Historical novelists are sometimes asked whether they’d rather live in the times they write about than in the twenty-first century. In my case the short answer is, ‘No.’ The long answer involves words like anaesthetics, slavery, contact lenses and gas heating – not to mention the fact that I’d probably be dead by the age I am now.
In fact I’ve never heard anyone answer ‘yes’ to this question about any era, and suspect a lot of it has to do with advances in health care.
Readers who subscribe to the version of Victorian England in which the streets were full of jolly coachmen, prancing horses and rosy-cheeked choirboys standing under gas lamps in the snow (very prevalent at this time of year) should leave now. To those made of sterner stuff, I can thoroughly recommend a visit* to Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret that used to be part of St Thomas’ Hospital in London. No longer in use, of course, but apparently the oldest operating theatre in Britain. Obviously the nineteenth century is a long way removed from the Romans, but it’s said that surgery made very few advances between Classical times and the Victorian era. The Garret is a fascinating place to wander round, and a salutary reminder that whatever we may find wrong with the modern world, there’s a lot that we really, really wouldn’t want to go back to…
*a virtual visit is the only kind that can be made at the moment – it reopens on 6 January 2010 when, for reasons not entirely clear, it is celebrating The Odyssey of Chocolate. (I always knew chocolate was medicinal.)