Mr Blackwood: Historical Background

Historical research should  tell you not what to include, but what to avoid. You use it to detect what is anachronistic or incongruous. You also need it to get small details right. Here are two examples from Mr Blackwood: In The Corporal’s Tale I needed to know where the English army was billeted during the occupation of Paris in 1815. This detail was surprisingly hard to find since little seems to have been written (at least from British point of view) about the peace-keeping operation after the defeat of Napoleon. I eventually tracked down the answer in the London Library: the British were billeted in the Bois de Bologne – which, if I’d had to guess the answer, is what I would have come up with from imagination. A second example concerns the Palace of Westminster. In The Watchmaker’s Tale I needed to know how high the Elizabeth Tower (the one that was to house Big Ben) had reached when my excursionists sailed past it on their paddle steamer in 1851. It took several hours’ sleuthing in the stacks of the London Library to find that it was up to the ridge of the House of Commons chamber.


But there are dangers in research of this kind. I sometimes found it hard to resist including juicy historical morsels that I uncovered in my researches, morsels that were interesting in themselves but had no immediate relevance to what I wanted to say. In researching the Anglo-Prussian occupation of Paris, for example, I discovered that the Prussians were keen to blow up the Pont d’Jena (named after the battle in which Napoleon defeated them in 1806) and that in order to prevent them, the British mounted a permanent guard on it. I desperately wanted to include Prussian attack on the bridge foiled by plucky Brits, but it wasn’t relevant to the tale so I resisted. I hope rightly. I parted with great reluctance from details of plant hunting in the Amazon, of the lives of Victorian hangmen, of tunnelling below the Pennines, of the career of Edmund Keen. All had to go.

There is one other kind of research worth mentioning and that is into language. You have to have a feeling for Victorian language to be able to write it. Research told me not what to include, but what to leave out. I wrote with my log-in to the complete OED open, trying hard to avoid anachronism in language and avoiding any words unavailable in 1851.