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 Both ether and chloroform have since been replaced by much safer agents.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:



The history of mistletoe at Christmas

It’s the season for mistletoe, or at least so it would have been back in England during the 18th and 19th century. The little plant with its golden boughs, yellow-green oval leaves and sticky white berries had an important role to play in Christmas celebrations, forming the crucial part of the Kissing Bough or being hung in bunches in strategic places around the household.

Any woman standing under the tree could be asked for a kiss, and courted bad luck if she refused. In one version of the tradition, every kiss was paid for by plucking a berry from the hanging stems, and when the berries were gone, so were the kisses.

So how did a little parasite come to be a magical harbinger of romance?

There are a few stories; some from Norse tradition, some Greek, some from the druids of ancient Britain, and some with strong Christian traditions.

The plant that killed the favourite

In Norse mythology, one god was the favourite of all the others. Everyone loved Baldur. Everyone, that is, but Loki, the god of mischief. Frigga, Baldur’s mother, protected her beloved boy by travelling all the world, and asking everything that grew on land and under it to promise never to hurt Baldur.

As a result, Baldur became invulnerable to anything thrown or thrust at him, provided it was plant-based. Of course, poking Baldur with plant-based weapons became a favourite game, because boys are like that. But Frigga had forgotten one important fact.

Mistletoe doesn’t grow on land or under it. It grows on the branches of another plant — including, willow, oak, and apple trees. Loki made a dart from mistletoe wood and gave it to the blind god, Hoder, so he could join in the game. And Baldur died.

Everything in heaven and earth wept, and Frigga tried for three days to restore her son. In the end, her tears became the mistletoe berries, and Baldur woke from death. In her joy, Frigga made the mistletoe her sacred plant, and decreed that anyone standing under it would never come to harm, but would only be kissed.

Power over hell

In Greek myth, mistletoe had power even over hell. Two doves bought a golden bough of mistletoe to Aenas to light his way through the forest that blocked the way into Hades. When he showed the bough to the ferryman at the River Styx, he and the bough were instantly transported alive across the river.

The sign of peace

To the druids, mistletoe was very special. They believed it could heal just about anything. They cut it from oak trees with sickles of gold, and gathered it without letting it touch the ground. And they hung it in bunches in houses to keep away sickness and war, protect the household from sickness and ghosts, and bring happiness and fertility.

Anyone passing under mistletoe had to lay down their arms and desist from fighting until the next day, even in a forest. Even more so in a house, where guests would stand under the mistletoe to greet their hosts with a kiss of friendship.

Love conquers death

No wonder, with this history, the mistletoe was adopted by the new Christians of Northern Europe, who easily made the transition to seeing this plant of healing and peace as a symbol of Christ, who lay down his life to bring peace to the world, and who came alive out of death. Mistletoe became particularly associated with the birth of Christ, which was now being celebrated in midwinter, when mistletoe had been a traditional part of pre-Christian ceremonies.

Friendship kisses under the mistletoe translated nicely into the new Christian celebrations.

Kissing for luck

Exactly how kisses of peace became the romantic kisses we think of today, we can only guess. But the idea that mistletoe will bring prosperity and fertility might have something to do with it. Prosperity for a woman meant marriage, and by the sixteenth century, kissing under the mistletoe was wildly popular among the working classes.

By the nineteenth century, the custom had often been adopted above stairs as well as below, though not by all. Some regarded it as licentious and improper. But only the most rigid of moralists would refuse a kissing bough to the servants’ hall, even if his or her own daughters could safely pass through the family’s parlours safe in the knowledge that no errant white berry posed a risk to the sanctity of their fair lips. Poor girls.

A week today, I’m publishing the ebook version of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, a collection of my Christmas novellas and novelettes. The print version is already available. At 92,000 words, or 320 print pages, of stories about the magic of romance during the magic of Christmas. At $2.99 for the ebook, it represents a 40% discount over the cost of the individual books. And the print cost of $12.50 makes it a great stocking stuffer. Follow the link in the name above for blurb and buy links.


And let there be light

Waking up to a town-wide power cut this morning set me thinking about how recently in history we lit up the night. As a person writing mostly stories set at the very beginning of the revolution in lighting, it’s something I need to keep very much in mind.

