Tuesday, 17 May 2016


Right now, I am trying to work out how to write a particular scene in a piece of “Victorian” junior fiction. The scene involves electricity, but how can I make that dramatic enough for modern children? Do they think of electricity as the dangerous and unreliable presence in the home I once knew, even if that was not quite as far back as the nineteenth century?

The Victorians were familiar with the concept of electricity. My battered 1862 Chambers Encyclopaedia has eleven pages on the subject, stating that:
“Electricity, the name used in connection with an extensive and important class of phenomena, and usually denoting either the unknown cause of the phenomena or the science that treats of them. Most of the phenomena in question fall under the three chief heads of Frictional Electricity, Galvanism and Magneto-Electricity.” 
 Scientists, earlier but especially in the eighteenth century, had already advanced electrical knowledge. 
By 1818, Mary Shelley’s fictional Frankenstein could use an un-named scientific “power” to bring his creature to life but, in practice, electricity was mostly for creating interesting and spectacular effects. Yet by 1862, with Victoria on the throne, the encyclopaedia describes the harnessing of this new power with early electrical clocks, magnets, telegraphy, electro-motive machines, batteries and the phenomena of electric light:
“somewhat approaching the light of the sun in purity and splendour. Its intensity is such as to prevent the eyes from examining the particulars of its production”.

Electricity was a fascinating force indeed: throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century, it caused  the “War of the Currents” in the States, a battle between the Edison Electric Light Company who advocated Direct Current (or DC) and the Westinghouse system who promulgated AC or Alternating Current. One of the heroes - and a casualty of this battle of forces was the Serbian scientist Nikola Tesla - or Nikolai Tesler - whose story is told in highly dramatic style in this American video.

Meanwhile, a century later and my parents were warning me of the dangers of electricity along with the peril of unlit gas and blazing embers setting hearthrugs ablaze, alarms I remembered when I saw a particular John Bull magazine cover recently. Such covers depicted aspects of British life in the fifties, echoing the sunny everyday-American-life illustrations of Norman Rockwell. (I am wondering how soon the illustrations might stage an ironic resurgence in mock Ladybird books style.)  

The particular “electric” cover that I saw depicted a woman in a pre-Kath-Kidston pinny. She was smiling at her manly husband as he crouched under the stairs, knowingly and smugly mending a blown fuse. What joy! Her happy housewifery could now resume! 

However, that perfect image merely reminded me how unreliable electricity could be around the home back then, despite all the “clean and modern” publicity. Fuses often blew, plunging homes into darkness, needing to be repaired with pliable grey fuse-wire rather than with the simple click of a switch of today. Torches, candles, matches and the fuse repair kit were always at hand, ready for the next sudden blackout. Fuses were not the only things that caused problems: many homes still had gas and electricity meters that needed constant feeding with cash. The prudent kept a tin of coins topped up for such emergencies while the less prudent rummaged around in their purses - and all in the dark!

Even when connected to the grid, there was far less access to electric power. Ironing was often managed by plugging into the ceiling light’s double socket: one held the light bulb while the other plug branched off at an angle for the iron's plug, which meant that the flex dangled down by the shoulder of the person ironing. Homes had one or two single two-pin electric wall socket in each downstairs room and the “flex” that led to electrical devices consisted of two or three twisted rubber wires covered by a layer of braided cotton. Not only did the low-grade rubber coverings perish and damage quite easily but overloaded sockets would send out the warning aroma of singeing plastic. Electricity was definitely a thing to be wary about, back in the mid-twentieth century.

Electricity seems so much safer and more reliable now – unless, perhaps, you have been living in a flood plain - and the smooth modern cabling, wall sockets and plugs of today are items to be glad about. Usually the power stays on, cabling is discreet and safe and my grandchildren comfortably use all manner of electrical devices. Of course, they have learned about electricity and batteries at home and in primary school and have been taught never to poke about in sockets or do similar stupid things. Thankfully, for them, at the moment and in this country, electricity is usually not an erratic, wayward force.

Which leads me back to my niggling fret: will the drama of my intended Victorian “electric” scene carry any power at all for the modern young reader here in Britain? Wish me luck with the writing. 

Penny Dolan


Catherine Johnson said...

It was a sort of magic - well still is I suppose. I remember all the power cuts of the early 70s quite fondly - not sure if my parents would. I can't wait to read your next book Penny.

Susan Price said...

I, too, am eagerly looking forward to the next installment of Mouse.

You'll bring off that scene in triumph, Penny - you're such a good writer.

And your blog brings back a lot of memories for me too - though the house I was born in was lit by gas, not electricity. There was a meter. Several of my family's creepier ghost stories begin with the sudden plunge into darkness as the meter runs out.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Yes, it will be exciting! Especially if you perhaps don't name the power in question as being electricity straight away. A really interesting blog to remind how extraordinary some the 'ordinary' things in our life our.