For reasons that will now be obvious (and if not, you can find out why on my previous post), my historical research has been heavily focussed on all things Victorian. Now that I’m finished writing Her Heart for a Compass with the Duchess of York, I’m sticking with the Victorian era for my next duet for Harlequin Mills&Boon (you can read more about it here).
The Victorian era was a time of huge change and massive social upheaval, an age where the gaps between the haves and the have-nots became more glaringly obvious. It was also a time when women in many senses went backwards, in terms of their position in society and the opportunities open to them. This, I know from some comments on Twitter, makes the period unappealing as a setting for a romance, but for me that’s precisely why it’s both challenging and fascinating: heroines have to fight conventions and struggle really hard for their independence; heroes who break the mould stand out so much more; and the contrasts between high and low society are just exactly the kind of issues I love to explore.
What I’ve discovered in my copious research to date is that an awful lot of what we think we ‘know’ about Victorians is not true. What’s more it spans such a very long period, (more than seventy years), and the pace of change is so rapid that there is no ‘typical’ Victorian, and no status quo.
I embarked on Simon Heffer’s High Minds, The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain in the hope of getting to grips better with the development of the Victorian psyche. This epic tome with its epic title concerns the ‘high minds’ behind the movers and shakers who built Victorian Britain and who helped to establish the foundations of the state as we know it today. Very quickly, what became apparent to me was that the ‘high minds’ were a very small, select and tightly-knit clique of men who came from the same social backgrounds, were products of the same educational system, and who were all of them utterly convinced that they knew better than anyone else. Oh, and they were also convinced that everyone else should do as they said, and not as they did.
At the time of reading, this felt horribly familiar and too close for comfort. Up to this point in my research reading, I’d been enjoying losing myself in the past, and forgetting about the history we are writing at the moment during this pandemic. Heffer’s extremely erudite and impressive history made the two worlds collide – in my head, at least. I couldn’t help but draw parallels with our current government, and try as I might to stop doing so, the book made it horribly easy. Simon Heffer is a Tory in the old-fashioned sense of the word – I knew that when I bought the book, but that hasn’t stopped me enjoying other books written by similarly-inclined historians. But the more I progressed, the more the ‘Tory’ aspects of his writing started to grate. The book is incredibly London-centric. The great Victorian cities outside the UK capital get barely a mention. Scotland is sweepingly side-lined because it has gone its own way, legislatively. Wales is swept under the ‘England’ wing. And Ireland plays a role only as a dissenter. As for the north of England, it is used as an example and a stepping stone occasionally, with Bradford, Birmingham and Liverpool being bandied about when Factory Acts are being discussed, for example. But all of the great ‘improving’ legislation and the ethos behind them that did demonstrate the development of the state responsibility at the centre of this book, are discussed almost exclusively with regards London: sanitation; schooling; health, the Poor Law; to list but a few. Sadly, the result was that I read vast swathes of it with gritted teeth muttering, nothing has changed. Would I have read it differently in different times? It’s impossible to say.
So what of the book as history? It is long-winded in places. There is a plethora of unnecessary detail in the discussions. For example the battle to build the Foreign Office takes up pages and pages of the chapter on the Victorian obsession with the Gothic. In my view, the very interesting underlying issue was then completely lost in the author’s delight in detail of political shenanigans. Similarly in the discussion of the changes to the Education Act to make schooling compulsory – there was a massive amount about the to-ing and fro-ing and compromise, and frankly I got bored and skipped to the end just to find out what was eventually agreed. And here is one of my little niggly criticisms about the book in general – after a lot of discussion, the author has a tendency not to be particularly clear about the specifics of what is achieved, and he very rarely tells you what a Bill that has taken pages to progress actually becomes in law, with a date attached. I do understand that he’s trying to show the process of politics (and once again, I can’t help but draw parallels, being reminded too many times of the recent circus of the Brexit legislation), but enough already, please. There is an argument for occasionally cutting to the chase and not putting every bit of detail, no matter how interesting.
Women, as you’d expect from Victorians, feature mostly in the background. There is a chapter devoted to them, but it’s rather short and at one point seemed to be arguing that they owed their eventual emancipation entirely to John Stuart Mill.
About half-way through the book, I freely admit that I was reading with prejudice, which is never a good thing. However, I did actually read it cover to cover. I found masses of interest – I didn’t know about Octavia Hill’s forays into community housing, for example, and I found the section on the aftermath of the Crimean war and the abolition of purchased commissions fascinating – and these are just two of tons of examples. I was fascinated and horrified to discover just how small a number of men shaped the thinking of another small number of men who then shaped the way the country was run – and prevented it being run in any other way, if it suited them. (Thinking about this now, I wonder if I was actually fascinated and horrified that a current historian thought this way?) But that takes me back to drawing parallels again, which it is unlikely the author intended me to do. So my overall feeling on finishing it is one of depression – Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French put it so well.
