Researching the Victorian Era

I have an odd habit of writing historical fiction set in eras I know little or nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for each of those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

When It Rained at Hembry Castle was a different experience. Due to  my love for Dickens and my own research on the Victorian era, I was writing about a time I was familiar with. When I began writing Hembry Castle I realized that I could include aspects of my favorite TV show, Downton Abbey, to bring the story to life. The hero of Hembry Castle, the aspiring young writer Edward Ellis, became the focal point of the story, along with his love, Daphne Meriwether, but then I decided to include upstairs and downstairs elements of life during the Victorian era as well.

In order to write this novel, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course, I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, some more than twice, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for HembryOur Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London and Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders. I had read those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a history class about Victorian Britain, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice for research as I was writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken some of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far as an historical novelist because it was set in a time I was already familiar with. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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Watching the Witch Trials: The Crucible and Three Sovereigns for Sarah

To get into the flow of life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony while I’m writing Down Salem Way, I just rewatched The Crucible, which is a story I love. When I was teaching American literature, one of my favorite lessons was when we read and watched Miller’s work because there’s such depth to the story and it provided much for us to think and talk about. When I rewatched The Crucible, it was helpful seeing the period costumes, the wooden houses, the horse-drawn carriages, and the farming because it helps me visualize what I’m writing about.

It’s important to remember that Miller’s play is an allegory where the witch hunts represent the finger-pointing madness of McCarthyism where no one was safe from accusations of Communism. For anyone familiar with the events of the Salem Witch Trials, it’s easy to say that The Crucible is more fiction than fact. However, the point of the play is not to illuminate the real-life events of the witch hunts but to make a point about how easily we turn against each other when it suits our purposes. The names of those involved in the witch hunts are true and the general events are based on fact; the specifics of the play, however, not so much. Abigail Williams was 11, John Proctor in his 60s, and I feel  confident saying that he looked nothing like Daniel Day-Lewis. To know about the Salem Witch Trials and allow for the way it’s presented in The Crucible, you have to accept Miller’s story for what it is—a parable about how vulnerable we are to our own weaknesses. Miller was a master at dialogue—there is not one word out of place—and Proctor’s speech at the end (where he cannot sign a false confession) sums up perfectly why so many of those convicted of witchcraft wouldn’t falsely confess despite the fact that confession would save their lives.

If you use Amazon , you’re familiar with those lists of “If you like this, you’ll like this…” Sometimes I find those lists annoying, but the day I watched The Crucible another title popped onto my TV screen—Three Sovereigns for Sarah. I wasn’t familiar with this movie starring Vanessa Redgrave, but in a way the 1985 film is the perfect companion piece to The Crucible since Three Sovereigns for Sarah is also about the Salem Witch Trials. The main difference is that Three Sovereigns is based more on factual accounts; in fact, much of the dialogue in the film comes directly from transcripts from the trials in 1692. Three Sovereigns is about three sisters—Rebecca Nurse, Mary Easty, and Sarah Cloyse (played by Redgrave)—caught up in the horror of the witch hunts. Rebecca and Mary are hanged after their witchcraft convictions, while Sarah survives, barely, because she was jailed away from the others due to the prisons in Salem and Boston overflowing with suspected and convicted witches. Twenty years later, seeking to clear her sisters’ names, Sarah is given three sovereigns, one for each sister, meant to appease her loss under such tragic circumstances.

Watching the film version of The Crucible does give a sense of life in Salem in 1692, but really I watch The Crucible for the pinpoint perfect dialogue and the message within the story (and, yes, for Daniel Day-Lewis). Watching Three Sovereigns for Sarah gives a more accurate account of what really happened during the witch hunts. As someone currently writing about the Salem Witch Trials, both The Crucible and Three Sovereigns have played a role in helping me bring Salem in 1692 to life.

On the literary side, I’ve downloaded The Scarlet Letter, the classic from Nathaniel
Hawthorne (a descendant of Salem Witch Trial magistrate John Hathorne, Nathaniel having added the w to the spelling of his surname to avoid a direct connection to his decidedly unsympathetic ancestor). The Scarlet Letter is not about the witch hunts, but it is about life in Puritanical Massachusetts, which will also help me get a feel for the time. I’ve also discovered a documentary about the Salem Witch Trials from the History Channel, and I’m looking forward to the new perspective that will bring.

I look at it this way: I get to watch TV and read classic literature and call it work.

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Historical Fiction Inspiration: Anne Bradstreet

While researching historical fiction, occassionally I’ll stumble onto a fact, or an event, or a person that helps to bring my story to life in a way even I hadn’t envisaged. This is what happened when I discovered Anne Bradstreet while writing Her Dear & Loving Husband.

