Researching The Fear at Rockbridge Hall and Dear Miss Maitheson, by Tim Heath
Both my novellas are set in the period 1890-1, and so a certain amount of research was required. Ever since writing my Sherlock Holmes play, The Adventure at Sir Arthur Sullivan’s, also set in 1891, I have lived in fear of ‘Anachronism Analysis’. Sherlockians can be pedantic about historical detail in the saga of the great detective, as if Conan Doyle had been writing history, not fiction. Thankfully my play passed muster. In fact, the Sherlock Holmes Museum was so impressed by my eagle-eyed inspection of its exhibits, which revealed to them a mistake on ‘Irene Adler’s Marriage Certificate’, that they thanked me with a complimentary copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, certainly my weightiest and most expensive tome.
The Fear at Rockbridge Hall is set in a location that I was to inhabit for six months: the Victorian Gothic palace Thoresby Hall in Nottinghamshire. As a resident actor for the hotel there I often had many hours to kill between performances. I had long had an idea about a story set in the mansion of a Victorian financier and so decided to use my spare time at Thoresby to write a first draft, but I had a glaring hole in the narrative when I returned to London at the end of the engagement. No local library, or internet research, had really been able to supply me with the background material I needed about Victorian merchant banking. There are some things that only the British Library can do and, as luck would have it, I discovered a real-life banking crisis that had befallen Barings in 1890, some of the ingredients of which fitted my own story perfectly.
Dear Miss Maitheson is set in London’s Covent Garden. It is an area that has witnessed some hideous development, but I am proud to say that every single building described in my novella is there in Covent Garden and Lincoln’s Inn Fields today. Even The Bedford Head is still there in Maiden Lane, albeit with a different name (and almost certainly more horrible than its 19th century ancestor.) Notwithstanding the good fortune of the locations being there to photograph, a great deal of checking up was needed for this story, because it is full of brand names. My mainstays for this were the internet and John Richardson’s Covent Garden Past.
The most fascinating research for Dear Miss Maitheson was an afternoon in the offices of The Lady. These are in the same building in Bedford Street as they were in 1891. This magazine is the model for The Gentlewoman in my tale and what I gleaned that afternoon proved invaluable. The atmosphere of the offices and the staircase is a little stuck in a time capsule, but most exciting was being allowed access to back numbers from 1890 and 1892, background material that no book or internet article could supply. Much less enjoyable was researching the opera that features in Dear Miss Maitheson, Gounod’s rightly neglected Philémon et Baucis. This piece was actually given at the Opera House in 1891 and, as its length and plot served my turn, the self-inflicted torture was necessary.
Writing historical fiction has the advantage that the story is less likely to become ‘dated’, but while that is reassuring for an author, facts and tiny details continually put paid to ‘what seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Research, which can sometimes be drudgery, is the only way the author can escape the attentions of Sherlockians and other ‘Anachronism Analysts.’