A Victorian Love Affair.
I think that anyone who writes about a particular period in history needs to be a little bit in love with it. That doesn’t mean one would actually want to live there – just think about Victorian dentistry for a start – but it should exert a fascination. I am often asked ‘Do you have to do lots of research?’ as if that is a problem – but of course the research is sheer pleasure, as I am constantly discovering new things about a subject that enthralls me.
It all started around 1998 when I began writing (as distinct from just reading) about Victorian crime. I always want to know why a crime has taken place, and I realised very quickly that if I was going to understand the crime I was going to have to learn about the Victorians, not just the basics of what they ate and wore, and how they travelled, but how they thought and spoke. Vitally, I needed to know not only what they said but also the hidden meanings beneath those words. I had to somehow delve below the layers of euphemisms, subtle allusions and the need for ‘delicacy’ and find out what they were really saying.
I have always believed that as people we have never really changed over history. That is one reason why the plays of Shakespeare still give us so much enjoyment, all human desire is there; love, hate, jealousy, ambition, we still recognise ourselves. But the expectations of Victorian society, especially for the respectable middle classes meant that much had to be hidden or repressed. Pomposity, hypocrisy and duplicity abound. It is that struggle between the fundamental instincts of human nature and how the Victorians were schooled to behave, a struggle that many failed to win, or only won at some cost, that interests me. The idea of scandal lurking behind the lace curtains still excites us.
The best way of understanding the Victorians is to read as much as possible of what they said, especially under conditions where they were obliged to speak openly, and thanks to the wonderful stenographers who reported inquests, trials, public meetings and parliamentary proceedings, examples of actual Victorian speech as it was spoken by every level of society is there in abundance. I can lose myself in the rhythm of the spoken word which is so much more rounded and less jerky than nowadays, the satire and sarcasm, the little hints of impropriety, the circumlocutions, the evasions and the excuses they made for bad behaviour.
Their prejudices shock us now. Racism and sexism were accepted norms of thought, and it is uncomfortable, when reading works by writers we admire to find these casually expressed in their books and letters. I have just been reading a speech by a noted Professor, a good kind intelligent man, explaining why he thought women should not enter the medical profession. But he was merely a man of his time, trying to rationalize why things should stay as they were, and there were many like him, as well as others who were more enlightened and far-seeing.
Victorians were often, by our standards, very naïve about the motivation to commit crime, and what constituted scientific proof, but these were fields that were in their infancy, slowly developing throughout the nineteenth century which was a glorious age of discovery. They naturally assumed, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, that in any crime where there was collusion, a female was directed by a male, a younger person by an elder and a servant by the master.
They were adventurous and reckless, narrow-minded and unthinkingly cruel, yet it was easy to arouse a spirit of kindhearted chivalry, a determination to be useful to society and charity to the less fortunate. More than any preceding age they looked forward, and saw the achievements of society in terms of progress, of what could be done to make life better. They built machines to do the work of men, they looked for cures for disease, and they rationalized the law. Not all their ideas worked, but you can’t fault them for trying.
Linda Stratmann 2013