Sunday spotlight on Vicky Adin and her historical fiction

The exciting aspect of writing historical fiction inspired by immigrants is that they all came from somewhere else. I get to learn about and write about all these different places, and since we travel a lot, I can also visit many of these places as well.

Daniel, the protagonist in the time-slip novel, ‘The Disenchanted Soldier’, I tracked down in Derbyshire, even though he was born in Liverpool. The delight in finding family headstones, family houses, and streets named after family members will stay with me always. Follow the researcher as she uncovers the family secrets.

Megan, of ‘The Cornish Knot’, is a modern Kiwi woman through and through. It’s not until she is sent the journal her great-grandmother wrote a century earlier does she learn about her family connections in Cornwall. The journal takes her on a journey from Cornwall to Paris, Florence and Venice as she unravels the secrets Isabel took to her grave. I grew up in Cornwall, so it was even more of a delight to revisit my old haunts and remember my childhood while I was developing a totally different story-line.

Charlotte is English. Preferring her roses to people, Charlotte doesn’t make life easy for her counter-protagonist, Emma. She never quite admits where she was born to the journalist as she delves into the story behind the famous author in ‘The Art of Secrets’.

Lace-making is the skill Brigid uses to find a new life for herself away from the poverty and starvation of her native Ireland. She tries first in Australia, but has better success in New Zealand in ‘The Girl from County Clare’.

If you have a sweet tooth, then Gwenna’s story is for you. The young confectioner is determined to bring her Pa’s dreams to life despite her step-brother Elias, despite Black Jack Jones, and despite being young and female in Victorian New Zealand. She is so determined to succeed she is blind to the obvious and risks losing that which matters to her the most.

My current WIP doesn’t stray beyond the streets of Auckland during the Edwardian era, as the children in ‘The Girl from County Clare’ and ‘Gwenna’ grow up and forge a new life.

Meet Vicky Adin

Multi-award-winning historical fiction author, Vicky Adin is a genealogist in love with history and words.

After decades of research Vicky has combined her skills to weave together the intriguing secrets she uncovered with historical events in a way that brings the past to life.

Fascinated by the 19th Century pioneers who undertook hazardous journeys to find a better life, especially the women, Vicky draws her characters from real life stories: characters such as Brigid, the Irish lacemaker in ‘The Girl from County Clare and Gwenna, the Welsh confectioner, or Megan who discovers much about herself when she traces her family tree in ‘The Cornish Knot’.

Vicky Adin holds a MA(Hons) in English and Education. She is an avid reader of historical novels, family sagas and contemporary women’s stories and enjoys travelling.

For more information, visit her website


Ferry cross the Mersey

Looking to Liverpool from the Seacombe foreshore, in around 1816. The small boat on the right is a ferry.

My current work-in-progress is set in a village on the Wirral Peninsula, across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Which means I’ve been researching the Mersey ferry. Or, I should say, ferries.

It turns out that people have been running a ferry service across the Mersey for well over a thousand years. Historians agree that such a service, by row or sail boat, predates the Benedictine Priory at Birkenhead, but once the monks were established, they did their best to monopolise the trade. Annoying for the other locals, but useful for historians, since we have the records of the court cases they took to try to stop other providers.

The monks charged for the service, which helped to pay for the hospitality they offered travellers at the abbey. Some of the unauthorised providers were less scrupulous, overloading their boats and charging much higher fees.

After the dissolution of the monasteries, the right to offer a ferry service changed hands a number of times, and at tunes several formal services were offered, as well as the age old recourse of the traveller: a request to any inhabitant with a boat: ‘I’ll give you a bob if you row me over the river’. Travellers were advised to set the price before they got into the boat, and not to pay till they got out.

At the time I’m writing about, there were at least five routes operating: Liverpool to Woodside (the original route that the monks established), Liverpool to Seacombe, Liverpool to Eastham, Liverpool to Tranmere, and Liverpool to Rock Ferry.

