Writing in Period: 1859


(The photographs illustrating this post are both cartes-de-visite (CDVs) though clearly the one with three children is later than 1859 as you can see from the date of the “queen’s prize” of 1871 on the reverse. However, CDVs were produced from about 1854 onwards and would have been at their most popular in the 1860s.)

Many of us think that we have a good idea of what life was like in Victorian Britain. We are so used to seeing depictions on TV and in film that it is hard to not visualise the times as though they were as seen in a BBC costume drama. In setting Heretics in 1859 and 1860 it was necessary for me to research the period carefully to make sure I wasn’t wrong in my assumptions.

One of the things I realised fairly early on was that many of the things we associate with the Victorian period didn’t actually become widespread until later in the nineteenth century. I have scenes set at Christmas 1859 and was expecting to be writing about Christmas cards, presents and turkeys but the reality was different. It was too early for Christmas cards, presents if given were likely be handmade and Christmas dinner was more likely to be similar to our Sunday dinners, featuring beef or ham. The upper classes would adopt the things we think of as Victorian “traditions” first and they would only trickle down to the middle and lower classes only as the century went on.

Clothing was easier to research and there are many contemporary images that can be drawn upon. Still, I found many surprises. For instance, the wristwatch first made an appearance as something women wore and only became available for men much later. One of my main characters, Alex, has travelled back in time from 1959 and has a 1950s crew cut which would have looked quite out of place. Women’s dress went through many changes between 1859 and 1900 and I had to be careful about bustles and boots and the years they were fashionable. I have a young female character, Daisy, and when she first appears I describe her as wearing a grubby dress with bloomers poking out under the hem. Later I found that bloomers were actually a phenomena associated with women’s growing emancipation towards the end of the century and I had to settle for something similar called pantalettes.

The social conditions that existed in 1859 are heavily featured in the novel and I spent a lot of time trying to get these right. One of the most important works to document the lives of ordinary people is Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor and is an essential reference of the times. However, my work of fiction is set in the Midlands town of Derby and there is a certain amount of extrapolation. There are of course many locally published accounts of Victorian life which can used as references. The picture I draw of Derby in 1859 is one in which utter poverty exists in contrast to the wealth enjoyed by the upper classes. There is a growing middle class but their conditions are not yet much better than their poor neighbours and there is a growing class of industialists whose wealth will soon begin to rival that of those born to riches.

In Heretics you will find many poor people reduced to sleeping in netherskens, low boarding houses where you could share a room with many other people for a small amount of money, a huge criminal underclass and a burgeoning business in prostitution. In 1859 the age of consent was thirteen but was hardly policed at all. In any case the poorest families would often share their lodgings with several other families and children and adults would also share the sleeping space. The kind of rookeries that existed in London also existed in towns and cities across the country and the sanitary conditions in them were appalling.

In the matter of language, the fact that Alex is from 1959 aids explanations of the language used in the Victorian town. When Alex first hears a nethersken mentioned he can simply ask one of the characters, who know of his origins, what the word means. Similarly there are many other expressions peculiar to the time that he can either have explained to him or he can infer the likely meaning. When he first hears the expression “dollymop” it is obvious from the word itself and the context in which he hears it that it means prostitute. The need to explain the meaning of words cuts both ways – when Alex says “OK” or uses a modern word like “psychopath,” his Victorian friends have to ask him what he means. One phrase that surprised me was the use of “scorched earth” which I assumed came from twentieth century wars but was in use in Victorian times and was used when speaking of military tactics used, for instance, in South Africa.

This post just scratches the surface of the research necessary to make life in 1859 as close to reality as possible. The one thing that stands out for me is that the 1859 I thought I knew a great deal about turned out to be different in some surprising and unexpected ways.

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