Shadowbox: Men of Steam

At the time I set SHADOWBOX, the lines between science, industry and other disciplines were less rigid than now.George Stephenson, father of the railway

Perhaps because the people whose names have come down through history attached to new discoveries came from a limited set of the population, it seems that specialisation back then was uncommon.

Probably a wrong assumption on my part.

My school education (this being in Scotland) focused heavily on the great men of the Industrial Revolution, such as:

Robert Stephenson Trust - an early railway train

  • and, most peculiarly to my upbringing, Henry Bell (who built the first steam-boat and also designed the town nearest my childhood home  – you can’t walk along the sea front without passing the Henry Bell monument, a conceit based on Cleopatra’s Needle).

But the 19th century had a whiff of change in the air which was nothing to do with factories and steam engines.

Charles Lyell, in real life rather than the character I borrow for my novel, was deeply involved with geology. He never wavered to other pursuits, unlike his good friend Roderick Impey Murchison, who only took up geology on the instigation of the aforementioned Humphry Davy.

Lyell’s geology, like that of Murchison and James Hutton, began to provide hard evidence that the planet was far, far older than Biblical suggestions. In 1832 there was yet no outright declaration, but the idea of evolution was on its way.

HMS Beagle, plans thereof. Links to the HMS Beagle project, raising funds to build a replica of Darwin's HMS BeagleHis great On The Origins Of Species a mere spark in his imagination, the young Charles Darwin set off on HMS Beagle with a copy of Lyell’s treatise in his hand luggage (and made copious notes in the text during his voyage).

In 1832, the main proponent of natural selection was a dead Frenchman: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. His Histoire naturelle had broken the ground that Darwin so thoroughly exploited.Lamarck's collection - Liasse n°6 CISTINEAE - VIOLACEAE - CANELLACEAE - BIXACEAE

This defloration of Old Testament dogma didn’t go unchallenged. Men of the cloth explored their parish artefacts with vigour, discovering to their dismay that their little corner of Christendom had been the home of many prehistoric Europeans.

Avebury, Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and every other prehistoric bump in the grass had its bones dug up and examined. Aubrey Burl and William Stukely had already seen to that.

The menhirs of France had long been Christianised, and in Brittany where the serried ranks of Carnac stretch over the boggy hills you can pray in the church built over the stones. (You can also kip in the long barrow if you can find it in the dark – but it’s near the road, and a bit noisy, and the roof leaks. [Yes, I did.])

St Just menhirs, Brittany, France - at Megalithia.comFuelling this desire to explore the past and explain both sides of the evolution argument was a new freedom: travel.

Giovanni Belzoni headed for Egypt and the banks of the Nile, while Mungo Park roamed south to seek the source of the Niger.

Garibaldi, who makes a brief and unhistoric appearance in my novel, captained a ship trading at Taganrog on the Black Sea by the mouth of the Volga.

St Mikhail Church, Taganrog. A handsome-looking city. No, I've never been.Men sought the source of the Nile; the course of the Mississippi; the ghost rivers of the Australian interior, such as the Todd River, which flow into nothingness and die.

Other men sought the mystical truth about great rivers, not just their geological basis, sparring in the spiritual struggle for the soul of the 19th century.

And in SHADOWBOX, one of those men is Louis Beauregard.

Next post in the series: Anubis Awaits.

Because this journey draws near to its end…

Published in: on June 27, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Shadowbox: Men of Steam  
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