Tag: victorian

How to Write a Victorian

Review – How to be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman

The point of all this – this blog, this reading, this marathon Poirot watching – is that I intend to write a new series of Victorian mysteries. At times, this goal seems a lot further away than I would like.

I don’t like it when I’m not writing. I’ve had the germ of this idea in my head since before I started writing The Review, the first book in The Liberty Troupe Trilogy, almost two years ago. Then I was writing almost constantly, working on each of the books in the trilogy in a sort of fervour. Before that, it had been over two years since I’d finished An Unnatural Daughter. These were two years spent fluctuating in and out of depression, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do it, that I was still capable of writing books.

Having finished The Advocate, and therefore the trilogy, late last year, I decided to approach this new series differently. I wanted to be efficient, I wanted to know exactly what I was doing, I wanted it to be meticulous and filled with deep, historical detail. As all my other books were based in the Regency era, I wanted to learn more about the death-obsessed Victorians before I committed words to screen. I wanted to do justice to an idea I have been longing to work on for so long.

It’s now been about six months since I’ve written anything, and while I know a lot more about mourning and embalming and all sorts, I’ve still felt distant from my characters. I’d given myself the deadline of May for starting writing, and I feel nowhere near ready. There’s still so much to learn, but that’s always going to be the case, I suppose. I’ll never know enough, and once I start writing that will uncover even more that I need to learn.


Cover reminiscent of a scrapbook page – also a topic covered in the book!

Then I found How to be a Victorian, and the biggest step so far has been taken. How can you know a character when you don’t know what they ate for breakfast, how they brushed their teeth, what sort of rugs covered their floors, if any, and why? These little things we do or know as a matter of course compliment our daily lives, and missing or changing them in some way can alter how our day pans out. I get grumpy, for example, if I haven’t had hummus in a couple of days. Just imagine how grumpy the Victorians must have been!

I jest, of course, but the admirable Ruth Goodman has lived as a Victorian did, tried the petticoats and skirts and corsets, and not just lived like a grand lady, but like a poor worker. In this inestimably useful volume she provides a trove of information regarding the minutiae of everyday life, from deodorant to sports and everything in between. She tells you how it felt to do these things the average Victorian did, but which we nowadays know nothing about.

“I have handled many pieces of Victorian clothing for men. They don’t feel at all like the clothes or fabric we are all so used to wearing now.When we look at images of people in Victorian dress, what we tend to notice mostly is the changes that have occurred in fashion. The fabrics the garments are made of go largely unnoticed.”

I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but this research has been changing my mind. As a result of reading this book, I now know what sort of underwear my characters wore – from those who would be considered old fashioned to the avant garde. I know how they styled their hair and how they cleaned their clothes. I know the staples of their diets and I know what time they went to bed and why. And I am so, so much further along than I was only a week before I picked this book up.

A must read for anyone with an interest in social history, and a book which has not only made me feel closer to my characters, but closer to my ancestors, too.

You can find out more here on amazon.co.uk.

Death at the Priory

Review: Death at the Priory – Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England – by James Ruddick

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend, and she said an approximation of the following:

“We woman all say we want equality, but really we want to go back to being married off and put on a pedestal by our husbands.”

The romanticism of arranged marriages in history is what inspired me to write An Unnatural Daughter – one of my first forays into having my heroines murder people. Historically, marriage hasn’t been all that great for ladies. They gained protection, yes, but at what cost?

There were, however, things they could do to get by – things that they did to help themselves when the demands on their bodies became too great.

This is where Death at the Priory comes in – an investigation into one of  Victorian England’s most famous unsolved murders.

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I bought it for the juicy murder, but came away with a deeper understanding of how women of a certain class coped with difficult marriagesIt introduces us to Florence Bravo, a woman ahead of her time. Educated, wealthy, vivacious and beautiful, she had a loving and supportive family and everything going for her. But that support stopped when, having married a man who turned out to be a violent alcoholic, she asked her parents for help leaving him. I shan’t go into too much detail, but on the advent of her second marriage, Florence realized she’d made the same mistake again.

