Do you know what every Victorian gothic murder mystery needs?
Somehow I came to this conclusion when I was planning my book, The Lie Tree. My 14-year-old heroine Faith is the daughter of the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, a famed natural scientist. She has a thirst for knowledge and a passion for all things scientific, but since she’s a girl everybody underestimates her…
Before writing the book, I knew I needed to research Victorian scientists, and find out what they were like, how they worked and what they believed. And then a friend told me about the Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs, and I knew I had to see them.
And here they are, basking by the shore and striding through the greenery, just as though they’re in a special dino-nature-reserve.
These are no ordinary dinosaur statues. They’re about a hundred and sixty years old. When they were made in the early 1850s, even the word ‘dinosaur’ had only been around for about ten years! People were only just getting their heads around the idea that there had been these huge, prehistoric creatures, and the Crystal Palace dinosaurs were the first real attempt to recreate what they had actually looked like.
So it’s not really surprising that they got some stuff wrong.
See those dinos in the background of this picture? The scientists had only found a skull for that kind of dinosaur, and had to guess what the rest of them had looked like. So… they wound up looking like turtles.
And real Iguanodons were lean, mean predatory machines that ran around on their hind legs, and were armed with vicious thumb claws. Somehow the models of them ended up looking like big, over-stuffed scaly doggies, with teensy weensy rhino-like horns on their noses.
But what is surprising is how much the scientists and model-makers got right. These still look quite a lot like the dinosaur models we have today, don’t they? And at the time, all the scientists involved in the design of the models were understandably proud of them.
They celebrated by holding a huge, fancy banquet inside one of the half-finished Iguanodons. Why not?
…except that they quite possibly didn’t. Many scientists are now wondering whether dinosaurs were actually covered in feathers! Researching the past not only helps me understand what people once thought, it makes me wonder which of the things we now “know” will seem idiotic or funny in a hundred years’ time.
As for the Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs, they found their way into a dark and ominous corner of The Lie Tree. A not-so-gentle reminder that most dinosaurs have strong jaws and sharp teeth, and that if they start to move you had better be able to move faster…