Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Horse Power

It’s not possible to write contemporary fiction without, sooner or later, mentioning motor cars.

It’s not possible to write historical fiction without, sooner or later, mentioning horses.

For a writer who, like me, doesn’t know much about cars or about horses, this can present difficulties.

These can be circumvented to some extent by having a central character who doesn’t know much about them either.  But at some point over the course of a writing career, a central character will be in a position where he or she has to deal with a car or a horse, depending on the setting. Or there will be a secondary character whose job, or personality, requires that he or she knows about one or the other.

Cars and horses are possessions, and like other possessions they can be revealing of the characters of their owners. A man who owns a flashy, expensive car in a contemporary novel would own a flashy, expensive horse in historical fiction.

Horses were everywhere in the past. In 1695 it was estimated that in England about half a million horses were used as cart and plough horses. There were probably at least as many again employed in private ownership, in the carrying trades, in industry and other uses, making a million horses in all. The human population of England at this time was perhaps a little over five million.

The expanding industries of the eighteenth century used horses in increasing numbers. In 1726 a coal mine at Jesmond used more than seven hundred horse drawn wagons to move coal from the pithead to the quayside on the Tyne

In 1766 two thousand horses a week were used (or two thousand horse journeys per week were made) carrying lead from the mines at Nenthead to Penrith.

In 1835 one coach operator employed 1800 horses.

The arrival of the railways ended long distance stagecoach travel, but overall  probably increased the number of horse drawn vehicles on the roads. There were frequent complaints about the congestion caused in London by the railway companies’ vans transporting goods from the termini to their final destinations.  

In 1893 one writer estimated that there were 25,000 horses employed in the carrying trades in London. When omnibus, tram and cab horses, and brewers’ horses,  were added, that brought number up to 75,000. There were also horses kept for private carriages and by small tradesmen.

All those horses had to be stabled. One railway company had stabling for five hundred horses and one stables near Paddington. Large numbers of men were employed in caring for horses, large quantities of leather were used in making saddlery and harness. 

Horses had to be fed; fodder was shipped along the Thames to London in large quantities.  The amount of land that had to be devoted to pasturing, and growing fodder for, horses gave cause for concern when the human population was growing rapidly and needed to be fed.

And horses produced manure, which had to be disposed of. A horse might produce fifteen to thirty-five pounds of manure a day. This was not a problem in the countryside where manure could immediately be put to good use and even had a monetary value. It did create difficulties in the towns.

Overall, I think I would rather write about horses than motor cars. Stables and horse fairs are more attractive locations than garages or car showrooms. The weather or the landscape can be used to greater effect in  an account of a journey by horse than in an account of a car journey.  And a fictional horse can more easily be given a name and a personality than a fictional car.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Before divers witnesses…

July, August and September were the plague months.

The eyewitness accounts of men such as Samuel Pepys; the orders to shut up infected houses; the numbers of deaths, are well known.

Occasionally, a story emerges from the archives that allows us to se into the lives of some of the ordinary people caught up in these great epidemics.

Mary Binge and Christopher Reade were household servants to Peter Waite, a tanner, of the parish of St Mary Northgate, Canterbury. While they lived in Peter Waite’s household, they ‘did beare much love and affection each to other and did promise each other marriage.’

Christopher Reade fell ill and was believed to be in danger of dying. While he was ill he made a will leaving all he had to Mary Binge.

Christopher recovered, but in the summer of 1665 the house of Mary’s father, John Binge, in Longport, just outside the walls of Canterbury, became infected with the plague. Mary was shut up there along with the rest of the household.

Christopher went to the house to see Mary.

‘Mary Binge, coming to a low window next to the street before divers credible witnesses with an intent to make her will speaking unto the said Christopher Reade said that all shee had shee gave unto him and shee told him  that shee would have him goe and gett her said will put into writing which hee accordingly did and afterward repaired unto her and afterward shee did publish the same written will for her last will and testament in the presence of divers witnesses.’

About nine days after making this will Mary Binge died, on or about Saturday the 29th day of September 1665, between the hours of two and three in the morning. Her father John had already died.

After Mary’s death her mother Joan and sisters Anne Ayres and Susan Harris, who had been at her deathbed, said that before her death she had made a verbal, or nuncupative, will, revoking any former wills, ‘in their hearing and that of other credible witnesses.’ 

Mary had £16 in money plus some personal possessions.
She left £10 to her niece Mary Ayres.
Mary’s sister Ann Ayres was to have Mary’s best wearing apparel and a gold ring.
Her mother Joan was to receive twenty shillings and the remainder of her wearing apparel. 
Walter Joanes, whose relationship to Mary is not stated, was given a ten shilling piece of gold ‘and a Phillip and Mary sixpence.’
Twenty shillings were left to the poor of the parish of Northgate.
Christopher Reade was bequeathed a five shilling piece and a silver spoon.
There are several more minor bequests to other people, including Mary’s sister Susan Harris.

Christopher Reade and Mary’s sisters disputed as to which of the wills should stand. The whole matter came before the courts in May 1667.

I don’t know the outcome of this case. These papers were misfiled at some point and turned up among the documents I actually wanted to look at.

Perhaps Mary really had changed her mind. Perhaps, in her illness, she forgot that she had already made a will.

But it’s hard not to suspect Ann and Susan at the very least of coaching her through this new will. It’s unlikely a young woman who was dying would know, or remember,  that she needed to revoke all former wills.  It’s unlikely she would be capable of apportioning so many minor legacies in such detail.

The sisters might have acted with the best intentions. They might not have known that Mary had already made a will. They might have thought that Mary and Christopher’s love affair was not serious and would have come to a natural end if the plague had not intervened, and wanted to keep her money in the family.

The court’s decision might be found among the probate records of the Diocese of Canterbury, but we‘d probably still be none the wiser about the motives of those involved. We are free to speculate.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Work in progress

The aim of a writer is usually to see the wordcount going up. Sometimes, though, it can be a good thing to see it going down.

Today, I've been editing a piece of work, prior to moving on to the next big plot development.

I've cut a whole section of one scene because I decided that it wasn't working as I'd written it. I eliminated a character that I'd introduced for a particular purpose because I decided that he was unnecessary.

I then had to go back and delete a few sentences in an earlier chapter where he was first mentioned. Since he now won't appear at all, there's no point in having any of the characters refer to him. I've also had to rewrite a later scene so that the information this gentleman was going to pass on is revealed in a different way. 

Elsewhere, I had two other characters having essentially the same conversation in two different chapters. One of those conversations has now gone.

However carefully one plans (and I don't!) wrong turnings and repetitions are bound to occur. Deleting words one has spent time and effort on is discouraging, but the end result should be a more tightly written, faster paced piece of work.