Please note that Serial is back temporarily, to present the short story by Dickens which was a predecessor to A Christmas Carol. It starts today. Check it out.
The Victorian era — was there such a thing?
Victoria became Queen in 1837 and died in 1901, a reign of just short of sixty-four years. Everything in Britain changed in that time except the Queen, so does the phrase Victorian Era have any real meaning?
If you are going to write steampunk, that is a fair question. Of course steampunk usually takes place in an alternate Victorian era — sometimes extremely alternate — but you have to have at least a reasonable knowledge of the original if you are going to mimic it.
Most of us get our history everywhere but a history book, so let’s see what fiction we can use to subdivide the era. Jane Austen, the Brontes, and the Queen were born only a few years apart, so if you enjoy those authors, you are reading about the early Victorian period. Not my wheelhouse, but to each his own.
More to my taste, Charles Dickens’s first novel was published in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. His last novel (uncompleted) and his death took place in 1870. At that time Victoria still had three decades to live.
The Dickensian era is almost as widely known as the Victorian. In full disclosure, I have read all of Dickens’s Christmas novellas — A Christmas Carol several times — but his larger works tend to defeat me. I think I was inoculated against them by being force-fed Great Expectations at too young an age.
Not everyone reads Dickens by choice, but everyone knows what Dickensian means. Judith Flanders in The Victorian City, said:
Today “Dickensian” means squalor . . .(Dickens was) the greatest recorder the London streets has ever known — through whose eyes those streets have become Dickensian . . .
She got it right for her literary audience, but wrong for those who never read a Dickens novel that they weren’t forced to read. Dickensian, to the average Joe (or Joan) means carolers in fancy dress, Scrooge redeemed, Tiny Tim getting a second chance at life, and a village of quaint houses for the Christmas mantle. The actual harshness of Dickens’s other novels is excluded.
The squalor and the sweetness: that is the dual heritage that steampunk authors have to work with if they set their works in variations of the early Victorian period.
As I explained last Wednesday, Like Clockwork is derived from A Christmas Carol, although it morphed into something very different from a Christmas novel. I don’t think Dickens would recognize my London at all.
From 1870 when Dickens died, until 1901 when Queen Victoria died, the world became a very different place from the home of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Oliver Twist. The industrial revolution changed the world into something much closer to the present.
You might choose Jules Verne as the author that most represents this era, but not if you are concentrating on England. Verne would be the right literary reference for a steampunk novel set in the La Belle Époque, Paris. If you know of such a work, send me the author and title. I would love to read it.
My earlier steampunk novel, The Cost of Empire, travels across five continents by dirigible, but much of the action takes place in London. For that time period in London, there is only one literary creature who is in everyone’s DNA; not an author, but a character who is more real to most of us than the author who created him — Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and there were flashbacks to earlier cases. His Last Bow was on the eve of World War I. This neatly fills in the rest of the Victorian era and spills over into the Edwardian.
Gender gets involved here. Dickens appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to men and women alike. The rest of British popular literature, contemporary to the era (not historical fiction) is largely gender biased, with Austen and the Brontes for the gals, Kipling, Buchan, and Conan Doyle for the guys.
In other words, if you are a guy (guilty as charged) and you consider Victorian characters, you are more likely to think first of Sherlock Holmes than of Elizabeth Bennet — or even Mr. Darcy.
When I first became involved in the Victorian era, after becoming interested in steampunk, my knowledge of everyday life in London came largely from multiple readings of the canon. That is what Holmes fans call the fifty-six stories and four novels written by ACD himself. My internal vision of Victorian London was that which could be seen from 221b Baker Street, even though Sherlock himself never makes an appearance in my writings.
If you want a reference book for each era, I recommend:
For the early Victorian period — The Victorian City by Judith Flanders. She gives a modern scholar’s look at the reality behind the world that Dickens wrote about.
For the late Victorian period — Sherlock Holmes: the Man and his World by H. R. F. Keating. He provides commentary on Holmes’s world, with contemporary photographs of scenes from the canon.