Why Victorian Tales Aren’t As Easy As They Look
You know the drill; a hansom cab clatters down a foggy cobbled street, a man in a cloak runs through the dusk-dimmed East End, someone screams bloody murder…pretty much anyone can write a basic Victorian story, so well established are the tropes. Watch an episode of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and copy it, you can’t go wrong.
Except one can and usually does. Because Victoriana is nowhere as easy to duplicate as it seems. For a start it lasted over sixty years, so which part will you select? (Please, please not 1888). How about 1850, when the Koh-i-Noor diamond was being presented to Queen Victoria? Go back a long way and the language is clipped, staccato and oddly modern. Come forward and it’s florid and obfuscatory (especially when it’s copied from sensation novels). Try this paragraph from one of Amanda McKittrick Ros’s interminable novels;
Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
And where will you set it? (don’t say Baker Street!) How about Brixton, a wealthy area back then? I read a ‘Victorian’ London novel from a respected US author that began with someone tipping the driver of a Hansom cab five pence, thus propelling decimal currency back in time by a century. Detailing correctly isn’t hard; it just takes a lot of work. The language is generally easy to duplicate so long as you pick your social classes carefully – but the mindset is extremely tricky to match.
There has to be a balance of sentiment and unthinking cruelty – in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane’, probably the worst Sherlock Holmes story, someone throws a cat through a plate glass window.
In Victorian fiction the general invisibility of women must be addressed, but the condescension needs to come with fascination and sometimes, deference. In short, it’s much harder than it looks, which is why Mike Leigh’s film ‘Topsy Turvey’ feels like the only real Victorian film ever made. Leigh used the correct vernacular.
It’s pleasing to find that several authors are currently cracking this nut beautifully. Oscar de Muriel’s four novel series (so far) might start with a cardinal sin (1888!) but he sets it in Edinburgh with a pair of arguing, ill-mannered detectives, one English, one Scottish, and perfectly catches the delightfully macabre, blackly comic tone. His plots may be part-pastiche but they are wholly satisfactory. Start with ‘The Strings of Murder’, which introduces Nine-Nails McGray, and you’ll go on to the others.
Laura Purcell is a newcomer, with two novels so far. ‘The Silent Companions’ is memorably eerie, Gothic in tone, darkly lit but sympathetic, and the build up is full of suspenseful dread. Half a star must be removed for the Gor Blimeyisms of her serving classes, but she’s better in ‘The Corset’, a prison-set two-hander that keeps you guessing to the end. On Amazon it’s been placed under ‘Women’s Fiction’ as if no men may read it.
So where has Martin Kasasian been hiding all this time? (One of our readers here pointed me in his direction)
How could Kasasian have clocked up five bravely original Victorian pastiches without me noticing? ‘The Mangle Street Murders’ starts as a Holmes homage but like de Muriel, he paces chapters briskly and moves into the smelly, filthy backstreets where unspeakable crimes are committed with great élan. Creating a detective whose glass eye periodically falls out is not subtle, but the stories are page-by-page fantastic fun. Kasasian also does something I’ve not come across before; he invents his own odd phrasing, which may be wholly created but sounds right for the period. ‘She may curtsey at the bottom of the river for all I care,’ says his seemingly callous trickster-detective Grice, a marvellous invention.
If you get into the Victorian mindset, you can create a realistic character and then wheel out the poisoned sausage rolls and killer jellyfish.