To prove the world was round? REALLY? Who writes this stuff?

1. There’s a really interesting discussion going on about anachronisms in historical romance over at History Hoydens. As you can see from my looong comment, this is something I’ve given a lot of thought to yet totally failed to come up with a coherent policy. I evaluate anachronisms on a case-by-case basis! My anachronism ethics are situational!

But you know what I do hate unequivocally? Apocryphal historical anecdotes repeated as fact! Like how Columbus wanted to prove the world was round, or how Queen Victoria didn’t believe in lesbians. Now this is frequently a mistake made in good faith but I think that is what annoys me the most–how these lies become so ubiquitous they completely obscure the truth. Which leads me to:

2. It’s the anniversary of Waterloo this week (June 18th)! My January book A Lily Among Thorns is set in London in the two weeks before the battle.

But…they’re not actually the two weeks before the battle! They’re the two weeks before the news of the battle reached London, which is actually several days later–late on the night of June 21st. The news quickly spread, turning into an impromptu parade through the streets of London. It must have been so thrilling!

Of course, Nathan Rothschild knew about the outcome of the battle first. The popular story is that he went to the ‘Change and purposely led traders to believe he knew the battle had been lost! There was a panic and he was able to buy up “consols” (OED: “An abbreviation of Consolidated Annuities, i.e. the government securities of Great Britain”) at a very low price, seizing control of the Bank of England and making his fortune.

I totally believed this! You read about it everywhere! I included it in the first draft of A Lily Among Thorns. But oops, it is FALSE. Here’s what The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson has to say (link goes to the Kindle edition because I seriously could not find the paperback even when I looked at “other formats”–I kept getting the second volume in the series and I don’t know if the links are broken or if it’s out of print or what):

No doubt it was gratifying to receive the news of Napoleon’s defeat first, thanks to the speed with which Rothschild couriers were able to relay a newspaper version of the fifth and conclusive extraordinary bulletin–issued in Brussels at midnight on June 18–via Dunkirk and Deal to reach New Court [the location of the Rothschilds’ bank] on the night of the 19th. This was just twenty-four hours after Wellington’s victorious meeting with Blücher on the battlefield and nearly forty-eight hours before Major Henry Percy delivered Wellington’s official dispatch to the Cabinet as its members dined at Lord Harrowby’s house (at 11 p.m. on the 21st.) Indeed, so premature did Nathan’s information appear that it was not believed when he relayed it to the government on the 20th; nor was a second Rothschild courier from Ghent.

He then explains why Waterloo was actually financially disastrous for the Rothschilds, who were financing the British army and had all their money tied up in things that were suddenly no longer necessary–and no longer likely to be paid for by the gov’t.

In London, a frantic Nathan sought to make good the damage; and it is in this context that the firm’s purchases of British stocks have to be seen. On July 20, the evening edition of the London Courier reported that Nathan had made “great purchases of stock.” A week later Roworth heard that Nathan had “done well by the early information which you had of the Victory gained at Waterloo” and asked to participate in any further purchased of government stock “if in your opinion you think any good can be done.” This would seem to confirm the view that Nathan did indeed buy consols on the strength of his prior knowledge of the battle’s outcome. However, the gains made in this way cannot have been very great. As Victor Rothschild conclusively demonstrated, the recovery of consols from their nadir of 53 in fact predated Waterloo by over a week, and even if Nathan had made the maximum possible purchase of £20,000 on June 20, when consols stood at 56.5 and sold a week later when they stood at 60.6, his profits would barely have exceeded £7,000.

He goes on to demonstrate that the brothers were in dire financial straits all through 1815 and beyond although they did come out on top in the end, of course. He also talks at length about their disorganized accounting practices. The whole chapter is incredibly detailed and fascinating–I haven’t read the whole book yet but I want to.

There is a GREAT post on this topic at Risky Regencies here. I really recommend watching the video even though it’s kind of long–and if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at LEAST watch the first couple minutes so you can see the clip from a Nazi propaganda film showing an exaggerated version of the apocryphal consols story.

What’s your favorite/least favorite apocryphal historical anecdote?

10 thoughts on “To prove the world was round? REALLY? Who writes this stuff?”

    1. Thank YOU for making an awesome post. 🙂 Which one, the bio or the Regency trad? If you read the Dunn book, let me know what you think!

  1. I often wonder why authors and readers both take things at whole cloth. A variation on what we call urban legends? How do we know a person’s motive or even if the action reported is anywhere near the action taken. Recently I came across an email claiming that the ACLU was demanding the government take down all the crosses on military graves. My first thought, but allow Jewish stars? Second thought, the ACLU would fight tooth and nail to ALLOW expression of religion. Well, of course the claim was false and has been around for many years (I determined from my own research). But that brought up another thought — why doesn’t everyone who reads these things think, Whoa! Maybe we’ve been too lazy over the centuries to think for ourselves, or just enjoy the feeling (pinch or tickle) of words that confirm our own prejudices.

