Friday, 11 January 2013

The Unregarded Fact

One of the things I love about writing historical novels is the opportunity it gives me to burrow into the past and dig up strange or otherwise unregarded facts. Occasionally they illuminate an historical figure or situation in an unexpected way This usually happens as a consequence of  researching a novel, and comes as an aside, having little or nothing to do with the research in question. One little gem I recently discovered while reading a book on the American Civil War is that Lloyd George was keen on phrenology.

Who was Lloyd George? And what on earth is phrenology? I hear you cry.

David Lloyd George became British prime minister in 1916, and phrenology is the notion that you can tell a person's character traits from the shape of his head - I'm sure you've seen the plaster heads with varios areas labeled with such things as "self-esteem" and "cautiousness" and so on. Phrenology is a Victorian pseudo-science which was wholly discredited by medical science well before the turn of the nineteenth century, and so it surprised me to learn that a British prime minister, or indeed any educated person, could ever have supposed there might be any truth in it.

Apparently, Lloyd George took against Neville Chamberlain (who was later prime minister just before Churchill in 1940) on the basis of the size of his head, and mobilized a considerable following against him. On the other hand, he approved of French general, Robert Nivelle, for precisely the same reason. At a conference during the Great War, Lloyd George all but committed the British Army to a subservient role vis-a-vis the French in the planning of a rather optimistic grand strategy - at least until General Haig managed to put a stop to it.

It's astonishing, I think, that such a whacky belief as phenology might easily have tipped the balance at two crucial turning points of history, astonishing and more than a little scary. So next time you see a political leader, spare a moment to wonder what bizarre, out-dated and irrational nonsense he or she may be harboring in his or her well-groomed head.