Grousable Books Newsletter: Midhurst News and the Trilogy

Fire in Midhurst

I hadn’t meant to send another newsletter so soon, but this is actual news which is very sad for fans (and scholars) of H. G. Wells. Wells spent formative years in the town of Midhurst in West Sussex (my knowledge of the area led me to set A Heart Purloined there). Last week a fire raged through two properties on North Street, the main road. The Angel Inn was gutted, and I have it from someone who lives there that the remaining facade is unsafe and likely to be condemned. The building next door was referred to as The Olde Tea Shoppe, although when I ate there it was the Olive and Vine restaurant. At the back was an alcove full of Wellsian books, because Wells lived there while an assistant master at Midhurst Grammar School.

It was from Midhurst that Wells got his first real start in life, away from his mother’s ambition to have him be a sensible shop clerk. He attended school there as pupil-teacher when an apprenticeship with the chemist proved unsuitable, then later returned to teach and earn money for the school through taking national exams. As a result of these he got a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London, now Imperial College. There he was a student of T.H. Huxley and developed both his science teaching and his journalism (anthologized in my book H. G. Wells on Science Education, 1886-1897).

Wells wrote fondly of Midhurst in many books. Mrs. Walton, the owner of the Tea Shoppe when it was a sweet shop and the cook of hearty meals for Wells and the other assistant, became the character Mrs. Wardor in his novel about bicycling in the area, The Wheels of Chance.

Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop in Midhurst told me that in addition to the buildings themselves being over 400 years old, there were medieval frescos on one of the walls.

The Angel Inn gutted and the Olde Tea Shoppe, where Wells had a room upstairs, destroyed. Photo © Sussex Live .

The Trilogy Complete

With spring comes the completion of the Tommy Jones Trilogy, my series of interconnected, stand-alone Victorian mysteries. Tommy Jones is 12 years old in Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, where he helps Inspector Slaughter solve the crime. He’s friend and helper to Jo Harris in Murder at an Exhibition, then in Murder on the Pneumatic Railway he takes the lead by traveling to Durham to find an important witness. This is his “coming of age” story as well as a mystery, and I hope that readers are as fond of him as I am.

[In fact, secretly, I just might be writing a prequel to the trilogy, telling all about how Tommy came to stay with the Slaughters in the first place. It takes place primarily in The City . . . shhhh]

Gardens and grit

Not much to report from the garden, because quite a bit of it is waterlogged or actually under water. I have declared this Brick Path Lake, and am asking advice on applying for a refund of the “Sunshine Tax” (that’s the joke out here for why everything in SoCal is so expensive). Things are growing–I’ll tell you what things when I get on my wellies and wade out there.

Historically inaccurate TV

Allow me to express my utter disappointment in a couple of TV shows, the second of which I did not finish watching.

Dead Still (Acorn, 2020) is touted as a dark comedy set in the Victorian era and featuring photographers of the dead. This has long be thought to be a Victorian trend: people prop up their dead loved one for photographs, either with the corpse on its own or posed with the family or spouse. As macabre as it sounds, it did happen, but my research indicates not often enough to make a mini-series out of it. There is some dispute whether all of the many photographs of family members with their eyes closed or in awkward positions are actually post-mortem photography or just poor photos. Anyway, the show has an interesting premise, but I’m not sure they kept up the story that well.

Year of the Rabbit (BritBox, 2019)   The writers, Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, know a lot about comedy but I’d venture to say know or care little about the Victorian era. The verbal and costume anachronisms appeared immediately, early in the first episode, so I want not able to watch much of it. Looking it up on IMDB, the list of special effects people and producers are very long, so perhaps historical accuracy was of little interest anyway. The clothing colors, even in 1887 when aniline dyes were known, are kind of strange.

Going Steampunk

I’m not so much of a history prude, but I expect every show set in an actual historical era to be accurate. However, the steampunk aesthetic has paid tribute to some of the scientific spirit and gadget obsession of the Victorian age, even while replacing history with fantasy.

Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal is a beautifully done example of this. Victorians were very excited about the possibilities of new communications technologies, such as the Transatlantic Cable, faster mail service,  and the telephone. In Going Postal, messages are communicated using lights in large towers, translated at the other end and reconveyed across distances. Physical letters rot in piles in the actual post office, which our hero (a con man and convict) is assigned to straighten out. It is the story of two communications companies, and their systems, vying with each other as a life and death conflict. And it’s hysterically funny. (Plus Charles Dance is in it, so you can’t really lose.)

Coming soon

Coming soon: a freebie for my newsletter subscribers. Stay tuned.

Happy reading!