The first steamship operated between Liverpool and Runcorn in 1815. The Elizabeth was a wooden paddle steamer, measuring 58 feet and 9 inches in length, and with a cabin that could take around a hundred passengers. The cousins behind the service were two teenagers, one a naval officer and the other a member of the local militia. It cannot have had the reception they hoped for, because the ship was sold in 1816 and the company dissolved.

In 1816, the steam packet Greenock replaced the Elizabeth. The Greenock was 85.3 feet in length. She remained less than a month on the Runcorn run, before being transferred to the Liverpool to Ellesmere Port route, taking travellers to and from the Chester canal.

Other steamers also criss-crossed the River Mersey in 1816, and soon more followed. The ferries were no longer dependent on the wind, and could run to timetable, which made the service much more reliable.

And the crossing was quick. The time recorded for the Aetna, which began a service from Liverpool to Tranmere in 1817 and continued for fifteen years, is five minutes.

The steamer service is a plot point in my story, which is set in 1816. My hero has purchased a half ruined manor house, and is restoring it to sell to a Liverpool business man, since steamers mean a regular and reliable service now connected this peaceful countryside to the city.


Penitence on WIP Wednesday

I had two choices today, since Wednesday this week is both St Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. I’ve gone with penitence, saying sorry, or failing to do so when it was called for.

Do you have that in one of your stories? Share an excerpt. Doesn’t have to be a main character, either, although mine is. In both of my current works-in-progress, my main characters put their foot in things. Here’s my hero Bear realising that he has messed up. Don’t worry, Bear. You’ll do worse before the story is over.

As Bear drove away from the cottage later that day, he was berating himself for being every kind of idiot.

Today, he had failed Rosa not once, but several times. First, he should have realised she had nothing fit to wear to church. He’d see the much-mended and faded gowns she wore every day, and knew she’d had little to no income for years. He’d had not time to repair the matter, since it wasn’t until she paled and stiffened at the church gate that he’d even thought about what she was wearing.

What courage she had. Head up, back straight, she’d marched into church beside him as proud as a duchess in silken splendour, and if her hand trembled on his arm not a soul but him would ever know.

Second, he had not thought about the reaction of the villagers when they heard the banns. Not until the rector started speaking and the whole church went silent. Then came the buzz of whispers, and Lady Hesquith standing. They brushed through it, thanks to the squire’s intervention and the rector’s support, but Bear could have bypassed the risk by simply not taking her to Matins today.

She’d impressed him again after the service, accepting good wishes with a smile and word of thanks, and ignoring those who glowered from the distance.

Third, he’d mentioned her relationship with the squire’s family, and followed up by telling her the full story. Of course she went straight to her father when they arrived at Rose Cottage, and demanded to know whether it was true.

At first, he had been bewildered by the question, then he took one of his erratic dives into the past, and began berating Rosa, calling her Belle.

“All you thought of was yourself, Belle. You knew better than to sneak off with a gentleman, and no true gentleman would have asked it of you. Especially since Pelman was all but betrothed to your cousin. And look where your selfishness led. You disgraced and abandoned. Your uncle sick from the horror of it all, and your cousin so bitter against you that she has had Rosie thrown out of her home. The best thing you can do for any of us is go back to London and leave us alone.”

And after that, he would only say, “Go away,” until Rosa gave up.

His outbreak seemed to confirm the rector’s story, but raised more questions. How did Pelman get into the story? Not the current Pelman, clearly, since he would have been a small child or not even born at the time of the scandal. And which sister gave birth to the baby?

“Ancient history,” Rosa said, her eyes damp but her lips smiling.

Not ancient as long as it had power to affect Rosa. Bear was two weeks away from vowing to love and cherish her all his life, and he was doing a poor job of it so far.

He could fix the wardrobe; had already invited her to take a day trip to Liverpool with him on the first fine day, so they could buy what she needed without the villagers commenting. He couldn’t help but wonder about Lord Hurley’s will. Did the old man truly make no provision for his librarian and the librarian’s daughter? By all accounts, Mr Neatham had been given a pension when he retired, and Rosa had been Lord Hurley’s pet, whatever the propriety of the relationship. It needed further investigation.

