Research, even for a work of fiction, can lead one down some very strange paths. When I first thought of writing a series set in Victorian Brighton about a young woman who debunks fraudulent spirit mediums, I hadn’t expected to be exploring the history of conjuring, early treatments for scoliosis, medicated vapour baths, chess automata, and the wallpaper in the Royal Pavilion, but so it proved.
It is essential for me when setting a novel in the past, to understand the thoughts and beliefs of the time, and I read as much contemporary material as possible; books, periodicals, letters, diaries, records of public meetings, trials and inquests. This is where I can hear the people of the past speak. Some reveal their inner thoughts and conflicts, their struggles and discontent; others accept with varying degrees of success, the role that society has given them, and portray themselves as conforming to that role.
A good place to start one’s research in any area, however, is with a general overview of the field. The most useful will list references to follow up and also provide the important names and themes. Any history of spiritualism, however, should be approached with caution, since it will be written with the particular viewpoint and bias of the author. It is a field which invokes powerful emotions and beliefs. I have read works by dedicated spiritualists and by determined opponents. Balance is vital.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s History of Spiritualism is as may be imagined, one of the more readable, and this led me to follow up the histories of the mystics and mediums in whom he believed so passionately. Many of the mediums were caught out in fraud or confessed it well before Doyle wrote his history, but despite this, he continued to champion them. To read Doyle’s writings on spiritualism is to gain an insight into the minds of devoted believers, how they described their experiences, and explained manifestations, failures, and the exposure of practitioners by skeptic.
|The author with the statue of Captain Pechell|
Closely tied in with the history of spiritualism is that of conjuring, since the techniques of stage magicians and fraudulent mediums are very similar. Only a few years ago, I would have had to spend many hours in the British Library making notes on the volumes I needed to read, but my first port of call is now the website archive.org, which provides scans of vast numbers of out of copyright works from reference libraries. In writing Mr Scarletti’s Ghost, a book which includes numerous seances, it was very important in every case for me to know exactly how the manifestations I described were produced. From time to time I do provide hints for the reader, rather than explicit explanations.
|Steam baths in Brighton|
Creating a strong independent heroine in a historical context presents some challenges. As with Frances Doughty in my Bayswater series, I didn’t want to go down the easy route of making her rich, titled or beautiful. I like a woman who can battle against the odds! Mina Scarletti, the heroine of my Brighton series is a diminutive lady — even smaller than me, 4ft 8in to my 4ft 11in. She is disabled by scoliosis, but has enough spirit and determination for ten people. One reviewer described her as a ‘pocket rocket.’ Having been told that marriage and children are not advisable she decides to live her life to the fullest of her abilities, and finds ways of using what might be seen as a restriction to her advantage. Mina has survived being told that her condition is her own fault, survived being encased in plaster and metal, and has fortunately escaped dangerous surgery. She is her own woman, resolute and courageous.
|Sake Dean Mahomed|
Setting my series in Brighton was one of my better decisions. Here is a town with a rich history, it’s own unique character, and a reputation as a place for regaining one’s health, which led it to be regarded as in itself, a doctor. The character of Dr Hamid who runs a therapeutic bath-house was inspired by Sake Dean Mahomed the Anglo-Indian surgeon who opened the first ‘Indian Medicated Vapour Bath’ in Brighton in 1814. Born in Bengal, he came to London in 1810 where he opened the first curry house in Britain. It wasn’t successful but clearly he started a trend!
|Ajeeb the chess automaton|
For my second book in the Mina Scarletti series I delved into the history of the Royal Pavilion during its early development, its royal heyday and its use as a Victorian place of entertainment. The Royal Ghost begins in 1871 with scandalous rumours of a sighting of the ghosts (dare one say the grey shades) of the Prince Regent and Mrs Fitzherbert enjoying each other’s company in a room where dragons and serpents writhe sensuously on red wallpaper. The vestibule is dominated by the sandstone statue of a deceased Crimean War hero, Captain Pechell; in another apartment, a chess automaton, the wondrous Ajeeb, towers over visitors like Frankenstein’s monster, while in the banqueting hall, an illusionist performs his famous Japanese butterfly trick. The scene is set for an invocation of the sprits.
Written content of this post copyright © Linda Stratmann, 2016.