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Christina’s Guide to Historical Novels – Part 1
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August 28, 2010 posted by Christina

Christina’s Guide to Historical Novels – Part 1

Last week I made the observation that historical novels – namely ones set in the 1700-1800s, are making a comeback. For those of you like me who could never quite click with writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters even though you really, really, wanted to, these books are the next best thing. However, since you still need a good grasp of the context to understand these books 100%, as well as help the visualization process, I did my research and have put together a helpful guide of history, vocabulary, social etiquette and fashion for you guys.

History

Now, most of the novels are set in England, since at the time it was not only the place to be but by the 1700s Great Britain was in a position of high power on a global scale.

This is mainly because of the defeat of the Spanish Armada sent out by King Phillip to conquer England in the late 1600s. By wiping out the largest navy in the world, England took Spain’s place as naval power.
By the 1700s, with no real naval challenged able to defeat the English they were on their way to global dominance through economic exchange and colonial enterprises.

Sometimes you might hear a character say something like “I heard they sent him to Australia”. That’s because in 1788 Australia was colonized by the English. They sent convicts (criminals who were often only guilty of petty crimes like stealing a loaf of bread) there to do all the hard labor as a way of solving the problem of overcrowded jails.

England’s main religion was the Church of England and Catholics (as well as any other religion) were often persecuted and generally regarded with suspicion. Many feared Catholicism would try to rise to power via France or Spain.

England and France had a tense relationship during the 18th century as they fought over colonies in North America including Canada.

France supported the American colonists in their fight for independence from British rule – which led to war and the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

During the 19th century France was generally regarded as the traditional and most-likely enemy of England. Only slowly towards the end of the century did feelings in England change to consider the rise of Germany as more threatening.

The French Revolution in 1789 led by Napoleon Bonaparte (who later becomes Emperor) would see the end of the French Monarchy.

The 19th century was BIG as far as inventions go. By now, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing and by the end of the century we see the invention of the battery, gas lighting, steam trains, tin cans, cameras/photography, matches, typewriters, postage stamps, sewing machines (woohoo!), washing machines, the telephone, toilet paper and Coca Cola among many, many more.

The Victorian era became notorious for the employment of young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps.  They were also hired as errand boys, shoe blacks and domestic servants.

Bedlam – this is a place that will come up quite often, not just in historical novels but in general pop culture, it’s still mentioned. Official known now as The Bethlem Royal Hospital of London, it is the world’s first and oldest institution to specialize in the mentally ill. Back in the 18th century though, it was known for its cruel and inhuman treatment of patients, and basically – a madhouse.

Patients were initially referred to as “curable” and “incurable”. Conditions were consistently dreadful, and the care amounted to little more than restraint with violent and dangerous patients manacled and chained to the floor. Many were wrongly sentenced to Bedlam but the noise was “so hideous, so great; that they are more able to drive a man that hath his wits rather out of them.”

In the 18th century people used to go to Bedlam to stare at the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the “show of Bethlehem” and laugh at their antics. Entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month.

Opium addiction was rife during the 18th and 19th centuries, in many parts of the world including England, France, Canada, USA and China, where it originated. It was often put into everyday medicines in the form of Laudanum – which was considered a cure all. Many women were opium addicts, with Laudanum being prescribed by doctors for menstrual cramps, and other afflictions. The liquid would be poured into drinks, used in cooking or taken straight. Opium dens also surfaced during this time where many would waste their lives away in a drugged out.

Opium featured quite a lot in writing from the time – either with characters using them or with the author being under the influence at the time. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian visits opium dens as one of many shady nights in town.The poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was a heavy opium user and is said to have written Kubla Khan after being in an opium haze.

Well, that about covers the finer points of the historical context, but it’s really the tip of the iceberg. I definitely recommend looking into it a bit more, especially if you love history like I do.