Charles Dickens working at his desk
“The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.” So reads the opening lines of L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.
Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time-traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the place in which their story will be set - to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings or themes that, if placed in a contemporary tale, might seem entirely alien.
A good starting point for this cultural immersion is to read the work of established authors; those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo-Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the ‘foreign’ language used back then. My Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one offering a unique style to define the age they represent.
However, of all Victorian writers Charles Dickens is widely considered the master, his work rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world that he inhabited. But here, a word of warning: attempts to emulate his work may result in clichéd parody. A writer should never be afraid to develop their own personal style, even when following the ‘rules’ or restrictions within the chosen genre.
Not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens' formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”
We still have the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But, at the same time, Melville creates a very strong vernacular; a tone entirely original; a real, living character’s voice, who could belong to any age, who draws us straight into his world.
However, it must be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well observed by the modern-day author Charles Palliser whose The Quincunx, according to many reviews, ‘out Dickensed’ Dickens himself. Most ‘Sensation’ themes are covered, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. The narrator is called John Huffam, the middle names of Charles Dickens. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.
Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a spare and lyrical prose, rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”
The reader is immediately told that the narrator has been orphaned – a common Victorian theme around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots. Similarly, clues are laid in The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins – “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper. It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
Oyster Shop by Boz
The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-street’ – and the fact of the oyster supper: a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, all of which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.
The writer of historical fiction must also ensure accurate scene descriptions, considering the houses, shops, theatres and bars from which many settings can be derived, not to mention the streets through which their characters walk or drive. There would be the creaking of carriages, the jangling of reins, the clopping of hooves. And then, there would be the railways with the rhythmic chugging beat of the trains exuding their clouds of steam.
The expansion of the railways was of huge significance. For the very first time this transport means enabled a mass mobility, even though, as depicted in one of my novels, the less adventurous came to fear that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.” Still, many did travel to London which, to this very day, has a wealth of preserved Victorian settings.
18 Stafford Terrace in Kensington remains just as it would have been with Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of the house. For those unable to visit, there are countless images in books, or via a search on the Internet. The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography and that is why Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries. What better way to get a sense of interior or exterior scenes, or to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye than by looking at a photograph. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp…a little bit of magic realised.’
As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, to medicine - and her words occur in The Somnambulist; my fiction being melded with fact when the narrator quotes the book as a means of objecting to the clothes she wears –
“I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorized for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”
Other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. Very useful indeed when researching the Victorian demi-monde was My Secret Life by Walter - Walter being the most shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a melodramatic encounter, and the exploration of a world that could not be any more different to what is generally perceived as a moral, upstanding society.
I feel quite sure that Walter would have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting in both of my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below, with the glisten of the lime lights glancing off the brass of the barley twists posts around. No doubt he would have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in Elijah's Mermaid; that resort finally being closed down for ‘lewd and raucous behaviour’, of which nothing now remains intact but a pair of ornate iron gates.
The Dancing Platform at Cremorne by Phoebus Levin 1864
Unable to visit the actual place I read articles in Victorian newspapers (the archives available online). I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene of lush lawns with statues and fountains, a banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and regular theatrical displays – such as the infamous Beckwith Frog who, along with several fish, performed in a great glass aquarium. Freak shows were a popular, if not sordid, entertainment form - though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish. Imagine the smell of that!
And thinking about aromas, here is another writing prop to create a complete Victorian world; albeit one invisible. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, or the effluence from horses who drew the carriages and carts, or the noxious stink from factories exuding acrid yellow smoke. A skilful writer might convey the intensity of common smells without a descent into parody, but also to think ‘outside the box’, revealing less obvious fragrances, which, in the case of The Somnambulist, happened to be a perfume that came to have great significance within the novel’s plot. For this I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use and finding Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872, and described by the manufacturers as ‘animalic and golden…warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’
Quite a vivid description I’m sure you’ll agree. And quite a serendipity, because, after the book’s publication I realised that Hammam Bouquet is still in production today. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that, until then, I had only thought about – to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world.
This article was originally published in Writing Magazine to coincide with the publication of Essie Fox's new novel, Elijah's Mermaid.