As with most things to do with my writing, I discovered Anne Bradstreet by accident. I was thinking that since James and Elizabeth lived in Salem in 1692 during the witch trials, and since James is the bookish type who left his studies in Cambridge to follow his father to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he would likely spend his free time reading. What would someone read by the light of their hearth in 1692? As I searched for popular literature during the late 17th century, I happened upon the name of Anne Bradstreet. I was surprised that I had never heard of Bradstreet. I have two degrees in English literature, and while I certainly took American literature courses, I don’t recall taking any early American literature courses, and I don’t recall being introduced to Bradstreet’s work, which is a shame since Anne Bradstreet is a poet literature students should know.

Bradstreet was born in 1612 in England to a wealthy Puritan family, and in 1630 she emigrated with her family to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The family lived in several places around Massachusetts, including Salem, and her father and husband were both instrumental in the founding of Harvard College. She was the mother of eight children, a wife, and a poet at a time when the first two were considered all a women need be in this world. Bradstreet wrote honestly about the conflicts she experienced as a result of her various roles. Bradstreet not only wrote poetry, she wrote great poetry, and she became the first English person in North America to be published. It’s rumored that King George III had a book of her poetry in his collection. According to the Poetry Foundation, Bradstreet’s poems express her difficulty in resolving her conflicts between the pleasures of sensory and familial experience and the promises of heaven. Puritans were meant to subdue their attachment to this earthly world, but in her poetry Bradstreet shares her deep, abiding connection to her husband and children.

Bradstreet’s earliest known poem,”Upon a Fit of Sickness, Anno. 1632,” adheres to Puritan values:

O Bubble blast, how long can’st last?

That always art a breaking,

No sooner blown, but dead and gone,

Ev’n as a word that’s speaking.

O whil’st I live, this grace me give,

I doing good may be,

Then death’s arrest I shall count best,

because it’s thy decree.

Her poem “Contemplations” is considered by some to be one of her best:

Then higher on the glistering Sun I gaz’d

Whose beams was shaded by the leavie Tree,

The more I look’d, the more I grew amaz’d

And softly said, what glory’s like to thee?

Soul of this world, this Universes Eye,

No wonder, some made thee a Deity:

Had I not better known, (alas) the same had I

Bradstreet loved life on earth, and her hope was “for heaven was an expression of her desire to live forever rather than a wish to transcend worldly concerns. For her, heaven promised the prolongation of earthly joys, rather than a renunciation of those pleasures she enjoyed in life” (The Poetry Foundation).

Bradstreet wrote many of the poems that appeared in the first edition of The Tenth Muse between the years 1635 and 1645 while she lived in Ipswich, 30 miles from Boston. Bradstreet dedicated her work to her father, Thomas Dudley, who educated her, encouraged her to read, and appreciated his daughter’s intelligence, no small accomplishments in the 17th century when women were not valued for their intelligence.

After I started my research on 17th century literature and discovered Bradstreet, I read her poems and I was impressed with the depth of feeling she shared in her work. Since she was a Puritan, I would have assumed that her work would be all about praising God and dreams of a joyous heaven, and she certainly shared that sentiment in much of her poetry. But then I found the poem that would help me shape the love story I was writing: “To My Dear and Loving Husband”:

If ever two were one, then surely we.

If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.

If ever wife was happy in a man,

Compare with me, ye women, if you can.

I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,

Or all the riches that the East doth hold.

My love is such that rivers cannot quench,

Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

Thy love is such I can no way repay;

The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.

Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,

That when we live no more, we may live ever.

Bradstreet was concerned with God as dictated by her Puritan values, but she also loved her dear husband, there beside her on earth, and she took great joy in him. As soon as I read the poem I knew it could serve as the missing link I had been searching for. This poem represents what my story is about, right? Two people who are so in love that even death cannot separate them. And it even provided me with the story’s title, Her Dear & Loving Husband.

This is the kind of synchronicity—a meaningful coincidence—that makes writing the greatest thing on earth as far as I’m concerned. There’s a moment where these disconnected pieces of a story come together through some random discovery, and suddenly everything makes sense, the picture comes together, and I can finally see the story I meant to write in the first place. The discovery of Anne Bradstreet and her poem “To My Dear and Loving Husband” provided me with a way to connect the dots between James and Elizabeth in the past and James and Sarah in the present.

Much of the information about Bradstreet shared here was found on the Poetry Foundation website. If you’ve never visited the website, the Poetry Foundation is a great resource for information about poets and their poems. For more information on Anne Bradstreet, or to read her poems, visit the Anne Bradstreet page at the Poetry Foundation.

 

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