The unspeakable delight of…

Maps.

Yes, that’s right.  I love them.  Adore them.  Pore over them by the hour.

(Especially old maps.  The 1 May 1812 map of London used on the cover of Of Honest Fame and now edging this blog–is a treasure trove of information…a cornucopia of street names, rivers now channelled underground, as well as the sheer smallness of what was then London…)

Maps are one of the first things I look for and at when I acquire a new history book.

Because…well…without those maps…half of the text may not even make sense.

Moreover, since I work and write about the early 19th century pretty exclusively, historical maps are a necessity.  Without them, I cannot hope to maintain my own (and my characters’) bearings–because so much has changed in 200 years.

The Victorians’ building spree in London hadn’t happened in 1812-13, nor had Baron Haussmann got busy in Paris creating all those wide boulevards for Napoleon’s nephew.  And when I’m writing, I need to understand as much about the physical world my characters knew and would have known…

So for accuracy’s sake, I always work from maps…how else can I calculate how long it took to get from point A to point B at a time when horses or foot were the landlocked method of transport?

I may have mentioned too that I’ve been reading, slowly and with great pleasure, Dominic Lieven’s landmark Russia against Napoleon for a bit now.

It is an utterly superlative work–his breadth of knowledge and understanding is breathtaking, and his analysis of the consequences of so many of Napoleon’s small mistakes and how they were devastating to his own war effort within the perimeters of life in the early 19th century is nothing short of seminal.

However, the place the place this wonderful book falls down is in the map department.  And here it falls seriously short.

Because for most of us, our familiarity with the geography of what was then Silesia, Bohemia, and Poland, is not, shall we say, top-notch.

(In my case, it’s bottom rung, frankly.)

For one thing, the countries and often towns aren’t known by the same names any longer, or–as in the case of Poland–their geographical landmass is surprisingly differerent from what it was it 1813.  Which is confusing enough.

Then add the fact that the Russians, Poles, Bohemians, Prussians and French may have used different names for the same place…Ha ha ha.  Are you getting the picture?

So, for example, say Bautzen to me, and I will tell you that a battle was fought there.  But my understanding of where Bautzen is in relation to anything at all, is, well, shall we say, non-existent.  I certainly don’t know the topography of the place.

And I suspect I am not entirely alone in this.

(Nor do I understand why publishers don’t understand the importance of maps to a text.  If any of you are reading this, here’s a tip:  Maps!  Lots of them!  Litter them through a text.  And if there is a battle–give us before, during and after maps–preferably located in the chapter where the description of the battle is, so we don’t have to keep flipping back and forth.)

However, I do have to say, for Christmas I received the most splendid book of maps.  (And yes, there are those of you, who if you don’t, should envy me this…)  It’s called The Peninsular War Atlas by Colonel Nick Lipscombe.

This volume is nothing short of Napoleonic historian heaven.

Every battle mapped out, the movements of the French, Spanish and British armies to and fro across Spain and Portugal plotted out in detail over the period–so that one can see the distances and topography covered.  All accompanied by concise text.

(I’m deliberately ignoring, for the moment, the fact that this gift was actually a prompt to get me researching for the fourth novel…)

Hours have already been spent slavering over the information so clearly charted there for me…

So, maps…undervalued, underestimated as a historical resource, irreplaceable to the understanding…in short, just plain fascinating.  Here’s to them.

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9 comments on “The unspeakable delight of…

  1. Rowenna says:

    Oooh, maps…yes, one can lose oneself in a map quite easily 🙂 I love, in particular, the very old, very first maps of places…it’s fun to see how “wrong” they were, but how they probably represent what people understood of a place. And what’s called by different names, or spelled differently–so many names of places in America make so much more sense after seeing, from old maps, how they went from Native American languages to French to English and got odder in each permutation. Have fun 🙂

  2. Piotr says:

    Maps are fun, and can be misleading too. As for Poland? During that time period it didn’t exist, not even in name *sigh*

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Poland did exist–sometimes as Poland, sometimes as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw…and Napoleon called his invasion of Russia the Polish war. They certainly referred to the area as Poland in speech and in letters at the time, particularly when they’re trying to sweeten Frederick William up.

  3. cavalrytales says:

    Lucky stick!
    Don’t you just hate the diaries…’marched 3 leagues to (place you’ve never heard of and can’t find on any map), then on to (another place impossible to find). I’ve been known to scream, ‘WHICH DIRECTION, YOU STUPID *****?!!!!
    Half the time I just make them up. Who’d know? My last reviewer complimented me on descriptions of Figuera da Foz (said he stood on the beach where Wellesley came ashore and could imagine the difficulties beaching horses in the surf)and Vimiero.
    Guess I’m just lucky, because I’ve seen neither place!

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Makes me crazy! And the battle descriptions from the Lieven have been full of stuff like, “They marched up this defile [there were two apparently] and through these woods which surprised the French on their left flank…” And I’m thinking “Please, just give me a map, for heaven’s sake!” And yes, a little directional–which way, north, south, east or west–would certainly help.

      But that’s excellent about your review.

      The maps in this Peninsular War Atlas are simply spiffing though. The armies are picked out in different colours, there are arrows indicating directions, some of the maps of battles are very detailed and close up. A sheer joy.

  4. Rudolf says:

    Well you learn something new every day. I didn’t know Silesia still existed then, I only remember it from Roman times (not personally of course, I’m not THAT old). However, like you said yourself about Bautzen, I have no idea where it was in the world, only that Romans had trouble with pirates coming from there… so I guess it must have had a coastline on the Med?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Bautzen is in the middle of nowhere Prussia. I can almost find it on a map…

      Silesia I wrote about in Of Honest Fame, so I do know where that is. But getting info about it circa 1812 was enough to drive me mad because of course it had been under Soviet occupation and they kind of wiped out everything that went before them wherever they could.

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