From the Notebook: Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888

Things are definitely crazy here on campus (did I mention I’m a Buckeye?), what with it being my last undergraduate year (!!). Grad school applications are slowly going out, and I will admit that a couple of these posts have been timestamped ahead of time just to keep up.

On to the subject of this post. This past summer I found treasure: Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888 is amazing. It’s written by Charles Dickens’s son, Charles Dickens, and covers everything from how much admission will cost (according to where you sit) in every major theatre in London, to how a person should walk down the street if you don’t want to get mugged. Here is an interesting article about fog that had me chuckling:

Fogs are, no doubt, not peculiar to London. Even Paris itself can occasionally turn out very respectable work in this way, and the American visitor to England will very probably think, in passing the banks of Newfoundland, that he has very little to learn on the subject of fog. But what Mr Guppy called “a London particular,” and what is more usually known to the natives as a “peasouper,” will very speedily dispel any little hallucination of this sort.

As the east wind brings up the exhalations of the Essex and Kentish marshes, and as the damp-laden winter air prevents the dispersion of the partly consumed carbon from hundreds of thousands of chimneys, the strangest atmospheric compound known to science fills the valley of the Thames. At such times almost all of the senses have their share of trouble. Not only does a strange and worse than Cimmerian darkness hide familiar landmarks from the sight, but the taste and smell are offended by an unhallowed compound of flavours, and all things become greasy and clammy to the touch. During the continuance of a real London fog–which may be black, or grey, or more probably orange-coloured–the happiest of men is he who can stay at home…

From Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888: An Unconventional Handbook by Charles Dickens © 2006 by Old House Books

So… I basically read this “dictionary” cover-to-cover. Shows how much of a research nerd I am, right? I still can’t believe my luck that I found a guide to London published exactly in the middle of my novel’s time line. Dickens is a wonderful writer, as you can tell by the passage above. Who knew fog could be so interesting? You can tell Dickens loved London, that he knew it intimately, and that he was probably a spirited conversationalist. The first couple of pages in the book include a detailed map of London, which is indispensable for a history writer like me.

So let me ask you writers, have you ever found that one source that proved to make the others pale in comparison? A primary source that gives you an insider look? What about sources that sent you on a wild goose chase? Do you even care about research?

WIP: First Paragraphs

Caricature drawn by Worderella
Caricature drawn by Worderella

Everyone talks about how important a first line is, how important the first page is, of any good piece of writing. We go on about how the idea needs to grab the reader, to hook them as one might hook a fish. But we never really give our own examples, unless we’re sure we’ve got it down. And the thing is, I don’t know if I have it down. I’m fairly certain I don’t, if only because I’m a type A perfectionist who second-guesses herself a lot.

So this is what I’m going to do: Below is the hook, and first lines of my working!title Trentwood’s Orphan. Give me your honest opinion, otherwise, I’ll never learn my lesson. But… also keep in mind that this is First Draft B, so I realize it’s still pretty rough.

As always, this is my writing and it is copyright protected, so please, let’s not spread this around and take it for yourself.

The hook for the novel is as follows: A grieving daughter encounters love and ghosts in Victorian England.

And so the novel begins…

Continue reading

From the Notebook: Victorians and the Environment

By the High Victorian era, which describes the 1870s and beyond, many activists and doctors were starting to connect the welfare and livelihood of Londoners to their environment around them. In the 1860s, the Thames in London was so fetid, so polluted, that Parliament scheduled its activities so the smell wouldn’t sit stagnant in the heat. It was too hot to sit in the rooms with the windows shut, but with the windows open, the smell was so unbearable that men compared it to actual torture. Cholera, spread by bacteria in liquids, was a great epidemic in the 19th Century because of the sanitary conditions.

William Farr was able to prove that contaminated water spread the disease, rather than the popular belief in miasma. As such, water and sewage treatment facilities were put in place, though not in time to prevent a cholera outbreak in London’s East End, where all of the manufacturing plants were.

By the late 1870s, Londoners could punt on the Thames, with the river actually becoming a tourist event rather than a place to studiously avoid… Ten years earlier, one saw dead fish and the occasional person, smelled garbage and human waste; it was a mess.

Luckily, the Victorians, with their obsession with cleanliness (as it is close to Godliness), turned their eye to their environment and started to make a change.

