Monday, May 23, 2011

The Development of the Victorian Era- The Early Days

The Victorian Era is a long, lovely, interesting time in history with changes taking place rapidly, decade after decade. It was a time of elegant society, but also a time of harsh realities, some of which I have touched on in past posts. What was behind the changing customs, the attitudes and the times? I will be doing a series of posts on the Victorian times here; I hope you will find it interesting!

Queen Victoria herself was probably never meant to be. She was the product of an emergency! The only heir of King George IV, Charlotte of Wales, died in childbirth as did her heir. Though George IV had brothers, none of them yet had legitimate children. George himself was succeeded upon the throne by his brother William IV while they all rushed around abandoning their mistresses and snatching up princesses to marry in order to provide a legitimate heir of the royal blood. The first to be born was Victoria, the daughter of the Duke of Kent and his wife, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg. She became the heir apparent of William. Her father died soon after she was born, and her mother raised her fairly isolated from the public eye. Her mother did not get along with the king, and Victoria was the center of much family feuding. She came to the throne at age eighteen, after a succession of old men, amid much rejoicing of the people.
Victoria personally was very interested in the welfare of the poor people of her country, but the ministers of government had set up the degrading, life-destroying workhouse arrangement, called the New Poor Law, in 1834, before Victoria came to the throne. They could not be much bothered with the poor beyond that for many years. I will post more extensively in the future on the workhouses. The change from an agricultural to an industrial society created many working poor, from children on up, who put in lengthy hours for low pay. Living in crowded cities, these workers could not grow much in the way of food and were at the mercy of their often unscrupulous employers to be able to survive at all.

Early forces behind the early Victorian era included:
A) The Duke of Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, which brought on an atmosphere of national pride.
B) The Industrial Revolution, which transformed England from an agricultural nation to an industrial power, making it the world's greatest economic power for most of the century.
C) The Reform Bill of 1832, which doubled the number of men eligible to vote. A gradual progression toward democratic rule and governmental responsibility for the safety and well-being of the citizens was a result. Although Victoria did not ascend the throne until 1837, many scholars consider this Bill to be the starting point of the Victorian Era. It was certainly a strong influence on the society of her time.

When Victoria was crowned, the majority of people lived in the countryside and few of them traveled more than 10 miles from the place they were born. Nothing moved faster than the horses that carried them. Only half the population could read or write, and even five year old children worked in coal mines and dangerous factories. Power was in the hands of a small minority- men who held property.

Women had no rights at all. A woman was the property of her husband. Any property, even clothing, that she held on her wedding day became his. Should he die, she could only hope that his will, if he had one, provided for her in some way, or that family would take over her care. Even her children were not then hers, and Chancery Court would settle, hopefully, on some male family member to raise and care for them. Chancery operated very slowly, much to the harm of the children.

Styles in dress were frequently changing. Just a few years after the Regency era with its Empire cut dresses, which had no waistline but just under the bust and tiny puffy sleeves, early Victorian women wore off the shoulder dresses with a v-shaped waist and long puffy or billowing sleeves. They were truly elegant. A man's shirt collar came up to cover his neck, and his vest was low cut. No one would be seen out of doors without a hat. It just wasn't respectable. Even the workhouse inmates wore a hat, though it might be quite ragged. Gentlemen's hats were very tall top hats; they were quite difficult in windy weather. Women wore a pretty bonnet. Stylish women had their hair parted down the middle with ringlets or braids in front of their ears.

There was much transition during the sixty four years of Queen Victoria's reign. I will go into more detail in coming posts.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Crime and Punishment in Victorian England

You own a small palace. You have your trusted staff and you can live happily ever after. Right? In the movies we hear the Mistress of the house defending her staff when there is anything amiss. They were all exemplary. They came with references and could not have done wrong. And besides, she was a proper lady and would not suspect.

There was a great divide, though, between the rich and poor. The rich had vast excess while the poor were in misery. A good many would have liked to work their way into an aristocratic household to get their hands on anything they could redeem for cash. Therefore, it was necessary for you, as the Mistress of the house or the steward, to check references very carefully. Any girl old enough to have worked before, say age 16, had better come with a good "character", as references were called. Even then, there was the problem of forged characters. However, a job in such a household was highly esteemed, for servants in a great house ate regularly and had a roof over their heads. Those who came in with the right motives safeguarded their futures by behaving by the book.

While you might be safe in your own exquisite home with your carefully hired staff, you had to hide any valuables in a hidden pocket of your dress, often under a flap of fabric, when out and about in Town (the capital T means London Town). If for any reason you were out of your carriage and standing in a crowd, there were an abundance of skilled pickpockets not far away and drawing nearer. One might create a diversion while another stuck his hands into your pockets. Even a gentleman with hidden pockets in his coat would go home to find that his gold pocket watch had somehow disappeared, though he hadn't felt a thing.

