To Be Used at Cocktail Parties: Arsenic, Axes, and Imperialist Symbols
The Unused Research of Shadow among Sheaves
During a recent late-night research session, I learned that Dr. Robert Liston, a famous 19th century surgeon, could amputate a leg in just under thirty seconds, sans anesthesia. “Time me, gentlemen!” he was rumored to shout before setting to work with his saw (Soniak). With equal parts horror and fascination, I jotted all of this down. Will these details make it into my next book? Perhaps. Perhaps not. As one of my favorite college professors used to say: “This won’t be on the final exam, but it will come in handy at cocktail parties.”
Which got me thinking—how many peculiar anecdotes, sources, and snippets of research shape a writer’s work without actually making it into the final manuscript? Whenever I’m reading an engaging book, I always wish I could catch a glimpse of the cutting room floor.
As I crafted Shadow among Sheaves, a 19th century Ruth/Boaz retelling, I kept a growing store of research tidbits regarding life in Victorian England, all of which helped shape the world and manner in which my characters live. While some of these details didn’t make it into the final manuscript, I’m hopeful the following might prove useful at your own proverbial (or literal) cocktail parties:
2. Deadly Dresses: The High Price of High Fashion
“Alice entered, wearing a wide-skirted satin dress made in the most fashionable shade of emerald” (123).
At first glance, Alice’s green dress might seem like a fairly simple description. But one noteworthy detail is absent from the final manuscript—such a dress at this time could have been deadly.
In the late 1850s, the first synthetic dye was invented when William Perkin manufactured coal tar into a new form of dye (Goodman 87). Bright colors resulted, and were extremely fashionable, particularly the newest shades of “Perkin’s mauve” and “Scheele’s green.” Here’s the snag: any article of clothing using the emerald dye—dresses, hats, gloves, shoes, etc.—achieved its signature color using arsenic as a coloring agent (Eschner).
It’s as horrifying as it sounds. As the 1862 British Medical Journal puts it, any woman clad in arsenic-laced colors “carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms” (177).
While not all who came in contact with arsenic colorants faced tragic ends, numerous cases proved fatal. Entire households, for example, were inhaling arsenic from emerald wallpaper, with multiple family members dying of the same mysterious causes. Workers in the clothing industry were at an even greater risk due to increased exposure. According to Becky Little,
A 19-year-old artificial flower maker named Matilda Scheurer—whose job involved dusting flowers with green, arsenic-laced powder—died a violent and colorful death. She convulsed, vomited, and foamed at the mouth. Her bile was green, and so were her fingernails and the whites of her eye. An autopsy found arsenic in her stomach, liver, and lungs.
Scheurer’s death occurred in 1861, the same year in which Shadow among Sheaves is set. I had at one point intended on weaving her story somewhere into the book, along with a reference to the arsenic in Alice’s own emerald dress, but these details were ultimately scrapped to forward the plot.
3. Classism and an Axe-Wielding Clergy
“Parson Richardson had adopted a newer, more controversial first-come, first-seated rule which allowed even the penniless—even Rena—a place with all the rest” (114).
During much of the 19th century, churches were divided into family boxes, which were paid for by the esteemed families who could afford them. The rest of the congregation—namely, the poorer set—was fated to the perimeter. A good deal of my research surrounding Parson Richardson and his church centered on The Victorian Parson by Barry Turner, which is a delightful goldmine of lively anecdotes regarding the 19th century clergy.
Of family boxes, he writes:
The best that could be said of box pews or of any sections of the church reserved for the gentry was that their rental value brought much needed revenue. That [this was], in effect, a rejection of the poor seemed not to have occurred to some clergy, though others made plain their conviction that, whatever the social conventions, all those who entered the house of God were on an equal sitting. (72)
While Parson Richardson risks a good deal of aristocratic outrage by doing away with family boxes, this is a far milder response than what I briefly considered for the good parson—namely, having him hack the box pews to pieces with an axe.
Such an anecdote may sound extreme, but this actually happened in more than one parish. John Mason Neale, who deplored the use of family boxes for their rejection of the poor, “demonstrated his strength of purpose by taking an axe to the box pews. [Robert] Hawker did the same” (72).
As much as I loved the image of Parson Richardson rolling up his shirtsleeves to take a hatchet to his church’s box pews, I couldn’t reconcile such a violent image with an otherwise mild-mannered character. Moreover, whenever I tried inserting the detail, it ended up derailing my plot. So, I maintained a spirit of protest with his first come-first, first seated practice and assumed Lord Barric, who holds the highest title in Abbotsville, would support the decision enough to make a more forceful demonstration unnecessary.
4. Tipu’s Tiger: An Ironic Conquest
“As the shadows deepened, she at last allowed herself to remember the look of the missing [signet] ring on Edric’s hand. Commissioned in India, set with a prowling tiger around his initials and family crest, the gold band had glinted subtly in the low light as he made his usual cup of tea in the morning” (145).
