Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

Researching Historical Fiction: The Victorian Era

Victorian England

By Meredith Allard

I have an odd habit of choosing to write historical fiction set in eras I know little to nothing about. I came up with story ideas about the Salem Witch Trials, the Trail of Tears, Biblical Jerusalem, New York City and Washington, D.C. during the woman’s suffrage movement, and the American Civil War, and for those stories I had to learn about the history to write the novel. I don’t mind when it happens that way, though. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and I enjoy learning about the past. I often get ideas for the plot from my research, so the research helps to make my novel even richer than it might have been without the historical background.

Writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle was different. I was already familiar with the era because of my love for Dickens. This time, it was more about reminding myself what I already knew (it had been 20 years since grad school by then) and figuring out how to use that knowledge in this story I had been kicking around for two decades. I realized early in the process that now I wanted to include aspects of my favorite TV show—Downton Abbey. The aspiring young writer Edward Ellis was still the focal point of the story, but now I wanted to include upstairs/downstairs elements as well.

To begin my research, I started with the author I know best—Dickens. Of course I’ve read all his novels, many more than once, so I started with the one I knew had the most in common with the story I had in mind for Hembry—Our Mutual Friend. From there, I went back to a few favorite books about the Victorian Era—What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ Londonand Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian Englandby Judith Flanders. I had read both of those books previously but reread them for a refresher course. While reading about the Victorian Era, I discovered a new favorite historian, Ruth Goodman, who impressed me with the fact that she doesn’t just talk about Victorian clothing, she makes it and wears it. She’s tried out many elements of living in the Victorian era, which gives her work that much more authority. Her book, How To Be a Victorian: A Dusk-to-Dawn Guide to Victorian Life, is a must read for anyone interested in life during the Victorian period. I also read The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes. Edward Ellis is loosely based on a young Charles Dickens, but I didn’t need to read anything specifically for that since I’ve read pretty much every biography about Dickens. It was nice to be able to use information I had in my head for a change.

Victorian England 2

After my refresher course on Victorian England, I realized that I needed to learn more about what the upstairs/downstairs world looked like in the 1870s. To my surprise, it wasn’t so different from the way it’s portrayed in Downton Abbey, which begins in 1912 during the Edwardian era. While I picked up a lot about manor house living from watching Downton, as many fans of the show have, I felt I needed more specifics so I read Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant by Jeremy Musson. I gleaned some great information from that book, and it provided good background for me so I could see how the country house servant evolved over the years. The upstairs/downstairs world isn’t part of our culture in America the way it is in England, and I wonder if that accounts for Americans’ fascination with Downton Abbey—it’s a glimpse into a lifestyle we weren’t familiar with.

The way I research historical fiction has changed a lot over the years. I used to do months of research before I ever started writing. Now I do a few weeks worth of preliminary research to get a feel for the era, and then I start writing. As I write, I get a sense of what information I need so I know exactly what to look for. As I was writing, I realized that if Edward was a political journalist then he would know politics. I needed to figure out the political climate of the time, but it wasn’t too hard since I knew what I was looking for—events in British politics in 1870. I remember learning about Gladstone and Disraeli in a class I took years ago, and it was nice being able to put that knowledge to use as well.

Through the writing process I realized that I needed information about Victorian etiquette. There were such specific rules for every aspect of life, and since part of Daphne’s struggle is to learn to live in this upstairs/downstairs world, she had to learn those rules. I found The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Thomas E. Hill, which was written for Americans during the Victorian era, but after a little digging I discovered that the rules were the same in Britain so I used that book as my primary reference. The etiquette seems so antiquated now. I had a lot of fun writing those scenes because Daphne is rather amused by her grandmother’s nitpicking about how her manners aren’t refined enough for English society.

I was lucky enough to be able to visit England twice prior to writing When It Rained at Hembry Castle. Most of the London locations in the story were chosen because they were places I’ve visited myself so I had seen what I was describing. I stood on the Victoria Embankment near the Houses of Parliament watching the Thames roll as Edward is wont to do. I’ve taken a couple of Edward’s walks through the city. Many of the buildings are different (I’m pretty sure the The Gherkin wasn’t around in 1870), yet some of the buildings are the same, which is amazing to me. Here in Las Vegas buildings are imploded if they’re more than 20 years old.

In many ways, researching When It Rained at Hembry Castle was the easiest work I’ve done so far for a historical novel since I was already familiar with the time. It’s always magical to me when I start to see how I can take this knowledge of history and weave it into the story I have in mind. What is even more amazing is when the history leads the story in directions I had never considered before. That, for me, is the joy of writing historical fiction.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review. Her newest historical novel is When It Rained at Hembry Castle, a Downton Abbey inspired story set in Victorian England.