Fire, fire burning bright

Fire came first, of course. Humans had brought fire into their campsites (for protection, warmth, and light) long before recorded history. The first portable light would have been a piece of firewood, with experimentation leading to better and better torches for lighting the winter evenings or winter marches. In essence, a torch is a pole (of wood or metal) with something at the end that burns easily: perhaps moss or fibre soaked in fuel plants (oil pressed from nuts or seeds) or from animal fats.

A lamp to drive away darkness

The first lamps comprised moss or something similar soaked in animal fat, and held in a hollow rock or shell. Oil lamps start popping up in dig sites of around 6,500 years. Made from metal, stone or clay, they have a fuel chamber that contains the oil, one or more pouring holes through which to fill the fuel chamber, and a wick hole or nozzle for the wick, which was a twist of some flammable material.

Because only the wick and the oil it it soaks up is aflame, oil lamps give light for longer for the same amount of oil.

Light a penny candle

Candles came along around 3,000 BC. They didn’t spill, like oil lamps, and there was no need to advance the wick by hand. On the other hand, they were tedious to make. Beeswax candles were the best, but very expensive. Smelly tallow candles were the most common until the sperm whale industry of the 18th century introduced candles made of spermaceti. Even after advances in lamp making in the 19th century, candles continued to be improved, with paraffin wax arriving in the 1850s, along with plaited wicks that self-consumed and didn’t need trimming.

Recently in history…

The explosion of technological innovation that began in the late 18th century had, by the end of the 19th century, brought us the central draught fixed oil lamp, the kerosene lamp,  gas lighting, and electric lighting with incandescent bulbs.

The first house was lit by electricity in Northumberland in 1878 (or, at least, the picture gallery was), with the first street (in Newcastle) following a year later.

And 142 years later, the electricity has returned in time for me to write this post.


The Grand Tour through the Pacific

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, New Zealand was one stop on a circuit for wealthy tourists making a six-month grand tour of the world. The majestic Milford Sound, the grand Whanganui River and, of course, the magical thermal wonderlands of Rotorua made New Zealand a special destination for those able to afford the long journey.

The Pink and White Terraces at Rotomahana were the climax of any visit. They were in the hands of the Tuhourangi people, who provided guides, canoes, meals, accommodation and entertainment. Their loss in the Tarawera eruption of 1886 was a serious economic blow to the tribe, made worse as the Government slowly took over the businesses they attempted to establish in their new homes in Rotorua, employing them as guides and entertainers.

Another important stop for our intrepid European and American travellers was Hawaii, about which E Ellsworth Carey wrote in Thrum’s Annual (1893):

An epitome of the world’s scenery is found in Hawaii. There
cliffs and caves; grand canyons and measureless waterfalls; spouting
caves and singing sands; bottomless and rivers of lava.

Sydney, Australia, was on many steamer ships’ itineraries, part of a circuit from San Franciso through New Zealand, Sydney, and then various Pacific Islands and back to San Francisco. Other ships came from Europe passing through Egypt and the Suez Canal, then making stops at India, Indonesia, and Singapore on their way down under.

Women tourists were common enough that Lillian Campbell Davidson made a great success with her 1889 publication “Hints for Lady Travellers at Home and Abroad” (recently republished and available on Amazon). One contemporary review notes that the preparation for such a trip may make it a burden rather than a pleasure.

The ” Hints ” inform us that the lady who wishes to be well equipped for a journey, must carry with her a bath and bath towels, a bottle of kid-reviver, a dressing-bag, a spirit-lamp for boiling water, with a sufficient quantity of methylated spirits, a flask, and a small filter.

To these comforts the lady-traveller must add provisions, including extract of meat, “one’s own tea and coffee;” waistbelts for money, a holdall for rugs and umbrellas, a hot-water bag, a lamp for reading at night, some light literature (it must be light in two senses, for “books add enormously to the weight of one’s luggage “) ; a small medicine-chest, which, among other articles, should contain pills and ointment, and a roll of fine old linen.

Matches and a candle, too, should always be carried ; a door-wedge is a great convenience ; “a tin of insect-powder should never be omitted ;” with a railway-key “one is quite independent;” and “a compass is a most useful accompaniment to the traveller who has to be her own guide.”

It is necessary also to carry an eyestone, “the use of which is a common custom in America.” If there is dust in the eye, this tiny stone, or rather fishbone, is inserted within the lower eyelid. “Almost immediately it begins to work its way slowly round the eyeball, and never stops till it has made the complete circuit of the eye, when it drops out, bringing with it whatever object of an alien nature it has encountered on its journey.”