    1. I guess crosses on military graves could be considered an establishment of religion, but actually removing already existing crosses does seem pretty implausible on the face of it, doesn’t it?
      Sometimes I feel like it’s an overreliance on the printed word, or cultural authority, or something…that’s not quite right, but…like how Wikipedia (created by users) seems less reliable to a lot of people than, say, a printed encyclopedia (created by “experts”). When the truth is that the encyclopedia has plenty of mistakes and biases too. Kids are taught to trust their teachers and professors, so it can be hard to remember that just because an “expert” of whatever stripe wrote something down and it got published doesn’t mean it was carefully fact-checked or that mistakes don’t happen.

  2. I’ve never heard a rumor that Queen Victoria didn’t believe in lesbians! Where does that come from?
    All the wrong history facts commonly believed to be true and treated as such in historic romances that I can think of at the moment are the ones that are actually harmful (I know there are others more trivial but the only things I’ve noticed lately in romances have been anachronistic word choices). For instance I can’t stand to read romances set in the American West. The more you learn about Native American history the more intolerable “unprovoked attacks by savages” becomes as the background for your love story. Then you have your authors who think they can fix the “savage” problem by having their Native characters adore the blonde heroine and become her mentor in the mystical ways of nature. NRGH. Don’t even ask me about other American historicals that take place on plantations. Would that Gone with the Wind had never been written…
    Other authors have a tendency to move their standard Regency characters to “exotic” locales which they seem to have researched primarily through Indiana Jones films.
    Then as I know you are perfectly aware, even when we stay firmly entrenched in England we often get, in the interests of escapist fantasy, a total failure to acknowledge a class structure any more complex than Very Wealthy Blue-Bloods (who as the protagonists are allowed to exhibit all types of personality), Scheming Noveau Riche, and Bucolic/Humorously Uneducated/Violently Thuggish Poor.
    I guess where this comes from is a superficial view of history. It’s a lot easier to write a love story with pretty dresses and balls and carriages than it is to thoroughly research your period and find out what shaped and moved the world then, where the tensions were, where the money came from and went to. And for most people, including history-major-me a lot of the time, the love story in fancy dress is all we really want. But I think there are so many good reasons to familiarize oneself with more than just the trappings of a historic setting–most importantly so as not to perpetuate stereotypes like the savage Indian that still hurt people today, but also just because I think the more interesting stories and characters and worlds aren’t in fluffy pop culture stereotypes of the past; they’re in the source documents.

    1. I don’t know where the story comes from [edit: apparently her statue was used as the centerpiece for a lesbian demonstration in Wellington, NZ in 1977 and that was the explanation created as to why? I feel like there must be a part of that story missing but I can’t find a more detailed account], but it’s been widely disseminated. I’ve seen it reproduced as fact and repeated in conversation countless times.
      And here’s what one of my favorite research books on the topic, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century, has to say:
      “Naivety could always be sustained when necessary, and there was probably more ignorance about some aspects of sexual life—and more opportunities for feigning ignorance. At the trial in 1811 of two Edinburgh schoolmistresses accused of having sex within earshot of one of their boarders, the famously naive view was expressed that the ladies must be innocent of the nameless crime because it is ‘even doubtful if it can exist.’ But the transcripts clearly show that all six judges knew that two women could satisfy each other sexually. (The testimony of the aggrieved pupil was explicit enough.) The question was: should the court be seen to believe that such things were possible.
      Most evidence of Victorian naivety turns out to be dubious. The tale that Queen Victoria thought it futile to legislate against lesbian sex because no such thing was possible dates from the late 1970s and proves the exact opposite of what it was supposed to prove. The fact that this canard is widely bleieve shows that we can be just as naive as the 19th century, not to mention the period in which we live. Victorian pornography shows that almost everything to do with sex had already been thought of and could be conveyed to the reader with a minimum of explanation and often with a good deal of humor.”
      I do want to say, though, that I don’t think historicals without a lot of research are necessarily examples of laziness or taking the path of least resistance. Clearly, that’s what a lot of readers and writers WANT, and I respect that as a totally valid choice even if it’s not my personal preference. I may think William Shatner is prettier than Chris Pine, but that doesn’t mean other people are wrong for preferring Pine.
      Offensive/racist/classist stuff is in a totally different category, in my opinion. Including a black character in your Regency without doing any research on England’s black community at the time, the Abolitionist movement, etc., is irresponsible and probably going to lead to an offensive portrayal–but as you say, that’s because it’s liable to hurt people, because of the way our society is set up now.
      Writing a romance that’s light on the politics and research, on the other hand, seems to me to be just an aesthetic choice.

