Why Victorian Tales Aren’t As Easy As They Look

Reading & Writing

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.


27 comments on “Why Victorian Tales Aren’t As Easy As They Look”

  1. snowy says:

    The period is absolutely infested with pitfalls awaiting the unwary writer.

    As one author found out very recently when she was interviewed on BBC3 by Matthew Sweet about her book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love. [It is worth tracking down the audio, I doubt you will ever hear a more polite on-air eviceration.] Let us just say if somebody wants to attempt a historical work a little bit of fact checking at some point might have saved the need to bin the first edition.

    To guage just how much, [ie. EVERYTHING!!], changed during the period, imagine falling asleep in the rural world of Georgian England to only be awakened into the 20th Century.

    Some of the things that a little research will reveal will astonish, particularly some medical treatments from the Materia Medica, the standard reference work used by all those in medical practice.

    Should it be that you were unable to keep down any food, the textbook solution was having a pint of warm Bovril shot up your bum with a bicycle pump.

    But if your… non-liquid diet was healthy, but… er… produced no… visible results, a Doctor could prescribe a health giving pint of mercury to be taken orally*, in the sure and certain knowledge that the patient would suffer absolutely no ill-effects from the treatment. It said so in the book, so it must be right.

    You can spend months and months to produce an impeccably researched description of a real event/practice/custom and not one of the readers will believe it was true. Throw in a bit of rubbish cribbed from a Hammer Film and they swallow in whole. Isn’t repeated conditioning great?

    [* The exact functional mechanism of this treatment is not fully explained in the book, if the weight of the mercury was intended to press upon on the obstruction and push it down the bowel, one would have expected that patients having swallowed it would have been encouraged to jump up and down a bit to get a sort of hammer effect going. [Sadly the pogo-stick was still at least 70 years away.] But on this finer point the text is silent.]

  2. Matthew Wood says:

    Emma Gregory’s narrations of Kasasian’s books for Audible are a joy; as vivid and vital as Tim Goodman’s readings of your own books.

  3. Jo W says:

    Snowy, I can’t get that description of a constipation remedy out of my mind now! Swallow this and jump up and down three times a day. Wonderful! But I expect that anyone who has suffered from that ailment would tell you that anything,even dynamite, would be a welcome relief. 😉

  4. Ken Mann says:

    George Sanger in his autobiography makes the point that the two halves of Victoria’s reign were massively culturally different. He was writing in 1910, and wanted to emphasise to his readers that his childhood was in the first half. His account of two travelling shows meeting on the way to a small town and a fight breaking out over who had the right to set up shop is worth reading.

  5. SteveB says:

    I love Topsy Turvy!! Such a great film!!
    Sorry just had to say that…
    PS Peter Lovesey’s Cribb stories and the corresponding TV series were also rather good imo.

  6. SteveB says:

    PS Im not sure that women were necessarily nore invisible, any more than in a lot of the Muslim community today. All the Muslim people live Jane Austen,, it’s their world.
    I noticed the Mrs Gaskell of my youth became Elizabeth Gaskell today. But how did she think of herself I wonder?

  7. SteveB says:

    Love Jane Austen I meant to write

  8. Roger says:

    Snowy: I think there’s an error in your constipation remedy: a pint of mercury weighs about 17 lbs. Even if you could swallow that much, it would permanently cure all your ills for ever, as it’s very poisonous. It was also very expensive and was very carefully used in minimal doses for serious illnesses – most notably syphilis.
    What was the book you found it in?

  9. SteveB says:

    Did they have bicycle pumps in Georgian England?

  10. SteveB says:

    Killer jellyfish is the Lions Mane but poisoned sausage rolls I cant place for the life of me?

  11. snowy says:

    Hello Roger, that is the very reason that it is still stuck in my mind because it is so completely and utterly insane as a treatment.

    I’m trying to remember which book it was, [it’s in a pdf on a server that I’ve taken off-line and I can’t find the memory stick that has got my research notes on since I put that somewhere ‘safe’!], it was quite an early book circa 1840, written by a very well respected doctor. There are extant photos of him in his 30s, a short, very intense looking chap with a sort of inverted Victorian mullet, [long-ish on all sides and completely bald on top], but I can’t bring his name to mind.

    I’ll have a think and try to remember where I stashed that stick?

  12. Brooke says:

    SteveB: requesting title of work on causal inference you referred to (some time ago). Many thanks.

  13. Brooke says:

    Recently revisited Lovesey’s Wobble to Death; too funny and good writing. Waxwork is a memorable read… woman front and center.

  14. snowy says:

    Hi Steve, the very odd thing is that they had Bicycle pumps, before they had bicycles. [The same design had been used to pump water for centuries, [it is a ‘flap valve’].

    This device was part of a Doctors standard ‘toolkit’, it was a multi-purpose tool for allsorts of treatments.

    Suspected poison? It was a stomach pump.
    Bit blocked? Woosh! here comes an enema.
    Unable to swallow? Dinner by tube.
    Ladies Troubles? I’ll give you a slosh out with some salty water and hope for the best.
    Not breathing? Let’s puff a bit of air down your neck and pray for a miracle.

    [If you do an image search for ‘Victorian Stomach Pump’ you can see examples in all their brass and mahogany glory.]

  15. Brooke says:

    Lovesey’s Wobble to Death and Waxwork are good reads.

