Adventures In Research – Diet Books, King Tut and the Girl From The Magic Shop

I’m very nearly done with my new historical novel, which is so full of lies, duplicity and sheer bloody cruelty that I cannot wait to write the sequel to Fifty Shades of Neigh and spend the next few months wallowing happily in a big bunch of dick jokes.

I love writing historical fiction, but the main problem with it that all that research you did? All those lovely, carefully catalogued period details? All that time you spend immersing yourself in the popular culture of the era, absorbing the contemporary fads, fashion and slang?

Yeah – shut up about that.

In a good historical novel the characters will use enough contemporary slang to lend a flavour without making it incomprehensible to the modern ear. In a bad historical novel everyone will antiquey-speakey most verily even though yea, it sucketh great donkey balls, and in a really bad historical novel everyone will not only yabber on like they’re at a Renaissance Faire but also discuss the etymology of their gibberish. A really good historical novel will slip you a history lesson without you even knowing it. A bad one will beat you over the head with lumps of Wikipedia a la Dan Brown or go full on Downton and have people say things like “Well, indeed – after the War to end all wars we’re all in need of a little gaiety, and why shouldn’t Lady Ethel get her hair cut like the popular contemporary actress Louise Brooks in this year of our Lord 1926?”

This is not to say you can skimp on the research – you’d better damn well do it. I once came across a vampire novel that was utterly spoiled by the fact that not only was I supposed to believe that the vampire hero had trained as a Catholic priest in late 16th Century England but in the 1650’s had been quite the sexy young thing at the theatres and operas of old London town. You do research so that things like this don’t happen. Then you shut up about it. Research is essential but should remain invisible – sort of like Spanx.

So this is where blogs come in handy. Here’s just a taste of the fascinating stuff that either got a one line mention or kept an urgent playdate with the DELETE key.

Lulu – The Diet Doctor Is In

Weight worries and eating disorders are not, as some would insist, a sign of our times. Maintaining the brutally small waists of the mid-Nineteenth century probably accounted for frequent fainting and things didn’t get much better in the 1890s, when the brittle, full-skirted shape was replaced by the S-bend corset. Furthermore, the world was becoming increasingly mechanised, with people needing to exert themselves less.

Consequently, the diet industry boomed, with everything from tapeworms to high pressure hoses being used to squeeze figures swelled by Edwardian excess into the latest corsetry. One of the most famous of these quacks was J. Harvey Kellogg, whose Battle Creek Sanatorium prescribed yoghurt enemas, callasthenics and total sexual abstinence as a means of attaining perfect physical health. He also recommended treating the genitals of children with carbolic acid, in order to prevent masturbation, which is enough to put you off your cornflakes.

Another odd turn of the century practise was Fletcherism, pioneered by (yes, you’ve guessed it) Horace Fletcher. Fletcher, aka The Great Masticator (stop that sniggering at the back. I know) prescribed chewing every mouthful at least thirty two times and in some cases, spat out once the ‘goodness’ had been extracted.

This was, of course, disgusting.

lulu diet book

A page from Diet and Health. (Click for big.)

Into this world of weird chewy practises, unpleasant doings with hoses and strange electrical gadgets came Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters. Dr. Lulu advocated a new and scientific method of weight loss – calorie counting. First published in 1918, Diet and Health: With Key To The Calories dominated bestseller lists in the 1920’s.

In fact, the Lulu diet has aged rather well, with its blend of solid science, witty turns of phrase and the endearing stickmen illustrations provided by the author’s young nephew, and indeed, there’s something endearing about Lulu herself. This formerly chubby Californian held a medical degree from Berkeley back when women were still considered too silly to put a cross on a piece of paper, and she was active in the movement to rectify this nonsense.

Her book is still in circulation, thanks to the magic of Project Gutenberg. It’s well worth a look if you’re interested in the history of the diet industry.

Theda, Rudy and Tutankhamun


Theda Bara strikes a pose as Cleopatra

The early years of the 20th Century saw a fascination with Egypt and the Middle East, with popular songs like Palasteena and When Rebecca Came Back From Mecca. The latter includes a line “She’s as bold as Theda Bara – Theda’s bare but Becky’s barer,” referencing the original screen ‘vamp’, whose is most recognisable in her role as Cleopatra (1917). The new medium of cinema positively wallowed in the ‘mysterious East’ – Italian actor Rudolf Valentino is still remembered mostly for his role as Sheik Ahmad, in a movie of the popular 1918 novel The Sheik.

The Sheik, by E.M. Hull, is the great-grandmother of those pink, clinch-covered old school Mills & Boons that your granny used to love. It’s a sort of laundry list of bad romance conventions – sexy foreigners exoticised to the max, kidnap, Stockholm Syndrome subbing for true love, and lots and lots of rape. I must admit I couldn’t resist having my main character’s mother denounce the thing as ‘filth’ and chuck it on a roaring fire.

Egyptology also fuelled early 20th Century pop-culture’s passion for all things Ancient Egypt, with iconic discoveries such as the exquisitely beautiful Nefertiti scuplture found at Amarna. Then in 1922 a British archaeologist named Howard Carter hit the motherlode.

