Into the light: contrasting life early and late Victorian London; girls learn and unlearn posture; and some fun stuff to do in the city

One of my challenges in writing the next book is to refrain from falling into stereotypical “Dickensian” images and ideas of the Victorian period. Because mine is a Gothic novel, the darker imagery of the period would suit so well. However, by 1890, the world looked much different than it had forty or fifty years prior. As someone who works hard to create as vivid and realistic an environment as possible in whatever era I’m writing in, I’ll have to be ultra-conscious as I go along.

Just returned from a walking tour of the dark side of Victorian London. I walked for so long during the tour and afterwards that when I returned to the flat, I could no longer bend my toes. True story. We’ve had two entire days of sunshine, and it’s just too painful to stay indoors. I suppose that my feet are in “Los Angeles” condition, where we spend untold money to pump iron with trainers, but take our cars 3 blocks to the supermarket .

The walking tour mainly encompassed Dickens’ London, whereas by the time my novel takes place late in the century, things started to look different and much more modern. I’m impressed with the Victorians when I compare conditions in Dickens’ time against the reforms that were instituted later in the century. For example, mid-century London had a system of apprenticeship for chimney sweeps whereby the skinniest orphan boys were drafted to shimmy up narrow chimneys that often were no more than nine inches in diameter. It was horrific work. The boys rarely made it to the age of ten, often dying from—yes, burning—but also lung and testicular cancers. This horrible practice was finally ended in 1875.

Illiterate girls not working in factories sold flowers and fruits on the streets, hoping to get a half-penny tip from a lady or gent. A few years down the road, many of these girls entered the only profession available to them—prostitution. The poor on the east side of town had no access to clean water, taking their drinking water from the Thames, even as they—and the rest of the city—emptied their sewage into it. Appalling! Ancient Greece and Rome had far more sanitary conditions than mid-19th century England.

By the middle of the century, wealthy philanthropists and church ladies were crying out for better conditions for the poor. Crusaders lobbied to get ten-hour limits on workdays for women and children. Finally, consciousness was raised about girls’ educations. Whereas prior to the late 1800s, girls were educated at home or in a few short terms at finishing schools, or in the case of the poor, were kept illiterate, suddenly, elementary schools for girls began to pop up all over England funded by the Girls’ Public Education Trust. Prior to this, even in fancy finishing schools, girls were taught things like Music, Posture, Decorum, and Morals, spending very little time on academic subjects. Mind you, a mere one hundred twenty years ago, Girls Like Us would have been spending our days with boards on our backs, arms looped through, to improve posture, while we learned how to remove a tea cup from the table without rattling it (thereby rattling gentlemen’s nerves!). It was widely believed that educating girls would cause disturbances in their uteruses,which would naturally lead to hysteria. Also, too much education ruined a girl’s chances in the marriage market. (Still might!)

The fun of all this for me is that my protagonist is an assistant headmistress at a London private girls’ school, one that staunchly adheres to the old formula for educating females, while all around them, working class girls and middle class girls were taking advantage of educational opportunities.

Life did begin to change rapidly. Those little flower girls, now schooled in useful things like typing and shorthand, could enter the workplace. Naturally they also began to cry out for the right to vote and other rights. The world also began to LOOK different. A quick walk around the Victoria and Albert Museum demonstrates that architecture and design swiftly moved away from the notorious fussiness associated with Victoriana and quickly moved toward sleeker Arts & Crafts and Edwardian styles. Societies were formed to demand simpler clothing for women that enabled physical freedom. Electricity began to replace gas lamps and candlelight. Victorians were literally moving into the light!

When you visit London, check out these great walking tours:

And wander around the amazing Borough Market on your own:

Don’t miss the Victoria & Albert Museum (best gift shop, I think):

The Thames used to be both a source of drinking water and a sewage system.
The Thames used to be both a source of drinking water and a sewage system.

The fabulous architecture of the Boroughs Market that influenced the design of train stations everywhere.
The fabulous architecture of the Boroughs Market that influenced the design of train stations everywhere.

The Boot and Flogger.  What's a Flogger?

The Boot and Flogger. What’s a Flogger?