Forgive the title but I’m currently writing a sequel to The Figurehead and I find myself doing quite a lot of Victorian-speak. It is, however, that activity that’s produced this blog. So let’s start with a question: what connects the first ship to have a clipper bow, Monsieur and Madame LaFarge, 19th century melodramas and me? The question is rhetorical, of course, although if any of you do have the right answer, that merely adds to the frisson I get from it.
I’ve mentioned the ship with the clipper bow before. She features briefly in The Figurehead and was designed, built and launched in Aberdeen. Her name was Scottish Maid. In those days, ships were taxed according to the depth of their hull and boat builder Alexander Hall reduced this depth by extending the bow above the water line. The result was not only lower taxes but also a sleeker, faster, more efficient bow.
The LaFarges were around at the same time as the Scottish Maid – Marie for rather longer than her husband because she was tried for his murder in 1840. And that was also the period at which melodrama was thriving in France, the UK and elsewhere.
So those are the ingredients and when you put them, The Figurehead, its sequel and me together, you get the subject of this blog, of which the title is a dictionary definition. In a word, coincidence, which is rife in melodramas, most of them relying on unexpected family relationships, birthmarks, people turning up at exactly the right time and so on. For me, an unrepentant cynic, atheist and believer in common sense, most events that seem to reveal some hidden plan or underlying structure are coincidences. But I do prefer the happy ones.
Well, this morning, I was just finishing chapter six of the sequel when I decided to change the way the victim had been killed. I’ve been struggling a little with it because the crime part of it all is less interesting than the other themes – Helen’s first steps in her father’s business, a new, unusual figurehead commission for John, and the visit of a theatre troupe to Aberdeen to perform nautical melodramas. I was trying to achieve too many things through the way the victim died so it was muddled and the clues and red herrings weren’t easy to find. So I decided to poison her instead. Arsenic was a favourite poison for the Victorians. They could buy it at the apothecary’s and no records were kept of purchases or sales. It was also an ingredient in various medications, including a cream used by actresses (and ladies in society) to lighten their complexions and, fortuitously, my victim is an actress.
Back, for the moment, to The Figurehead. When I was writing it, two striking coincidences occurred, one of which was to discover that I shared a birthday with Scottish Maid. She was launched on August 10th 1839, exactly one hundred years before I arrived. Pure coincidence, but it gave me a childish pleasure.
And the pleasure was repeated today. You see, I needed to find out how they performed autopsies in 1842 and how they discovered that the death might be due to arsenic poisoning. My luck was in. A Scottish chemist, James Marsh, had devised a test for it in 1836 and ‘The Marsh Test’ was used in court cases thereafter as an almost infallible technique. Its most famous case was that of Marie LaFarge . In 1840, two years before the year in which I’ve set my novel, she was accused of murdering her husband, Charles. I read all about it on several sites and it gave me all the information I needed to check the authenticity of the case I was building.
And on what date did Charles and Marie marry? Yes, of course. The same day that saw the launch of the Scottish Maid, August 10th 1839, exactly one hundred years before a screaming, wrinkled me emerged in a Plymouth Nursing Home. And that was seventy-four years ago today.
Coincidence or all part of God’s plan? You decide.
P.S. The plot thickens. I wrote and posted the above yesterday. I’d just read about the LaFarges’ marriage date and mentioned the coincidences in an email to a friend, Anneke. That made me decide to blog about them. The email was to thank her for a book she’d sent me – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – a unique, magnificent novella which I read at a sitting today, Sunday August 11. It really is beautiful and written in a prose I wish I was capable of imitating. In just 116 pages, it covers the life of a labourer in the American West from 1917 to the 60s and moves between homespun anecdotes, the paranormal, mystical and actual experiences and vast social changes. The reason I mention it in this postscript, however, is that its only mention of a specific date comes 7 pages from the end:
‘Beside the communicating doors of the passenger car he rode out of town, there hung a calendar that told him today was Sunday August 11‘.
Somebody’s trying to tell me something.