There’s no denying that I am a snob. As such, I like my Historical Romance to be damn well historical. Attempting to live by my own standards, I mostly muddle about in the Victorian Era, despite all the press about its repressive culture. Michel Foucault has said some things on this, but I’ll save that for my dissertation (and this heavy-duty post of mine from last year.)
Intellectual wanking aside, writing fiction in the idiom of the Victorian age is a lot of fun. I like the diction and writing style, the license to be poetic and to drench my dialogue in innuendo and double entendre. I like as well the scenarios the Victorian era offers. Despite its reputation as an era of repression, it was in fact a time of broad social upheaval and technological advancement with many parallels to our time, including the struggle to implement socially beneficial infrastructure as the epidemic and chronic illnesses of increasingly urban lifestyles were battled with public health measures like sewers and indoor plumbing.
Deep diving into Victoriana feels a little like visiting Japan. It provides a sweet spot of a lifestyle much like mine, yet with an utterly foreign aesthetic and social imaginary. Britain under Queen Victoria and Japan in general are both cultures built on very precisely managed social facades, behind which can rage stunning perversities. We observe the gentility of a tea ceremony, but flip over the painted scroll hanging on the paper wall and you will find a geisha ‘entertaining’ several octopuses. The Marylebone gentleman speaks in Parliament, dines with his wife, kisses his nanny-educated children goodnight, then goes to the bawdy house and gets his arse resoundingly ‘birched’ like the good old days away at school.
While the Regency is a very popular period for Historical Romance (from Austen to Heyer to Quinn to Hall) it was not a very long time period. Many of its charms linger into the Victorian age. Well-spoken politeness still wins the day, and one’s past can define one’s whole future. Yet by the end of the 19th Century, class structures have notably shifted, introducing new types of people to each other. The middle class has begun to emerge, challenging the nobility’s power through sheer force of numbers. And technology had already begun to change the way everyone lived, at a pace unmatched in prior ages.
Not to mention it’s after Britain’s abolition of slavery, which suits me very well. I certainly can’t erase the wealth acquired through the Transatlantic slave trade, but statistically any titled person i.e. English Duke in the Regency was likely benefitting from the Slave Trade. Yes, that wealth carries over even to our times, but let’s say I prefer to play with the fiction-writing kit that doesn’t include that particular component. My titled 19th Century snobs can still be cruel, remorseless, indifferent to oppression. Today we might call them Tories, and there’s a wealth of contemporary fiction about this same kind of ultra-rich white cis-het culture. I don’t need to write about duels at sword-point for my stories to contain entitled men who feel they have the right to be violent, and who need putting in their place, which is really more where my interest lies.
And then there’s the aesthetic. I like dark suits and slim waistcoats and pocket watches and canes that turn out to be shivs. I like tailcoats and tight white shirts and black hansom cabs slipping through the streets to indecent assignations. Cockneys with knives. Can-can and Burlesque. Laudanum and Absinthe, Impressionism, subways, suffrage, Sarah Bernhardt and steam power, Charcot’s gynecological exhibitions and Aubrey Beardsley’s priapic prints, masturbation both as a symptom of insanity and the means by which one prevented it, and all the while corsets get tighter and tighter. The British Experiment reached its giddy apex, and for a few bold years the sun never did set on its Empire, while quietly it was being said that perhaps its former colony across the Atlantic was about to steal its gilded crown.
Change by the bucketful: unavoidable, terrifying, fascinating.