Saturday, 30 November 2013

Victorian Values: Location,location.


''A starry night. Both above and below, for at their brightly-lit Park Lane town house, Sir William Snellgrove and his elegant wife Lady Harriet are holding a party. This lavish event is taking place just a stone's throw away from some of the worst slum dwellings in London, where families live ten to a room in damp crumbling buildings, sleeping on soiled straw or nothing, burning floorboards for heat and using the gap underneath as a toilet.'' Diamonds & Dust


An elegant town house
1860's London was a city of vast contrasts. Beautiful, elegant Georgian or Palladian squares housed virtually gated communities, with Watch Boxes at each corner manned by policemen, to keep out non-residents. Many other Londoners were crammed into buildings that had survived the Great Fire, or had been thrown up by speculators to meet the needs of the thousands of incomers, Irish, Jewish, Italian and French who flooded into the city from abroad or from the countryside to work in the shops, factories and 'dark Satanic' mills of the great metropolis.

In each of my Victorian novels, various authentic locations are used to set the story in its time. Many of them still survive, almost as they may have looked at the time. The terrible overcrowded slums and rookeries have all gone ... though it is a moot point whether they are creeping back, in the form of  ''beds in sheds'' housing a new wave of desperately poor immigrants seeking work and a better life.

Russell Square is where Romanian Countess Eleanore von Schwartzenburg stayed on her visit to the city, and where she met her gruesome end. In 1860 it contained ''grand terraced houses where the bankers,the merchants, the Sirs and my noble Lords lived. Green painted iron railings surround the plane-tree'd gardens, the statue of Lord Bedford at the centre and the pump on the east side'
The Square still has its plane-treed gardens, but the statue has been moved to the south entrance.

Russell Square as it is today

The statue of Lord Bedford 

The book follows the fortunes of three women. The youngest, 18 year old Josephine King, lives in ''St John's Wood, with its fashionable and shabby-chic villas''. At the time, the district was known as ''The wicked wood'' for its louche and slightly bohemian inhabitants - intellectuals and the newly monied whose morals and lifestyle were a little more relaxed and unbuttoned than the class above it. The houses had been built as the city extended northwards.
''She mounts the steps and rings the bell''
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The ''wicked wood'' today 


A ''discrete little villa''
Both St John's Wood and nearby Maida Vale were notorious for prostitutes - not the shabby street girls of the Haymarket, but established mistresses of well to do men. They lived in little villas, rented or bought for them by their lovers. The fictitious Endell Terrace, home of the prostitute Lilith Marks who makes an appearance in all three books, is described as: 'a row of modern whitewashed villas, with black wrought-iron railings at the front. Several villas have canopied walkways that lead from the front door to the gate, discreetly screening visitors from prying eyes.'' Diamonds&Dust 

That these locations survive to this day is testament to the wealth or gentility of the people who lived there. The Victorians had an effective method of slum clearance - they pulled down the houses, often to make way for railways, which all throughout the1860s turned much of London into one big building site. The residents were not re-housed, merely turned out onto the streets to find alternative accommodation wherever they could - much like the ''Bedroom Tax'' has forced many families to do today.

A poor area still exists, though not in its original form. Carnaby Street, once part of a notorious rookery lies behind Oxford Street. In the 1860s it housed many seamstresses and home workers who served the new big department stores in Regent Street, existing on poverty wages so that the affluent classes could purchase the luxury items for sale. In one book, Isabella Thorpe orders a beautiful evening dress from one such store, demanding that it will be ready to wear next day: ''She does not know that the job of sewing the underskirts will be given to a thinly-clad young woman in a slum attic in Carnaby Street. They will be carefully checked for bugs and fleas upon delivery.'' 
                                                                                                               Diamonds & Dust

For anybody visiting London, there is a wealth of wonderful Victorian buildings to see. I recommend taking a bus ride to the West End - top deck for preference. You cannot fail to be amazed by the wonderful mix of architectural styles. The Victorians built stuff to last. From high class shopping parade to sewers, they have left their mark everywhere.





21 comments:

  1. A lovely background and setting for your novel, Carol. As I grew up in St John's Wood (it was the period between notorious and luxurious in my day - haha), it will have special meaning for me too! Maida Vale, the Wicked Wood and Russell Square are all parts I knew well as a child - my dad was an architect and the office where he did his training was in Russell Square, so he used to take us there. I haven't been back for years, so it's probably all a lot smarter than it was in the fifties and sixties, especially St John's Wood. I'm really looking forward to getting your book!

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    1. Thanks Val..I lived in the area from 18 - getting married..it was very interesting to stroll arund taking pictures!

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  2. That all sounds interesting, Carol. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  3. I'm looking forward to reading this!..Such is the picture you paint, I can practically smell the decay and deprivation in the air...( actually that could be me! )...
    On a personal level, I consider all things Victorian to hold a certain delightful mystery. I find the era fascinating with its social and moral miasma of despair serving to lead some to take, what would be considered at that time, scandalous measures in a bid to find comfort. Indeed, it was said that this patriarchal society prompted women into covert, intimate relationships with the other in a bid to find respite from the authoritarian attitudes of their menfolk...
    Oh yes, these were dark and desperate times for many...and I can't wait to walk along those cobbled streets of curios and cruelties via the pages of your book!
    Was such a good post, Hedges, I nearly had an attack of the vapours!....

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    1. Excellent..thanks ladies..I can only hope that the book lives up to your high and exacting expectations..

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    2. Hah! F isn't a lady. Maybe not Gargoyle, also. I hope your book is successful. It sounds exciting.

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  4. Fascinating backgroud Carol - makes the book seem more real!

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  5. Fascinating. My book is ordered and I can't wait to receive it. You will, if course, need to come and sign it so we must sort the FA schedule!

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  6. I'm really looking forward to reading the book Carol. And your background makes it even more enticing. I love reading about that era, especially in your country. I know it was dreadful for many, but it's always that way for the poorest in free market societies.. Still is today.

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    1. Thanks ..it will be available as ebook and book!!! and yes, it was and is the same old same old..

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  7. That looks really interesting Carol, keen to read it. My great g father was a police constable in Chelsea, from 1860 -63, after which he went to Lincolnshire, eventually becoming a superintendent. No records about his time in London, but your book should set the scene for me to imagine what it was like.

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    1. Thanks Geoff -- I lived in the area for many many years, and sometimes felt I was in a timewarp!! I do hope you enjoy the book, if you get to read it!

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  8. I'm looking forward to Diamonds & Dust. Murder and richly detailed historical settings? I can't resist. You also had me at Isabella Thorpe. Wasn't she the vulgar little seductress in Austen's Northanger Abbey?

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    1. Hahaha,,she WAS!! If you read the acknowledgements, you will see that I 'pastiched and purloined'' a lot of stuff. I should give a prize for the reader who spots all of us!

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  9. If you're trying to intrigue us, Carol, it's working. Diamonds & Dust sound right up my street! :)

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    1. Excellent ..and a dark, gaslit murky street it must be!

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  10. How fascinating. I imagine there was plenty of London 'trips' to check out the details.

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    1. Oh yes!!! Amazing what you find just walking around...

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  11. I thought I had commented here.So many of my comments go missing when I'm on ipad it's so frustrating. You must have had so much fun taking photos they remind me of the many Victorian buildings around Glasgow.

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