Getting into the Victorian mind:

a challenge for the modern author 

I was approached in late 2013 by my fellow nautical-fiction author, Linda Collison (author of the Patricia McPherson series of adventures and of much more besides), to prepare an article as a guest contributor to her splendid “Sea of Words” blog. The subject was to be the challenge of writing historical novels set in the Victorian era. Since one soaks up information about a favourite historical period over many years of one’s own life, the act of writing about it comes to be natural, even instinctive, and one does not necessarily analyse the process. Linda’s request was therefore one that demanded that I identify the processes involved and to put them inside a thinking framework. What follows here is what I wrote (and have updated slightly since):

I believe that the greatest single challenge in writing historical fiction is not getting dates, physical details of ships or weapons, forms of speech or linkages to real events right, but in getting into the minds of the characters. This means that they should think and feel as people in that period would have done and that they should not be 21st Century people in re-enactors’ dress. The most uncomfortable aspect of this may concern values and views regarded as acceptable by decent people in those days yet which would be considered abhorrent today. An example of this was the fact that many abolitionists in the United States had attitudes to African-Americans which we would regard today as patronising and demeaning, and that they saw resettlement in Liberia and elsewhere as a goal to be pursued once slavery had been abolished. Even Lincoln himself held such views to some extent.

When creating believable characters not all research should show up ultimately on the page but the writer should have a comprehensive mental picture of the world the character inhabited and how he or she would have thought or behaved in it.  Main characters – and especially ones which recur in series fiction –should become real persons to the writer and their reactions to any set of set of circumstances should be consistent with the constraints, liberties, challenges and opportunities which that world represented, and with the values they hold. Any one book in a series will show a lead character at a particular period of their lives and credibility is enhanced if the writer has a view of what the totality of that life might have been, from birth to death. The “back story” of the character’s life up to the period of the book’s action determines how he or she will feel and behave, and the events in that book in turn will have a bearing on their thinking and behaviour in later books. In my own case my fictional hero, the Royal Navy officer Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918) has featured in four published novel so far (Britannia’s Wolf, Britannia’s Reach, Britannia’s Shark and Britannia’s Spartan) while his wife Florence is the protagonist in the fifth, Britannia’s Amazon. I therefore have a sense that I’m writing (and researching) chapters in a biography, the main features of which I already know, even if much more detail remains to be filled in. Elsewhere on my website an outline is provided of Dawlish’s whole life (click here to access it) and further information will be added as more books are published.

My writing concentrates on the Victorian period (1837-1901) and though the settings are global the perspective is from a British viewpoint. At this time British power was approaching its zenith and though the sentiment that “God is an Englishman” might not have been stated in so many words the view was widely held by all classes of society. As the British Empire expanded – more often than not by a series of accidents and by reactions to real or imagined external threats – Britons came in contact with a wide range of other cultures. And in most cases, when they matched them against their own values, they regarded them as wanting and shaped their own behaviour accordingly.

In getting into the minds of fictional characters, whether admirable or despicable, or somewhere on the broad spectrum in between, I see three major themes which must be addressed. These are:

  • Social and ethical values
  • Physical constraints of time and distance
  • What they didn’t know

For the Late-Victorian period – Dawlish’s era – there were major differences in all these areas as compared with how people in English-speaking countries view the world today. In this article I’m concentrating on the first of these themes but the others should not be forgotten and I may discuss them at some later date. My focus is largely on British values and thinking, not just in what is today the United Kingdom but in the major settlements in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, where large numbers of emigrants settled. Much of what consisted of the remainder of the still-expanding empire saw very little permanent settlement by Europeans. The enormous area represented by “India”, which covered today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, saw practically none, and it was administered by a few thousand British officials, and garrisoned by a small British army supplemented by high-calibre Indian regiments. On top of all this there was an “Informal Empire” – independent countries, such as Argentina – in which British investments and commercial interests were dominant in the local economy. This latter provided the background to my novel Britannia’s Reach, set in Paraguay in the 1880s.

What follows here is a non-exhaustive list of Social and Ethical values that influenced, or determined, how Britons thought and behaved in the second part of the 19th Century:

  • Many, and not only those in positions of power, felt pride about what Britain had achieved as a world power and, increasingly, unease about whether it could be maintained. Over the preceding three centuries Britain had been threatened by great Continental European tyrannies – Spain’s Phillip II, France’s Louis XIV and Napoleon – and it had survived, and prevailed, by a combination of superbly professional naval power, subsidy of European allies and deployment of armies, often small, on the European mainland only when unavoidable. Nobody knew with certainty in the late 19th Century that the pattern was to repeat itself twice in the 20th Century – and three times if the Cold War is taken into account – but there was growing unease about the rise of German power through and after the years of German unification. Despite this, for much of the period the main threats were still to be seen as coming from both France and Russia;
  • There was a widespread sense of national superiority.  To many today there seems much that is smug about Victorians’ view of “foreigners” in general. This was perhaps largely founded however on awareness that social and political reform had been achieved by compromise and consensus, notably by the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts, rather than by the revolutionary violence that had torn much of Europe apart in earlier decades.  Even by comparison with Britain’s nearest continental neighbour there was much to be smug about since the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, the 1851 coup, Napoleon III’s tinsel empire and the horror of the Paris Commune, and its suppression in 1871, all reinforced the view that the British way was best;
  • The sense of national superiority allowed – even sanctioned – forms of religious and racial intolerance which shock us today. Though restrictions on Catholics, Dissenters and Jews had been removed by the 1870s, unofficial barriers often prevented their full acceptance in social life. Pockets of outright bigotry against Catholics persisted in Northern Ireland and Scotland and despite the friendship of the otherwise un-admirable Prince of Wales with leading Jews they too found it had to gain acceptance. The “humorous” magazine Punch routinely depicted the Irish as chimpanzees in vicious cartoons that merit comparison with those of Jews in Julius Streicher’s scurrilous “Der Stürmer” in the 1920s and 30s;
  • Britain’s lead in abolishing the slave trade – and her readiness to expend lives and money in continuing to suppress it in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans – and her outright abolition of slavery in all her own colonies from 1834, allowed some justifiable feeling of superiority over nations which were much slower to follow suit (Outright abolition dates: France and Denmark 1848, Netherlands and United States 1863, Ottoman Turkey 1882, Spain 1888) ;
  • There was widespread awareness that social reform was being achieved, usually in fits and starts, but overall positively. Legislation had curbed the worst excess of exploitation of labour in general, and of women and children in particular, even it a lot still remained to be done. Labour was finding a voice through the now-legal trade-union movement and would emerge as a major political force by the end of the century. The Fabian Society was founded in 1884 and would have a massive impact on the politics and structures of later decades. Many of its early members, including Beatrice and Sydney Webb, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were to be influential well into the 20th Century;
  • By the early 19th Century the cruel and savage punishments that had disgraced earlier centuries had been phased out and reform of the prison system was underway, even if conditions were still harsh by modern standards.  Transportation to Australia was ended in the 1860s (though France was still transporting convicts to dreadful conditions in French Guyana up to 1953). A revulsion against public executions led to their ending in the 1860s. Unpleasant as long-drop hanging in private might have been, it was less brutalising than the spectacles of public beheading (for the last time in France in 1939) or of execution by slow-strangulation in Spain (used last in 1978).  Another manifestation of this greater humaneness was the movement against cruelty to animals. This increasing sensitivity was to a significant extent responsible for ruthless reaction by British forces when they encountered atrocities committed, and considered acceptable, by other cultures. The most notable example of this was the retribution meted out to rebellious sepoys during the Indian Mutiny, and triggered by massacres of British women and children such as at Cawnpore. In my novel Britannia’s Wolf, the hero, Nicholas Dawlish, a British officer, is revolted by a similar massacre elsewhere and he exacts retribution, without hesitation, in a way that would certainly be called a war crime today. Decent Victorians would have applauded him;
  • Though cholera and infectious diseases generally had been major killers up to the middle of the century, improved sanitation and supply of clean water from the 1860s onward, often involving huge projects, had a significant impact on life expectancy. For many families the loss of one or more children had previously been regarded as all but inevitable. It’s hard today to imagine the sorrow that had been so widespread from this cause – and for the first time the numbers involved were starting to fall. Florence Nightingale’s virtual invention of the modern nursing profession, the application of anaesthesia and antiseptics and the discovery of the bacterial source of many infections brought relief to millions. Despite this, medicine was still primitive by modern standards and bed-rest was the only prescription for many illnesses;
  • Religion (and Disbelief) was taken very seriously by the steadily growing middle-class, not just in outward forms which included strict Sabbath observance, but as regards how religious faith consciously influenced personal behaviour. (A fascinating insight to this can be got from Edmund Gosse’s wonderful memoir Father and Son). Political and military leaders felt no embarrassment about admitting to praying for guidance. Disbelief was approached with similar earnestness (itself a great Victorian virtue) and for those whom Darwin’s Origin of Species (1858) forced reassessment of their beliefs the process was painful in the extreme. It was notable however that religious belief and observance was weaker, and frequently non-existent, at the extreme upper and lower levels of society;
  • Higher ethical standards in public life and service were demanded from the mid-century onwards. Corruption, nepotism and bribery had been accepted as integral aspects of government and administration up to the early 19th Century, as they are still in many countries today. In Britain however, from mid-century onwards, a politically-neutral civil service was created which was recruited, and promoted, on merit, and held to strict standards of accountability. Local government, notably in great urban centres such as London, Birmingham and the major northern manufacturing cities took similar measures. Reform of the Army, especially abolition of purchase of commissions, also followed a similar path. There was still a long way to go but there was a general awareness of steady progress. Britain had many admirers abroad for this, including the Turkish prince, Nusret Pasha, in Britannia’s Wolf;
