Steampunk is fast becoming one of the main ways that modern culture interacts with our 19th century past. But for all the ‘punk’ in its name, it’s all too easily for steampunk to steer away from the radicalism of the punk aesthetic, to look only at a very mainstream view of history.
I’m not saying that this is always intentional. But like writers of fantasy and of historical fiction, steampunk writers take inspiration from the pieces of history made available to them, and that often leaves out the more interesting details, the more challenging subjects, the voices from the fringes of history.
As I’m currently reading a book on 19th century history* I thought I’d share a few bits that caught my attention, that I thought should be more widely known and maybe used for literary inspiration.
We all know that historical doctoring was often dubious, whether inspired by superstition or the latest scientific advances. US presidents Washington and Garfield both died as much from doctoring as from their maladies.
But the treatment of less well understood ailments could be shocking and downright bizarre. In the 1870s, New Jersey State Asylum staff sprayed patients with alcohol and set them on fire to see if they were faking epilepsy. Because epilepsy isn’t hard enough without some lighter-wielding lunatic burning off all your body hair in the name of truth. That kind of cruelty and incompetence has great potential for an antagonist.
Yes yes, I know, you’ve all heard how important mining was to the industrial revolution. But given the hundreds of thousands of people who worked down the mines, how much do you know about their lives?
Did you know, for example, that they were often highly superstitious? That makes sense when your life can be snuffed out without warning in a pit accident. Miners in the Durham coalfields of the 1840s wouldn’t go down the pit if they’d seen anything as strange and unlucky as a woman on their way to work. (yes, there’s a glaring gender issue there too – more on that subject later)
Or how about the fact that some miners were also terrorists? The Molly Maguires, a secret society fighting for workers’ rights in 1870s Pennsylvania and West Virginia, used arson, intimidation and assassination in their struggle for a better life, only to be brought down by a hired corporate spy.
Where are the bomb-throwing ghost-fearing miners in my fiction? (note to self – awesome character idea – go write that next)
That really shouldn’t be a heading in an article on obscure bits of history, but women don’t get equal representation in our examination of the past. And how often do you see sexual inequality tackled head on rather than worked around in genre fiction? But until 1850 almost every state in the United States recognised a husband’s legal right to beat his wife. This in the nation founded on the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
On a lighter note Lucy Stone, the first American woman to keep her maiden name after marriage, financed herself through college, lectured on antislavery and in the 1850s helped organise some of the first women’s rights conventions. Bet she had to be stubborn as all hell to manage that in those days – story conflict potential aplenty.
And back to you
I’m not saying to throw away your mainstream histories, to forget 1066 and the founding of the Union and the French Revolution and all that jazz. I’m just saying next time you pick up a history book, and in particular next time you look to history for inspiration, try to find something new. Something a little more punk. It makes for more interesting fiction, and it makes sure that those under-represented voices don’t remain obscure.
What are your favourite interesting historical details? Who do you think doesn’t get enough attention? Leave a comment, share your views.
And for more great history tidbits, try Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog.
* It’s the Reader’s Digest Life During the Industrial Revolution, picked up for a quid in a charity shop – see, finding interesting history is easy.