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The Real Life Downton Abbey: How Life Was Really Lived in Stately Homes a Century Ago

Written by Jacky Hyams

Published by John Blake Publishers

Review by Meredith Allard

3quills

 

As I’m continuing my quest of reading books inspired by Downton Abbey, I found my way to The Real Life Downton Abbey by Jacky Hyams. The Real Life Downton Abbey is a good summary of what life was like for the British upper and lower classes during the time of the beloved television show (early 20th century), and, as you might expect in a book with this title, Hyams uses Downton Abbey as a springboard, often referencing the show as she illustrates the lifestyle at the time. She talks about the Titanic, for example, and shares a menu of an eleven-course meal that would have been prepared by the French kitchen staff. Before the ship went down, of course.

The Real Life Downton Abbey is a concise summary of the lifestyle surrounding the television show, but having already read Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson, along with several other books about the era, I felt The Real Life Downton Abbey was a lot of retelling of what I already knew. I can’t say I learned anything from this book, though I did enjoy Hyams’ easy, conversational tone as she talked about the extravagant upper classes and the poverty of the servants. For example, even butlers made only 50-100 pounds per year for their trouble, and the hardest working servants, the youngest ones who did the most labor-intensive jobs, often the scullery maids, made as little as ten pounds per year.

American readers may be put off by Hyams’ use of Britishisms, but she’s British so she can get away with it. Since I watch a lot of British television and read a lot of British literature, I feel comfortable saying I speak conversational British English and I wasn’t bothered by the British words. Context clues work very well when translating from British English to American English, and if you’re reading the book on a Kindle or other e-reading device you simply have to press on the word and the definition pops up. I found the definition for “Toff” to be as follows: a stylishly dressed, fashionable person; part of the upper classes.

For Downton Abbey fans who are beginning their journey into reading about the era, then The Real Life Downton Abbey, with its general overview, is a good place to start. If you’ve already read about the class distinctions in the early 20th century and have a firm grasp on the subject, then you may not get as much out of the book.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant

Written by Jeremy Musson

John Murray (Publishers)

Review by Meredith Allard

 

All right, yes, I admit… I’m as struck with Downton Abbey as millions of others have been before me. It must be the teacher in me, but one thing that makes me particularly happy about Downton is that fans have taken to reading about life during the Edwardian era. After all, we have to do something with ourselves while we wait a year between seasons. For myself, as an American, before Downton the most I knew about English servants was what I had read in some of my all-time favorite books—P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. Not particularly flattering—for the gentry, that is. Poor Bertie. How would he ever get through his days without Jeeves? Then, occasionally, in other books, television shows, or movies, a servant would appear, hand someone something on a tray, and disappear.

If you’re a Downton Abbey fan curious about the real lives of the downstairs folks, or if you’re interested in servants’ lives simply because it’s a fascinating subject in its own right, Up and Down Stairs by Jeremy Musson is a good place to start. Musson begins his detailed description of the life of servants in the later Middle Ages to the end of the sixteenth century, working his way through the centuries to the post World War II years. He brings to light the beginning of those features of servant life Downton fans know most about—the back stairs, the Servant’s Hall, and the green baize door.

Musson starts with Doctor Johnson’s definition of servant: “One who attends another, and acts at his command—the correlative of master.” Musson then points out that we don’t use the word servant any more, true enough since the word has taken on a negative connotation. As Musson takes us through the centuries, we can see how the servants’ role evolved. Musson draws on primary sources such as letters from both servants and masters, newspaper articles, and how-to manuals written during the period, and his book is a wealth of information.

In Up and Down Stairs Musson doesn’t form conclusions about what it all meant for the servants, for their masters, or for anyone else. He’s not trying to convince us of anything. He’s simply stating the facts, and if you’re interested in the facts—of how the word “family” evolved from meaning everyone who lived and worked under the same roof to our current meaning of kin, of how in earlier days the servants lived close by their masters, sometimes sleeping in the hall outside their masters’ doors, to the desire for more privacy which created the separate living quarters upstairs and downstairs—then you will find reading Up and Down Stairs time well spent. Sometimes the information became repetitive, as if one servant’s letter was too similar to the previous servant’s letter, but otherwise I found Up and Down Stairs to be enlightening about a subject I knew little about. I’m already looking for my next Downton-inspired read.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

 

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