What is it about us and the Victorians? Here we are in 2014, in a world of smart phones, Twitter and Facebook, and yet, everywhere you look in the media, there are hansom cabs, crinolines and top hats. There’s Ripper Street and Penny Dreadful on TV. Adaptations of Dickens and other nineteenth-century novelists continue to flourish on large and small screens alike. True tales of nineteenth-century scandals such as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Mr. Briggs’ Hat make the bestseller lists. And, in crime fiction, novels are filled with Sherlockian lookalikes, Scotland Yard inspectors with mutton-chop whiskers and more private detectives than ever really roamed the streets of Victorian London. Last year I made my own small contribution to what can sometimes seem like some sort of cultural trend. My debut novel Carver’s Quest (Corvus) is set in 1870. It follows the adventures of a young gentleman named Adam Carver and his stroppy servant Quint Devlin as they seek out an ancient Greek manuscript which may hold the key to the whereabouts of gold that once belonged to Alexander the Great’s father. In the process they stumble across dead bodies in London, find themselves the targets of anti-English rioting in Athens and spend time in one of the strange, isolated monasteries of Meteora in Thessaly. I have just finished its sequel in which Carver and Quint join a ramshackle theatre company in York, and later travel to Bismarck’s Berlin just after Wilhelm I has been declared emperor of a united Germany. The story includes a young actress who goes missing, stolen state secrets, a sinister Count with a duelling scar and a shoot-out on an island in the River Havel, and it should be published in 2015.
So why did I choose to write about the Victorian era? In one sense, I just found it more fun to set my story in the past. I’ve always read a lot of books about history in general and nineteenth-century history in particular. I was intent on writing a colourful, tongue-in-cheek adventure story and the Victorian age seemed to be the perfect setting for it. It’s a time which is simultaneously both reassuringly familiar and challengingly remote. At first glance, the Victorians seem remarkably like us. They don’t dress in togas and tunics like the ancient Romans. They don’t don suits of armour and ride into battle waving lances like the knights of fourteenth-century Europe. They appear recognisably ‘modern’ in ways that individuals from further back in history don’t. Give or take the odd peculiarity of dress, hairstyle and vocabulary, a Victorian lady or gentleman would surely not look or sound too out of place on the streets of modern London. Yet delve a little deeper into the lives of nineteenth-century men and women and they prove as strange as any Roman legionary or medieval warrior. This combination of the recognisable and the alien seems to me to provide the ideal background for a historical novelist. I sometimes wonder why anybody writes about any other period in history!
Writing about the past, of course, demands research. As a debut novelist I found it all too easy to become obsessed by research to the point that I could scarcely put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to tell the story. I couldn’t get a character from one side of a room to another without feeling that I knew what every object in that room might look like. I couldn’t have Carver strike a match unless I read a short history of the match industry or drink a beer without my consulting a volume or two on Victorian brewing. I developed a particular fetish about language. I fretted incessantly over it. I couldn’t let a character say anything unless I knew that the words were the exact words that someone in 1870 might be using. ‘I can’t use that word,’ I would say to myself. ‘According to the OED, it didn’t come into use until 1875.’ In the end, of course, such obsessiveness becomes counter-productive. Obviously you don’t want your Victorian detective saying things like, ‘Give me five, dude’ when he solves a crime or using catchphrases from TV series but dialogue doesn’t need to be 100% authentic. It’s probably not even possible to create such dialogue anyway. It just needs to sound plausible and convincing for that period. In the same way, there needs to come a point when, as a writer, you put research behind you and simply tell your story as best you can. It was a lesson that this first-time novelist found difficult to learn.
Research can, of course, be a pleasure rather than a problem. One of my greatest delights in writing the first novel came with the chance to describe Meteora, the complex of Greek Orthodox monasteries in Thessaly which is one of the most remarkable sights I’ve ever seen. These are truly extraordinary buildings – perched on the tops of pinnacles of rock rising from the plain and difficult of access, even today. When I returned from seeing them, I began to read about them. I came across quite a few accounts by nineteenth-century British gentlemen travellers of visiting the monasteries and of the hair-raising methods used to reach them. Visitors either had to scale wooden ladders placed against vertiginous rock faces or they were hauled up in nets and baskets by the monks. I couldn’t resist sending my characters there and, in the end, their visit to the monastery became central to the whole story.
The research for my second Carver and Quint novel has very definitely been more pleasurable than problematic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Victorian theatre world into which the characters travel in search of the missing actress and I’ve been delighted to have the excuse to revisit Berlin, probably my favourite European city. I’m just hoping that at least some of the pleasure I’ve had in writing and researching my two Victorian novels will be communicated to their readers.