As for Rosa and her cousins, he had no idea how to fix it. Rosa’s naive belief that families did feud across generations brought a grim smile. She’d never met his mother.


Tea with Joselyn

Joselyn, Lady Maddox, had resisted her cousin’s machinations for years, had helped feed the village through the troubled times when the men were away fighting Napoleon and harvests were poor, and had faced down a gang of smugglers.

“But I have never had afternoon tea with a duchess,” she informed the large raven who sat on the window ledge, watching her flutter from one place to another in her anxious preparations. She aligned the cups on the tea table, plumped the cushions on the couch, moved the plate of delicate cakes a little to the right, dusted a spot on the mantlepiece with her handkerchief, and swapped two of the cushions over for a more pleasing colour combination.

The raven made a derisory remark in Raven. “That is easy for you to say,” Joselyn scolded. “She is Felix’s godmother, bird. And I want her to like me.”

“I am already predisposed to do so, my dear,” said Eleanor Haverford, from the doorway. Behind her, the butler was gesturing helplessly. Her Grace had simply swept ahead of him, and what was a butler to do?

“Your Grace.” Joselyn curtsied, trying hard to ignore the blush she could feel heating her face and her chest. “Please. Come in. May I offer you a seat?”

The duchess took her by the hand, and she rose from her curtsey to be engulfed in a perfumed embrace. “You have made my godson a very happy man, my dear Lady Maddox — or may I call you Joselyn? A cup of tea would be lovely, and I would very much like to meet your raven.”

Jocelyn is the heroine of The Raven’s Lady, a short story in my collection Hand-Turned Tales. Hand-Turned Tales is free as an ebook — click on the name to see what other stories are in the book and to find links for download.


Research, reviews, and erratum

“Don’t read your reviews” is advice I’ve never been able to follow. I love reading my reviews. Most of them are warming. Even when someone doesn’t like the book, they’ll often say why, which either helps me to improve, or lets me know this wasn’t the book for them (vulgar behaviour, one recent reviewer said, when my heroine succumbed to temptation in the person of her hero; on another story, someone marked the book down because there was no on-page sex — you can’t please all of the people all of the time).

I’m really struggling with the very sensible prohibition against opening a conversation with a reviewer whose review is simply unfair, and based on false ideas about which she proclaims with great authority. Hence, this post, which will allow me to vent without (I hope) making a prat of myself.

I’ve written before about what to do with a bad review. And I’ve written about why book reviews matter.

I haven’t written about what to do when a reviewer claims you’ve not done your research. Mostly, the errors in their reviews are pretty obvious, and I’ve winced, picked myself up off the floor, and moved on. Yes, the Roman Baths at Bath had been discovered by 1805. New baths were built on top of the Roman baths in the 12th century, and the original ruins were discovered in 1790, during excavations for the Great Pump Room. And, yes, craftspeople (both men and women) wore  overalls in the early 19th century, for a given meaning of the term (I’m told there were three garments with that name, but I’ve only found two).

It feels different, somehow, when someone makes a claim other people can’t easily check, and justifies a two-star rating on that basis, even though she acknowledged the strength of the writing and the main characters. Somehow, the compliments and rating combined give greater emphasis to her certainty that I had made up the system of advowsons and benefices that existed at the time of the story, and was not reformed until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Yes, reviewer, my rector villain did collect the tithes, and they were his to do with as he willed. No supervision, except that perhaps the person or organisation who had gifted the advowson might use the threat of its removal to change behaviour.  In my story, said landowner had been absent and careless for years, until death brought a new landowner.

I make mistakes, and I appreciate the kindness of the reader community when they send me a message to say ‘I think you meant volunteers, and not militia’. I try hard to avoid errors. I research everything that occurs to me, and take nothing for granted. It’s the stuff that is so much a part of our life that we can’t imagine being without it that trips us up when we look at the past.