  3. Hi Rose,
    Oh, there are so many reasons why there may be anachronisms, as you know. I try to keep it accurate and do a hell of a lot of research, but…you know, maybe I shouldn’t say this in public, but gosh, we writers are just human. We’ll have blind spots and bad stuff happens in our lives and sometimes research, even writing, takes a back seat to life events.
    I read your post on MuseTracks on writing through difficult times, and boy could I relate! I recently read some post or other complaining of an error that I had made in one of my books, and the reader assumed that I didn’t even bother to do any research, that I didn’t care to do any research at all. (I think she mentioned I made an error regarding how faro was played, and come to think of it, I don’t think any of my characters played faro–it’s been over a decade since I wrote it, though.) At any rate, it did get my blood pressure up a bit; at the time I wrote the book, I was working outside the home, and also traveling back and forth to my parents’ house and to the hospital (sometimes taking my 7-year-old son with me) five days a week because my dad was dying of cancer. I was writing on deadline, and had to get the book done by a certain date–an additional stress. Trust me, research is important, but it took second, even third place to my father’s last days. He never got to see the success I had from the book I wrote while he was dying, but at least he knew I had published something and he was proud of that.
    (sigh)
    To happier research things: I also saw your post on Susanna Frazer’s book and caught the words Nathan Fillion and green uniform (how could I not?), which means I will need to get Susanna’s book. I had the good fortune just recently to go to a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo at Waterloo, Belgium, and lo and behold, there was the 95th Rifle Regiment of Foot! No Richard Sharpe, however, alas. I took lots of pictures.

    1. Hi Karen! Ugh, that experience sounds nightmarish. I’m impressed that you managed to write anything at all, let alone a publishable novel! (I have to ask, though–this book you were writing, was it The Vampire Viscount by any chance? Because I loved that book. I’m pretty sure I have a signed copy around somewhere!)
      I recently read some post or other complaining of an error that I had made in one of my books, and the reader assumed that I didn’t even bother to do any research, that I didn’t care to do any research at all.
      Ugh. That’s so frustrating. I mean, I do think readers have the right to vent, and heaven knows I have complained privately to my friends about the tiniest errors that annoyed me in a book when I’m in that kind of mood. But it bugs me when I feel like people are focusing on details to the exclusion of the big picture…to go from “there is an error in the rules of faro on page 129” to “this author didn’t do ANY research and doesn’t care about historical accuracy” is SUCH an unjustifiable leap. If the spirit of the book feels right and the story is good, a couple of minor errors might stick out while reading but they’re no excuse to attack the author. Because like you said, everyone’s human. Mistakes happen, and they get past editors and copyeditors and proofreaders too, whether it’s a small anachronism or a typo or a verb conjugated wrong or whatever.
      I think you’ll like the Fraser book–maybe I’m biased, but I think she’s a great writer! That is so awesome that you got to see a Waterloo reenactment. It must be so much fun for the reenactors too! I love all the uniforms of the era, but there really is something special about those riflemen, isn’t there?

      1. Rose, yes, that was The Vampire Viscount. 😀 I’m surprised people still remember it. I really, truly do believe readers have every right to complain about anything they don’t like or care for in a book, but to jump to the conclusion that as a result, a writer doesn’t care… Ack.
        As for writing through it, yeah, I somehow poured all the emotion I was feeling at the time into the book, but man oh man the burnout hit some years later. Your post about your mom really spoke to me; my dad was the one who taught me to read, and who introduced me to myths and legends and so many wonderful books that are an influence even now. Thanks for writing it. I don’t know of too many other writers who have had to write through a difficult time like that.
        Waterloo–that was amazing. Simply amazing. To see all of that reenactment at the actual battlefield itself…it’s difficult to describe the sensation. What’s interesting was that while the rest of the troops pretty much fought in formation, the riflemen were allowed to pair off and traverse the field. Well, they were pretty much the Regency equivalent of snipers.
        Man, I love research. Especially this kind. 🙂

        1. It is so tough to keep on writing when someone who was so important to inspiring you is just gone. And at the same time, writing is such an important outlet and tool for staying sane (if you’re a writer, anyway). Thank you for telling me you liked the post. I had a hard time writing it but every person who tells me it meant something to them makes me so happy—and really, if you look at the comments on the post, so many people telling me about their own awful experiences, it seems like there must be a lot of writers who’ve felt something similar. But we don’t talk about it for whatever reason.
          What’s interesting was that while the rest of the troops pretty much fought in formation, the riflemen were allowed to pair off and traverse the field.
          Wow, I had no idea! That’s so cool. And it’s so cool that we all have our research specialties, you know? Like I love that no matter how obscure a piece of information, there is someone (in this case, the historical reenactors) who knows it by heart, who’s put the time into finding it out because they care. As Robin in Robin of Sherwood is so fond of saying, “Nothing’s forgotten.”

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