Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Stranger than Fiction: Twisted Tales from real life in Georgian England


If I were to tell you that my novels feature, among other things, giants, dwarfs and witchcraft, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was either a children’s or a fantasy writer. Or what about the students who invented a diving bell to retrieve a coffin from the Thames? Or the surgeon who successfully grafted a cock's testicle on to a hen's belly?

The truth is all the storylines in my Dr. Thomas Silkstone series are based on real-life incidents in Georgian England.  They are so extraordinary that I didn’t have to invent them. One reader complained I’d gone too far when a fourteen-year-old aristocrat contracted syphilis when he lay with a prostitute at Eton College. That’s very tame compared with what else went on behind closed doors in Georgian society.

I’m a journalist and historian and during the course of my research into 18th century medical practices I’ve come across so many weird, wonderful and downright bizarre things that it’s hard to believe they are true or actually happened.

The reason I chose to set my murder mystery series during this time is precisely because it’s a period that is unique in history. It was the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment. Change was in the air, largely thanks to great philosophers such as Rousseau and Montesquieu. Religion was called to question and superstition was giving way to reason. New and exciting advances in science were being made that lead people to challenge the old order of things. Society was shifting away from the ‘Establishment’ and that makes a brilliant backdrop to any novel.

My fictional hero is an American surgeon and anatomist who comes to study in London. (There were many medical students who did shortly before the Revolutionary War of 1776.) Pioneering and compassionate, Dr. Thomas Silkstone is the voice of reason in a world that is struggling to come to terms with advances in science and philosophy. He becomes the father of modern forensics.

Nowhere is the contradiction of the age better embodied than in the tragic story of the last known witch killing in England in 1751, when a dispute between neighbours ended in murder. An elderly Hertfordshire couple was accused of communing with the devil and ducked in the local pond. After being subjected to horrific rituals by a mob, the ‘witch,’ Ruth Osborn, drowned. Her husband, John, died a few hours later.

Following the terrible event, twenty- two men were indicted and the ring leader, Thomas Colley was found guilty of murder for actions which, only a few years earlier, could have been justified. Indeed, to local villagers he was considered a martyr. The Witchcraft Act of 1735, however, reflected a general shift in mood in the country, away from superstition, although such beliefs clearly remained embedded in the fabric of society. The Act made it a crime for a person to claim that any human being had magical powers or was guilty of practising witchcraft. And yet, almost fifty years later, when parts of England were covered by a thick, poisonous fog and numerous weather phenomena plagued the countryside, many ordinary people thought the end of the world was nigh. The appearance of the Aurora Borealis, followed by a flaming comet in the sky did nothing to calm their fears. Little wonder that after a tumultuous thunderstorm in Witney the preacher John Wesley wrote: “many thought the Day of Judgment had come.”
Such is the fantastical nature of so many of these events to our 21st century sensibilities that I decided to include a glossary at the back of my novels to show that I wasn’t making things up. So, if you doubt that grave robbing was so rife that corpses were sold by the foot, or that a giant snake guarded the entrance to a diamond mine in India, then you can find out more. 

One of the most extraordinary tales I’ve come across features a woman from Surrey who gave birth to rabbits. She even convinced the highest physicians in the land that her ‘supernatural’ powers were for real and was only caught out when the man who supplied her with conies confessed. But that, as they say, is another story.

Tessa Harris is the author of the Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mysteries. The sixth book in the series, Secrets in the Stones, published by Constable, is out now, price £8.99.

More information about Tessa Harris can be found on her website.  You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @harris_Tessa


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