  16. SteveB says:

    @Brooke The Book of Why
    @Snowy OK pump I get, it was the bicycle element that threw me as I dont think the pneumatic tyre was invented till later (someone check wikipedia quickly!!!)

  17. snowy says:

    Found stick!

    I thought it was T H Tanner, but in his ‘A Manual of the Practise of Medicine’ 1854 he states at the end of his discussion of Obstruction of the Bowels:

    “As I should never resort to the use of crude mercury in doses of one or two pounds, or of small shot, or of tobacco injections, these agents need not be further noticed.”

    So it had gone/was going out of fashion by the 1850s; his preferred treatment was lots of Opium and bucketfuls of soapy water up the whatnot. [I might not have the original source detailing the treatment, because it was before the period I was working on.]

  18. admin says:

    When I put ‘sausage roll’ I was in fact thinking of Gilbert & Sullivan, because they wrote a very peculiar ode to a sausage roll.
    But looking back over the comments here I no longer think I’m esoteric.
    It’s you lot.
    Bicycle pumps
    Obstructions of the Bowel
    Jane Austen
    Peter Lovesey
    Hammer Films
    Quod erat demonstrandum.

  19. snowy says:

    If you ignite a fire in a forest of ideas you shouldn’t be surprised if it spreads. [oblig. smiley doo-dah]

  20. Ian Luck says:

    The Screwdriver existed before the screw – it was a tool for levering out nails. As the last Georgian period ended in 1952, I’m sure that bicycle pumps existed then. I’m very fond of Kim Newman’s iteration of the Victorian period, by the way. Completely hatstand, but utterly believable, too.

  21. Agatha Hamilton says:

    Glad you like M R C Kasasian. I particularly like Molly the maid, with her so creative use of language, and her relationship with Sidney Grice – as you say, a wonderful character. But also March, quite unscathed by all the casual comments on her extraordinary plainness. Think the first one is the best, though.

  22. glasgow1975 says:

    I did read both Laura Purcell’s books but found them slightly unsatisfying, The Corset was the better of the two. I recently read Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire by MRC Kasasian not realising it was a sort of spin off of the earlier books, it’s set in the 40s and features a rather unbelievable feminist policewoman…

  23. Ian Luck says:

    Going at a slight tangent, but the very best ‘Sherlock Holmes story that isn’t’ I have ever read, has to be the 1994 Doctor Who ‘New Adventures’ novel, ‘All Consuming Fire’ by Andy Lane. It’s full of ideas and great snippets of the more unpleasant side of life in Victorian London, such as that ‘Porter’ beer often had dried bull’s blood added for colour, and strychnine to clear it. Lovely. Andy Lane now writes the excellent ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ novels. It was this book that got me back into reading the real thing. If you can find a copy, which shouldn’t be difficult, give it a read. It’s a lot of fun, and what’s more, is written by someone who ‘gets’ the whole idea of the Victorian era.

  24. John Griffin says:

    I collect Holmes pastiches on the Kindle, and there are many that fester on the list unread apart from the first couple of pages – I bolt at the first whiff of anachronism, and whiffs there are many and multifarious. The worst for me is simple sentence construction in conversation, secondly C20/21 words or phrases. Having said that, Conan Doyle’s writing in Holmes is only one style he displays IMO.

  25. Ian Luck says:

    I’m very fond of Conan Doyle’s ‘Tales Of Unease’, which, if you only know him from Sherlock Holmes, can be a bit of a jolt. In the Holmes stories, there feature some moments of real unpleasantness, that are just stated in passing. In ‘Tales Of Unease’, Conan Doyle just runs with ideas, and if those ideas are horrific, then so be it. The ‘Lady Sannox’ story, which has been mentioned here before, is properly horrid – you are left in no doubt of that, at all; you will see it in your mind’s eye, and never be able to un-see it, ever – but the icing on the cake has to be possibly the most callous comment, in all of fiction. Stories like ‘The Lord Of Chateau Noir’, and ‘The Leather Funnel’ are sadistically cruel, whilst ‘The New Catacomb’ is deliciously nasty. ‘The Terror of the Blue John Gap’ is strange and disturbing, and very similar (though not as nasty) as John Connelly’s much later ‘The Wakefield Abyss’. ‘The Ring Of Thoth’ was the basis for Universal’s 1932 movie ‘The Mummy’ (It Comes To Life!), as were some of the ideas in ‘Lot 249’, which features an ambulatory mummy (although this one is very swift on it’s feet, and horribly strong). This story was adapted into a genuinely disturbing ‘Ladybird’ book for children, with the story, including the very unpleasant ending, pretty much intact. The illustrations of the mummy’s red eyes in the dark, and the brilliant picture of it hot on the heels of the protagonist on a dark country lane, (Imagine Christopher Lee’s version of The Mummy, but running very hard, and one grabbing hand almost touching the bloke he’s chasing) probably gave some kids in the 1980’s a sleepless night or several.

  26. snowy says:

    Just to add a very short thought, well more of a conjecture, for Roger.

    Mercury would once have been very expensive, but when coal replaced charcoal as the main fuel, suddenly extracting anything from an ore became much simpler and considerably cheaper.

  27. Helen Martin says:

    I read Purcell’s “Silent Companions” and was disappointed. In fact I only read the first half and the last few pages. There was something wrong about the whole thing and I just erased it (mostly) from my memory. The spooky figures were fine in themselves but I couldn’t accept the young woman for some reason and the conversations didn’t resonate. That’s all vague in phrasing but the emotional reaction was quite strong.

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