Walking the Row: a research journey into the 1800’s
A couple of months ago I was walking beside Rotten Row, the horse-riding track that runs the length of Hyde Park in London. Although it was late Spring, it was finger-freezing cold and drizzling just enough to make me damp, but not enough to want to juggle an umbrella as well as a camera and notepad. I was timing how long it took to get from one end of the Row to the other, and photographing any landmarks I passed on my trudge.
So, part of me was doing all that and another part of me was in May 1812 imagining carriages and phaetons pulling up beside one another as the beau monde – or polite society – bowed and exchanged pleasantries, or whispered the latest on dit (plain old gossip), or gave an enemy the dreaded stare-and-turn-away that was known as the cut direct.
Mind you, it was still drizzling in my imagined May 1812 because it was one of the coldest, wettest Springs that London had experienced in that new century. I knew that because of a throwaway comment I'd found in the fashion section of the June 1812 edition of La Belle Assemblée, a monthly magazine addressed particularly to The Ladies. I'd then cross-referenced it to a May 1812 article in The Times newspaper that mentioned the abysmal weather.
This is the way that I do my preliminary research for my novels. It is not a particularly organised or methodical process. It is more of a throw-myself-into-every-aspect-I-can-think-of process. And while travelling to the city or the country where I am setting the book is fabulous, the research process never starts with those on-the-ground trips. It always starts with resource books and documentaries.
You may have gathered from the above that my new series is set in London in the true Regency, the years 1811 – 1820 when George III had finally gone irrevocably mad and his son had become Regent, in care of the throne. The series is going to be historically accurate, but with a not-so-historically-accurate supernatural element. Since I have never written anything that is based firmly in a particular historic period before, my first concern has been to get a good understanding of the times. For me, that starts with primary resources.
If the use of primary, in this sense, is unfamiliar, it refers to books, papers, diaries and ephemera written or produced around the dates that you are researching. And these days it has become a lot easier to access them. There will always be fragile collections that can only ever be viewed at the holding museum or gallery, but you may be surprised what you will find for free on-line or as a print or e-book for a very reasonable price.
For instance, I found the January to June 1812 editions of La Belle Assemblée as a free scanned download via Google. Now that was a real 'punch the air' moment. The Times newspapers came via the microfiche collections at Monash University Library.
Another scanned freebie that has proved invaluable is a book called The Mirror of the Graces, written in 1811 and a bestseller in its time. Written in the form of a letter, it is an early 'self-help' book by a distinguished Lady who is advising her northern cousins about what to wear for a Season in London. It is more or less the Trinny and Susannah of the early 1800’s. Body shapes are discussed in terms of nymphs and vestals, and it is all aimed at making the best of your assets in a cut-throat marriage mart that had been depleted of men due to the Napoleonic Wars.
Aside from the book’s valuable information about the fashion of the day and providing me with a fabulous vocabulary, it is also a treatise on the 1800’s attitudes to beauty and the role of women. What comes through strongly is the concern that too much attention on the external can be at the expense of inner growth and spirituality. Sound familiar? Combing through these primary resources has helped me find this kind of universality of experience and attitude that I can use to link the lives of my 1800’s characters to the very different lives of my 2012 audience.
I am also reading the literature of the times. Authors such as Jane Austen, Mrs Radcliffe and, of course, that new literary sensation, Lord Byron, and his bestselling poem Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage. These books were the 'water cooler' topics of the time, the talk of the balls and assembly halls and dinner parties. And Lord Byron, dare I say it, was the Justin Beiber of the Regency, at least in terms of the hysteria surrounding him. Debutantes clutched miniature portraits and cameos of him, loitered outside his home, and fainted in his presence. Yep, things never change.
These primary resources give a particular sense of that time in its immediacy. However, I am writing for a modern audience and, as I mentioned above, I want to draw parallels between the two times. This is where the secondary resources come into play. I am taking a crash course in Georgian society through a series of books and documentaries about the age by modern historians and experts. I want a good, solid overview because, in that period just before the Regency, a huge change in thinking occurred – the Enlightenment – and with it came a clash of superstition and science that still remains with us today. A theme that will run throughout my series.
I have found that themes are a great way for me to direct and organise my research reading and viewing. Otherwise it can all get a bit overwhelming. So I have sourced a number of primer books and documentaries on the Enlightenment (for the theme of superstition versus science), histories about the idea of the 'home' (for the theme of female and male domains), and books and programs about specific places such as Vauxhall Gardens and the royal palaces (restraint and freedom).
The bibliographies in the books are also great for finding leads for further research, particularly for primary resources. The lead for The Mirror of the Graces came from a particularly good coffee table book about the use of cosmetics through the ages, which also had some hilarious 1800’s advertisements for false hair.
Which brings me to the next step in my research process, something I call experiential research. That’s my fancy name for 'doing stuff that my characters would do' so that I can bring authenticity to my descriptions of their actions and world. It can be as 'at home' as making and tasting lemon sherbert – a popular drink served at 1800’s balls – to sewing my own bonnet, or finding a local sword master who can teach me some of the basics of small sword fighting.
It can also mean investing in some travel.
My first research trip for this series took me to Canberra and the 2012 Jane Austen Festival Australia. I went to learn, amongst other things, how to dance a quadrille. I am so glad I did. I had always thought that the 1800’s dances were stately and slow. Ha! They are incredibly vigorous and flirty with far more touching “opportunities” than I had ever imagined. That playfulness and physicality will definitely end up in my novels.
I have also been lucky enough to travel overseas to research the setting. Of course, as writers, our job is to imagine, so if that kind of travel is out of budget, it is not a real problem. However, for my own process, I find that being on-the-ground really helps me build the world and period that I am creating. I collect sights, smells, tastes, textures and sounds, pace out spaces, and feel the atmosphere in grand old buildings and tiny cottages. It all adds up to my world’s authenticity.
I can also visit those collections that will never be available outside their protected environments. Rare magazines at libraries, beautiful two-hundred year old dresses held in storage, delicate collections of fans. It does take a bit of organisation – usually contacting the institution well before your visit and requesting an appointment – but I find it is well worth it.
I have now shifted from this 'research immersion' into writing the novel. I will keep researching, of course, and will to do so right through to the end of the editing process as I double-check facts. But I now feel that I have enough of this world settled into me so that when I reach for a description or a sensory experience, it will be there, ready to add its authenticity to the lives of my characters.
Copyright Alison Goodman 2012