading the patient the funny bits of a book you’re reading (update: bits and memes off the internet) is extremely annoying to the ill person.
  • Quiet is important, because when someone is ill certain sounds can be distressing or even intolerable.
  • A bedroom, where one sleeps, is not the same as a sickroom. A person in bed because they are ill needs not only air but light, and should be able to see out an open window.
  • The bed needs to be aired daily — in fact Nightingale suggests two different beds so the sheets of one can always be aired. Not doing this, or using too much bedding and thick mattresses, leaves the patient essentially in their own waste of sweat and their own breathed air. (The current metal hospital bed is likely based on the iron ones she recommended.)
  • Cleaning must be thorough. Damp cloths, not dusters that just raise the dust into the air. Carpets are horrible even if lifted and beaten 3 times a year (I can just imagine what she’d think of wall-to-wall carpeting). Bad smells indicate organic matter is stuck to things, and it shouldn’t be.

See why I want this filed next to Mrs. Beeton? It’s far less about medical nursing than about good housekeeping. The medical advice reminded me of Hippocrates, especially when it came to diet (“The diet which will keep the well man healthy may kill the sick one”). But at this time, when there is more than the usual concern about people being ill at home, it’s still good advice.

History and historical fiction

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 coming soon

 

Notes on history and historical fiction, Part II

As I continue my new avocation of writing 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 coming soon

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