A Few Good Books: Victorian Historian Edition

Have to admit it: I’m hooked on the Victorians hardcore.

I have an entire shelf dedicated to Anthony Trollope novels. My travel scrapbooks are full of pilgrimages to Jane Austen’s birthplace, London, Chatsworth and Lanhydrock House. I skim Mrs. Beeton’s cookbook and Mrs. Ellis’s book on wifely conduct for fun. As a teenager, I spent good time trying to learn how to construct a hoop skirt.

Oh, it’s bad.

It’s bad, and it’s long-term.

That’s why I’ve set my last two novels in the Victorian Era. It’s really just a way of sating my addiction while getting my word count done for the day.

Along the way, however, I’ve come across some really stunning books on the Victorians and, whether you’re writing in the period, just happen to love it, or really don’t care but find yourself reading anyway, let me be the first to talk your ear off about how helpful and fun these books are.

The Usual Suspects:

Here are some books you may have heard about, but no list would be complete without them.

  • Inside the Victorian Home by Judith Flanders. The Bible for writers in the Victorian period. This is a copy to own and dog-ear for years.
  • What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. This one’s been under criticism recently for perpetuating some of the stereotypes about Victorian hypocrisy and repression (YAWN), but just reading the section on foxhunting made my fingers twitch to throw a gratuitous hunt in my next book (don’t worry. I abstained). Highly readable and great fun.
  • Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know about Them and Why We’re Wrong by Matthew Sweet. A new fav, Sweet writes his chapters topically about an issue (say murder, sex, or drugs) and talks candidly about how the Victorians really felt about the issue, pointing out how similar their views are to those of our own “modern” and “liberally minded” culture. A great antidote to all the stereotypes about the Victorians out there.

In Their Own Words

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” —Oscar Wilde. There are literally hundreds, but here are some that live on my shelf:

  • The Journal of Emily Pepys (1844-1845). This one is short and sweet, but since you won’t find much primary source material written by a ten year old, it’s well worth the read. It’s a great window into what childhood was really like for a girl from a comfortable, middle-class home.
  • Munby: Man of Two Worlds (1859-1910). Munby wrote a monster journal, and I’ve never gotten through even most of it. But, he was a meticulous noter of his daily events, and if you want to get the flavor of London first-hand or catch a glimpse of some of the clubs and societies and fears of the day, he’s a great tour guide.
  • Kilvert’s Diary (1870-1879). Kilvert was an unmarried clergyman living in the countryside. Now that sounds like the start of about 25 different novels.
  • A Victorian Boyhood by L. E. Jones. Nostalgic and grandfatherly, Jones writes the book in 3 essays covering childhood, boyhood, and Eton. Lots of anecdotes that would simply be impossible to invent as an outside but are a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Don’t Forget the Baedecker!

It’s impossible to ever really get the feel of a place or period without actually seeing it, and costume dramas are only so reliable. We may not be able to see history, but it’s amazing how close we can get. Here are some things I’ve found useful.

  • Museum guidebooks. The captions and brief essays on history are designed for easy digestion, which is a blessing since most of us don’t have the gumption to make it through a whole textbook primer. But, the pictures are the real treasure: meticulously catalogued pictures of costumes, paintings, and (often) furniture with the exact dates on each piece. Happy day.
  • England’s National Trust (website and guidebooks). Last time I was in England, I was able to visit both Chatsworth and Lanhydrock. Buying the tour guide book and taking pictures has provided me with great inspiration (who knew how big those kitchens were?). If you can’t go yourself or track down a book, do an online search for the kind of house you’re using as a setting. Chances are you’ll find a good website with a pictorial tour, layout of rooms, and some great info.
  • The London Times. A good research library will have these on microfilm—all the way back to the late 1700s. Nothing like reading a few days worth of the newspapers set in your time frame to get a feeling for the style and subject du jour. As an added bonus, the advertisements and headlines will crack you up. Guaranteed.

And, there goes 30 minutes of my writing time for the day. Must dash, friends. Happy researching and happier-than-ever writing! It’s a great day for words!

Well, every day is that.

But, you know what I mean.

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