Children were often hired to carry your expensive clothing here or there to be laundered or stitched. They were often relieved of their burdens by crooks looking for something nice to sell. Children of the aristocracy, if left alone to wander in a park or down some street to shop, were often relieved of the clothing they were wearing and sent home to you naked and crying.

Railway travel was an exciting new sport for the gentry of early Victorian times, but once again, there were crooks waiting nearby. You might arrive home after long travels and have your trunk lashed onto the back of a carriage to be hauled home behind you, only to arrive and find that the lashes had been cut and your trunk was missing. This would be worse yet if you arrived from your country home and the clothing you had intended to wear for the Season had disappeared.

Should anything sensational occur, you would want to be right there in court alongside a number of other upper class viewers to enjoy the proceedings. Large courtrooms were packed; you might even want to buy a ticket in advance if the case would prove to be interesting, like the case of Lord Frankfort. He had provided a home for a prostitute, but when she wanted to leave, he prevented it for two months. When he stepped out to a club one night, she took the jewels he had given her and left. He sued for the jewelry, apparently forgetting that his wife would get wind of it. She then sued for a judicial separation. The mistress was found not guilty of theft in the matter, and the aristocracy had enjoyed the show. Well, they didn't have TV and couldn't follow along with Poirot, could they. Ten years later, Lord Frankfort was back in court, charged with publishing an indecent communication in the shape of a letter to peeresses and the daughters of the nobility, offering to arrange to drug their husbands to sleep so that they could spend the evening with lovers. One clergyman had opened his wife's letter, of course, and went on the witness stand about what he had read. However, his decency moved him to ask the judge to send all ladies outside the courtroom so they wouldn't have their ears damaged by what he was about to say. The judge merely ordered the ladies not to listen. Lord Frankfort went to prison for a year, but used his financial goodwill to be exempted from oakum picking and the treadmill.

Sentences could be savage and arbitrary. Two young men had stolen a handkerchief worth 1s and were transported (to Australia, likely) for seven years. Two others each stole a handkerchief worth 3s and 2s and the same judge sentenced them, one to a month in a house of correction and the other to four year's penal service. Someone who took a bottle of gin worth 2s got only fourteen days.

Those who were incarcerated, however, might get the first bath of his life and clean shirts once a fortnight when new and more humane prisons began to be built. They were taken out for exercise wearing caps that had flaps to cover their faces so that other prisoners could not recognize them. They were taught trades and even given a good suit of clothes when leaving prison. However, they often sold these quickly as they did not match the clothing of the people of the Town.

By 1861, only murder and treason could be punished by death. Few murderers were, in fact, hanged. In 1854 only five hanged, and the annual average was between nine and sixteen. It was, however, still another sort of entertainment, and thirty thousand showed up to watch one hanging of a man and wife convicted of murder. Charles Dickens was in the crowd, having paid only 10 guineas for a place on a rooftop to see all the better, but he apparently was not pleased with it, and he wrote to the Times that executions should no longer be public. At least, he said, the hangman "should be restrained in his unseemly briskness, in his jokes, his oaths and his brandy". He also noted that the woman, hung in her black satin dress, was elaborately corseted and artfully dressed.

Things were much worse for convicted criminals before Queen Victoria's time, and over her decades gradual changes were made toward humane dealings with them.

Authors: How Do You Choose Names?

I think one of the biggest challenges I have faced in writing is choosing names for my characters and places. What about you?

Since my novels are Victorian and English, I have to try to "think English" despite my American birth. Places in England seem to end in "ton", "shire", "bury" and such. So then I try to add on another British name, and so thinking of Sherlock Holmes, I came up with the name for my book's fictional location- The Companion of Lady Holmeshire. With some of the character names, I start with the ending and then make up a beginning, thus Lord Breyton. After each making up frenzy, I get on Google and look up the name to make sure there is not a real one living who might sue me, lol. You would be surprised to find out how many of the names I have made up are real and occupied! It was probably about one out of four that were actually available.

Another way that I have come up with a name: I was floating about Facebook, spacing out because I needed a name for an angelic young lady in my second book, For the Skylark. I received a Friend Request from a gal named Evangeline. That was it! I asked the young lady if I could steal her name and she agreed to it. :) The next day, I received another Friend Request from a second woman named Evangeline, and I knew for sure that it was a keeper. (Although it took only one second to be sure in the first place!) My character has a twin brother, who as a toddler could not pronounce Evangeline and so called his sister Angel Eyes, which really reinforces her characteristics. I love it!

How have you authors come up with your names? I'd love to know.