Thursday, September 20, 2012

Thursday 13: The Lure of Victorian Settings


Today's Thursday 13 is all about why the British and Commonwealth Victorian period is so attractive for writers, still, and likely always - or at least why I enjoy it as a writer (and a reader).

1. It's so deliciously atmospheric, and generally creepy. All those staircases, country estates, gas lamps and foggy, dim side streets, not to mention Jack the Ripper and other shady doings.

2. The fashions are quite enjoyable! Now, if you know me at all, you know I am not usually concerned with clothing and the like, but top hats, waistcoats, deerstalkers, wearing ties to go hiking, shirtwaists, crushed velvet, calfskin gloves, etc, etc, etc... Definitely fun stuff to imagine.

3. Morphine, Gin and Opium, oh my! Even Holmes enjoyed his seven percent solution now and again. Intoxicants seemed to be ubiquitous, and, while not exactly polite, they were not a giant secret, either; nor were they major legal taboos, either. This always makes for some added colour to a story, and leaves ample room for an addled poet or wastrel cousin.

4. You can have a character smoke tobacco wherever he wants. While the ladies were discouraged from smoking in public, men seemed to have little restriction. This, too, adds greatly to the atmosphere, takes away some of the fiddly issues of "where can I place this character where he can smoke?", and gives them something to do with their hands.

5. A total absence of having to deal with the "social media" issue. If you're writing a modern story, you can't ignore the Internet any more. Almost every character can reasonably be assumed to have some form of social media, and it's getting more and more ridiculous to write a character without an email address, so writers are kind of forced into some mention of it. I am not a huge fan, because it feels like something that seems current now, but will date the piece within years. The Victorian era allows me to relax and ignore the Facebook Question.

6. Similarly: No frigging cell phones. Cell phones suck. I really don't care for them. Yet, in modern stories, you are forced to acknowledge them. People are so darned plugged in, it gets a bit annoying. I feel this really damages the drama, and you miss out on the chills of placing a character in the a dark alley, being pursued, without a telegraph office in sight! I suppose we can say that drunk texting gives us a new form of drama, but I don't think it's adequate compensation.

7. Horses, carriages, and early motor cars. And trains. The romance of early transportation is delightful!

8. "Lodgings". I even love the word.

9. The whole steampunky feel. Now, I don't write steampunk, but it has aesthetic attraction. Copper, gold, crystal, iron, pearl, glass, brass, wood, pewter, and so forth; items that were designed to be both functional and ornate. Early machines are wonderful fodder for the imagination. It's a world of mystery, from hot air balloons, to printing presses, to the humblest pocket watch or gasogene.

10. Orientalism at its peak! Now, in my scholarly life, I am critical of orientalism, as most good post-colonialists are. But, as a writer, the scores of "trophies" from India, Chinese ornaments, oddities from the Middle East, and souvenirs from Egypt are rich points of creativity. Added to this, the spiritualism, occult, and Theosophical veins, and you can find almost anything you need to write.

11. Elopements, wedding banns, entailments, hidden heirs, treaties, etc. Even the red tape was cooler in the Victorian era.

12. Telegrams, seals, letters, cyphers, cabinet photos, albums, notebooks, newspapers, etc. It was an age of paper, books, and documents. No Googling, so characters can find a wealth of dramatic shockers spread out over the course of the whole book. It's an investigator's paradise!

13. No one does seedy quite like the Victorians. Perhaps it is the facade of propriety, I don't know, but the picaresque underbelly seemed extra dingy. Nowadays, seedy is so visible it loses some of its narrative elan. When it's seen on every reality show, it becomes a bit meh, and a lot less atmospheric. Victorian life was comprised of worlds within worlds, of secret languages and unseen layers. A treasure trove of plots, characters and happenings lay within!

The ornate complexity of the Victorian period is alluring because there is so much to describe, use, hint at, and sink into. Would I like to live in the Victorian period? No, not a chance. It was certainly a time of white, male privilege, and engaged tooth-and-nail in the hierarchies of class and birth. But, as a writer, it gives me a wondrous playground with an inexhaustible source of mystery, ambiance, and beautiful language. With a mountain of research, an author can hunt around in this period, and never come back up for modern air.

In sum: I'm enjoying my Victorian holiday. Wish you were here!

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