So what can I do? I’m thinking about adding Author Notes at the end of a story, listing the pieces of research I’ve done and some of the sources I’ve used. What do you think? Will it help?


Horse racing in Georgian England

Writing stories set more than a hundred and fifty years ago, especially stories with characters who have a penny or two, means writing about horses — if only to mention them in passing. Many of my books include journeys, so ‘in passing’ has meant researching carriage and riding horses, including how they were bred and stabled. Along the way, I somehow managed to end up with at least two heroes who were horse breeders: almost the only ‘trade’ a gentleman could engage in without attracting social censure.

This week, I went a step further, when a subscriber-only story for my newsletter turned out to be about the heiress to a racing stud, whose marital fate will be decided by a horse race.

But what kind of horse race in the years just after Waterloo? What were the rules? How long was the course likely to be? Even, as it turned out, what might a villain slip to a horse to prevent it from running, and what symptoms of poisoning would the horse show? (Probably night shade, my vet and author friend Lizzi Tremayne and I decided.)

Here are some of the sources I consulted when writing The Fifth Race, which will be available in the newsletter I send tomorrow.

18th Century foundation of the Jockey Club, and silk colours by owner

Going to the races

Horse racing on the Georgian index

Regina Jeffers on Thoroughbred Horse Racing

Training the 18th century racehorse


Danger on WIP Wednesday

Nothing like a nice fictional piece of disaster to get our heart racing. The heroine or the hero has to survive to the end of the book, which is comforting to know, but meanwhile we authors can put them through all kinds of trials.

This week, I’m looking for excerpts about danger — physical, emotional, moral, societal: you decide. Mine is physical, and is from the subsriber-only newsletter short story I’m writing at the moment, with the plan of getting a newsletter out this week.

One more race, and Rhi would be free. No horse in all of England could catch Atlanta. By the terms of her agreement with her father, she had merely to win next week, and he would sign the new will and rip up the old one.

Her resentment rose, all the more fierce because she understood that Father acted out of love. He wanted to see her married to protect her, he said. She was too young, too inexperienced, too female to own and run the finest racehorse stud in Great Britain. And Father was dying, fading a little more with each day, which she resented more than all the rest.

Atlanta tossed her head and whickered, sensitive to Rhi’s mood. She took a deep breath, and another, letting the anger drain from her with the air she exhaled, emptying herself of everything but the joy of the horse’s movement, the freedom of the gallop, the love of the wild heath across which they raced for the sheer glory of the speed.


Cen watched from the shelter of a copse of trees. The mare lived up to all he’d read about her, and the rider too. He had known Rhiannon Enright would be good, but she had more than lived up to the promise she had shown as a child. Back then, she rode astride — and the gossip in London that had sent him here said she did so still, in the races held once a month for the past four months. Today, she was properly and sedately side-saddle, but the way she raced had nothing proper or sedate about it.

She flowed with the horse, the two moving as one beast, all grace, power, and beauty. The horse was magnificent, but Bucephalus was better.

As if on cue, Bucephalus whickered. Cen had tethered him upwind of the mare, and out of sight, but that meant his stallion was downwind, and would be picking up messages on the breeze. Unlikely that Rhi would hear, but better to play it safe. He’d come to find out if Atlanta was as good as they said; if the heiress was as appealing. Not that he had doubted the latter. She had won his heart when she was a baby just old enough to toddle to the stables and he perhaps a year older, if they’d guessed his age right when they found him. She had been just thirteen and his affection beginning to turn carnal when her father exiled him.

No point in dwelling in the past. The army had given him a new name, new skills, friends and a future, and now he had come full circle to the place where he began, able at last to reach out for the prize he had once believed beyond his reach. He had made up his mind, as if there had been any doubt. He would enter the race, and win her for his bride. Yes, and the stables where once he had been the lowliest of stablehands.

But as Cen stood, taking care to stay behind the undergrowth and to move smoothly and slowly, something caught his eye on the valley floor.