Schoolchildren still thrill to the story of how Carter peered through a tiny hole in the tomb’s seal, holding up an oil lamp to reveal the glitter of gold. When asked what he could see he replied ‘wonderful things’, which was perhaps an understatement. The tomb of Tutankhamun was like nothing anyone had seen before – the near intact royal burial of a little known 18th Dynasty Pharoah, whose sumptuous funerary goods would lead to him becoming one of the most famous names of all the God-Kings of Ancient Egypt.


Palmolive advert from the 1920s

Predictably, people went absolutely potty over the discovery. ‘Tutmania’ swept through society on both sides of the Atlantic – with advertising copywriters falling over themselves to tie their products to Ancient Egypt in any way possible.

There were ‘Tutankhamun rags’ and Tutankhamun themed parties. Kohl, already a popular cosmetic, became darker and heavier as ladies attempted to emulate the lithe, doe-eyed, bob-haired figures seen in the tomb paintings. Much of the Art Deco aesthetic, the bold clean lines and the bright colours on pale backgrounds – show clear Egyptian influences. The lotus became a popular motif and the ‘glitter of gold’ lent its glamour to the era. And if the romance and beauty of Ancient Egypt still weren’t enough for you, there were rumours of a curse.

Much has been made of the Curse of Tutankhamun, despite the fact that there never was much in the way of evidence. The rumours kicked off pretty quickly when Lord Carnarvon, the bankroll behind Carter’s expedition, was bitten by a mosquito and died. (Downton fans might be interested to know that Carnarvon was born at the family seat of Highclere Castle, the photogenic Jacobean building that currently serves as ‘Downton Abbey’ in the series. It was also used as ‘Totleigh Towers’ in Jeeves and Wooster, which adds an extra layer of hilarity to Downton Abbey as I keep expecting Spode to come louring over a balcony like a bristling fascist thundercloud.)

Carnarvon’s death was, of course, nothing really remarkable. He was bitten by a mosquito and the bite got infected while he was shaving. In the days before antibiotics, dying of sepsis was as easy as falling off a log, so that’s precisely what Lord Carnarvon did. The rumours of doom had been attendant from the beginning, with the fabulously bonkers novelist Marie Corelli being one of the first crackpots to jump on the bandwagon.

“I cannot but think some risks are run by breaking into the last rest of a king in Egypt whose tomb is specially and solemnly guarded, and robbing him of his possessions,” wrote Marie, who had never met a run-on sentence she didn’t want to hug, kiss and call George. “According to a rare book I possess…entitled The Egyptian History of the Pyramids…the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb. The book names ‘secret poisons enclosed in boxes in such wise that those who touch them shall not know how they comes to suffer’. That is why I ask, Was it a mosquito bite that has so seriously infected Lord Carnarvon?”

The short answer? Yes. It was.

The rare book in question was an Arabic text that had been written centuries after Tutankhamun’s interrment and there is no record of any ‘curse’ inscribed on any part of the tomb, but never one to let facts get in the way of a charming heap of old bollocks, our venerable friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle also got involved. Doyle repeated earlier assertions about ‘elementals’ guarding the tomb, although by this point in his career his credibility was seriously undermined by his search for fairies at the bottom of the garden and his prolonged communion with ‘Pheneas’, the ghost of a Babylonian seer who had helpfully taken up residence in his wife’s head.

Nevertheless, the ‘Curse’ was a handy jumping off point for some parts of the book and was definitely a thing that people would have talked about. You can always rely on a spooky story to have legs, even when it has no basis in reality.

Houdini, Martinka and Ms. White

Houdini’s crusade against fraudulent spiritualists was one of the things that made me want to write about psychic investigators in the first place, so naturally I wanted to give him at least a brief appearance in my next novel.

By the early 1920’s, Harry Houdini was staring down the big five-oh, although it didn’t seem to slow him down. If anything he was working harder than ever to compensate for the limitations of middle-age. In June 1923, aged forty nine, he performed a straight jacket escape dangling from a crane, some forty feet above Times Square. This was a repeat of a stunt performed in 1917, which must have been something of a vintage year in Harry’s memory – the year he learned to ‘vanish’ an elephant.

His other adventures in these last few years of his life included forays into movies (His attempts at acting were, to put it politely, not very good.) and the purchase of the famous Martinka’s Magic Store.

Founded in 1877 by brothers Francis and Antonio Martinka, Martinka & Company fast became the favourite suppliers of some of the greatest magicians in history. Along with Harry Houdini, Howard Thurston, Harry Kellar, Herrmann the Great and Charles Joseph Carter were all regular customers. Houdini had acquired the shop in 1919 but in 1923 he became company president of Martinka & Co, adding his name to a storied history that still continues today.martinkacover

Perhaps one of the particular attractions of Martinka’s was one of its employees – Daisy White. This attractive red-haired magician was said to be a talented sleight of hand artist who knew how to use her considerable personal charms as a means of distraction. Houdini had several affairs in his life, perhaps most notably with Charmian London, the sexually adventurous wife of novelist Jack. It’s thought that he also had a fling with Daisy, although if he did they were more discreet than the swinging Londons; when Houdini died Bess Houdini invited each of his mistresses to lunch and then when she said goodbye she handed them their love-letters back, tied with a ribbon. Although it’s said that some of the hot and heavy letters were penned by Daisy, she and Bess remained friends and even opened a speakeasy together some years later.

bess houdini

Bess Houdini in later life.


Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s