What do we take for granted – culturally, literally, technologically – that was invented or has changed since 1832?
In other words, what did I have to remove from my imagination when I wrote SHADOWBOX?
Nowadays, all across the world, we share experiences of popular culture faster than ever. In Kigali and Karachi and Kingstown and Knightsbridge, people recognise the name of Gollum, have heard of Live Aid, know that Nelson Mandela lived and has recently died.
We share links through Harry Potter and Bilbo Baggins (whether or not we’ve read or seen the stories). We know of Alexander’s Ragtime Band and Elvis Presley, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, Picasso’s Blue Period and Dali’s melting watches.
In 1832, none of those existed.
Of course my characters sleep and eat, get hangovers and the sniffles, have ill-fitting shoes and get wet in the rain. But they had many different things we don’t have any more (in the developed world at least), and lacked a lot of the things which make up not just British or European culture, but a global shared understanding of the world.
All the way through writing the novel I had to remind myself that how I imagine life to be back then might not be true.
So I built a set of reference points to guide me, a list of what was missing in 1832 and a list of those shared experiences that still resonate today.
In 1832 there was no Queen Victoria. My characters had no idea of the future queen, nor the cultural and technological changes which were to take place at a seemingly-exponential rate during her reign. Prince Albert and the Victoria Embankment both figments of the future.
No inkling of the US Civil War to come.
No idea that India would become such a hugely important part of the British Empire, all the while seething to be independent.
No internal combustion engines.
No cure for measles, no idea how cholera spread in 1832, no antibiotics or antibacterial hand-wipes or effective anaesthetics. People took opium and smoked tobacco – and the leaf wasn’t soaked with pesticides. Tea and coffee, bread, flour, paper – all crawled with insects, visible and invisible.
People crawled with insects too, skin diseases and digestive parasites rife amongst all social classes. You took your chances as much as any libertine.
L’Air Du Temps had not been invented, nor Chanel No.5, or Dettol, or Pepsi. Soap smelled of violets when it wasn’t priced out of your range. Perfume covered a multitude of stenches.
Drinks tasted of lemon and orange, shipments arriving from Spain in the depths of bleak February along with sugar from Caribbean plantations to be made into marmalade and cordial.
Industrial dyes, based on coal tar, had yet to replace the traditional colours of madder and cochineal, indigo, woad.
No Crimean War, no First World War or Relief of Mafeking.
Transatlantic journeys took weeks even if you travelled by choice, and you couldn’t phone home to say you’d arrived safely. Tea clippers plied the oceans, but most of the world still traded along the Silk Route or the trans-Saharan indigo trails via Timbuktu – or not at all.
Slaves toiled across the United States, and in Brazil, Argentina, much of North Africa. Many of these men and women were “owned” by Britons, while William Wilberforce stood on the brink of his Liberation Bill.
Ireland had good potato harvests, but much of Highland Scotland, including the islands where some of my own ancestors farmed, had already been cleared of crofters to make way for more lucrative land use.
Navigation canals cut through the English landscape to gain government subsidies for the landowners, regardless of the viability of the waterway’s route or the likelihood of completion.
Canada had yet to be mapped by David Thompson, Australia by Lewis & Clarke, Tahiti yet to be colonised by Fletcher Christian and the rest of the Bounty’s mutinous crew.
Spring-Heeled Jack was yet to come bounding across a terrified nation. Of Jack The Ripper, no sign.
The Trail Of Tears, the Battle of Wounded Knee, the Well of the Bibi-Gar and the incident which provoked it – horrors yet to be endured.
So, what did people have in 1832 – in Paris, in London – that we might recognise yet?
The Napoleonic Wars were over and done with by 1832, as was the French Revolution and the North American Wars of Independence.
Bonnie Prince Charlie was well gone, the hopes of Darien crushed, the waters off the East African coastline rife with pirates.
Turnpikes and highways linked major urban settlements where broadsheet newspapers printed the latest updates on stock prices, farm yields and public protests. The canals, cut through farmland, brought goods to London from factories in the Midlands and the north; from the Mediterranean all the way to Paris and northern France.
Semaphore towers blinked the good news from Ghent to Aix and back again.
Sailing-ships navigated by longitude as well as latitude.
People ate porridge and parkin and pasta. Gardens grew cabbages and roses and rhubarb, bees loudly humming along the bean rows, slugs in the lettuce. We drank tea and coffee and beer and gin and did our best to overlook the adulterations.
Beethoven no longer painted symphonies against the walls of his skull and inked them for others to hear.
Jane Austen was dead, but Balzac and Wordsworth and Hugo – new works by each appeared with all the fuss the publishing industry could muster. Scientists discovered new compounds, engineers invented new gadgets, bakers created new confections.
Sleight-of-hand tricksters played Hide-The-Pea on punters in Oxford Street and pickpockets nabbed your wallet.
Ballerinas danced, castrato sopranos drew crowds of admirers to the opera, theatres played puppets and popular pantomime.
Confectioners built great cakes, boiled sugar into hard sweets, candied figs and dusted fondants with powdered cocoa.
Industrial accidents killed hundreds. Epidemics of disease scoured the population. Homeless people slept rough. Children went to bed hungry.
Migrant workers crammed into London and Paris, their lodgings cramped and unsanitary, their wages poor and their willingness to work exploited by unscrupulous employers.
In Britain a Conservative government sought to legislate against Trades Union activism and in France a leadership called out troops to quell civil unrest in the capital.
France and Britain shared poetry by Milton, Casanova, Virgil; art by Michaelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio; music by Mozart, Verdi, Strauss; the folk tales of Charlemagne, King Arthur, the Crusades.
And a hundred thousand – a million – creative works by artisans and entertainers were never written down, never shaped in durable materials, never sung in front of anyone who might memorise the song and pass it on.
It’s time to see the cultural landscape where Louis Beauregard and Godfrey Woolverham live.
Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: What Immortal Hand Or Eye.
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