The first half of the book introduces us to the victim and suspects, and paints an intriguing picture of the lead up to the long and agonising death of Florence’s second husband, Charles Bravo, who was poisoned by an unknown hand. The second half follows Ruddick as he sifts through the available evidence before reaching his verdict on what really happened.

Ruddick’s investigations and conclusions occasionally take great leaps of faith, but nonetheless I raced through the book, eager to find out whodunnit according to his theories.

What really got me though, was the revelation that women of the higher classes were known to drug their husbands’ alcohol, when said husband habitually drank too much and became violent with it. The drug, antimony, was highly poisonous, but when used very sparingly it induced sickness or a deep sleep. This wasn’t something I had ever considered before, but as I read it I found myself thinking, but of course they did.

Ruddick also posited and then dismissed the idea that women did the same to control how often their husbands were able to share their beds. I wasn’t able to dismiss the idea so quickly as he did – to me it seems perfectly logical that in an age where death in childbirth was common and the miscarriage rate was high, women in such marriages would use any means at their disposal to save their health. Why would you drug your husband to stop him beating you, but still allow him open access to intimacy when another pregnancy might kill you?

From then on I found myself questioning all of his conclusions. Perhaps I’m blinded by my own agenda, much as I feel Ruddick was blinded by his. Nonetheless, though, an interesting read, and a fascinating window into the life of a very unhappy woman, and a timely reminder of the position of women in Victorian society.

Come to your own conclusions and try the book here.

Captured Shadows

REVIEW – Beyond the Dark Veil : Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive – Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger

Grief is an odd and difficult thing. Until recently I was lucky enough not to have lost anybody close to me, and when I did, the raw rip of grief was something I struggled to understand even as it devastated me. It isolates you in your pain, and yet it unites you with every human in history.

Never has every human in history felt closer than when reading this collection of Victorian Post-Mortem and Mourning Photography, from the Thanos Archive.

It's impossible to do justice to this glossy, golden, embossed beauty of a book in a photograph

It’s impossible to do justice to this glossy, golden, embossed beauty of a book in a photograph

This is a beautiful volume, the kind that is a pleasure to hold in your hands as you run gentle fingertips over the shallow embossing on the cover. I really felt it was a thing of great importance before I even opened it – a feeling which only grew as I read, going through all 200 thick pages in one sitting and almost breaking my own heart.

There’s a theory I’ve always liked, that when you die, you live on for as long as there is somebody to remember you. You survive in memory, if not in spirit, which is one thing which makes this collection of Victorian mourning photography so hauntingly beautiful. By locking eyes with the long past dead or nearly dead, do we resurrect their souls, allowing them to live on for as long as we remember them?

Probably not. But the theatre of Victorian mourning is something beautiful, and the culmination of habits humanity has refined over millennia. These traditions, as explained in this hefty tome, fell out of favour during the first and second World Wars, when so many died it would have been too much mourning for society to take, and the fear was it would break the nation’s spirit.

For a book mainly comprised of high quality prints, it’s an absolute trove of information, and I gleaned four pages of notes from my read-through. I always think it’s easier to learn fact by reading fiction or watching a documentary – something immersive rather than dry – and this largely picture-based book had the same sort of effect. It’s learning by osmosis rather than forcing facts into your brain and hoping they stay there.

This post has been a real struggle to write. Nothing has flowed as it should, and I know I haven’t done this book justice. It was the most powerful and moving thing I have ever read, and several times during my read-through I wondered why I was putting myself through it. It isn’t necessary to immerse myself in so much death. Perhaps it isn’t wise, either. But the more I learn, the more fascinated I am by the culture which surrounds it, and the history of people’s association with death. It fascinates us all, it is the great unknown. The tradition with which we surround death is the culmination of millennia of trying to understand what we can never hope to.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. It isn’t an easy read, but there is something to be said about confronting your own mortality in so forthright a manner. Similarly, there is something oddly comforting about seeing the preserved memories of those who had been so loved, still showing that love after over a century later. Like these 200+ people, perhaps we will not be forgotten, even when those who knew and loved us have long since passed.

Find Beyond the Dark Veil on amazon.co.uk

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