Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why I set novels in the Victorian era

Short answer: I'm pretty sure I am a Victorian lady reincarnated.  That would explain my affinity for long skirts and paisley shawls.

Real answer: I see the Victorian period (traditionally defined as the period of Queen Victoria's reign--1837 to 1901) as one of the most magnificent, vibrant, and dynamic times since the Renaissance. So much about the world changed fundamentally during this time due to political, social, scientific, and literary developments, and so much of what we perceive as proper or even natural was really a product of that time. 

Celebrating a commercialized Christmas with a decorated floor-to-ceiling tree, lavish gifts, and a reading of Dickens's A Christmas CarolAll were initiated in the Victorian period (although the Christmas tree in general was already a German tradition).  

A bride wearing white? This practice was initiated by Queen Victoria. Family in mourning wearing black for a year or more? Exemplified by Queen Victoria upon the death of her beloved Prince Albert. 

Photography (and pornography). Psychology (and phrenology). Evolution. Dinosaurs. Trains. Marxism. Modern surveillance. Cheaply available mass media. All results of the Victorian era. 

The Industrial Revolution initiated in the 18th century and the 18th century revolutions in America and France set the stage for a Victorian world that tipped nobility on end.  No longer was class status just a matter of birth; one could work himself (yes, usually him...but more on that later) up to a nouveau riche position of power and respect. Class boundaries blurred.

The definition of women's roles was particularly fraught with difficulty.  The dualistic Victorian ideal of "separate spheres," wherein men belonged in the public sphere taking care of politics, industry, finance, etc., and women belonged in the domestic sphere taking care of home and family was strongly emphasized in many social mediums.  Plenty of etiquette guides came into existence to guide women in their "proper" roles as wife and mother.  But these guides as a whole suggest an underlying anxiety about how women's roles were being challenged.  Just as common men could make themselves a financial and social success, so women could (with difficulty) support themselves independently.  Some Victorian women writers used male pseudonyms to break into publishing, but an increasing number of women writers (novelists, poets, journalists, memoirists, etc.) began successful careers in the public eye.

And I haven't even gotten to the complex issue of British imperialism.  Or the corset, crinoline, and bustle. Or gaslights. Or the Poor Laws. Or voting reform. Or myriad inventions and contraptions.

What's not to love about that time?

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