Victorian England, My Historical Mileau of Choice
I love history and I love reading and writing Historical fiction. That said, I confess that I’ve never met an era I didn’t like and—had I but world enough and time—could happily pen novels set in Stone age Britain, Ancient Egypt, or whenever or wherever—there are so many fascinating episodes in human history (and prehistory).
I grew up in northern England watching Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Victorian sitting-room dramas on the BBC. Of course, remnants of the past are everywhere in Britain, but the Victorian era in particular is a ghost that has lingered long into the daytime and many 19th century buildings and bridges remain in daily use, right down to the primary school I attended: a Victorian relic with floorboards scuffed-smooth by the feet of generations of children. I can recall sitting at my battered wooden desk (that still held its glass inkwell!) in a high-ceilinged classroom poorly heated by radiators that gurgled and hissed but failed to throw out any real warmth. Hung on the wall was a brittle, sun-yellowed world map with the territories of the British Empire daubed in fading red. (God knows how long that poster had hung there—perhaps Rudyard Kipling’s dad pinned it up.)
Although I have written in various genres and eras, Victorian England remains a favorite milieu. Fiction writers are always looking for drama and London in the reign of Victoria was the acme of industrial progress, the capitol of finance and the seat of a sprawling Empire. And while Victorian London embodied the modern, it remained tethered to its historical past. Foreign visitors as diverse as Leon Trotsky and Gustave Dore described the city as a medieval mazework of narrow and meandering streets, skewered by modern straight thoroughfares and the steely tracks of the newly-constructed railways. In a nation where revolution never took hold, the monarchy endured and the aristocracy flourished. Thus England retained its class system with all its implicit moral contradictions. While the upper classes resided in palaces and stately homes, eating off silver and attended by a retinue of servants, the working classes ground out lives of desperation in abject poverty. Prostitution was rife. Brothels and opium dens operated openly. And in the worst of the slums, known as “rookeries,” a vast criminal underground thrived beyond the rule of law.
For a novelist, it provides a grand stage upon which to place one’s characters, give them a nudge to set them in motion, and watch the uncoiling conflict of protagonist versus antagonist buffeted by the social maelstrom of the era. As part of the research for my gothic suspense novel, Angel of Highgate, I visited London on a number of occasions to walk the ground where the action takes place. For a writer, it is a thrill to stroll along streets still jostled by the ghosts of literary giants such as Dickens, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde (amongst many, many others).
One of the central themes I explore in Angel of Highgate is the Victorian fetishization of death and mourning. Despite all the advances of medicine, many Victorians died young, cut down in the bloom of life by the ravages of cholera, typhoid—and the biggest killer, Tuberculosis (or Consumption as it was then known)—a disease that defied class barriers and killed high and low alike. The spectre of Consumption became a memento-mori for the age and Victorians—already given to maudlin sentimentality—responded by elevating the rituals surrounding death and mourning into a fetish. The vile, reeking, bone-strewn churchyards described by Dickens were replaced by the creation of modern, gorgeously landscaped cemeteries such as Victoria Park, Brookwood, Kensal Green, and the crowning glory, Highgate Cemetery, arguably the most beautiful and atmospheric necropolis in the capitol.
The high point of each of my research jaunts was a trip to Highgate Cemetery. Once abandoned to vandals and the encroachment of nature, Highgate has since been rescued by a volunteer group, Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who are working to preserve and restore the cemetery. The group also conducts tours. Audrey Niffenegger, the author The Time Traveller’s Daughter, often works as a volunteer at Highgate during the summers and drew upon her experiences in the writing of her most recent novel Her Fearful Symmetry.)
Angel of Highgate begins and ends in Highgate Cemetery. Following the novel’s protagonist, the Byronesque rakehell, Lord Geoffrey Thraxton, the reader is whisked through London’s fog-bound streets from a champagne soiree in the mummy room of the British Museum, to a pistol duel on Wimbledon Common, to a harrowing life-or-death struggle with violent mobsmen in the lawless criminal enclave of the Seven Dials Rookery. The story ends at the cemetery, as Highgate works its magic, turning tragedy in beauty, sorrow into acceptance and hope where once was only loss.
Angel of Highgate received an Editorial Recommendation from Kirkus Reviews. The full review can be read here: http://bit.ly/JjCFRG
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