  • Food was getting cheaper, partly due to the abolition of the Corn Laws in the 1840s (but not soon enough to stop the Irish Potato Blight deteriorating into the Irish Potato Famine) which allowed importation of grain from Russia and North America. The invention of refrigeration, brought affordable meat imports from as far afield as Argentina and New Zealand from the 1880s onwards. This factor plays a major role in Britannia’s Reach, in which a major British commercial concern has set up a livestock raising venture in Paraguay, as other British cmpanies did there and elsewhere in Soouth America;
  • Technology was impacting on the lives of ordinary people at an unprecedented rate, and usually improving them. Gas lighting and, by the last decades of the century, electric lighting made for greater home comfort and facilitated reading of the flood of cheap newspapers, magazines and books that new printing techniques made possible. Ever more efficient railways made commuting from more distant suburbs a reality and London’s underground railways set the example for mass-transit schemes elsewhere. The penny-post and the very efficient organisation that supported it (up to three deliveries a day in large towns and cities) allowed families to keep in hitherto undreamt-of easy contact. The telegraph had linked all major parts of the globe by the 1880s but for most people a telegram was too expensive to send, even locally, except in emergencies. And few imagined that from 1914 onwards the sight of an approaching telegram delivery boy would be one to chill the blood;
  • Awareness of class differences probably reached its climax in this period, becoming almost an obsession with the expanding Middle, Lower Middle and “Respectable Working” Classes. Above these levels nobody was much concerned, being convinced of their own superiority anyway, while the Underclass was too focussed on survival to care. “Respectability”, difficult to define but known when seen, was a goal to be striven for. The Church, Law, Medicine, the Army and the Navy were no longer the only professions to which gentlemen could belong as room was made for accountants, bankers and stockbrokers, though not necessarily on equal terms. (Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is excellent on this). Bizarrely, given that Britain’s wealth was built on industry, engineers never achieved the status they did in the United States or Continental Europe and indeed still haven’t. “Trade” remained looked down on, the term applying to profit-making ventures of any type and minor land-owning gentry sneered at millionaires who had made their money in business or industry. These millionaires in turn bought landed estates and angled for knighthoods and peerages, striving to ensure that their own sons and daughters would escape the taint of trade. “Marrying beneath one” could invite a lifetime of humiliation, if not  social ostracism, a concern that troubles the hero of Britannia’s Wolf even as war rages around him and his survival hangs in the balance. Class awareness is also a major concern in Britannia’s Amazon;
  • Servants, male and female, represented a huge percentage of the working population, valued and reasonably well remunerated at the senior levels of butler, housekeeper or cook, but paid pittances at lower levels such as scullery maid. Even allowing for inflation, £10 a year, plus food and accommodation, was not overgenerous, especially when one free day, or even half-day, might be provided per fortnight and working days might be up to 16 hours. Even modestly prosperous families could afford a single servant and having one was one mark of respectability. (A very realistic picture of lower middle-class life in the 1880s can be had from the Grossmiths’ very entertaining Diary of a Nobody). An unpleasant aspect of the system was that young female servants were often the victims of rape by employers, or by their sons. Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ case was not unusual;
  • Which brings us finally to Sex. There is a widespread modern misconception that Victorians disliked and disapproved of it but the large families of the period, including Queen Victoria’s nine children, give the lie to it. There was however good reason to be careful. There was no reliable method of contraception and pregnancies were often dangerous, indeed fatal. The perception – and widely believed dogma – that “Good Women do not like Sex” probably had much to do with this. Educated and reasonably wealthy women who had produced “the heir and the spare” were reluctant to have more children, which only total sexual abstinence could guarantee.  In such cases gentleman would be unwilling to force the issue, but in many cases would find solace elsewhere. What were referred to by Sherlock Holmes as “separate establishments” were not unusual and prostitution flourished. Fear of unwanted pregnancy also inhibited easy sexual relations outside marriage and a major lack or realism in many historical novels and movies is the ease with which characters jump into bed together! Though savage legal penalties applied to homosexual practices (life imprisonment for Sodomy and two-years’ hard labour for Gross Indecency) they seem to have been seldom applied. A blind eye seems to have been turned by the authorities to an active Gay sub-culture, the view being that “You can do what you like as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses”. Only when high publicity was involved, as in the case of the Oscar Wilde (1895) and Cleveland Street (1889) affairs, was action taken. Wilde himself would probably never have been prosecuted had he not brought the matter into the open himself. (Britannia’s Amazon relates to such cases).

What’s listed above provides only the sketchiest outline of a complex and rapidly changing culture. Many of its features are familiar to us in our own day, sometimes in an evolved form, but others are jarringly different. We have the advantage of knowing “what happened next”, which the people of the time did not, and we know what aspects led to positive or negative long-term outcomes. It’s a world like this which a historical novelist must make his or her characters citizens of, not people of our own day acting out parts in period dress. Any character will be conscious of, or driven by, or oppressed or advantaged by any of the factors above. Even if this does not emerge explicitly on the page it’s essential for the novelist’s own mental picture.

A final point: writing about “the day before yesterday” in historical terms, as I do, is much easier than the challenges for novelists dealing with more remote periods – but for all of us, regardless of era, the joy or research and creation is a delight.
p.s. Thanks to Linda for the invitation to contribute to her blog. It really got me thinking!

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