Shadowbox: What’s Missing In 1832?

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.

1832 Malte Brun Map of the World on Mercator Projection, via wikipedia

(click to see larger size)

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.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. Bring popcorn.

Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: What’s Missing In 1832?  
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Shadowbox: The Maps I Used In 1832

SHADOWBOX takes place in two cities which have very different characters, even in 1832.

Paris, and London.

Both cities are long-established national capitals. Paris has a head start on London, having been absorbed into the Roman Empire earlier by sheer geographical proximity. Over the course of a couple of millennia, both cities were shaped by their landscape, their people and by their wars.

La Bièvre, by Charles Marville c.1865

La Bièvre, by Charles Marville c.1865

While I’m acquainted with the streets of central London (to a very limited extent) from the time I worked in Southwark, as well as visiting for shopping or the odd night out, I have next-to-no knowledge of Paris.

The only time I visited the city for any length of time, other than passing through, was in 1990. At that time I was on a budget that makes austerity look positively decadent.

The other few times I’ve been through Paris, it’s been a short trip on the Metro from the Eurostar at Gare du Nord to one of the other international stations. Not much time for dawdling when you have a sleeper to catch…

On the other hand, my knowledge of London also consists of traversing the city from modern transport hubs to specific other places – museums, offices, a friend’s house, shops. I haven’t the innate knowledge that someone has when they’ve lived in a place all their life, or even just taken the time to explore their neighbourhood on non-motorised transport.

Street Scene in London with Saint Paul's Dome. by Samuel John Hodson (1836-1908)

Street Scene in London with Saint Paul’s Dome. by Samuel John Hodson (1836-1908)


I needed maps.

And guidebooks.

And possibly a trip to visit Paris, although I haven’t made it so far.

In the event, mainly to stop using the lack of a Eurostar ticket as an excuse to stop writing, I made do with a number of online and offline resources that I hope have given me enough flavour of the city to paint its details in words for the reader without affecting the story. For example, is it essential to tell you that:

  • Belleville and Montmartre are in their own respective arrondisements, when those parts of the city don’t feature in the novel?
  • the Ile de la Cité is covered with telegraph wires (which it wouldn’t have been in 1832)? and
  • semaphore towers stretched across the country from Marseilles to Cherbourg, hubbing at Paris Montfaucon (an early technology abused to such devastating effect in The Count Of Monte Cristo)?

Readers only need to know details when they act in service to the story. While factoids like those above are fascinating, if they don’t help me paint you a picture or tell you a tale, I’ve left them out.

So, to the maps.

How far back did I have to go? And how detailed?

First off I found a very basic map of Paris, showing the Ile des Cignes. One of the Seine’s smaller islands, downstream of the heavily-fortified Ile de la Cité, by 1832 this had pretty much been joined to the mainland.

While the Ile des Cignes has some nice supernatural echoes, it isn’t significant in the city’s cosmopolitan circles – the circles within which Charles Lyell and Louis Beauregard mingle, along with Adolphe d’Archiac, Garibaldi and other notables.

Then I took a download of the Plan de Paris en 1787 par Brion de la Tour, and examined the basic street layouts. Much of the streetage in the centre of Paris was laid out by Henri IV in the early 1600s, and wasn’t significantly disturbed until the reforms under Hausmann following the revolution of 1848.

The French revolution of 1848 at the age of the sage site

Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, on 25 February 1848, refusing the red flag, by Félix Philippoteaux

But there’s a huge gap between 1787 and 1832 – 55 years, in fact – during which the political landscape changed significantly in France. Did it affect the geography of Paris?

Then I found the highly useful oblique projection of the Plan de Turgot, which shows what sort of farms and houses and river traffic to expect in Paris in 1832. You can see how much detail the map-maker has included, although the scale of this map isn’t great.

The map that gave me much more was the Picquet map of Paris 1814. The link takes you to the wikipedia page for the the full map, which is a massive 89Mb. It’s closer in date to the time of SHADOWBOX. The file is larger, which means you can see more detail. For example, look at the little trees and furrows of the market gardens in this sample:

The tributary rivers of the Seine are clear, and the barrieres across each major road. I originally mistook these for the barricades of the revolutionaries, but after a bit of rootling around I realised they were more like the turnpike gates of Britain.

For London, I used a WikiPedia download of the 1848 Crutchley Pocket Map of London (again, another large file).

This was one of the maps I used in 1888 when I was editing THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN, but there was more in common with 1832 than the later period.

In 1848, for example, there was still an open square of parkland in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which had mostly disappeared under buildings by 1888. The railway stations had yet to be completed in 1848 – but in 1832, they didn’t exist, so where they do appear on the map I had to ‘imagine’ them away, or avoid the area altogether.

Goodmans Fields

What I do find rather interesting is how both London and Paris developed most strongly on their northern banks. The Tube map of London shows this most clearly. The map of the Paris Metro doesn’t have the same projection.

But the reasons for that development aren’t found on any maps.

“London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.” ― G. K. Chesterton

I adore maps. I’m grateful to my childhood geography teachers for showing me the language of maps, how to read within their folded sheets the secrets of cities and landscape and geology, developed over centuries.

I like being able to see the history of a place laid out in its streets and gardens, the names and patterns of all ages mingling to bring each town and city a flavour of its own.

And in 1832, both Paris and London had very distinctive spirits, as well as similarities.

Next: The 5th post in the SHADOWBOX series: Rivers of Paris, Rivers of London, a supernatural and physical journey across time and faith.

Join me on the trip by subscribing to the RSS feed or sign up in the form on the right to receive posts by email. And bring a lantern.

P.S. If you want to find the rest of the posts in this series so far, click on the link to the SHADOWBOX page. When the novel’s available I’ll add links there too.