I can honestly say that I love the research phase of writing. Indeed, so much so that I struggle to stop. After all, when is enough-enough?
When I came up with the concept of Stoker, I was forced to acknowledge the depth of my ignorance in regards to all things Victorian. Of course I had a vague notion based on distant history lessons in high school and from fictional works, particularly Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Some marvellous television adaptations of Dickens’s works have been a welcome addition. But, sadly, it was not enough. So, down the rabbit hole I plunged.
As my hero is a working man, a stoker, this is where I started. What was/is a stoker? Where would a stoker work on the Lincolnshire Fens? Where did Leon Odling live? How did he live? What did he eat? Earn? Enjoy? What is a steam engine? So many questions. My young heroine, Eliza Elvidge, was a little more straightforward. As the indulged daughter of a self-made industrialist, I was concerned with the more general facets of privileged life. I needed to understand her home and environment. Education. Dress. Diet. Etiquette. Pleasure. And problems.
I discovered that which many others had discovered before me; the Victorian Era is fascinating. Navvyman by Dick Sullivan was a particularly enlightening read; a vivid and empathetic account of the lives and deaths of navvies. Liza Picard's Victorian London helped formulate a lush life for my heroine. And - for balance - Henry Mayhew’s splendid London Labour And London Poor offered a graphic picture of life on the wrong side of the river. Today no research is complete without a surf on the net, there's some fantastic stuff out there all for free!
But research isn’t just about filling the gaps. It does have a way of introducing ideas or concepts unlooked for. As I wrote Stoker a number of unsettling thoughts flitted through my mind. It was not until I finished however that I took the time for consideration. Ultimately, I came to the odd conclusion that Victorian England was not entirely unfamiliar.
A family trip to London recently reinforced this phenomenon. It was a wonderful night at the Coliseum Theatre to experience the English National Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake. Truly a breathtakingly beautiful production. Such splendour. Such opulence. Deeply satisfying to the senses.
|Photo by Oziel Gomez on Unsplash|
In a city spending upwards of 4.2 billion pounds on the Thames Tideway Tunnel, would it not make sense to provide adequate public facilities and accomadation for it’s inhabitants? Is there no small change left over from the Tideway?
Victorian England had other parallels to the present. Today we also have an ever-growing gap between the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Job insecurity. A revolution in technology. A revolution in communication. A tendency to ascribe to the concept of the 'deserving poor’ and the 'undeserving poor’. A belief that each man is the master of his own destiny.
But then, as now, homelessness and poverty is rarely (if ever) a lifestyle choice.
It was Mayhew’s hope that his book would highlight to the 'haves’ the intimate sufferings of the 'have nots’, and consequently stir the privileged to improve the lot of the poor.
I wonder what Mayhew would make of London in this- the best (and worst) of times.