There. Beyond the racing mare. Movement in a hollow screened by bushes. He frowned even as he squinted to refine his focus. Horses; two, no three. And men preparing to mount.

And there! Caught in his peripheral vision, two more horses on a hillock like his own, but on the opposite side of the valley. One of the riders raised his hand in a signal to the men in the hollow, and they mounted, keeping low over their horses’ backs.

A threat to Rhi? Cen made up his mind, whistling the signal that told Bucephalus to pull at the tether and come to him. In the time it took for the horse to trot up the hill, and for Cen to adjust the tack and mount, all five of the stranger riders were ahorse and heading on an interception course for the lone female rider. What was she doing out without a groom?

Rhi had noticed her pursuers, and Atlanta was lengthening her stride, aiming for the gap between the two groups. She had the speed, if she was fresh. But Rhi and Atlanta had been racing the heath for an hour. The other horses were gaining.

Cen and Bucephalus, coming from a different vantage, might be able to put themselves between the chasing men and the woman, if they were fast enough, if she kept on the same tack. At the very least, the rogues might hesitate if they knew he was watching, though men who would assault a woman would not hesitate to dispose of such an inconvenient witness.

Atlanta faltered. Ah. Rhi had seen him. He pointed to the other riders and gestured her to keep coming, and after a moment, she nudged her horse on. But the hesitation had the nearest of her pursuers right on her heels.

The look of mingled panic and determination on Rhi’s face as she approached removed any lingering thought that the scenario might have an innocent explanation. Cen pulled the cudgel he kept in a holster hanging from his saddle, holding it aloft as Rhi passed him, and swinging it down on the shoulder of the man immediately following.

The man behind swung wide as the first rider fell, and kept after Atlanta, but Cen faced two more, and beyond them another, muffled in a greatcoat and scarf, shouting, “It’s only one man. Get rid of him.”

Cen grinned. Only one man and his horse. More than enough, though they were coming at him with guns. At his cue, Bucephalus spun around and caprioled, his hind hooves connecting solidly with one of the attacking horses as Cen ducked a bullet and threw the knife from his sleeve at the rider of the other.

A shout from the direction Rhi had fled caught his attention. A party on horseback, and known to Rhi, apparently, for she continued her wild gallop towards them. And the would-be assailant who had followed her had pulled up, and was looking back for directions.

In moments, the attack was over, the fallen men collected by their companions and the group fleeing back the way they had come. Cen let them go. A sting in his arm hinted that he hadn’t entirely evaded the bullet, but it was no more than a scratch.


Tea with Susan

“Yes, that should work well.” Her Grace, the Duchess of Haverford set the last of the pages she had been reading onto the pile before her, and smiled at her goddaughter. “I like the way you have involved the parents in the running of the school, Susan. I shall have to adopt that idea for my own establishments.”

Susan Cunningham returned the smile as she explained, “Our Scots villagers are theoretically in favour of education, at least for their sons. But they will not support anything that interferes with work on the farm. So it makes sense to organise the school sessions around the demands of the harvest.”

“Yes, and if the leading farmers are the ones who set the timetable, the others will follow their example. Good. Well done, and of course I am happy to be named as a patroness of the school, although you have done all the work, my dear.”

Susan sipped her tea before answering. “A duchess on our letterhead will be much more impressive than a mere Missus, even if I am the widow of a prominent local landlord.”

The duchess laughed. “Yes, by all means use my title to collect donations from your local gentry. But Susan, I wanted to ask about your daughter. How is Amyafter all her adventures?”

“Unscathed,” Susan replied, dryly, then corrected herself. “To be fair, the experience has left her more thoughtful and less impetuous. But she is safe, thanks mostly to Gi- to Lord Rutledge. I do not know what might have happened without him.”

“Your father mentioned that he escorted you on your trip north, but he said little else, except that Amy was found safe and well.”

Susan shuddered. “She is safe and well because she was found, and only just in time.”

