The measure (and weight) of historical accuracy in fiction.

Until yesterday I hadn’t been considering writing a piece of historical fiction; it isn’t the sort of thing which I would automatically think about. This has always struck me as odd though because I enjoy reading historical novels: give me anything by Tracy Chevalier or M.R. Lovric and I’m a very contended reader indeed. I love losing myself in their settings; these writers have the knack of effortlessly placing the reader bang in the middle of eighteenth century London or Renaissance Venice. Their skill is such as to leave you unaware of the work they have put in to make the details both accurate and natural, (although, as we know, there will always be those pedants who make a sport out of spotting anachronisms in historic fiction or dramas). The trick is to make the props: the clothes, food, books, music etc, so realistic to the time in question, that they disappear, chameleon-like, into the background. In effect, these writers work doubly hard to make their efforts invisible.

It is this level of brilliance that has, so far, put me off attempting even a piece of flash fiction set in the past. And then I discovered this little gem lurking on my bookshelf.The Young Man's Companion

I had completely forgotten about it until last night, and then promptly lost an hour or so leafing through and marveling at its contents. (To those of you who are shouting ‘procrastinator’, I shout back ‘research!’).

‘The Young Man’s Companion’ was published in the sixties, but is based on the sort of thing a gentleman of Victorian times might have kept in his pocket. It claims to be a ‘friendly adviser to educational knowledge, worldly council and gentlemanly deportment.’ Within its pages one can learn how, amongst other things, best to behave in female society; how to dress appropriately on any number of occasions; and even which accomplishments a gentleman ought to consider acquiring.

However, it is the list of useful facts and figures at the back of the handbook which really caught my interest. Here is a wonderful collection of archaic (and, for those of us living in countries which stubbornly refuse to let go of the imperial system, not so archaic) words for assorted weights and measures which would stick out like sore thumbs in a piece of contemporary writing, but which, if used correctly, could add authenticity to a piece of fiction set a couple of hundred years ago.

Quite how your average victualler managed to remember this lot I don’t know; I have enough trouble working out how many grams of flour equal a pound. Here’s just a taste of what the Companion has to offer:

Imagine you are organising a gathering; a wedding party for example, or a New Year celebration. You visit your local wine and beer merchant and place an order for five pints of wine, assuming (or hoping) that your guests will limit themselves to about 2 gills each (4 gills making a pint). Unfortunately, this merchant is of an old-fashioned bent, and insists on dishing out the drink in runlets, tierces, hogsheads, puncheons, pipes and tuns (a tun being 252 old gallons, a pipe half of that, a puncheon being a third of a tun, reducing in capacity down to the diminutive runlet at eighteen gallons). You opt for pipes (the expected numbers have suddenly gone up and they drink a lot round here) and decide on a pipe each of Fayal, Madeira, Sicilian and Tenerife, not realising that whereas a pipe of Fayal equals 89 gallons, a pipe of Tenerife is 100, that of Maderia is 92 gallons and Sicilian pipes measure 93.Wine Measures

 Come on, keep up!

Then you remember your Great Aunt Wilhelmina and her predilection for German wine, so you place an order for some Rhenish, which, confusingly is sold by the aulm, which is 30 gallons, (it’s rather a lot, but she normally starts drinking at breakfast. There’s one in every family).

Before you leave, you place a last minute order for some beer; best to cover all bases after all. But should you buy a firkin or a kilderkin? The kilderkin would go further (it’s 18 gallons or 2 firkins, don’t you know?), but you mustn’t forget to leave some cash for a firkin of butter as well (which is 56lb….that’s a lot of puff pastry). In your pocket you have a half-crown (which, if you remember correctly, is two shillings and sixpence) and a sovereign, which is a pound in old money.

By the time you’ve finished, you have also purchased another firkin, this time of soap, weighing in at 64lbs of cleaning power, rather than the 56lb firkin of butter. In addition, you couldn’t resist a puncheon of prunes (it’s only later that you realise this is over a thousand lbs of dried fruit), and a truss each of New Hay (60 lb) and Old Hay (56lb) for the horses. Finally, you ask your deliriously happy merchant to deliver three bushels of coal, otherwise known as a sack, but increase your request to a chaldron (12 sacks or 36 bushels) when you remember it’s the middle of winter and the event is being held in a marquee forty poles (a furlong, where 8 of these equals a mile) from the house and those braziers will need continual stoking.

Phew.

I don’t know about you, but armed with that array of historic terminology, I feel more prepared than ever to tackle a story set in the 1800s; as long as it takes place either in a grocer’s or the kitchens of a country house.

© flyingscribbler 2013

Advertisements

3 comments on “The measure (and weight) of historical accuracy in fiction.

  1. John Wiswell says:

    And why not set it there? As good as any other place to set a story. Sweeney Todd isn’t in a castle or on a battleship.

    They’re not details I’ll retain, but they’re fun to run over like this. Thanks for sharing them, Justin.

  2. […] you catch my post about historical accuracy in weights and measures? Vital advice indeed for budding historical fiction […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s