This entry was part of Blog Action day.
Blog Action Day 2007

Book: Silent in the Grave

Title: Silent in the Grave
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Genre: Historical Mystery
Length: 509 pgs

Summary: Always weak, Sir Edward falls to the floor while he and his wife, Lady Julia, entertain some friends. Julia is sent from the room by her father, but not before a mysterious and dark man, Nicholas Brisbane, warns her that this was very likely murder. Certain Brisbane is mad, Julia disregards his warning until a year later, when she throws off her full-mourning and starts to pack away Edward’s things…only to find a death threat shoved in his desk.

pg 1 – To say I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.

Why should you read this book?
For you historical fiction writers looking for a first-person narrative, this book is a great example from which to learn. Julia is impetuous, frank, and conflicted, all great character traits for a narrator. For those of you writing in the High Victorian era (i.e. late Victorian era, from 1870’s-on), read this book to learn how to drop details about society, class restraints, and aristocratic assumptions without taking away from the story.

Unfortunately for me, I read too much, so many stories start to seem similar and I guess things before I should, like who the killer might be. I did not, however, guess the motive at all and I give Raybourn props for that. An entertaining read, similar in theme to Tasha Alexander’s A Poisoned Season, I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t switch my own 1880’s novel to a first-person narrative in which a young woman loses her husband before she really knew him, thus freeing her to walk about Society the way an umarried woman cannot, and solve mysteries in a Nancy Drew sort of way.

Book: The Wayward Muse

Title: The Wayward Muse
Author: Elizabeth Hickey
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 293 pgs

Summary: It is the beginning of the Victorian era, and Jane is a very ugly girl. On an outing with her sister, Jane is spotted by two artists that consider her the most beautiful woman in the world, thus changing her life forever.

pg 1 – Jane Burden was considered the plainest girl on Holywell Street, and that Oxford slum was home to many worthy candidates for the title. Mary Porter, who was afflicted with a lazy eye and copious freckles, lived there, just across the street from Alice Cunningham, who had crooked, discolored teeth and thinning hair. Number 142 was the residence of Catherine Blair, whose neck and ear had been horribly burned when she was a baby, and whose left leg was somewhat shorter than the right. But even she was considered marginally better looking than Jane.

pg 2 – But it was her expression that truly made Jane Burden plain. For she seldom smiled, and her green eyes, which might have been considered striking on another girl, were empty. They weren’t sad; sadness could be fetching. They were not grave and serious or soft and pleading or tearful and melancholy. They were blank. Jane’s eyes told everyone who met her of her misery and her despair. They told of a girl who had ceased to hope for anything, who had gone deep inside herself to withstand her lot. It made the others uneasy.

pg 53 – Jane only laughed. Rosetti knew something that the people of Holywell street did not. He knew she was a fairy queen. […] Her silence was now called dignity. Her height and her skinniness were regal rather than ugly.

pg 286 – “What is my mind made of?” asked Jane.
“Oh, I think it’s a willow basket,” said Morris. He put down his pipe and stood up. “Soft and pliable but incredibly resistant. The only way to unravel it would be with great violence and a pair of very sharp scissors.”

Why should you read this book?
Excellent writing, as you’ll find in the excerpts I’ve posted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite Jane’s character, which makes me respect Hickey even more. Once I realized the plot, I almost put the book away, except Hickey’s writing and depiction of the characters stayed my hand. This book is one of the best fiction depictions of a real Victorian marriage that I have read yet; the main characters are real people, and while the story may not be entirely factual, the plot seems to follow the real time-line faithfully. The writing style is simple yet lush, the scenery vivid, the characters organic and sympathetic. Anyone working on making their characters flawed, especially the main character, should read this book as an example of how to maintain your reader’s interest.

