1879: Inspirations 4

Continuing the series, let’s look at another three books and three documentaries that have contributed to the product line.


Mauve, by Simon Garfield: While it’s a biography of William Perkin and the development of the first aniline dye, it’s also a treatise on the Victorian textile and fashion industry, a history of the great chemical firms we take for granted today, and the impact one man and a discovery tangential to his main line of research had on the world. The book gives a reasonably good account of William Perkin, his life, and his achievements, which admittedly is a bit of a thin story. It compensates by adding substantial context, describing the environment of academia and industry at the time of Perkin’s original discovery, and tracing the development of both throughout his life and into the modern day. The story here is less about Perkin than about the changes that his work made in the world – the rise of the great German chemical industries, the harsh realities of dependence on foreign products in time of war, the medical benefits of investigation into colors and dyes (which are substantial – gram staining alone changed how we approach diseases) – and toward the end the rise of the DuPont dynasty in America. Perkin himself was unassuming, just a chemist who decided to commercialize a discovery, and did well enough for himself in a fiercely competitive and highly unethical environment. The hardcover edition ends on a harsh downbeat, with the church administrator unable to find Perkin’s grave, and him being missing off the burial registry, but the paperback edition extends the story, as Perkin’s great-great-granddaughter finds the grave, and leads the author to it, that one bit of research by an amateur with an interest in the field making all the difference.

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: You want the translation by Olena Bormashenko, released in 2012 from Chicago Review Press. What if Earth wasn’t any more important in the galactic scale than a pull-off on a country highway? What if an alien species pulled off and had a picnic, left their trash on the ground, and drove off, taking no more notice of humanity than we would a squirrel in a tree at our picnic site? What kind of trash would they leave, and how would that impact us? And that’s just where this novel starts. This is Russian science fiction; don’t expect hopeful characters, people getting ahead through their own cleverness, and the kind of story you’d get from an American writer. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky pen a bleak tale of opportunists, oppressive bureaucracy, desperation born of poverty, addiction, and an environment that humanity isn’t capable of understanding but has been plunged into anyway. There’s so much material here suitable for adaptation into roleplaying games – the dungeon crawl venturing into a known unsafe space in the hope of coming back out alive with something valuable, the things in the Zone, the whole atmosphere of the thing. There’s been attempts to adapt the book into video games and movies, none of which have been able to capture it properly, although the Russian attempt in 1979 got closer than any other adaptation, probably because they understood the cultural context. Take from it what you can, knowing that you’ll miss something important, that you won’t understand what you took quite properly, and that all of this is right and proper in context of the story being told.

Victoria’s Daughters, by Jerrold M. Packard: Mr. Packard rather obviously thinks the world of Prince Albert, taking it almost to to the level of a fetish. As far as this book is concerned, the prince consort could do no wrong. While the intimate portraits it paints of the female children of the royal family are complex, thorough, and pretty well aligned with readily verifiable historical fact, the rosy glow around their father tends to skew things just a very little bit. While I would recommend this volume for the sheer depth of detail it presents, and the speculative jabs it takes at guessing what was going on in each of the women’s minds, I can’t say that it ranks very high on my list of resources. In his attempt to capture the princesses as people as well as potential heirs and bargaining chips in the European game of royal political marriages, I believe Mr. Packard got too close to his subject and lost a degree of objectivity.


BBC: The Victorian Slum: Yet another historical recreation/reality show, where volunteers turn back the clock and attempt to live as their ancestors did. This one’s interesting largely because of the setting. As the title suggests, they’re all living in relative poverty, in a seedy building in the East End. The series covers one decade per episode, as usual, and runs from the 1860s up to the 1900s, providing plenty of visual references, daily living details, and situations to use in an 1879 adventure, sourcebook, or what have you. Stick with it, as the developments from one episode to another are worth following.

Victorian Farm: This is the series that introduced me to Ruth Goodman, the wonderful experiential historian, and her cohorts Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn, now doing well enough for themselves that Alex was the historical consultant directing a more recent series instead of one of the participants getting their hands dirty. Over the course of a year, the trio move into a disused smallholding on the Acton Scott estate and begin restoring it. Over the course of an entire year, they live on and work the farm using Victorian methods and technology. There’s farm machinery to be restored and put to use, heritage breeds of livestock to deal with, and of course cooking, baking, cleaning, and the dreaded laundry to be dealt with. There’s a separate multi-episode Christmas special, where the team returns to the farm and puts on a traditional Victorian Christmas feast, which is its own labor of love. The presenters are knowledgeable, not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get right into the thick of it, and manage to relay information to the camera while actually doing the thing they’re discussing in a natural and relatable way. Absolutely brilliant work, and has kept me following the careers of all three and watching their later programmes.

Industrial Revelations: Here’s Mark Williams again, spending ten episodes poking into the Industrial Revolution, its advances, and the knock-on effects we still see around us today. Not much I can say about Mr. Williams I haven’t already said, he’s bloody brilliant and I’d watch him reading the FTSE stock indices aloud. The series is tightly edited, well produced, and spans a wide variety of industries and engineering efforts, from tunneling through a mountain for a railway to making and shipping Wedgwood china. As a jumping off point, this series is fantastic, as it gives you an overview of so many topics that you can delve into more deeply on your own. I ended up chasing the Josiah Wedgwood thread for a while, discovering more and more about the man himself, the ceramics industry, canal shipping, and so on, a large helping of which went into the Dauberney Pottery Works section in Big Trouble in Little Soho. Definitely a must-watch.

Tally Ho!