Remember that blog post I wrote a while ago about how to research for a book? That’s literally what I’m doing right now. I recently got a book deal (did I mention that very loudly DAMN RIGHT I DID) and I’m currently going through the editing process, which is exciting and weird and will require whole vats of tea.
In my case, it’s also going to involve hitting the books. Specifically, these ones:
As if that reading list wasn’t enough of a clue, my book is set in Victorian London. I’ve read most of these more than once, mainly because I don’t want the ghost of Dickens to laugh at me, and because if I wrote a historically inaccurate book I would probably have to hand back my history degree.
But fortunately for me I’m a giant nerd and this is really interesting! Here’s a few of the weird bits:
It Pays to Advertise
I always think of adverts as being a relatively modern phenomenon but they were in full swing in the Victorian period. Obviously you’d get your posters, flyers, stuff painted on walls and blokes wearing sandwich boards, but the Victorians took it to a whole other level. Max Schlesinger, a German tourist to London in the mid-nineteenth century, describes seeing a procession of pyramids going down the street one day to advertise an Egyptian panorama, like a big train of carnival floats. Old clothes men, who (as the name suggests) went around collecting old clothes from people, used to advertise their profession by wearing all the clothes they got at once, complete with stacking their hats on top of each other and wobbling off down the street.
Eighteen-Fifty Shades of Grey
So in the mid-Victorian era there was this magazine called the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, and it started off as exactly what it sounds like. Most of the time the magazine contained dress patterns, domestic advice, all fairly standard stuff – until 1867, when the magazine’s correspondence section got hijacked by fetishists talking about the virtues of tight-lacing a corset and corporal punishment for young girls. As far as I can gather a couple of women wrote in about these topics genuinely wanting to discuss them, but then all the BDSM enthusiasts came out of the woodwork. It got so bad that the corporal punishment section ended up getting republished as pornography (although it’s pretty softcore by modern standards). I found some links to blog posts if any of you are interested.
Roses are Red, Anchovies are Red…
The Victorians used to put all kinds of stuff in their food. For many people it seems that it wasn’t important that the food was healthy – what was important was that it looked right. This featured in all kinds of food. It could be fairly harmless – such as removing the wheatgerm from flour to make bread whiter – or it could be actively dangerous, such as adding alum or chalk dust to flour to make it whiter. Some of the worst offenders were anchovies, which were dyed red with an oxide of lead, and pickles, which were dyed green with a copper compound, both of which were probably poisonous. This all came out roughly in the middle of the period and new laws were introduced to prevent manufacturers from doing these, but removing the dyes actually caused some people to complain that their food didn’t look right because it wasn’t A BRIGHT RED ANCHOVY. I mean, come on.
In one of my research books there’s a list of excuses given by legal scribes who were unable to complete work they took home with them. They’re great. My favourites are ‘A row with the wife’, ‘Met a friend last night’ and ‘So hot I couldn’t work’, which considering it was 39 degrees Celsius in London earlier this week, is a BIG mood.
The Victorians used naff little poems for everything, especially in advertising. There’s quite a lot of dropping syllables with apostrophes so that it fits the rhythm and messing about with the syntax to get a rhyme, none of them are particularly great. My favourite one, however, is about the morally correct day of the week to do your laundry:
‘They that wash on Monday
Have all the week to dry.
They that wash on Tuesday
Are not so much awry.
They that wash on Wednesday
Are not so much to blame.
They that wash on Thursday
Wash for very shame.
They that wash on Friday
Wash in sorry need.
They that wash on Saturday
Are lazy sluts indeed.’
I do my laundry on Sundays most of the time, so I’m not sure where I’d fit, but I guess it’s pretty tricky to find something that rhymes with ‘godless heathen’.
And there you have it! Isn’t the past weird? Not at all like us…