I am a writer, curator, historical consultant and lecturer, working on 19th & 20thC British art & culture. I have a particular interest in the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts & Crafts movement and John Ruskin, as well as Victorian women's roles. I am now writing 'At Home with Jane & William Morris', bringing together many of my research projects.
In 2019, I published 'To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters.' I am also the author of 'Effie Gray' (Duckworth)
Historical consultant for BBC1 series 'THE LIVING AND THE DEAD'
The Living and the Dead: BBC1
How did the Victorians lay out their dead?And could they tell how long a corpse had
been lying in the woods?
These were the day-to-day questions that were thrown at me
by the production team of ‘The Living and the Dead’.The BBC series, starring Colin Morgan and
Charlotte Spencer, will be seen for the first time on i-Player (17th
June) and then on BBC1 from 28th June. Described by the writer
Ashley Pharoah as ‘Thomas Hardy – with ghosts’, this was a gem of an idea.And I was delighted to become historical
consultant for the project.
I was asked to advise on everything from nursery decoration
in the 1890s, to Victorian autopsies.Because, although it opens in the glorious meadows of Somerset, these
are scary stories, with undercurrents of insanity and the threat of the
unknown.The writers wanted to tackle 19th
century anxieties about the boundaries between superstition and science. And the impact on a young couple, who were
thoroughly modern in their outlook about politics, business and the life of the
Since 1837, the Victorians witnessed advances in technology
which could have seemed almost magical.The electric telegraph carried words from India to England in a matter
of minutes.Sound recordings brought
back the voices of the dead.And a fine
film of silver on glass capture faces through thin air, and preserved them as
photographs.These were wonders. The barriers between the past and the present,
the ethereal and the earthly had been transcended.So, what was next?Could science explain ghostly apparitions?Could electricity or radio waves enable us to
make contact with the spirit world? These questions were very real for many
intellectuals, and worth investigating.The Society for Psychical Research was founded in the 1880s by
physicists and philosophers. They carried out serious studies of telepathy
and mesmerism.They collected a ‘Census
of Hallucinations’.Conan Doyle, creator
of the famously logical Sherlock Holmes, was a leading figure in these
investigations, writing for the Spiritualist magazine Light throughout
It should not surprise us, then, that Nathan Appleby, the
figure at the heart of The Living and the Dead should try to understand
the supernatural experiences of his neighbours through a scientific lens.He is a psychologist: a new breed of doctor
in a discipline that focussed on the thresholds between the normal and the
abnormal.He understands that the
workings of the brain, in our conscious and unconscious states, are not yet
fully explored.When he encounters a
disturbed young woman, it is reasonable for him to want to help her, using his
cutting-edge techniques.And yet he
becomes increasingly baffled as the series unfolds.Science does not seem to be able to supply
the answers, however much he wrestles with the facts.
Alongside Nathan, we have the fascinating character of his
wife, Charlotte.The women in this story
are just as robust and varied as the men – it is one of the great strengths of
the series.Charlotte is an alluring
amalgam; a mixture of Bathseba, from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd,
and du Maurier’s New Woman. She is a
professional photographer.(Cue lots of
conversations with the team about Julia Margaret Cameron and Christina Broom.)She is also ready for the challenge of
running a new project, bringing in modern machinery to an ancient farm, and
seeing the potential of the railway.
During the course of the series, we see their relationship,
tested to its limits by Nathan’s obsessive desire for knowledge at all
costs.But let’s not spoil the story!
So where did my researches take me, as I tried to piece
together the very modern world of Nathan and Charlotte, as it came conflict
with the older traditions of the farm hands and wise women?I found myself wondering whether a vicar
would have a pint in the pub.And what
advanced literature his daughter might read.I thought about Charles Voysey and his delightful designs for children.
And I discovered more than I might like about early forensic
medicine.The curator at the Old
Operating Theatre Museum sent me some grisly reading about blood flow, body
temperature and rigor mortis.So that
dealt with the corpse in the wood.
What about laying out the body? Well, as you will see, the
bare bones of information that I supplied were transformed by the directors
into a gorgeously lit scene.The camera
follows a slow silent ballet around the figure who is being tenderly prepared
for burial.This extraordinary piece of
choreography shows how the words on the page can take flight, and create a rare
magic.We can only imagine what the
pioneering photographer Charlotte Appleby would make of it.