The usual suspect book awards are lining up to give accolades to a novel about 18th century colonial New York entitled Golden Hill, by a British author, Francis Spufford. I cannot see why. Half-way through the book, I put down Golden Hill for a week or two – about the time I discovered the hero of the book, a man called Smith, was evidently a time traveller who foolishly violated what in Star Trek they refer to as the Prime Directive.
What I mean is this; the author chose to bestow on his narrator a manner of speaking contemporaneous with the time of the action in 1746 — all Richardson and Smollett. Yet he had put a jarringly factual error at the end of his narrator’s pen. Sadly for readers, Spufford, the son of not one but two history professors, had not done his historical homework
The Lucifer Paradox.
Wikipedia has comprehensive and it is to be believed accurate coverage of the history of the match. Extracted from that document is this passage…
In 1829, Scots inventor Sir Isaac Holden invented an improved version of Walker’s match and demonstrated it to his class at Castle Academy in Reading, Berkshire. Holden did not patent his invention and claimed that one of his pupils wrote to his father Samuel Jones, a chemist in London who commercialised his process. A version of Holden’s match was patented by Samuel Jones, and these were sold as lucifer matches. These early matches had a number of problems – an initial violent reaction, an unsteady flame and unpleasant odor and fumes. Lucifers could ignite explosively, sometimes throwing sparks a considerable distance. Lucifers were manufactured in the United States by Ezekial Byam. The term “lucifer” persisted as slang in the 20th century (for example in the First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles) and matches are still called lucifers in Dutch.
And yet, and yet… our authorial futurologist in Golden Hill can predict into the future not only the outlandish concept of the match in a world of tinder boxes, but even to give it a name and describe its packaging in bundles. Bravo, Spuffurdamus!
Here is the reference below and by the by it’s a long sentence that would have pleased another, given his propensity for such phraseology and of course the ability of his readers to read such sentences in the candle-lit hours, for none other than Charles Dickens would have enjoyed this ramble through the byways of bad writing and would, if confused and jumbled clauses float, have sought to raise the Titanic had it been prepared to do the right thing like Lucifer and to sink before he died or it was built, using nothing save those very clauses’ shared desire to remove the full point from the English language to raise it (Thank-you).
As he tried to penetrate it, the stamping feet fell without malice on his shoes, and he would have reeled back had the rank behind not repelled him just as effectually, so he must stay bruised and upright, as tight packed as a lucifer match amidst a bundle.
One forgiveable Swallow doesn’t deter a Costa Coffee Book Award shortlister to call this book a summer. However it is just littered with similar anachronisms.
Nevertheless I finished it, though I read with pencil in hand, circling anachronisms and verbal modernisms that the editors let slip through, while Pudd’nhead Spufford tried so hard to be writing in 18th century vein.
I could list all the other gaffs but that would seem harsh and pedantic. The bigger sin is of the book is the Downtonisation of history. It continues apace, with dialogue in the tome ripped in places from old scripts of The Sopranos rather than Congreve.
One coda to writers of fiction who read this. You would be embarrassed in front of the creative writing class if you wrote a paragraph where your protagonist sees the un-seeable, or in this case hears the un-hearable through a closed door:-
“After an instant’s silence, there came through the door the sound of furious swearing, of clothes being frantically pulled on”
I’ll allow him to hear the swearing – or at least indecipherable raised voices. But what-the, who-the? What is this man, a bat? A superhero? How noisy can a shirt and a pair of kecks be, FFS?