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Monday, 15 August 2011

Venturing Into Victorian Tone

There's a huge difference between reading Victorian fiction religiously (or methodically, as my PhD has dictacted I do) and attempting to write fiction set in the period. For numerous reasons, I have avoided it. Historical fiction scares me. I'm something of a perfectionist. I would want to get as little as possible inaccurate and my usual sore point about "getting it wrong" would probably be turned into a gaping wound. That explains why I haven't attempted it in the past. So what explains my sudden enthusiasm for a project I started months ago, worked at for a day, then discarded to rest with the dozens of "bad" ideas your average writer has?

I've read many enjoyable pieces of authentic Victorian fiction in recent years. I'm referring to Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Bronte and Edmund Yates. I've also come across less well-written but equally enjoyable novels by other authors such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood and Charlotte Riddell. However, I'm now venturing into the depths of Victorian sensation literature. I'm learning precisely why posterity has not treated James Payn or Charles Gibbon with much kindness. I know what it's like to read a "bad" novel so, it stands to reason, I should know what areas need to be avoided.

Well, perhaps. What was "good" about the novel in the Victorian period cannot wholly be replicated in contemporary fiction. I think our readers are impatient: they want the illusion of Victorianism without the boring bits. I think the extended boat trip in Payn's A Woman's Vengeance would have to be cut out of any novel written today. It is clever in places, yes, but it's dreary and fails to further the plot as much as it could. In a rapidly-moving world we want our fiction to move as well: whatever era it's set in.

When I think of historical fiction set in the Victorian era, the first name that springs to mind is Sarah Waters. Perhaps because she was the first I read - and is still my favourite after all this time. What comes across in her work is a sense of knowledge: she isn't blagging, she's done the research and it shows. For potential writers this seems to be the biggest problem. You don't have to get everything right but you need to be right a lot more than you're wrong. Some readers might not care about historical inaccuracy but some will. Here's the more important point: if I was the author of such a work then I'd care.

Developing a voice that's Victorian enough to pass the test but still appealing to a modern reader is possibly the scariest part. I reread the 1500 words I'd written during my enthusiastic spurt and realised that, actually, they weren't that bad. I could definitely picture them in one of the musty books I'm currently perusing for my PhD. Individual words will need to be checked for authenticity later on, but my extensive Victorian reading has already given me a headstart in that department.

There is so much research to be done but, if I am to continue with these scribblings, I know it's important not to get too bogged down with it all before I start. If I did that I'd hate the thing before I even started writing. As long as my over-arching plot is plausibly Victorian (which I hope it is) then I know that everything else can be fixed in the redrafting stage. That gives me hope.


Caroline Helstone said...

I've quite enjoyed your take on literature, this post especially. I thought what a coincidence! as I'm also writing a novel set in the 1810's (not a Regency romance, though), and intend to do antoher in the 1870's. What do you normally take into account to give a book set in Victorian times a Victorian flavour?

CharmedLassie said...

Because of my PhD research, I'm reading so many novels set in the mid-Victorian era (many bad, I'm afraid!) and I think details just absorb into the brain. I think one of the trickiest things for a modern writer trying to write something that seems authentically Victorian is the dialogue - it can easily tread the line between pretentious and Victorian. Then again, I suppose that can be said of all fiction, historical or not!