The duchess reached for a cucumber sandwich. “And how is Lord Rutledge? I have always thought the pair of you liked one another rather more than you made out.”

Susan sighed. “It is complicated,” she said.

Susan and Gil Rutledge, childhood friends who have been estranged for twenty years, are forced to work together when Susan’s daughter runs away from school. Their story is told in book 3 of The Golden Redepennings, The Realm of Silence (coming in May). Here’s an excerpt.

Dear Lord. All these years she’d held a small bubble of resentment that he’d left London and then England without a note or a message. She should have thrown caution to the wind and written to him before she agreed to marry James.

She snorted at the thought. A fine letter that would have been. “Dear Lieutenant Rutledge, a fine young naval officer has asked me to marry him, and before I give him my answer, I just wish to enquire whether you have any interest in having me instead.”

Regrets and might-have-beens were stupid. She had been happy with James, at least in the beginning, until he proved to lack the gift of fidelity. Even after he made it clear that he would not give up his other women, he did not flaunt them in her face. He was courteous and friendly, respected her abilities and supported her decisions, gave her control of his estate and his income, expected little from her except his nominated allowance and the occasional public appearance. She had been content in her life, if not her marriage, and she had the three most wonderful children in the world.

Accepting Gil’s hand back up into the cabriolet-phaeton, she composed herself for the next stretch of the journey. Knowing he admired her still, at least enough to kiss her, set all of her body singing. She needed to be realistic, and smother the foolish dreams creeping from her memories. She was thirty-seven, and he was a baron. He would need to find a young wife who could give him an heir, and she would need to smile and be glad for him.

A less personal subject than family was needed for the next part of the trip.


The Realm of Silence – coming in May

I am biting the bullet and committing to publishing The Realm of Silence in May. The book blurb is now up on my book page, and in the next couple of days I’ll set up a preorder through Smashwords for iBooks, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. Too early for Amazon, but that will come later in the month.

So go take a look (by clicking on the link), and see what you think. Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt and the cover.

Gil was as quick to understand her now as when they ran wild over the lands around Longford. Susan made short work of discovering what Clementine didn’t want her aunt to know, and re-joined Gil by the stables.

“This governess. Was she slightly built, of below average height, and dark haired?” she asked, then, at Gil’s nod, “We need to find out whether a boy hired a post chaise, or possibly a young woman with a French accent. I have no idea whether there is a connection, but apparently the French music teacher is also missing, and she fits that description.”

She had thought he would take over the questioning, but he seemed content to allow her to coax answers out of the stable master, confining himself to looming at her left shoulder.

Looming was unnecessary, however. The stable master remembered the French lady on Saturday morning. “Just the lady on her own, ma’am. She wanted a post chaise for Newcastle, but I told her we didn’t go no further than York. She could get another there, I told her.”

“What of other travellers that same morning? Was there a boy, perhaps around fifteen or sixteen? He may have had a young lady with him of a similar age? Perhaps also travelling to York or Newcastle?”

The stable master was shaking his head when another ostler spoke up. “I saw the boy. With a girl, he was, but I didn’t see her proper. The boy came in and rented the post chaise while the girl waited out the front. It was while you was with that dook’s party, Ben. For York, but they only took ’un as far as Stamford. Joe—he’s the post boy, ma’am—he came back last night.”

The stable master nodded once, a swift jerk of the chin. “Right.”

“We will speak with the post boy,” Gil decreed. But the post boy was out on a job to a nearby town. He would return within the hour, and the stable master would keep him against Susan’s return.

“I will be back in one hour,” she said. “Thank you for your help.” She repeated the thanks to Gil before setting off at a brisk pace for the school. The fear jittered inside, but she quelled it. She had a lead, which was more than she’d had half an hour ago. If the French lady was the music mistress. If the boy was Patrice in disguise. If the two young people the ostler saw were her runaways. The whole trail of ‘ifs’ depended on Gil’s observation. If the girl in Stamford was Amy, the rest fell into place.

This time, she would demand to see Amy’s room and to talk to some of the other girls. She also had questions to ask the head mistress about the French music teacher.

