In this post, we show you how to write a story set in the Victorian era through the following 10 top tips. Read on to find out more!
1. Understand Victorian sensibilities
One of the most important things to take into consideration when it comes to writing a story set in the Victorian era is to understand exactly what it means to be Victorian. This may sound obvious, but it is actually critical when it comes to nailing stories written during this time.
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The Victorians had a very distinct sense of sensibility that characterizes how we view them today. This affected their approach to a multitude of aspects of life. Despite the rapid technological progress of the era from the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian mindset was very much hinged upon “traditional” values. This included gender and family roles, fulfilling your allotted role in society, and showing restraint when it came to emotions and affections.
As a result, if you are writing about this era, it’s best to consider all of your characters as incredibly “rigid” in their beliefs and sensibilities to start. Then, with further character development, you will start to see where your character may not align with these views, allowing you to use these to underpin your narrative and their individuality as a character.
2. Research the fashion
Fashion was incredibly important to the Victorians, especially depending on your social class and moral standing.
Women would be covered completely using dresses with long sleeves and full skirts supported by a crinoline. Corsets would often be tight, and heads would be covered with bonnets. However, towards the latter part of the Victorian Era in the 1870s and 80s, a push towards showing the figure resulted in much thinner and slimline styles of dress that directly contrasted this.
Men were experiencing the move from breeches to trousers, with the development of what we would consider the modern suit taking place during this era. One important thing to consider was how, just like women were restricted with corsets, men would be restricted too with high, stiff, and starched collars that would limit movement and could sometimes cut off airflow!
If you have older characters in your story, you might also want to look at older fashions that might sit outside of the Victorian era, too, as a way to show a character that hasn’t caught up with the times or that is stuck in their ways.
3. Get a grip on religion and morality
Building on from the idea of Victorian sensibility, a lot of this was underpinned by religion and perceived ideas of morality and modesty.
Ideas around restraint and moderation were strongly touted by almost all forms of Christianity prevalent in this period, with the Anglican church being at the forefront of this. Other offshoots such as Calvinism also had this regulated approach.
Religion was also used to highlight and spur action against the plight of the working classes, such as the Methodist and Quaker churches which shied away from conformist practices of the Church of England. If your character is of the working class or looking to shape social reform, this would have been one of the ways that they would have done this.
However, towards the middle part of the 19th century, religion began to be called into question, especially with the release of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This led many to experience religious crises, and so it is worth bearing in mind when considering the development of the characters in your Victorian-era story.
4. City vs country
The location of your Victorian-era story is also important, as it will affect the way in which you approach things.
Cities were densely populated, where people often lived in crowded and poorly built tenements or terraced houses, lacking proper sanitation and adequate living space. In exchange for this, there were far more job opportunities in the new factories, leading many people to leave the countryside to seek employment.
The countryside, on the other hand, had much smaller and scattered populations, with communities often centered around farms and villages and a closer connection to nature, which was reflected in traditional farmstead living and artisanal crafts.
Those from the country would likely be seen as naive by their city-dwelling companions, so a fresh-faced country bumpkin will have a rude awakening to city life and acclimation. Those still living in the country had to battle the influence between old ways and the new, with cities ever expanding and encroaching onto once pastoral land.
5. Rich vs poor
There was a great poverty divide in the Victorian era between the rich and the poor, especially within the city and urban environments.
The rich were often land and business owners, meaning that often the poorest in society had to rely on them not only for the housing that they rented but for their jobs as well. This created an unwilling dependence on those at the top of the social ladder, which was very hard to escape.
Depending upon what background your characters have, you will need to think carefully about the realities of their situation. Although “rags to riches” stories were incredibly popular at the time, without some sort of long-lost-relative or major act of good fortune, it was hard for people to elevate themselves. Therefore, you’ll need to get creative when it comes to how you advance your characters forward through your story.
6. Industrial Revolution
One of the massive factors behind the Victorian era was the Industrial Revolution when steam power revolutionized the way in which the world worked.
This ranged from being used to forge the way for rail travel, connecting the country, as well as to power the multitude of factories that arose to cater to the growing population. This led to a mass migration to crowded cities that became filled with grime and disease despite the technological advances of the age.
Depending upon the age, gender, background, and home of your characters, the Industrial Revolution will affect them in different ways, so it is important to consider not only its impact on their lives but also their opinion on this rapid change.
7. The effects of Empire
The Victorian era was also characterized by its Empire, spanning across the globe. This influence and power could be felt across many nations, including the occupation of India and many countries in Africa.
Although not many of those from across the Empire ended up in Britain, it’s still worth remembering the effect that the Empire had on Victorian people and their sense of pride as a “great” nation of the world.
This is especially true of those who choose to explore the Empire or take roles within it, which can be an avenue to explore in your novel.
8. The gender gap
When writing a novel set in the Victorian era, it’s, unfortunately, a sad fact that sexism and the gender gap will exist in the time that you are writing about.
There were completely different social expectations for men and women, with traditional gender roles of women staying at home and raising the children being expected. This meant women had to face the turmoil of having to leave their jobs if they chose to get married: they could not have both.
However, the poor often did not have the luxury of the wife staying at home, and often women in the working class would have to go to work and also take care of family duties.
Towards the end of the Victorian era, women started to earn more freedoms and luxuries, including access to bicycles, which gave them much more freedom of movement even if they were politically stifled. It’s worth noting that this was only an opportunity for those with money, so you’ll need to think about what circumstances will hold up for the female characters in your story without being too far-fetched.
9. Be aware of the decade
As the Victorian era was a time of rapid development and invention, things were continually changing.
This means that depending upon the decade, or even the year in which your Victorian novel is set will be incredibly important when it comes to researching what was happening at that time. For example, you don’t want to write about electric lamps being around in the 1850s when the technology only became commercially available in the 1870s and 80s!
A good reference point is to look up a chronology of the era focusing on the timeframe that you wish to include. This way, you can’t go wrong when it comes to what you do and don’t include! If you can find any in a library or archive, Victorian periodicals are also a great resource for understanding the time period and issues that affected contemporary people.
10 A question of prose
One question you may want to ask yourself is how far you want to go when it comes to the Victorian theme in your novel.
You may wish to take influences from Victorian prose and literary concepts, especially as this time period was when the novel as we know it today started to come to fruition. Often, sentence structure would be complex, and the narrative would be episodic with many “cliffhangers” at the end of chapters due to the way they were published in periodicals.
If you choose to write in a modern format, that’s still totally fine! One thing you might want to remember though is to look at the spoken language of the time, just to make sure any words or references you use are in keeping with the time period.