I have been immersed in the Victorian world for quite a while now, working with The Duchess of York on Her Heart for a Compass, and then on my latest historical romance for Mills & Boon, The Earl Who Sees Her Beauty, which will be released in September this year. This, the first of a duet, is a much more domestic book, with Prudence and Dominic, my hero and heroine, very much eschewing society of all sorts, both high and low.
Prudence, my heroine, is fascinated by modern advances and their impact on everyday life, and in particular, she is interested in plumbing. At this point (1862) Joseph Bazalgette’s project to sort out London’s sewage was well underway, but sanitation in most houses would have been crude to say the least. In the bigger cities, crowded terraces and tenements would share a very small number of outdoor privies, and even in newer terraces, the flushing loo was a relative rarity. Water for the most part was supplied by a pump in the street, switched on at fixed periods of the day – and not every day. Posher houses had a cistern that could be filled from it to ensure a constant supply, but the luxury of twenty-four hour running water was still very much a pipedream (did you see what I did there!).
Three books formed the core of my research on Victorian everyday life, all of them highly readable, and to be honest, there was a lot of crossover between them: Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House; The Victorian City by the same author; and Victorian London by Liza Picard. The overall impression I was left with was that Victorian woman (or their servants) worked extremely hard to keep their houses clean, waging a constant battle against vermin of the four and six-legged kind, dust, fog, gas and mud. Keeping clean was an expensive business – so basically the poorer you were, the dirtier. I know this is self-evident and not much different from Regency times, but in Victorian times, as modernisation inched into the lives of the middle- and upper-classes, the gulf between them and the poorer became clearer, and more pungent.
Slum living, whether you were the ‘deserving’ or the ‘un-deserving’ poor, was horrendous, and graphically brought to life in Sarah Wise’s excellent history of The Nichol, The Blackest Streets, which vividly describes the privations of the slum housing which Dominic, my hero has to deal with. The tragedy which dominates my heroine’s back story was inspired by this book, which gives a chilling insight into the victims of slum landlords who turned their backs on tenants living in conditions which even Dickens would struggle to exaggerate. Houses sinking into the London mud, walls alive with vermin, one privy to four hundred people – conditions so awful that I actually had to tame them down in my book.
My romance is not all doom and gloom though. Though I never did manage to send Prudence and Dominic on my planned outing to a Victorian music hall, I did send them to the seaside, and to the International Exhibition. Lee Jackson’s Palaces of Pleasure helped me greatly with both – did you know, for example, that gentlemen still insisted on bathing naked in Margate, much to the horror of the locals and the other day trippers? I had such fun with Victorian swimwear too, which I’d previously researched. My Mum once described a knitted bathing costume she’d worn, remembering how heavy it was, and how it had chaffed – and the mid-Victorian costumes were much more substantial. I can’t imagine how anyone could actually swim in them.
And talking of costumes. 19th Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston is a wonderful book that really gets to grips with the structures of Victorian toilettes. I borrowed quite a few of those gowns for my heroine to wear, and when it came to gentlemen’s costumes, kitted my hero out using Jayne Shrimpton’s Victorian Fashion, a delightful little book which was a very well-timed gift from a friend – thank you again, Alison L. One of the challenges which I hadn’t really expected though, was getting my heroine undressed in the throes of passion. The History of Underclothes by C Willet and Phillis Cunnington was my guide through this garment-infested water, and is an excellent and fun read, even if you don’t have to cope with this problem. The biggest problem obviously is what to do with a steel-sprung crinoline and associated petticoats, which had to be donned and doffed over the head and couldn’t be slipped neatly and conveniently out of, but wealthy Victorian women wore an awful lot of clothes (the full regalia could weigh more than twenty pounds). I don’t know, perhaps that explains their (I’m sure false) reputation for being passionless.
I’ve reviewed Simon Heffer’s High Minds in detail on a previous blog. It is a huge tome, but it’s been invaluable in giving me a solid grasp of the politics of the era, and the thinking behind it all. Of particular relevance in the case of my Crimean veteran hero, was the fall-out of that conflict, the reviews of the army, promotions, discipline and living conditions. I had read Orlando Figes’ Crimea a while back, and it proved an excellent reference for me on some of the detail of Dominic’s experience of war (most of which never made it onto the page). For his attitudes to the officer class, and the incompetence of the senior ranks, I relied on Cecil Woodham-Smith’s excellent and highly readable The Reason Why.
I’m sure there’s many more books I’ve not mentioned, or that I’ve dipped in and out of and forgotten. There is, as ever, a great deal more reading and research done than written about, which makes me laugh when people describe historical romance as “a bit of light froth” or “historical wallpaper”. One last honourable mention though, goes to Monty Don and the new edition of his classic The Complete Gardener, which I just happened to be reading for my own pleasure (and my garden’s well-being) when I was writing about Dominic’s ideas for his own estate. The wildflowers and the wildlife which populate the overgrown lawn are straight from Monty. I wish that the deer would leave my lawn alone long enough for me to emulate this splash of summer colour.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.