Book: A Poisoned Season

Title: A Poisoned Season
Author: Tasha Alexander
Genre: Historical Mystery
Length: 306 pgs

Summary: It is the start of the summer Season in London, and everyone worth speaking to is whispering about Mr Charles Berry, an alcohol-and-woman-happy man claiming to be the lost descendant of the dauphin (that is, heir to Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette). Lady Emily Ashton, our heroine, becomes suspicious of Mr Berry as items once belonging to his “beloved grande-mere” are stolen from unsuspecting peerage about town. As deaths occur and the thief begins to stalk Emily, rather than running away or hiding behind her dear friend Colin Hargreaves, Emily uses her cleverness and curiosity to solve the mysteries plaguing London.

pg 5 – “Surely you’ve put aside all thoughts of studying during the Season?” he asked.
“Studying Greek, Mr Berry, is what will get me through the Season.”

pg 132 – His lips brushed my hand. “How do you like the room? I finally realized that if I’m to have any hope of marrying you, I’d have to show you my library first.”

pg 134 – I think had he the presence of mind to propose at that moment, I would have accepted. The combination of hearing him speak in such an enlightened manner and the perfect setting of his library would have been too much to resist.

pg 296 – Added to this angst was Colin’s absence. His actions during the past months had surprised me at every turn. He had not tried to keep me from pursuing my investigations and had offered assistance without taking charge on his own. And now, in the aftermath of it all, I wanted nothing more than to sit with him, in quiet triumph, discussing what had transpired.

I loved to flirt with him, tease him, to discuss Greek with him. But I had not expected to find that, as a partner, he could offer more than that. He challenged me, stimulated my thinking, and offered both comfort and support when I succumbed to frustration. Was it possible that, as his wife, I might grow more than if I remained alone?

Why should you read this book?
This was just the sort of book I needed to read. The voice (written in first person) is amusing, conversational, yet intelligent. We are given detail about the London Season and high society, without it dragging the story. Motives were plausible, and everyone had a story to tell. Even the bit players. And they were interesting stories. Alexander didn’t sugar-coat her description of life back then, especially in terms of relations between men and women, married and single; yet, everything was written tastefully. Read this book for an engaging heroine, a cozy mystery, and a fun read. Fun, I think, because of the pacing and the lively characters. This is the second in what I assume will be a popular series, and I’m thinking of going back to read the first book, which I have yet to do. Give it a try, I think you might like it!

From the Notebook: Victorian Courting Customs

First thing’s first: someone has randomly thanked me for posting in this journal, and encouraged me to keep up the good work. I don’t know who wrote the comment, but let me thank you for leaving it. Writing is a lonely adventure sometimes. Random, anonymous comments, while frustrating because the commenter remains mysterious, are greatly appreciated. Not to gush or anything, because the comment is a little sparse, but I’ve been having a semi-bad week thanks to school stresses and residual back/leg pain from an injury, and this random comment completely made my day.

All right. Now that I’ve managed to contain my pleasure, I thought I’d treat you all with a little bit of something something from my notes about courtships. I missed Valentine’s Day, but February is the month of love and hey, I am a romance writer, so here’s an excerpt from my research journal:

Courtship at most formal:

  • Man wants to marry?
    1. Consider future prospects, financial position –> justify his trying to attract women?
    2. See if chosen women return his affection “with delicacy and caution to avoid compromising her” (can happen even before meeting the girl)
      -Might see her in church, at a ball, be family friend
    3. If haven’t met her before, arrange for mutual friend to introduce him to family
      -If no mutual friend, good sign the idea should be dropped cuz families don’t run in same social circle
  • Girl and Guy meet in family circles with at least one married member present…allows girl to “assess his worth”
    -Does he diss women? Does he attend church? Are his hobbies “low and vulgar?”
    -He also can’t be lazy, eccentric, frivolous or foppish
    -He better have enough biz interest to ensure they’ll have future $$ 

    -Also allows him to see if she is attentive to her duties, respectful/affectionate to parents, kind to siblings, mellow…

  • If she turns out to be a flirt or he a jerk, they can remove themselves from the courtship at this process and not feel guilty
  • Now he can speak to her father. If dad’s agreeable, speak to daughter

Parent’s involvement along gender lines: dad takes care of financial concerns, mom looks at social compatability.

If all looks good, invitations set so couple can meet, give talking opportunities…

Information gleaned from Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders

In other words, courtship was a business back then. I’m not sure how many happy couples were created out of such a courtship system, but given the number of romantic fiction authors, I hope there were a lot. Or at least a few. But then, given the divorce rate these days, and, knowing that for many couples, the divisive topic was money, maybe we should consider marriage more of a business than we do?

Anyway, Happy belated Valentine’s Day! May your muse bless you with beautiful prose that befits the month of love.

Official Rules for Writing Victorian Historical Novels

This is hilarious and something all Victorian novelists ought to read.

by Sally Zigmond
1. There’s always trouble up factory/mill/mine (always referred to as t’factory, t’mill or t’pit).