Then if ladies curl their hair, capital little cases may be had, containing a pair of tongs and a minute spirit-lamp ;” a good toilet-water also is often desired by ladies in travelling, and sulpholine lotion may be carried for sun- burning and freckles.

Full particulars, too, are given with regard to clothing ; each dress must have a tray to itself, for “gowns are the terrible part of packing,” and, finally, “it is as well, for every reason, to travel with as little luggage as circumstances admit.”

It is to be feared that if a lady who proposes to travel studies these ” Hints ” previously—and we have mentioned only a few of them —she will be tempted to wish that the new conditions of life had not arisen, which make “a thousand conveniences and comforts” necessary to the traveller. (Review in The Spectator, 16 November 1889, p44, my paragraphing)


The Virgin Wife

I’ve read a couple of stories recently that bought into the myth that non-consummation was grounds for an annulment. Even today, the law is not quite that simple, although many jurisdictions allow non-consummation as grounds for divorce. But back in Georgian and Regency England, the fact that the marriage had not been consummated, if it could be proven, was not grounds for either divorce nor annulment.

First, a definition of terms. Annulment is a legal declaration that a marriage never existed. Divorce is a legal declaration that a marriage is at an end, and the husband and wife no longer have marital obligations one to the other.

Annulments were not quick, they were not painless, and they required one or more of three circumstances. These circumstances were fraud; inability to contract a marriage; and impotence. Even taking the case could make both the husband and the wife social outcasts. If the annulment went through, the woman was reduced to the status of a concubine, and her children became illegitimate. The man had no further obligations to support her or the children.

Fraud could include using a false name with the intention of fooling your intended spouse or their family, or making promises in the marriage settlement you had no ability to carry out. For example, if you settled a non-existent estate on your daughter’s new husband, he could claim this as grounds for annulment. He would not necessarily win — it would be up to the church court to decide the extent to which any of these fraudulent behaviours were intentional, and how much they influenced the decision to marry.

Inability to contract a marriage meant that at the time of the marriage you already had a living spouse, you were related by blood to your intended spouse (closely enough for marriage to be forbidden — there was a list), you were sufficiently insane not to know what you were doing, or you did not have the consent of your guardian if you were under 21.

Proving that the man was impotent or the woman was incapable of sexual intercourse was even more difficult. Even if the man was prepared to admit to such a thing, the judges would not take his word. First came a medical examination. Was there a visible physical abnormality? Did the man show the ability to become aroused? Had the man shared his bed with his wife exclusively for years without the woman losing her virginity? (So no lovers on the side for either of them.)

If he could have an erection with anyone, he was clearly not impotent, and in earlier periods two accomplished courtesans might be hired by the court to test the impotency.  By the 19th century, doctors were used, and one does not wish to enquire too closely into their methodologies.

Rats. There go some useful plot lines. But on the other hand, what fun to work your way around them.


The Repository of Oddities and Curiosities

My friend Mari Christie has just opened a new space on Facebook for historical fact and fiction. One by one, various people are creating ‘exhibits’ (year-long Facebook events) on which to post historical facts from their research and to play at interactive storytelling.

If you enjoy seeing stories created on the fly, or if you want to learn more about a specific period, come and join us.

I’m doing something different with mine; not the Regency, as you might expect, but the Antipodean gold rushes, which I research extensively a number of years back for a gold rush saga that never saw publication daylight. One day, maybe.


You’ll find the group at, and at the top, you’ll see the following

Wherein one will see items of interest from their respective periods, interspersed with the dramatic stories of the exhibit curators and staff. Readers and writers are invited to add a character and join in the storytelling.

Currently, the exhibits are:

American Civil War Era 1850-1870

Britain During The Reigns Of George III and IV, 1760-1830

Antipodean Gold Rushes 1850 to 1900

Victorian England, 1837 – 1901

1790s English Radicals & Malcontents


Globalisation ancient central Asian style

Not so much a road as a route, and only one of them, at that. Imagine a procession of heavily laden camels, donkeys and carts.

Not so much a road as a route, and only one of them, at that. Imagine a procession of heavily laden camels, donkeys and carts.

I’ve been fascinated for most of my life by the histories I didn’t learn at school. According to the wisdom I received from my teachers, enlightened thinking began with the Greeks, was codified by the Romans, and was resurrected after the Dark Ages in the Renaissance where it grew into the humanist and democratic beliefs that bubbled up in Europe in the 18th Century and reached its culmination is the set of beliefs and practices widely known as western civilisation.

