A Collection of Curiosities: Victorian Edition

Next to me, on a little stack of notebooks with pens jabbed into them, are two very thin books I picked up the last time I was at Highgate Cemetery West on a tour. I’m in my writing chair, which doubles as a chaise lounge on my sectional sofa. This is where I do my work: I read, I write, I make notes, I scratch things out like a champion. It’s really, really bad for my back. I’m also really, really weird about where and how I write. I have a perfectly serviceable desk that I rarely write at. It feels like work. I realize it is work, but it stresses me out. Something about the light; something about not slouching results in less productivity.

I’ve been doing an awful lot of reading lately on author branding in the hopes of setting up a series of how-to’s, and one of the foremost suggestions I’ve come across is to discuss fields of interest that are directly related to the stuff I’m working on — the fictional stuff, I mean. Fiction, as it were, often finds roots in the real world; I tend to pluck inspiration from reality: history, folklore, mythology, and I read a lot in the areas that I’m writing in: horror and young adult titles mostly. It’s the nature of the beast.

I venture out of this bubble from time to time, but often I return to it, because really — this is totally where I like to hang out. It’s my jam. It’s my jam so hard my ears could bleed from it.

I’m not an expert on anything I write about, but I’m usually eager to learn and I’m a stickler for the details. I hate not being right, so if I’m writing something fictional that lays its roots in fact, I make every effort to understand the nuances of whatever that thing is so I don’t look like an idiot when I write it into a story. I do this recognizing that someday, somewhere, there might very well be an expert of whatever reading something I’ve written, and I might not be as on point as I’d like, but you better believe that when I’m in the think tank and doing research, I’m making a concerted attempt of avoiding that future moment where I get the email telling me “you got it wrong” with everything I’ve got.

You should seriously see me search history when I’m in a fugue about something very particular.

Anyway: those two books sitting next to me are called The Victorian Undertaker and The Victorian Cemetery, respectively.

Guess where I’m going with this?

Being that this is the second post in a series based on collection and curation for inspiration, it’s really total fluke that I landed a handful of tidbits from Victoriana in my saved articles this week, given how much I actively try to dig this stuff up. I was going to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I’m going to put that aside in favour of this seriously crazy stuff. (I really, really liked The Force Awakens, by the way — so much so that I’m to see it again next week.)

A word on Wake the Dead‘s Eden & Graves

To start at the beginning, Wake the Dead is not a historical novel. It’s set in contemporary London, and it follows a protagonist who’s been displaced from New York City by her estranged father. That Eden happens to fall in with a collection of characters who were alive over a hundred years prior is relevant, however, not just for the plot, but because where these supporting characters come from colour the way they see the world. It affects the way they act and how their experiences are coloured.

If one of your supporting cast has lived in isolation for a hundred and fifty years, but has a sense that time has passed, but isn’t awfully preoccupied with that because their agenda doesn’t require it, what traits could possibly carry over from an old world experience?

Heteronormativity? Racism? How do they regard women? Children?

How does that affect their speech, the way they carry themselves, the way they interact with others? How do they dress? How have they survived this long off the grid and how does that affect the rules of the world I’ve built, and then how does that supposed order affect them if they go against it?

I’m poking at all the holes.

One of my characters is from Victorian London, and this research is largely for his benefit.

You’ll meet him eventually, but I like to refer to him as Graves.

A Collection of Curiosities: Victorian Edition

I was half in love with Victorian England before I began writing Wake the Dead ages ago. It’s a particularly macabre period in history, largely due to the fact that the entire country was thrust into mourning following the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert. It marks a period in history that is attributed with heightened ritualized action surrounding death, commemoration, and grieving that is so intense that it’s frequently referred to as a cult of death.(1)

It saw the rise of occult philosophy and western esoteric traditions, spiritualism and seances. It was lavish, it fuelled consumerism, and it was marked by the romantic in art and literature.

I love it now because under these conditions stories like Dracula and Frankenstein were birthed. We have the gothic in literature and in architecture, and we have tales of shadowy figures in darkened alleyways who slit their victims from groin to throat — murderers lost to the shadows, and souls who were set free too early to haunt the places they once walked.

