My historical fantasy novel The Doctrines of Fire came out of research for a non-fiction book set in the same period. The non-fiction book doesn’t exist (yet), but it’s an expansion of my Physics Today article on Elizabeth Fulhame, a pioneering chemist. Elizabeth Fulhame was active in the late 18th century, lived in Edinburgh and interacted with Joseph Black (a professor of chemistry at the time). Hence a lot of background reading on those subjects.
I didn’t set out to spin a fiction book from my research, but during all that background reading two or three idle thoughts banged into each other within my head and formed a story.
Thought 1: “These 18th century scientific theories sound a lot like magic”
By the 1790s a lot of modern scientific principles were in place. Black’s principle of latent heat is still taught in university chemistry classes; elements like nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide were correctly isolated and characterised (though they had funny names like dephlogisticated air). Elizabeth Fulhame described water catalysis in mechanistic terms we know now to be surprisingly accurate. But scientists also believed substances like phlogiston and aether were sloshing around inside us controlling heat and our nervous system. These amorphously-defined substances appeared very alchemical and mystic to my modern ears.
Thought 2: “Joseph Black is absolutely fascinating.”
Unfortunately the target of my search, Elizabeth Fulhame, left scant trace on the historical record. We have none of her correspondence. We don’t know her birthday, maiden name or when she married. With archival searches not getting me far, I turned to a historical figure whose life was well-documented, to see if I could detect any echoes of Fulhame in the record of Joseph Black.
I read notes transcribed in ~1776 from Black’s chemistry course, and was surprised to see he spent the first lecture of the term talking about imposter syndrome and good study habits, much the way lecture courses are kicked off today (medical students were advised to take Black’s course in their first year of study). Based on what we know of Black’s mid-career stagnation I suspected he had his own struggles with imposter syndrome.
I then read the draft of a letter Black wrote to a former student objecting that the student expected him to pay for a rare metal he’d sourced. Pay for it yourself, Black retorted, I’ll consider it compensation “for the“extraordinary trouble I had correcting your dissertation.” In the ~1000 pages of Black’s edited correspondence, this is the only time we see Black lose his temper. And in the next draft of the letter (which he actually sent) he backtracked and diplomatically noted he was sure his former student had a better memory for payment arrangements than him.
Much like Colin Firth’s fight with Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary convinced Matthew Vaughan to cast him in Kingsman, I realised Dr Joseph Black might also have a dark side.
Thought 3: “This is some Shakespearean sh*t right here.”
Another research lead I pursued was the link between Elizabeth Fulhame’s husband and Dr John Brown: the two names appeared on a contract together, and (like Joseph Black) John Brown left an impressive paper trail. Not much luck finding more than a signature, but the trajectory of Brown’s life fascinated me. Here was a man who came from provincial obscurity but was talented enough to dazzle the Edinburgh medical elite; who same legitimate flaws with the current state of medicine/medical theory and tried to revolutionise it; but who fell victim to his own hubris and the jealousy of the medical elite he tried to compete with. Brown was Cullen’s protege for a while, before the two men fell out. The falling out turned into a public spat, roping in the rest of the Edinburgh faculty and students. There were broadsides in the paper, altercations in the medical societies, attempts to ban Brown’s teachings, and the threat of criminal prosecution for some of Brown’s stunts.
Thought 3 then linked up with Thoughts 1 & 2. They were filtered through my love of historical thrillers like The Dante Club and The Alienist to create The Doctrines of Fire close to the form it currently exists in. There’s a Historical Note/Bibliography at the end of my novel where you can find the sources I consulted if you’re interested.
But what about Elizabeth Fulhame? She doesn’t (yet) have the biography she deserves…but you might be able to spot her in The Doctrines of Fire. She then becomes a protagonist in subsequent books, which is the least I can do for her!