(Gandhi was once asked what he thought of western civilisation, and said he thought it would be a good idea.)

This view, of course, completely ignores the fact that Europe was a backwater until at least the 16th Century, and all the time inventions and advances and discoveries in the rest of the world laid the foundations upon which Europe would later stand.

Let’s leave for today the great kingdoms of Kush, Nri, Songhai, and Asumite in Africa, the Olmec, Aztec, and Mayans of the Americas, Kutai, Khmer, Dvaravati in South East Asia. In the past months, I’ve been filling my head with the broad swathe of city-states, kingdoms, principalities, and empires that created, maintained, and thrived because of the Silk Road. Not so much a road, but rather a rambling plaided string of trade routes from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea by diverse ways.

This was the mixing ground of cultures, ideas (including religious ideas), new technologies, and products. Above all, products: silk, paper, and spices travelling West; carpets, jewels, drugs, metal, glass, and other trade goods travelling East.

To hear the Venetians tell the story, they started the whole thing. In fact, they were very late into the game. One of the main western arteries did come first, established in Persia. It was the old Persian Royal Road, with postal stations along the route. The pony express was nothing new. The Persian route was established close to 2,500 years ago.

2,250 years ago, an emperor of China, struggling to keep the horse nomads of the north out of his land, sent an envoy west looking for help. Zhang Qian’s expedition led to trade deals to purchase the larger faster horses the envoy found in central Asia. Silk for horses. The Chinese beat of their enemies, and settled down to consolidate the trade, while from the other end the Parthians (who now controlled Persia) were doing the same.

For 2000 years, the Silk Road was how China got its western goods, and places as far distant from China as England got its silks and spices. Then, in the 15th Century, the rising Ottoman Empire blocked European merchants from using the routes, impelling them to find a sea route. Columbus went west, and Vasco da Gama south. And the rest is history.

If you’d like to know more, this 10:30 minute video is entertaining and interesting.

Huh! How about that. I set out to write about the Kopet Dag mountains between Turkmenistan and Iran, and the place of their inhabitants in the silk routes, and I’ve got all excited about ancient history. Another time, perhaps. Meanwhile, feel free to look at the novella I have in the Bluestocking Belles 2016 box set. Called The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, it features as hero a young man who grew up in a small kaganate high in the Kopet Dag mountains. The link is to my book page, which in turn links to the first two chapters.


What’s love got to do with one of the earliest typewriters?

happy-5th-anniversary-quotes-0Did you know that one of the earliest typewriters was invented by a man for the woman he loved, who was going blind? She used the typewriter to write letters to her friends, including to the inventor. Isn’t that a cool story?

Having heard that at a seminar recently (on Web Accessibility, if you would believe it), I went looking for inventions inspired by love, and here’s part of my list.

There’s the ‘funky’ shopping cart invented by the man whose wife couldn’t carry the shopping bags and didn’t want ‘an old lady shopping trundler’.

There’s the man who invented a faster hair dryer (though that might have been impatience rather than love).

Almost two decades before Alexander Bell, an Italian immigrant invented a voice communication device to link his basement laboratory to the second-floor bedroom of his bedridden wife.

What about the sound technician married to a woman with cystic fibrosis that invented a device using sound to break up mucus in his beloved’s lungs?

The same desire to make life better for a loved one inspired two women. One invented a shirt that her husband could close with magnets so that his Parkinson’s did not prevent him from dressing himself. One created a belt that let her husband take the equipment that constantly cleansed his blood out onto the golf course, giving him back his freedom.

And then there’s familial love. For example, two rather famous men reckon they owed their invention to their mother’s love.


Go wash out your mouth!

Historic romance authors, like a microcosm of society at large, vary in their approach to the expletives they put in their characters’ mouths. Some happily use the swearwords common in the 21st century; some go for non-offensive and archaic; some true for realism, however odd it might sound to our modern ears.

If you are a writer or a reader in the later camp, you’ll love this article from Salon. (It’s from 2013, but new to me.) A swear word, by their definition, is a word that is not intended to carry a literal meaning, but is intended to shock, offend, and otherwise arouse emotion.

The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (subtitled A DICTIONARY OF BUCKISH SLANG, UNIVERSITY WIT, AND PICKPOCKET ELOQUENCE), published in 1795 and updated in 1811, is a great resource if you want to know what words were in use in England in the early 19th Century. Here’s the foreword.

