FUN FACTS ABOUT THE VICTORIAN AGE
(And Other Tidbits That Influenced the Gemma Doyle Trilogy)
by Libba Bray
Researching the Victorian period was great fun. I've always loved reading about Victorian England, but I also enjoyed getting to branch out and read about other cultures and places. That's one of the great things about research and reading in general — there's always more. So here, in nifty, economical list form, are some fun facts I came across while researching the trilogy.
1. London omnibuses had what were referred to as "modesty boards" running the length of the top to hide a woman's ankles when she sat down and her skirt lifted that extra inch. Glimpsing a bit of ankle was considered far too racy. Look away! Look away! It's an unguarded ANKLE! No "Search for the Next Pussycat Doll" in the Victorian Age, that's for sure.
2. The London theatre scene plays a role in THE SWEET FAR THING, and as a theatre major, I found this part muy fun to write about. The Era Almanack was a theatre publication that was similar to today's Backstage, with advertisements for shows and listings for performers, theatres, and even The Theatrical Dental Institution, which promised "to enable All Members of the THEATRICAL and MUSIC HALL PROFESSIONS to obtain the very best ARTIFICIAL TEETH at Greatly Reduced Fees and Easy Payments." Kind of makes you wonder if the theatre was hard on your choppers.
3. Maskelyne & Cooke were famous illusionists of the day who ran the Egyptian Hall — "Home of Mystery" — from 1873-1904. Like Harry Houdini later on, they were staunch opponents of spiritualists, séance practitioners, and anyone who made claims of having contact with the spirit world. They once famously exposed the popular spiritualist act, the Davenport Brothers, as total frauds, and that little fact has a cameo in TSFT. I felt like Gemma and crew just had to have a night at the Egyptian Hall for a spectacle.
4. An old Norse folk tale/ghost story concerns the afturganga, a spirit of a recently deceased person come back to life to carry off the living. Think Norse zombie: "Thor of the Dead." The only way you could tell that the person was of the undead persuasion was that he or she could not say the name of God and often chanted or repeated words. The afturganga's aim was to carry you off to Hell, basically. Come to think of it, I've had a few dates like that...
5. Roma (Gypsies) sometimes carried bread in their pockets to ward off bad luck or bibaxt. They also had very strict rules about cleanliness similar to the Muslim halal and Jewish kosher rules for food and the Jewish practice of mikvah (immersion in water for anyone who has been made "unclean," especially through menstruation) and Islamic Wudu/Ghusl. Some believe that the Roma came from India originally. They were certainly subject to much persecution and prejudice in Victorian times. The Roma culture is a rich, proud, and fascinating one, and I very much enjoyed reading about its traditions, taboos, beliefs, celebrations, and history.
6. The corset used on the cover of A Great and Terrible Beauty is an actual Victorian corset. It was so tiny our model couldn't fit into it. Yes, a model could not fit into a Victorian corset. Take a moment to process that. Corsets cinched waists so tightly — to around 16 inches, in some cases — that they actually warped a woman's body, causing a host of medical problems, from fainting to difficulties in childbirth. Now, aren't you ecstatic about those sweat pants in your drawer? I know I am.
7. When Victorian women paid calls in society, they always did so in the afternoon — even a "morning call" was after noon. To come before that time was considered way too intimate and bad manners besides. You were not supposed to stay for long, and if someone else showed up to pay a call while you were there, that was your cue to make a graceful exit. So I guess sitting down to watch an entire episode of "Dr. Who" together would have been out of the question. :)
8. There were rigid rules of behavior for men, too. At a party, he couldn't just walk up to a lady he fancied and say, "So, babe, wanna dance?" All social cues came from the lady. If she didn't extend her hand or acknowledge him in some way, he was out in the cold. He had to wait for her to extend her hand. And he could not be introduced to her without her permission. As Mrs. Humphrey says, "It must always be borne in mind that the assumption of women's social superiority lies at the root of these rules of conduct." So there.
9. Some of the many events that took place during the Victorian era include: Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the Jack the Ripper murders, The Crimean War, Sir John Bazalgette's modernization of the London sewer system following a deadly outbreak of cholera, the installation of electric lights, the invention of the telephone, the formation of the Women's Suffrage Committee (though women wouldn't get the vote until 1918 in England and 1920 in America), the building of the London subway system (the tube), the start of child labor laws, the beginnings of India's struggle for independence, compulsory school attendance for children under the age of twelve, and much, much more. Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 until 1901. That's a lot of time.
10. In The Sweet Far Thing, there is a brief discussion of The Sepoy Rebellion (also known as The Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny, and the First War of Indian Independence,) that took place in India in 1857 in which Indian soldiers, after many injustices that included having to bite cartridges greased in pork and beef fat — forbidden in their religion — and being subjected to brutality and torture by their English commanding officeres, rebelled and a brief but brutal war ensued. This was the beginning of the end of the East India Company's rule in India and the beginning of the British Raj and of the fight for Indian Independence which finally happened in 1948. It is an interesting moment to read about as the event has its roots in colonialism's practice of suppressing a native culture, religion, and practices with disastrous results. The effects of empire and colonialism, the issues of class and race, are important to a whole picture of Victorian England and empire, and they are important to these novels. And, as we can see, these issues are still resonating today.
11. Brides in Victorian England often carried orange blossoms or had them sewn onto their dresses because they had been carried by Queen Victoria and because they were supposed to bring luck.
Read more novels about Victorian England
So that's a nice little reading list to get you started. Enjoy!
Read the books Libba did when writing the trilogy