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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 June 2011

A Foggy Day in High Summer


Yesterday I escaped from the summer heat and spent time with Johnny Depp. His celluloid double, that is. I saw Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides at the local cinema. Johnny Depp was, of course, delightful and the rest of the scenery was engaging.

To my fascination, the opening scenes were shot in London and I found myself trying to pick up small pointers for historical flavor. (Are there any lengths an author won’t go to justify playing hooky?) Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s character, made fools of the judicial system in a very interesting courtroom and dined with King George in a lavishly decorated palace. After that, he led a cavalry troop on a hair-raising chase through London’s streets, before finally dumping a wagonload of fiery coals across their feet to escape.

Coals? That many? In the late seventeeth or early eighteenth century? My historian’s nose pricked up. Just how common were coal-fired stoves close to the royal palace at that time? And come to think of it, I’ve often been fascinated by how many London-set movies have a generic grey sky. But Pirates 4 takes place earlier than London’s more notorious fogs in the Victorian and twentieth centuries. How smoggy were those urban skies in 1700?

Where could I find the answer? Emily Cockayne’s fabulous Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, 1600-1700. Anyone who is remotely curious about the five senses in Elizabeth, Restoration and Georgian England should read this book. The chapters’ titles describe her topics: ugly, itchy, mouldy, noisy, grotty, busy, dirty, gloomy, and ‘such things as these…disturb human life.’

Ever wondered what the flower sellers sounded like? Or how the oyster sellers cried their wares? What Bath looked like before the big urban renewal, which made it such a fancy spa town? Or how did people take out all their various forms of trash? Emily Cockayne answers these questions with period engravings and wonderful prose, based on delving into the top diarists from the era and modern researchers.

Coal was a dirty fuel, originally used only as a last resort by the poorest. It created more smoke than timber and its waste stuck more readily to the sides of chimneys. Yet it was far cheaper and the price dropped twenty-fold from 1580-1680. The results were appalling, given how it spoiled books, furniture and painting. Foreign visitors described Westminster’s tapestries ‘so wretched and tarnished with smoke that neither gold nor silver, colours nor figures can be recognized.’

A wise housekeeper even put the kitchen far away from the main house, simply because of the coal smoke’s stench. King James I loathed tobacco smoking and compared it to a kitchen long before coal fires were widely popular, saying both were soiled and infected ‘with an unctuous and oylie kind of soot.’

Smog was definitely a seventeenth century problem. One goldsmith working in London’s Fleet Street engulfed all passers-by whenever he fired up his forge. Cities passed ordinances demanding that brick kilns be located far from the city center, since their choking fires smelled exactly like carrion. The prevailing west winds kept foul odors away from towns’ west ends and made these areas the most attractive.

But London’s air was always considered particularly blighted. In In 1676, Robert Hooke noted a mass of smoke more than twenty miles long and a half mile high over the city. Mid-morning gloom forced more than one traveler to write their letters by candlelight. Chemists sold special concoctions to reduce coughing in churches so the other congregants could hear the service.

The Pirates 4 movie makers clearly knew what they were doing when they gave Captain Jack Sparrow a wagon full of coal and cloaked him in cloudy skies.

What movies have you seen in the guise of historical research? Any surprising historical tidbits?

PS – If you have the chance to see Pirates 4, keep an eye out for the Society Lady.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I see ALL period pieces as "research". Even if all I get out of them is the joy of nit-picking them apart and screaming What the fcuk is she wearing at random intervals, LOL!

1:51 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Ain't that the truth, Isobel! I kept waiting for mosquitoes to dive bomb Penelope Cruz's very trendy off-the-shoulder outfit. Period attire might have been hot but it would have kept those varmints away. LOL

7:38 PM  

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