The merit of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue has been long and universally acknowledged. But its circulation was confined almost exclusively to the lower orders of society: he was not aware, at the time of its compilation, that our young men of fashion would at no very distant period be as distinguished for the vulgarity of their jargon as the inhabitants of Newgate; and he therefore conceived it superfluous to incorporate with his work the few examples of fashionable slang that might occur to his observation.

But our Jehus of rank have a phraseology not less peculiar to themselves, than the disciples of Barrington: for the uninitiated to understand their modes of expression, is as impossible as for a Buxton to construe the Greek Testament. To sport an Upper Benjamin, and to swear with a good grace, are qualifications easily attainable by their cockney imitators; but without the aid of our additional definitions, neither the cits of Fish-street, nor the boors of Brentford would be able to attain the language of whippism. We trust, therefore, that the whole tribe of second-rate Bang Ups, will feel grateful for our endeavour to render this part of the work as complete as possible. By an occasional reference to our pages, they may be initiated into all the peculiarities of language by which the man of spirit is distinguished from the man of worth. They may now talk bawdy before their papas, without the fear of detection, and abuse their less spirited companions, who prefer a good dinner at home to a glorious UP-SHOT in the highway, without the hazard of a cudgelling.

But we claim not merely the praise of gratifying curiosity, or affording assistance to the ambitious; we are very sure that the moral influence of the Lexicon Balatronicum will be more certain and extensive than that of any methodist sermon that has ever been delivered within the bills of mortality. We need not descant on the dangerous impressions that are made on the female mind, by the remarks that fall incidentally from the lips of the brothers or servants of a family; and we have before observed, that improper topics can with our assistance be discussed, even before the ladies, without raising a blush on the cheek of modesty. It is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of TWIDDLE DIDDLES, or rise from table at the mention of BUCKINGER’S BOOT. Besides, Pope assures us, that “VICE TO BE HATED NEEDS BUT TO BE SEEN;” in this volume it cannot be denied, that she is seen very plainly; and a love of virtue is, therefore, the necessary result of perusing it.

The propriety of introducing the UNIVERSITY SLANG will be readily admitted; it is not less curious than that of the College in the Old Bailey, and is less generally understood. When the number and accuracy of our additions are compared with the price of the volume, we have no doubt that its editors will meet with the encouragement that is due to learning, modesty, and virtue.


Sunday retrospective

time-machineToday’s Sunday retrospective reaches back to the second half of October 2014, when I was writing the last third of Farewell to Kindness. I was reporting progress—and hiccups—as I went. I finished the month with a photo of the printed first draft of Farewell to Kindness and the heading #amediting. A couple of days before that, I posted a list called ‘Editing the book’ — everything I needed to do between finishing the first draft and sending the book for beta reading.

Criminal injustice was the post I wrote when I found out about the sea change in the British criminal justice system, and how this affected my plot. In 1807,  the old system was no longer working and the new system had not been invented.

Our modern view is that one law should apply to all. It doesn’t always work. Money buys better lawyers, for a start. But the basic principle is that we have laws that lay down the crime and the range of punishments, and judges who look at the circumstances and apply penalties without fear or favour.

The pre-19th century situation in England was far, far different.

I also posted on why I changed the name of my heroine in Farewell to Kindness in a blog post with the longest titleI have ever written: Ewww, just ewww: or the cautionary tale of the perils of naming characters in a whole lot of books at once and then starting one without reference to the real world.

I waxed philosophical about romance writing as a genre in a couple of posts that largely picked up what other people were saying:

  • Fear of vulnerability reports on research that suggests fear of vulnerability underpins the common dismissal of the romance genre by readers of other types of fiction
  • Romance novels are feminist novels has excerpts from a much longer article that directly confronts the view that all romance novels are trivial, and turns it on its head.

The first review I published on my website was for the wonderful Lady Beauchamp’s Proposal. Four months later, I was thrilled to find author Amy Rose Bennett as another potential Bluestocking Belle, and we’ve been colleagues and allies ever since.

And I also published a review of Darling Beast by Elizabeth Hoyt. In less than a fortnight, I’m hosting a Belles’ Book Club discussing another of the Maiden Lane series, Scandalous Desires. Elizabeth has agreed to pop in for an hour, so don’t miss it. You can join the event here: