Books. Who’d have thought they’d still be in fashion when the internet lies at your fingertips (just kidding)? As someone who utilizes both traditional and modern research techniques to create my Victorian world, both methods have their cons and pros. In this piece, I am bowing down to the book for this list of research sources.
If you’re like me and you’re utterly and irrevocably entranced by the Victoria era (in particular the latter half), I hope my bookshelf will lead you in the right direction.
Social Commentary –
Books: The Golden Bough by James Frazer, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and Hard Times by Charles Dickens.
The above books I found most helpful in understanding the thought process of a Victorian person. When writing historical fiction everything rests on the details, not an over-long exposition of historical facts, but the tone, language, and function of the society in your chosen time. Reading classics always makes for better writing, but for a historical writer, they help one to understand the time better than a textbook ever could.
Historical Analysis –
Books: How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman, The Tale of a City 1840-1870 Victorian London by Liza Picard, and Queen Victoria: A Life by Lytton Strachey.
The first two books were invaluable in helping me better understand day-to-day life in the Victorian era. Both books focused predominantly on the middle classes, which gave me a base understanding of life in Victorian London. The last book is a biography of Queen Victoria written in the early 1900s. First and foremost, Strachey is an engaging and oft times hilarious writer who truly captures the essence of Victoria’s life (I highly recommend reading it for fun, if you can bare it). For my understanding of the Victorian era, I found this book to help me to understand the views of British citizens looking back on the period and the reign of Queen Victoria.
Books: Victorian Fashion and Costumes from Harper’s Bazaar edited by Stella Blum and Four Hundred Years of Fashion by the Victoria & Albert Museum
These two books are pretty self-explanatory, I used them to understand the ins-and-outs of the bizarre (excuse my pun) and overtly conservative clothing of the Victorian period. The first book, however, could, of course, give guidance for other time periods of interest.
Historical Overview –
Books: History of Britain and Ireland: the Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishing, and A History of London by Stephen Inwood
The first book I purchased, one, because I liked the pictures, and two to give me a broad understanding of the British Isles. I found the pictures to be helpful in remembering each distinct time period and often enjoy just flipping through to look at the eye-catching (well eye-catching to a historian) images.
The second book gives an overview of the history of London. It is one of those impressive tomes at 1000 pages. Starting with the Roman invasion it moves thoroughly through history to the present (well 1998). If you at all consider yourself an Anglophile or have any interest in historical London, this book is a must have.
Particular to my Historical Research –
Books: Opium: A History by Martin Booth, Empire of Crime: Organised Crime in the British Empire by Tim Newark, and The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.
If you are at all interested in the illicit and not so illicit opium trade, I highly recommend Booth’s book. It can answer any and all questions surrounding the opium trade, its usage, and its politics from ancient times to present. I was particularly interested in the Opium Wars, trade by the British Empire, and its relation to Asia – the book did not disappoint. Newark’s book follows a similar line of inquiry, however, it charts the impact of the trade’s illegalization in 1908 and the rise of crime because of it. True crime fans and those interested in gang violence in England during the 20th century will find this work helpful. The Ghost Map stands as the odd man out, recounting the Cholera outbreak of 1854 which devastated London. While not within my time period of interest (the 1880s), I found this book interesting and helpful in understanding medicine during the Victorian period as well as the issues with pollution.