In my last post, I wrote about researching a historical novel like Mad Richard. My serendipitious decision to pull Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy off the shelves provided a start.
Barker was writing about a period closer to ours, the time of the First World War. Having been born in 1943, she knew a great many people who’d been alive at the time and even fought in the war, including her step-grandfather. She would have heard them speak, and in hearing their voices and vocabularies, in having an idea of what was said and what caused deep silences, she would have a bone-deep sense of a war that was being lost from this earth even as she wrote about it, with the death of the last veterans.
Of course, she also had the benefit of copious documentation: uncensored letters sent home to England by highly-educated army officers, reports, biographies, reminiscences: and all historical novelists throw themselves into things like these. Yet she wasn’t there, and here’s the answer I always give people about how I know what it was like.
I bet Barker spent months and quite possibly years doing research, and once she was fully steeped in the details, she had to forget them and make it all up.
In any case, that’s what I had to do. In writing about the 1830s, 40s and 50s, I had none of the living resources Barker could draw on, but access to histories, biographies, reminiscences, newspapers, novels is increasing as so many books are digitized and end up search-able online.
Even so, I grew conscious of all the little things people didn’t write down.
When I tried to find out what a famous London steam bath actually looked like, for example, I could turn up remarkably few written details, since the topic was risqué. People got naked steam baths and didn’t leave detailed records of what they saw or felt.
In this case, I had some help from the diaries of the 19th century actor William Charles Macready, now online. Macready’s diaries show him to have been a wonderful gossip with an actor’s eye for physical expression. He was also a roué, despite what we would now call his squeaky-clean public image as the actor-manager who chased the whores out of his London theatre. His diary for 1833 has a wonderful and hopeful opening:
With God’s merciful help I trust to make my conduct and use of my time during this year more acceptable in His sight than that of my previous life has been.
Macready knew Charles Dickens, who is a character in Mad Richard, and I mined the throwaway details about the way Dickens behaved among friends like diamonds.
Macready wrote of going to the steam baths at the Hummums in Covent Garden (engraving above). He often went before a performance to help soothe his voice, especially when he was suffering from colds or hoarseness. He didn’t provide many concrete details, but I was able to winkle from his diaries when the Hummums baths were actually open in order to construct a viable timeline. From there, it was a matter of piecing together details from a few decorous watercolours or etchings of the baths, some facts drawn from dry reference works, and my own experience of the (far different) spas we visit today.
That’s another tool: extrapolation. I figure that steam has the same effect of sick lungs and fever now as it did then. Male bits haven’t changed over the past century. And to a certain extent, people are people, even if people who lived in previous centuries aren’t exactly like us, with a different set of beliefs, certainties, preconceptions and superstitions, something you have to keep in mind when writing a historical novel.
So how do I know what it was like to live in the 19th century?
I don’t, not really.
But I hope I wrote a book that explores the eternally human: in this case, what it means to be an artist like Richard Dadd.
And meanwhile, Barkers Regeneration trilogy is brilliant. Maybe I really pulled it off the shelf aching just to read something astonishing.