Mention of Florence Nightingale in Heffer’s book led me to reread Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. No-one can question Strachey’s beautifully acid tongue, his pithy way with words, nor the impact this highly irreverent quartet of mini bios challenged both the way history had until then been written, and the characters themselves. Strachey takes four sainted Victorians, and shows their feet of clay.
This was a second read for me after a very long gap, and I found myself much more critical, principally because I know a lot more about his subjects than I did the first time around. I still really enjoyed it, in places it made me laugh out loud, but I found myself constantly nit-picking at his ‘facts’ – in particular with reference to Florence Nightingale. He focuses on her neurosis. He accepts that she achieved momentous things but all the time you get the impression of a caveat ‘for a woman’. I found myself getting quite annoyed. (By a complete coincidence, in Lucy Worsley’s Queen Victoria, which I was reading at the same time, there is a day with Florence Nightingale at Balmoral, and the woman she presents is a very, very different creature.) Florence Nightingale broke the mould, in the sense that she was a wealthy, well-born female with a true vocation. The world of Eminent Victorians did its very best to try to thwart her in this. She took to her sick room, where she had the peace and quiet to harangue, to write, and to change the world of nursing forever. Go Flo!
My first introduction to Queen Victoria was through Strachey’s biography of her some time ago, and I recall thinking her utterly loathsome, without being too impressed by her many achievements – not least of which was ruling over her empire and her family in a world where women were increasingly being caged up and locked down. From my copious more recent reading, I’ve a more tempered view of her as a state figure. Queen Victoria, Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow by Lucy Worsley focuses on Victoria in her many female roles.
I love Lucy Worsley’s approach to history. It’s gossipy, full of little-known facts, funny and engaging. She has a knack of giving the reader just enough context, while not detracting from her subject, and she does all of this in this book. Queen Victoria has been so much written about that it is difficult to get a fresh take on her. Dr Worsley tries to show the person behind the crown by sampling specific days in her very long reign to illustrate her as (the title says) daughter, wife, mother, widow. In all of those excerpts though, she also shows us Victoria the queen (or in the earliest chapter, the queen in waiting).
What interested me was the struggle she had to position herself, a mere woman, in an increasingly paternalistic society. She seems to have been at her happiest in giving way to a male role model, in allowing them to dictate her behaviour and her actions, though not always her thoughts – Albert is the most obvious example, but there are numerous others, from prime ministers to John Brown and her ‘Munshi’ towards the end of her years. And yet, though she would consult and allow herself to be advised, she did not necessarily defer. Call her stubborn, call her instinctively better informed, call her simply better placed with the experience to make the decision, Victoria grew to be a queen in her own right, to govern (and over-govern) in her own way. There is a big difference, as this book shows nicely, in the model she presented to the world, of comfortable middle-class values, and the life she actually lived, the influence she wielded – and the tyranny too, particularly to her long-suffering family and ladies in waiting.
This is a very easy read of a book. The points are not laboured, they are presented nicely for your delectation, but if you choose to read without analysis, this is also an excellently entertaining book. And that, in my view, is Lucy Worsley’s real charm. She’s vastly well-read, she does her research, she knows her stuff, but she doesn’t ram it down your throat, and she doesn’t go off at tedious tangents. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, I love writing the contrasts between high and low society. In my current book, I have in mind a scene where my hero and heroine assume the guise of Mr and Mrs Smith, and have a night out at a music hall. The perfect excuse for me to read Palaces of Pleasure by Lee Jackson.
This was an entertaining and informative read, looking at the development of popular culture in the (long) Victorian era. Obviously I was most interested in the earlier chapters on gin palaces and music halls. Gin palaces, I learned, had their roots in the Georgian era, and the author maps their development from the tavern through to the resplendent pubs which are still around in London today, linking their history to the economic and social factors which drove them. Magistrates, brewers and publicans all played a role in pushing and deriding as you’d expect, and I was also fascinated to read of the various ploys that the publicans used to try to get round the law, moving doors, changing the shape of the bar counter, and generally spending a small fortune – sometimes in vain. The role of drinking, how and what and when, and who – was also covered, and some myths dispelled.
Leading nicely on from this section we come to music halls, which also had their origin in the pub, where singing and dancing took place in back rooms, and led to the development of small theatres inside the pub or in the gardens. Once again, the history is chequered with attempts to curtail the halls, to deride them, and finally to embrace them – the sanitised, alcohol-free versions at least, which were a long way from their origins.
I found the chapters on exhibitions and gardens less interesting, though to be fair this is probably because I’ve been reading a lot on the subject and there wasn’t much new. The chapter on football, surprisingly, I enjoyed, and also the chapter on the seaside.
So all in all, this book does exactly what it is says it will in a well-written, and easy-read kind of way, encompassing a huge amount of research and retelling it entertainingly (I was surprised, when I read the other Goodreads reviews, to discover that a lot of people disagreed and found it simply too full of facts). As far as research is concerned, this was a perfect book for me, and I can’t wait to write my own music hall scene.
A very high (and growing) stack of more Victorian research awaits me, but there is the small matter of my own book to write first! Better get on with it then.
You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.