The Five Senses of Writing Victorian Fiction

Guest Post by Essie Fox –

For writers of historical fiction, the background research is an essential starting point. But even when we grasp the facts about our plots and characters, how can we make our stories ‘real’ and convincing for our readers?

I write Victorian novels, but the advice set out below can easily be tweaked to apply to any era. Essentially, it recommends considering the human senses of sound, touch, sight, smell, and taste.

Sound As In Voice

To address the style of the nineteenth-century, search out memoirs and letters, archived newspaper reports, and novels written in the era. Don’t just think about Charles Dickens, or take the risk of sounding clichéd. There are many other writers whose prose is equally distinctive, but quite different in tone. I personally like Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, and the Brontës. Or there’s Melville’s Moby Dick which opens with these striking lines – 

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

 The formal Victorian phrasing of ‘requires a high moral principle’ anchors us firmly in the era. But the uniquely ‘modern’ voice draws us immediately into Ishmael’s personal world and frame of mind.

Or, from a Neo-Victorian writer, the first-person narrative at the start of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith is deceptively plain while conveying information on social standing and backstory –

“My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”

Sound and Sight

With the voices of your characters ringing true to their era, and their place in that world, expand on what they might observe as a means of further heightening the experience of your readers. If they are out in the streets, what sorts of things will they hear? The rattling of wheels. The clops and snorts of the horses. The sing song calls of the traders. Think of the rustling of gowns, or the singing of birds.

Enhance your visual descriptions by taking a look at the paintings of the era, and by visiting museums to see common domestic objects. Early photographs are also an invaluable resource by which to see the features of a real living person, even the sparkle in an eye. But, more than this, as if by magic, we can often still inhabit the Victorian world through the buildings that survive. We can visit the same churches, the shops, and public bars. Some of us even reside in Victorian-built houses.

If your novel is more rural, imagine drifts of flowers growing along the roadside verges. Without the use of pesticides, you might see hosts of butterflies, or hear the buzzing of insects as you wander through the meadows. You might look up at night time skies where no haze of pollution hides the glory of the stars, whereas in towns, there could be smog from factories and household fires. (But, once again, do beware. Too many novels of the era tend to focus on ‘pea soupers’.)

For your interior descriptions, less is often more. Just as you and I would not enter a room and mentally list off every item we can see, neither would your characters. Perhaps describe one or two items to set the place and atmosphere, but never bog your story down in unnecessary detail.

Smell and Taste

By the means of taste or smell, you’ll also bring your world to life. Think of the gas lamps in the streets, or the lime lights in the theatres. Think of the stink of effluence rising through pavements from the sewers, or food thrown down to rot in gutters along with waste from animals. And, don’t forget the natural odours of the people themselves, who would have lacked our own advantages of laundering and sanitation.

Not all smells would be noxious. Many Victorians wore perfume. My novel, The Somnambulist, mentions Hammam Bouquet. Later on, I discovered that Penhaligon’s still sell it. I wear it nearly every day. To inhale the same aroma as my imagined characters never fails to delight. It is a kind of alchemy that all but conjures them to life.

When considering taste and smell, also think of food and drink. What would be eaten at home? But also think of the ‘fast food’ sold by vendors in the streets. In my latest novel, one character eats pickled whelks, fried brandy balls, and oyster toast from stalls set up on Oxford Street.

Touch

Lastly, describing touch is yet another way of adding depth to the experience of the world you are creating. What were the fabrics used for clothes? Were they velvet, wool, or cotton? Would your characters’ hands be soft and white, or red and roughened by the work of household chores? How would it feel to stroke a horse, to knead the dough for making bread?

 Your own stories will dictate what you describe and choose to show. Don’t be afraid to let your imagination roam. Try and be a method actor, ‘living’ anew through your creations’ emotions and sensations. Dig as deeply as you can into your own experience, and by that means you will be sure to bring the past to vivid life.

Essie Fox lives in Windsor in the U.K. and writes Victorian gothic novels, as well as the popular blog, The Virtual Victorian. Her debut, The Somnambulist, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards. The Last Days of Leda Grey was selected as The Times Historical Novel of the Month.

Her latest novel, The Fascination, set in the worlds of rural fairgrounds, the West End theatres, and a London anatomy museum, will be published by Orenda Books on June 22, 2023.

For more information: www.essiefox.com.

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