For a character like Graves, he remembers rain-slicked streets and gaslight, the billowing scent of rot off the Thames, and thick pea-souper fogs that shrouded him in the night when he conducted his business. Opium dens in the East End. Masonic lodges where magicians gathered to summon things they could not control.

He comes from a different world; one he often tries to forget, save for the cloying scent of funeral blooms.

I dedicate this post to Graves, in hopes for better times ahead.

Requiescat in pace, dear friend.

Don’t Talk So Much: The Macabre History of the Frozen Charlottes

Frozen Charlotte is a name used to describe a specific form of china doll made from c. 1850 to c. 1920. The name comes from the American folk ballad Fair Charlotte, which tells of a young girl called Charlotte who refused to wrap up warmly to go on a sleigh ride because she did not want to cover up her pretty dress; she froze to death during the journey.(2)

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“The dolls originated in the US during the Victorian era, around 1860 and were called Frozen Charlottes, (or Charlie for males), dolls. The dolls were made in response to the enormous popularity of a song, ‘Fair Charlotte’, which was based on an 1843 poem penned by Maine journalist, Seba Smith, entitled, ‘A Corpse Going to a Ball,'” from Pretty Awful Things

Don’t Talk So Much: The Macabre History of the Frozen Charlottes

Victorian Undertaker Mutes

The tradition of paid mourners from the lower classes at a funeral dates back to Roman times: this was a part-time profession, in which people were hired to stand in the parlour where the deceased was laid out for viewing, and to participate in the funeral procession — silently. While the name implies that these hired hands were incapable of speech, that’s actually not the case; they were only paid to stay silent.(3)

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“It was quite common for mutes to have been inebriated at the time right after the funeral as it was a common practice to have provided them with gin to ward of the cold and in some cases as part of their pay for the work they did,'” from Macabre Matters.

Victorian Undertaker Mutes

Piano Keys to the House: Crimson Peak, The Gothic Romance, and Feminine Power

Laura Kremmel discusses Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak as a gothic romance, rather than a horror film: on tropes typical of the genre, its forbears in the gothic literary tradition, and its characters: Lucille and Edith.(4)

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“Radcliffe championed the concept of the explained supernatural in her late eighteenth-century Gothic novels: her ghosts are intentionally not real. What her heroines first imagine to be ghosts turn out to be wax figures or wandering romantics, or some other easily-explained phenomenon. Crimson Peak, however, engages with these literary Gothic influences in a more nuanced way. It’s not that the ghosts aren’t real, it’s that the ghosts aren’t the realthreat to our heroine. The real threat is flesh and blood,'” from Horror Homeroom.

Piano Keys to the House: Crimson Peak, The Gothic Romance, and Feminine Power

Knot for Everyone: How to Make Victorian Hair Accessories

Before photography, people remembered their loved ones by fashioning commemorative jewelry with parts of the deceased: hair, bone, maybe a painting if you could afford it.(4)

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“The Victorians used to harvest hair from dead people to make jewelry. I tried my hand at the century-old craft in a six-hour workshop,'” from Lauren Oyler at Broadly.

Knot for Everyone: How to make Victorian Hair Accessories

The Incredibly Bizarre Tradition Of Post-Mortem Photography From The Victorian Era

Post-mortem photography is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. Commissioned by grieving families, postmortem photographs not only helped in the grieving process, but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family’s most precious possessions.(5)

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“Here’s something a little disturbing you may or may not have known about. It’s called post-mortem photography, and if it were around today we would probably view this as barbaric…. but back during the Victorian era it was a common practice. The reason?? Well basically, child mortality rate was quite high, a common sickness that children would have today would be fatal back in that time frame,'” from Can You Actually.

The Incredibly Bizarre Tradition Of Post-Mortem Photography From The Victorian Era

I hoped you enjoyed this month’s edition of A Collection of Curiosities. If you’d like to see more articles like this, just drop me a line in the comments.

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A Collection of CuriositiesWriting Inspiration: Dennis Severs House
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