2. Britain was a smaller place then. It consisted only of The Industrial North (Yorkshire, Manchester and South Shields) and London (West End, sleazy and rich; East End, sleazy and poor, but full of loveable rogues).

3. Rain falls for 360 days a year. On 4 days, the sun is shrouded in smoke, soot and grime or never seen as everyone toils day and night in the factory/mill/mine. Star-crossed lovers always spend one day out on’t moors in brilliant sunshine, make a baby, then return home in a violent thunderstorm, after which they are forcibly parted or dead.

4. The main characters are: rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner; rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner’s son; rich and virtuous factory/mill/mine owner’s son; poor and virtuous factory/mill/mine worker; rich and virtuous factory/mill/mine owner’s daughter; rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner’s daughter; poor and virtuous daughter of factory/mill/mine worker (delete where not applicable).

5. The necessary love interest occurs when a male from list 4 falls in love with a female from list 4 (write names on cards and throw in the air). This inevitably leads to 3 or 1 or both.

6. One of the men is a Luddite. Another believes in progress. They are probably brothers (either rich or poor, but both virtuous). They are at odds until the penultimate chapter when one saves the other’s life (see 1 and 10).

7. The wife of the factory/mill/mine owner is an invalid. The virtuous factory/mill/mine worker is a widower and his daughter is dying of consumption. Only the virtuous contract consumption. The wicked enjoy robust health.

8. The wicked factory/mill/mine owner always cuts wages or lays workers off to pay his or his son’s gambling debts or his daughter’s dressmaker (see 1). Or the virtuous factory/mill owner may be forced to cut wages or lay off workers to pay his wife’s medical bills. His guilty conscience leads him to drink or death (see 1 and 7).

9. There is always a strike at the factory/mill/mine and the wrong (virtuous) man is always accused of being the ring-leader and is thrown in gaol where he dies or is saved by his enemy (see 1 and 6).

10. All factories/mills/mines have leaking roofs, lethal machinery and dangerous chemicals. They always blow up or burn down in the penultimate chapter (see 1).

Should I be worried? I hope not haha…my novel has nothing to do with mines or factories or mills. Maybe it should. Hm. Anyway, article found at Sarah’s Bookarama: Article originally written for Solander December 2001:

From the Notebook: British Peerage

I took these notes for my High Victorian era novel on December 19, 2004. Thought I’d post a few of my notes every once in a while, either as a way to help my fellow fiction/historical fiction writers, and also as a fun way to remind me of all the information I’ve gathered.

The British Peerage
The following list is in order of importance, most to least. All of the following should be addressed as Lord and Lady BlankWhatever, in which BlankWhatever is the name of the title/name of the estate, and not the family name aka last name. Every once in a while the family name and title are the same.

  1. Duke, Duchess
  2. Marquis (Marquess), Marchioness
  3. Earl, Countess
  4. Viscount, Viscountess
  5. Baron, Baroness

– The eldest son of a duke, marquis, and earl take the lesser title.
– The younger son of a duke/marquis is called “Lord FirstName LastName” or simply “Lord FirstName.”
– The younger son of an earl is called “the Honourable FirstName LastName.”
– All children of viscounts/barons are called “the Honourable FirstName LastName.”
– Daughters of dukes, marquises, earls are called “Lady Given Name.”

It should be understood that the upper servants ate in the housekeeper’s room, and the lower servants ate in the servants’ hall and cleaned the upper servants’ rooms.

  • Upper Servants (not all households had full set): butler, housekeeper, parlor maid, cook, children’s nurse, valet, ladies’ maid.
  • Lower Servants: footmen, housemaids, under housemaids, kitchen and scullery maids, still-room maids, charwomen, nursery maids, pages.
  • Outside Servants: coachman, gardener, young boys.

* Manservants are much more expensive, so if a family owns even one, it’s a definite indication of their wealth.

* Middle-class families sometimes took over certain duties:
– housekeeper: domestic accounts and bills
– ladies’ maid: plain needlework for self and children
– governess: children’s education

* Jilting a fiance lowered a marriagable woman’s chances for making a “good match.”
– 1/4 middle-class women didn’t marry in late Victorian era

Information retrieved from: Jo McMurtry’s Victorian Life and Victorian Fiction: A Companion for the American Reader.