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.