Researching Victorian London – Resources
While writing Laevium (steampunk novel, to be released this summer – blurb here), I discovered that among my favorite parts of the entire writing process was research. In London, I walked on the same trails and in the same places as my characters to make sure the time-distance values were correct and the descriptions were accurate; I took photos of the smallest details in places like Charles Dickens Museum or the Science Museum; I stayed up many nights until 3 or 4 AM to read about chemical reactions, airship engines and lifting gases; and, of course, I spent a lot of time zooming on maps and reading books. Lots of them.
It was fun, though at times really daunting, and, along the way, I studied a lot of resources. While the universe of my novel is fictional and for the most part invented, it had a real ground: Victorian London. So, apart from my invented elements, everything else had to be as accurate as a watch in order for my fictional universe to be credible. For that, I had to understand as much as possible the period, the habits, and the people.
Of all materials I’ve read, a few were extremely helpful for understanding Victorian London, and I can’t recommend them enough.
Jerry White’s London in the Nineteenth Century
By far the most comprehensive book on Victorian London I’ve read so far. Its 640 pages reveal all aspects of London throughout the 19th century. If you want to understand the geography, social issues, economic issues, migration, the development of technology, and the layout of Victorian London, this is THE book.
It is comprised of five parts, each one dissected thoroughly (City, People, Work, Culture, Law and Order), with plenty of information and historical details.
Raymond Chapman’s Forms of Speech in Victorian London
Since I’m a linguist, I have a particular love for this book, which offers an excellent linguistic analysis of the speech used in Victorian novels. I searched a lot, since I needed a reliable resource on Victorian language, and, when I found this treasure, I bought it instantly. And it didn’t disappoint. Formal and informal speech, religious speech, oaths and euphemisms, class and occupational speech, speech of women and children, titles and forms of address – it’s all there. I was especially grateful for the chapter about dialect. It helped a lot.
Also, if you like linguistics and you aim at a more in depth research of Victorian slang, I would recommend this gem, made available by the University of Toronto: Passing English of the Victorian era: a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase. It can be downloaded in several file formats, including PDF and Kindle.
Lee Jackson’s Daily Life in Victorian London
Following a glossary structure, it is an anthology of texts from the Victorian period. Everything combines into a very colorful depiction of London, with vivid scenes and interesting details. It has a vibe similar to Dickens’ Sketches by Boz. The author also has a website on Victorian London.
I am a huge (and I mean HUGE) fan of maps, especially of old maps. So, I ended up spending hours zooming on this one, which is by far one of the most interesting maps I have ever seen: Charles Booth’s London — poverty maps and police notebooks. It reveals stark contrasts and offers an interesting image of how wealth (or lack of it) was distributed throughout London. Also, trying to decipher the police notes was a pretty fascinating linguistic exercise. And if you are interested in knowing more about slums, these videos about the Victorian slum would be a nice addition.
Another map (or rather maps) that helped me a lot (I used to have it in a tab all the time while I was working on my first draft) was the map portal made available by the National Library of Scotland through the digitization of a very comprehensive archive. It is pretty interactive, you choose the area and the time period, and the map is displayed as an overlay over the nowadays Google Maps. The level of detail is amazing. Needless to say, it is a treasure if you want accuracy.
The books and resources above are only a small part of what I read while researching the Victorian era (I haven’t mentioned any article because there is an abundance of them all over the world wide web), but they were my absolute favorite and the most comprehensive materials I have stumbled upon. Of course, I would love to hear about other resource recommendations on late 19th century London, since research is a neverending adventure.