In all versions of the book leading up to the final edit, Rena wears Edric’s wedding ring on a thin cord which hangs around her neck. Whenever I reviewed these scenes, I kept running into a problem—wedding rings were not at all common for men in the 19th century. I tried reasoning with myself that a man as bold as Edric might have bucked convention by wearing one, but it never sat right. It wasn’t until I mentioned my reservations to a friend (hi, Ruth!) that the substituted signet ring was proposed.
Why the tiger emblem?
In a famous exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a nearly life-size mechanical tiger mauls a British officer:
“Concealed inside the tiger’s body, behind a hinged flap, is an organ which can be operated by turning the handle next to it. This simultaneously makes the man’s arm lift up and down and produces noises intended to imitate his dying moans.” (V&A)
More than ten years have passed since I stood on the other side of the exhibit glass, writing up a journal entry for my London May Term class, but this image has remained with me. The original owner of Tipu’s Tiger, Tipu Sultan, was killed by the East India Company army when he resisted British attacks on Mysore (V&A). At a time when Britain was absconding with all kinds of Indian artifacts, Tipu’s Tiger was an ironic bit of plunder, a violent display of India’s vitriol for imperialism looted on behalf of the crown and set up in a British museum.
When I first started writing the initial tension between Rena’s Indian heritage and her new home in England, Tipu’s Tiger was very much on my mind. I wished to reveal, in fair light, both sides of a remarkably bloody conflict. Edric’s ring allowed me one final symbol of this ongoing tension. What I appreciate even more is how Edric’s honorable character and genuine love for Rena complicate the very symbol he wears upon his finger.
Since the signet ring was a last-minute addition, squeaking in just after the novel had been typeset, I had a fairly limited space in which to expand the ring’s imagery—the working of a single line, really, and so Tipu’s backstory remains unexplained. Most readers may never guess the tiger ring is meant to represent anything in particular, but it has become one of my favorite behind-the-scenes details.
As a writer, it can be easy to think of any unused bits of research as scraps, but I see them differently. Though arsenic-laced gowns and automaton tigers may not have made it into the final pages of Shadow among Sheaves, they were still crucial in forming my understanding of the world I was attempting to construct. And while I have shared these vignettes with you in the happy expectation of providing useful fodder for your own future cocktail parties, there’s a bit more to it.
For all you readers, for all you writers and researchers: there is no detail you will ever uncover that will be entirely wasted. Your cutting room floor may be as littered as mine often feels, but such is the happy work of uncovering old worlds and creating new ones, both fictional and otherwise.
And who knows? Maybe in my next book, a less mild-mannered parson will pick up where Richardson left off with those pesky box pews, axe and all.
British Medical Journal, Edited by William O. Markham, vol. 1, 15 Feb. 1862, p 177. Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=UhhFAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA177&lpg=PA177&dq=carries+in+her+skirts+poison+enough+to+slay+the+whole+of+the+admirers+she+may+meet+with+in+half+a+dozen+ball-rooms&source=bl&ots=IZGXssKSfE&sig=ACfU3U0PBWNrFhAfCBwI5_mtvaTo1eWrVA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjKjeT7tIXgAhUC3YMKHda4D3cQ6AEwA3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=carries%20in%20her%20skirts%20poison%20enough%20to%20slay%20the%20whole%20of%20the%20admirers%20she%20may%20meet%20with%20in%20half%20a%20dozen%20ball-rooms&f=false. Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.
Eschner, Kat. “Arsenic and Old Tastes Made Victorian Wallpaper Deadly.” Smithsonian.com, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/victorian-wallpaper-got-its-gaudy-colors-poison-180962709/. Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.
Goodman, Ruth. How to be a Victorian. Liveright Publishing, 2015.
Little, Becky. “Killer Clothing Was All the Rage In the 19th Century.” National Geographic.com, 17 Oct. 2016, news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/dress-hat-fashion-clothing-mercury-arsenic-poison-history/. Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.
Soniak, Matt. “‘Time Me, Gentlemen’: The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century.” The Atlantic, 24 Oct. 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/10/time-me-gentlemen-the-fastest-surgeon-of-the-19th-century/264065/. Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.
“Tipu’s Tiger.” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2019, http://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/tipus-tiger. Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.
Turner, Barry. The Victorian Parson. Amberley Publishing, 2016.
About the Author
Shadow Among Sheaves
A Retelling of the story of Ruth & Boaz
The Great Rebellion of 1857 was a remarkably bloody business. At a time when Britain’s imperial influence in India was sparking brutal clashes on both sides, no one could have expected Rena, an Indian woman, to marry a British officer—nor do they understand her decision to follow her mother-in-law to England after her husband’s tragic death.
Once the two widows are in Abbotsville, the stern yet compassionate Lord Barric attempts to help them despite his better judgment. Soon he is torn between the demands of reputation and his increasing desire to capture Rena’s heart for his own.