The presence at her elbow impinged on her conscious mind. Gil, still looming, his long stride easily keeping pace with her rapid steps.

She stopped. “Did you want something, Lord Rutledge?”

Grave brown eyes met her glare, dark brows meeting above the straight aristocratic nose in a return glare. “I am helping.” Not an offer or even a request. An obdurate statement. Arrogant male.

Susan fought to keep her irritation from showing. “You have been helpful. Thank you. I can handle it from here.”

Gil lifted one shoulder and dropped it again. “Undoubtedly. Nonetheless…” A second shrug, as expressive as the first. She didn’t have time to argue; not that arguing ever changed Gilbert Rutledge’s mind once it was made up.

He had clearly decided his participation was a foregone conclusion. “What did the Foster chit tell you?”

She would be a fool to refuse him information that might make his help useful. “The Grahame chit,” she corrected. “Clementine Grahame said that her sister and Amy were always whispering together, and would not tell their secrets, so when Amy arrived at their house before breakfast and she and Patrice went up to Patrice’s bedroom, Clementine put her ear to the door to try to hear them or, failing that, spy on what they did next.”

He did not ask the obvious question; just waited for her to continue.

“They talked too low for her to understand. But Patrice left her room dressed as a boy and she and Amy caught Clementine in the hall. They threatened her with retribution if she told anyone what she had seen, and instructed her to tell the aunt they had left for the exhibition together. The rest of Clementine’s story is true, or so she assures me. She followed them here, and actually waited until they left in the post chaise. She then went off to school and pretended the whole thing had not happened.”

Exasperation coloured the last sentence. Susan understood the child’s fear of her unyielding aunt, and her jealousy of the friendship between the two older girls. But if Clementine had spoken earlier, Amy would be safe now.

“Come then, if you must. I am going to the school. You can question the headmistress about the French woman while I talk to Amy’s friends and check her room.” And if Susan weren’t so worried about her daughter, she might be amused at the thought of the coming confrontation between the haughtily disapproving educationalist and the grim uncompromising soldier.


In praise of anaesthetics


I had a small medical procedure under local anaesthetic yesterday; around half an hour lying under a sterile cloth with a hole cut in it so the surgeon could work on the bit of flesh she wanted. We were chatting for much of that time about the difference that anaesthesia makes. Much as I love history, I wouldn’t want to live there. My surgeon said she’d had a similar discussion with the previous patient, this time about geography. Yes; there are places I wouldn’t want to live, too.

For most of history, surgery has been a last, and extremely painful, resort. Opium and alcohol were both used from ancient times, but both had unpleasant side effects and neither entirely blocked the pain. Knocking someone out with a blow to the head ensured they didn’t feel the surgery, but timing was a problem, and the blow could cause its own problems. The same applied to pressing on the carotid artery; the person would pass out, but recover quickly, and repeating the process was dangerous.

Surgeons relied on speed and strong helpers. The first to get the procedure over as quickly as possible, the second to hold the patient still.  In the eighteenth century, the record for the fastest amputation at the thigh was nine seconds, start to finish, including sawing through the bone. Are you impressed yet? Even the average, thirty seconds, was pretty damned fast.

Fanny Burney, the English novelist, describes her mastectomy thus:

When the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast … I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittently during the whole time of the incision … so excruciating was the agony … I then felt the Knife [rack]ling against the breast bone – scraping it.

Ether was the first successful general anaesthesia, and it was first used in 1842. Think about that. Just over 170 years, and before that thousands of years of pain when surgery was the only option to save a life (or possibly two, in the case of caesarean section — more about that another time). Chloroform was introduced in 1847, followed closely by the first person to suffer sudden heart failure under anaesthesia. Both ether and chloroform have since been replaced by much safer agents.

And in 1884, came the first use of local anaesthesia — the nerves blocked by cocaine isolated from the coca plant.

We’ve come a long way since.

For more on the history of anaesthetics, see this timeline: