Monday, 8 November 2010

Round robin: why I gravitated towards the Victorian era.

So, after a bit of re-jigging of the round robin order, it's my turn, and Tim has asked me what attracted me to the Victorian era in particular, and whether I can see myself writing in other eras at some point.

The attraction of the Victorian era for me is a many-splendoured thing, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that so many of my areas of interest can be found there. Because they seem quaint and dated to us, it's easy for us to forget this, but the Victorian era was one of tremendous progress: technologically, intellectually and socially. I'm a bit of a nerd and I love my gadgets (even if I don't always understand exactly what they're doing), and in the 63 years and seven months Victoria was on the throne, they made huge strides towards the understanding of the world we currently have today. There was Darwin's Origin of Species, of course - a massive 'eureka!' moment - and our practices of medical hygiene and surgical sterilisation took their first steps under Victoria. Of course, one of the vital ingredients for an interesting plot is to have some sort of change and turmoil rocking the boat of your character's life, and so to place them in an era in which so much is changing is helpful in achieving that.

However, I have a hypothesis that as a society becomes more technically advanced, it's as if they sometimes become a little frightened of the speed at which they're moving, and so they subconsciously put the brakes on in other areas, often by becoming - outwardly, at least - more socially conservative. This certainly seemed to be the case in many respects as far as the Victorians went, if you compare them to the 18th and early 19th C preceding them, which seem to modern eyes to have been more permissive than the Victorians who came next.

It is important, though, not to take this apparent primness at face value, because (as I have discussed ad nauseam on my blog), underneath that voluminous white underwear, the Victorians were a friskier generation of people than they probably would have wanted you, or the people next door, to have known about; and they were better at making moves towards social change than they might have admitted, too. The working class suffragists of the northern mill towns began their campaigning for the right to vote for all adults, male and female (as opposed to the rather more notorious suffragettes, who only seemed to care about well-off women being able to vote alongside their well-off male counterparts - don't mention the name Pankhurst to me around the time of an election unless you want a lengthy diatribe); and from 1874 it was possible for a woman to train as a doctor (although they did have to attend a women-only institution - the London School of Medicine for Women - to do so; and no doubt they would have faced prejudice from patients and other doctors once qualified). Those of you who know me will know I'm a soft touch when it comes to animals, and while the Victorian attitude to our non-human relatives was by no means ideal, again, they were making progress: the RSPCA1 was a Victorian invention, as was the Vegetarian Society. Oh, and apparently something called the NSPCC2 came about later in the Victorian era, too. (Internet disclaimer: don't take my tone too seriously there, will you?)

Anyway, you get the idea - it was a very confused, conflicted, neurotic era, so that's probably why it and I clicked. There's something very intriguing about a society that invents the camera and then immediately sets about making the first photographic pornography and taking pictures of the bodies of their dead relatives to keep in the family album; and yet as I say, over time the Victorians have still become grossly misunderstood by the majority of people, and had their already-pretty-damn-peculiar quirks exaggerated to mythic proportions; and I have an affinity with the misunderstood and the misinterpreted too that probably informs my interest in the period. On a purely shallow level, I think the Victorian era was more aesthetically beautiful than any period before or since - I love the clothes and the decor (the Victorian attitude to the latter being about as far from minimalism as you could manage, and no bad thing); and being a bodiceripper, I don't think it's beyond my remit to comment on how much better the men put themselves together then. Perhaps I've spent too much time looking at history books, but I think Prince Albert was a bit of all right in his day; and the other day I caught myself ogling a portrait of Elgar on the cover of Classic FM magazine. When I rule the world, football club shirts, baseball caps, tracksuits and trainers will be banned.

Finally (as far as the first half of Tim's question goes), I'm reminded of a quote that - if I recall correctly - is attributed to Stephen King; who, when asked why he wrote the types of stories he does, replied "what makes you think I have a choice?". In many ways, I think it's the same for me and my era of choice - these are the characters who come to me, and I think my Muse wears a waistcoat and top hat and carries a cane. At least, I like to think so.

As for writing about other eras, actually I already have - the third novel I completed (which may see the light of day at some point, once focus has shifted from the WIP) starts at the very end of the Victorian era and segues into the Edwardian (I know, so adventurous, aren't I?). From there, I have ideas for one or possibly two more sequels to that book, which would take me further into the Edwardian era and perhaps (if I'm feeling brave) into WW1, which is probably as modern as I can see myself getting. As for going back in time from 1837 (when Vic took the throne)...well...I can't see it at this point, anyway; at least not as far as full-length novels go. I enjoy reading about a wide variety of times, but writing about them...not so sure.

For the non-Brits:
1 Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
2 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children


And now my questions for Alis Hawkins, author of Testament and a fellow historical scribbler. Alis' first novel Testament is a fast-paced timeslip tale, and she has recently completed the first draft of her latest book, The Black and the White. Now that I feel like Parky having delivered that introduction, I'd like to ask Alis whether TB&TW is also a timeslip piece or a straight historical (and if it's the latter, how different she finds the experience of writing about one time period as opposed to two in the same story); and in particular what she thinks are the challenges and attractions of writing about the more distant eras she favours (TB&TW is set in the 1300s)?


C. N. Nevets said...

Great insights on the Victorian Era there. You definitely make it sound intriguing!

Faye L. Booth said...


Aliya Whiteley said...

I know what you mean about Prince Albert. Maybe it's the sideburns.

Tim Stretton said...

One of my university lecturers (this was in the mid-80's) had a face like Mr Punch but the most amazing sideburns. All my female acquaintance fancied him for reasons which, in my callow adolescence, remained obscure.

Faye L. Booth said...

Aliya: I think it helps that Victorian men never smiled in photos. Adds to the severe-and-moody-and-slightly-frightening thing.

Tim: Ah, now in my case they have to be attractive as well. Although admittedly I have an unusual idea of what that involves.

Alis said...

I agree about the men's fashions - tres elegant etc - but I wouldn't, for a single second, want to wear female garb from the Victorian period - especially from the upper social echelons. It's about as far from practical and comfortable as I can imagine!

Deborah Swift said...

Your Muse sounds fab, very dapper. I think mine would be dressed in the sort of swashbuckling shirt that's torn open to the front and spotted with someone else's blood. I'm always tempted by the Victorian era because at least there are some photos - and you're right, the slightly serious look of the sitters adds to their allure. Really interesting post, it's great to get an insight on why it works so well for you.

Frances Garrood said...

Interesting reply, Faye. And I do agree about the choice of subject matter; I wonder if any of us have as much choice as to what we write about as people imagine.

Interesting, too, that the Victorians were into photographing funerals. Just today in the Times there was a piece about a firm of "Funeographers" (I think that was the word) who now do just that. They will take arty photos of a funeral, and put them together in an album (for the bereaved to browse through on those long, winter evenings).

Brian McGilloway said...

Interesting post, Faye. I always loved the contradictions inherent in Victorian England. I can see the attraction for a writer.

Faye L. Booth said...

Alis: Ah, now generally speaking, I'd be happy to dress like that (aside from the high daytime necklines - I can't have anything tight around my throat). Corsets are fine with me - as soon as I can afford a cleaner, I'm wearing mine every day!

Dee: So your Muse is Jack Sparrow?! :)

Frances: It's weird, because someone recently told me that he has a load of photos taken at his grandmother's funeral. It gives me the creeps - partly because I hate photos at the best of times, so someone getting in my face with a camera while I was grieving would need several kinds of insurance; but also because I have a rather hysterical aversion to anything funereal (believe it or not). The last thing I'd want a photo of is a coffin. Mind you, it did start me wondering how professional funeographers might style their pics. If you model it on a wedding album, it gets quite surreal: relatives standing around a coffin with hankies in hand; a cake with a little gravestone on top; a hearse with "Just Buried" written on the back...

Brian: Yes, it was a weird old time!