Making Alternative-History Settings Believable: Useful Books for researching Georgian, Regency, and Victorian England

Useful Books for Research into the Victorian and Late Georgian Periods

I mentioned at the end of my article, On Researching for an Alternative History Novel, that I would offer up some of the most useful titles I have come across when trying to construct a believable context from which my fictional worlds could grow. I haven’t necessarily used the titles that follow for The Procurement of Souls but they have influenced previous writing for stories set within both an alternative mid-to-late 17th century and 18th century. I’m listing them below with the slight caveat that a number are out of print. With a little digging, you should be able to find them through second-hand book dealers though – that’s where I found many of them and for only a few pounds! Of course, they would also be hugely edifying for those who write straight-history fiction too. I know that some of these are very old books in themselves (well, 60-70 years old that is) but I think that the old-fashioned writing style etc adds to the fun and interest along the way! I have, however, highlighted those still in print in green.

Books on the Georgian Period

 

Everyone a Witness: The Georgian Age – A. F. Scott

(Out of Print – some availability)

A F Scott’s Everyone a Witness series (there is also The Stuart Age and The Plantagenet Age) is full of eye-witness accounts, diary extracts, letters and other 1st hand records that provide an overview of the time from the people of the time. The variety of sources are intuitively grouped into broad themes (such as health; work; trade; religion; science; and crime) and then sub-categories (such as buildings; wages; music; and household furnishing). From royalty down to the poor; from agriculture to warfare, it is a treasure-trove of information. Really well put together as a reference point when trying to nail specifics within the setting and also for getting a feel for syntax and parlance of the time through the various written accounts. These books are brilliant.

 

 English Men and Manners in the 18th Century – A. S. Turberville

(Out of Print – some availability)

This is a dense read that looks at 18th century England through the lens of significant people of the era: those who influenced and impacted on politics, religion and the arts. There are lots of reproduction-plates included, of letters, newspaper adverts and illustrations which provide clues and a visual flavour of the period.

 

Regency England – Reay Tannahill

(Out of Print – some availability)

This includes lots of colour plates and is great for envisaging the architecture of the early 1800s.

 

Costume Reference: The Eighteenth Century – Marion Sichel

(Out of print – second-hand copies are easily available)

Great for picking up details: from wigs down to shoe adornments! She doesn’t seem to cover the lower classes though.

 

Dr Johnston’s London: Everyday Life in London 1740-1770 – Liza Picard

(In print – W&N)

Liza Picard’s series (which also includes Elizabeth’s London; Restoration London; and Victorian London, below) are similar in structure and content to A. F. Scott’s books, mentioned above but, of course, specifically focus on London. Picard also provides her own interpretation and explanation of her extraordinarily-detailed research as well as providing examples of the primary sources she’s come across. The book is very well organised which makes researching on your own particular focus very easy and it is separated into 4 parts: the place; the poor; the middling-sort; and the rich. For character development, there are sections exploring speech, manners, and customs; for setting, she writes about architecture, outside spaces, prisons, hospitals, and social spaces such as coffee houses, to name but a few.

 

Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals – Leslie A Marchand (ed.)

(Out of Print – various copies available)

This is made up, as the title suggests, of extracts from a huge array of Byron’s penned letters and journals. There is a really useful anthology at the back which lifts and orders quotes into specific categories such as children, theatre, servants, travel etc. Great for an individual’s insight into the period, though obviously from one social perspective.

 

Books on the Victorian Period

 

Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870 – Liza Picard

(In print – W&N)

The same principle as Dr Johnstone’s London, described above but with specific sections that are absolutely brilliant for helping one to imagine the sensory world at the time – chapter 1, for example is entitled Smells. From cesspits, to burial grounds; from slums to sewers, there is so much meat to this. Again, she covers the various social strata and key themes such as health, and clothing. There is also a really useful appendix citing examples of costings of the time: 4d for a galley seat at the Old Vic Theatre; 2d for a ‘second class warm bath’ in Whitechapel.

 

The Victorian Underworld – Kellow Chesney

(Out of Print – various copies available)

Amazingly detailed account of the every facet of the underworld. Prostitution; prisons; gangs: it has it all! Packed with information and really useful when looking to authenticate vernacular from this dark layer of Victorian society.

 

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew – Daniel Pool

(In print – Robinson)

Once again, similar in content to A. F. Scott’s and Liza Picard’s respective publications but this has an excellent section on society and societal norms and practices including: How to Address Your Betters, Basic Etiquette, and Status: Gentlemen and Lesser Folk. Very accessible and fun. A good glossary too.

 

A history of Everyday Things in England: 1851-1945 – Marjorie and C.H.B. Quennell

(Out of print – some econd-hand copies available)

Useful for looking at inventions of the time and their practical application; where were they at and in what industry? Some great plates included too. Dated though!

Both Periods

 

Occupational costume in England: From the 11th Century to 1914 – Phillis Cunnington & Catherine Lucas

(Out of print – second-hand copies are easily available)

This is a fascinating book and a one-of-a-kind that has helped me when writing about working and lower-class characters and dressing them accordingly! It takes you through a huge array of occupations from postmen to surgeons.

 

Costume Reference: History of Men’s Costume – Marion Sichel

(Out of print – second-hand copies are easily available)

As mentioned with Sichel’s other book on 18th century costume, this is a great visual guide, this time about men – from their heads to their toes. Useful terminology. She also has editions specifically on the upper-classes within regency and the Victorian England.

 

Costume and Fashion in Colour: 1760 – 1920

Text by Ruth M.Green; Illustrated by Jack Cassin Scott

(Out of print – second-hand copies are easily available)

Similar to Marion Sichel’s books, this is great for gaining an immediate impression of clothing from the time – again a good source for specific vocabulary too. There is also one that covers 1550-1760.

 

Taste – Kate Colquhoun

(In print – Bloomsbury)

This is an amazing book which charts the history of food over 2000 years. It includes chapters on the Georgian and the Victorian periods with sample menus, recipes, information on trade and pricing. It also includes useful social norms relating to food that were peculiar to each specific period.

______________________________________________________

I know the focus here has been on books, but I have to just finish by highlighting the British Library website as an excellent resource for researching. It is full of excellent articles, maps, journals, photographs relating to aspects of Victorian (and other periods in history) life. https://www.bl.uk/catalogues-and-collections

The British History Online website is also just as rich in resources. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/

Hope some of these prove useful to fellow writers!

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