Five Thoughts on Researching Nineteenth-Century (Western) Demimondes

Guest Post by Amelia Hester –

Researching the demimonde requires nuance and a willingness to step back from our biases, as well as an ability to listen. If we’re ready to dismantle a lot of what we think we know—or be less quick with our assumptions, and ask why we’re telling a story in certain ways—it’s an enlightening and intriguing subject.

One: Prioritize and Use Community-driven Collectives and Projects

This can help in the endeavor to avoid misinformation, slurs, and the like. There are many community-led social and cultural history projects to consult. One superb example is Crossbones (or Cross Bones) in south London, dedicated to a gravesite thought to be connected with Winchester Geese, or “single women” who were denied religious rites given their profession. (Strictly speaking, Crossbones isn’t limited to the nineteenth century, but it’s still wonderful.)

In addition, various collectives host talks and initiatives on many topics, including history. It’s crucial to defer to those with lived experience. The process of creating historical fiction is no exception, and vernacular histories are so necessary when we’re considering traditionally taboo or stigmatized subjects such as sex work, drug use, etc. Podcasts like The Oldest Profession are great for learning about these histories, which are often neglected or misrepresented.

Two: Pay Attention to Historical or Primary Sources’ Tones and Intentions

Be mindful of sources that demonize or dehumanize—just for example—Black women, immigrants, anybody with addiction issues (e.g., opium or alcohol), and so on. 

If a source is scaremongering or scapegoating, consider who produced it and for what purpose. Racism, eugenics, xenophobia, and misogyny were rife.

Three: Identify and Eliminate Stereotypes

As mentioned, community-based projects are vital: they provide information and perspectives that are excluded from mainstream culture, which in turn allows you to uproot demimonde-related stereotypes in your writing.

Four: Don’t Enshrine the Serial Killers

The nineteenth century saw a number of high-profile serial killers who got away with crimes because of who they targeted. Jack the Ripper and his ilk are not edgy or antiheroes: they’re murderers who benefitted from society’s disdain for certain people. Using them for manufactured drama or shock is, frankly, lazy.

Likewise, avoid the “tragic prostitute” trope and other similar fictional conventions that are, at best, outdated—people had lives outside of their jobs. They weren’t just victims of murder or circumstance.

Five: Nineteenth-century Folks Weren’t Always Prim

While codes of propriety existed, they were in flux, shifting from era to era as well as region to region. Many people of the long nineteenth century loved sex, gambling, dancing, smoking, and drugs… in spite of all the tenacious anti-vice and temperance movements. 

Some of this popularity is visible in the fiction and entertainment favored by the general public, and not just that tailored for a bawdy clientele. To better understand the dynamics, it’s also useful to delve into correspondence, personal journals, etc. Sadly, if they were related to anything “immoral,” these were often destroyed by family members, spouses, friends, or legal proxies. Many do still exist, however, and librarians and archivists are your friends in helping to find them.

It’s deceptively easy to use reductive and tawdry misconceptions when one works with any topics related to the demimonde. But, extra care and consideration in our research is absolutely worth it.

Amelia Hester is a developmental editor with Dragonblade Publishing. Her nonfiction has been published with Bloomsbury Academic, while her fiction has been published by indie presses. She has a PhD grounded in cultural and art history; her expertise is representations of vice and gender.

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