The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.”

L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.

Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time-traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the 'foreign place' in which their story will be set – to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings, or themes that, if placed in a modern novel, might seem entirely alien. A good starting point is to read the work of established authors, those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo-Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the language that was used 'back then'.

Charles Dickens

My personal Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one of these writers offering a unique and distinctive style to define the age they represent. But, of all the Victorian writers, Dickens is considered by most to be the master of the era, with his storylines rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world which he inhabited. However, a word of warning here. Attempts to emulate his work today can result in clichéd parody in any but the most skilful hands. A writer should be brave enough to develop their own personal voice and tone, albeit while following the ‘rules’ or restrictions of the genre.

Not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens’ formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

There is still the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But at the same time Melville creates a very strong vernacular; entirely original. A real, living character whose voice could belong to any age, and who draws us directly into his world.

It has to be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well-observed by the modern-day author Charles Palliser. According to many reviews, his novel The Quincunx ‘out Dickensed’ Dickens himself. Indeed, almost all ‘Sensation’ themes are covered in this lengthy book, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. What’s more the story’s narrator is called John Huffam – the middle names of Charles Dickens himself. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.
Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a sparer lyrical prose. She is rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – where the reader is immediately told that the narrator has been orphaned; a common Victorian theme, around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”
Similarly, such clues are laid in The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins – “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper. It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-street’ – and the fact of the oyster supper; a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language also has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.

Another important factor for the writer of historical fiction is to ensure accurate scene descriptions. Inspiration is not that hard to find, with many of us still surrounded by Victorian architecture now. All the houses, shops, the theatres and bars from which our settings can be derived. The transport must be imagined, of course – the sounds of creaking carriages – the jangling of the reins – the clopping of the horse’s hooves – the rhythmic chugging of the trains, exuding clouds of cinder-flecked steam. And, as depicted in one of my novels, the common fears that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.”

The expansion of the railways led to another common theme in Victorian novels. Train travel enabled the movement of a mass population – mainly coming from the countryside while searching for work in the city. These two settings often lead to a blunt comparison between innocence and depravity. Still, many continued to travel to London to seek their fates and fortunes – whether for better or for worse.

The city has, to this very day, a wealth of Victorian settings. A wonderful resource for any writer is to be found in Kensington, where No 18 Stafford Terrace (which belonged to Edward Linley Sambourne, a famed cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch) remains just as it would have been in its Victorian heyday. There are Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained-glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of such a house. For those unable to visit, there are the objects in museums, the documents found in libraries, or via a search on the Internet where many paintings and photographs are stored.

The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography and what a treasure that has left us. Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries, for what better way to get a true sense of interior or exterior scenes, to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp…a little bit of magic realised.’

As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management.

In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, or medicine. Her words also occur in my novel, The Somnambulist, when my narrator quotes the book as a means of objecting to the clothes that her mother wants her to wear – “I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorized for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”

Many other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. These studies were very useful to me when researching the Victorian demi-monde, as was My Secret Life by Walter.

Walter was a shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a melodramatic encounter – and the exploration of a world that could not be more different to that which is generally perceived as the moral, upstanding society over which Queen Victoria ruled with her iron rod of respectability.

Walter, the far less ruly child, would surely have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting used in my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where the prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below - where the glisten of the lime lights would glance off the gleaming metal of the barley twists posts around the hall.

No doubt Walter would also have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid. The grounds were eventually closed down due to lewd behaviour, and sadly nothing now remains but a pair of ornate iron gates.

Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin 1864

Unable to visit the actual place I still immersed myself in its atmosphere by reading contemporary articles printed in Victorian newspapers (the archives are still available online). I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene inside my mind of the lush lawns with their statues and fountains, and the banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and lavish theatrical displays – such as that performed by the Beckwith Frog who swam in a great glass aquarium along with several living fish.

Freak shows were also popular as an entertainment form, though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about the Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish. Imagine the smell smell of that!

Which brings me to another writing prop to further enhance a Victorian world, albeit one invisible – that being the sense of smell. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets, but it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, the rising up of fetid drains, or the effluence from horses – all of which elicits a strong response from a character in Elijah’s Mermaid, who has come on a visit to London and is almost overcome by – “…sweat from the horses, and piss from the horses, though I should be used to such farmyard smells with plenty of muck in the countryside. But, in London, that perfume was too intense, as if every passenger in our cab had managed to step in a turd on the pavement, and that mess still stuck to the soles of our feet, firmly refusing to fade away.”

A writer might also think ‘outside the box’, revealing less obvious fragrances, which – in the case of The Somnambulist – was the smell of a popular perfume that came to have great significance within the novel’s plot. For this, I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use. I discovered Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872 and described by the manufacturers as: ‘animalic and golden…warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’ Quite a vivid description I’m sure you’ll agree. And, quite a serendipity – because, after the book’s publication, I realised that Hammam’s Bouquet is still being produced to this very day. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that I had only imagined before: to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world.



William Jackson Crawford was a paranormal investigator who the author A. J. West has brought to life in his novel, The Spirit Engineer ~ the winning title in the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown, 2022.

In many ways William's life is a mystery, his story all but forgotten ~ until A. J. West began his own investigations.

He discovered that William, who'd been born in New Zealand, travelled to Glasgow in his youth and gained the qualifications to become a science teacher before he moved to Belfast.

William Jackson Crawford 1880-1920

Having found employment with the Belfast Municipal Technical Institute, William married Elizabeth Bullock Jolly. It was Elizabeth's own interest in the occult and afterlife that then led William to meet with Katherine Goligher. Along with other members of the Goligher family, Katherine was said to have a rare and natural talent for summoning the dead.

Although sceptical at first, between 1914 and 1920 William conducted several scientific investigations in an attempt to prove the fact that 'other worlds' did exist. His work appeared to be impressive and it came to the attention of the magician, Houdini, as well Arthur Conan Doyle. 

However, William began to lose his faith in the Golighers, and there are rumours that he'd suffered from a serious mental breakdown resulting in his suicide. He was reported as missing, and his body was discovered on some rocks beside the sea. There was foam around his mouth to indicate the likelihood of having taken poison. (Working at the Institute, he would have had easy access to potassium cyanide, with the powder being used for the developing of early photographic plates.)

William's corpse was found with a parcel and letter addressed to his wife. Whatever they contained was then supposedly destroyed by the policeman who first found them. But it is strongly assumed that he'd alluded to the fact that Kathleen Goligher had deviously tricked him. She had been the real fraud.

Whatever the truth, The Spirit Engineer offers a fascinating glimpse into the supernatural world of Edwardian spirit mediums, with many detailed accounts of the seances performed. 

The novel, with its stunning artwork, is a book to be cherished.

If you are already itching to learn more about this fascinating subject, I suggest you make a visit to A. J. West's own author website,  There you'll find more details of his research and Youtube films he has recorded in the process ~ including this book trailer. Watch on full screen. It's fabulous!

A. J. West ~ Author of The Spirit Engineer



Photograph by Sarah Whittingham, from a display at Sambourne House, in London


Recently, I was reminded by my friend and fellow writer, Sarah Whittingham, of the perfume I refer to in my debut novel, The Somnambulist. 

When I was writing this Victorian gothic, I wanted to introduce a perfume that would have been in production during the mid-nineteenth century, and also one that my character Nathaniel Samuels might actually have worn. The heady and glamorous concoction of Penhaligan's Hammam Bouquet fitted that need to perfection.

First created by William Penhaligon in 1872, this fragrance is still manufactured today, and is described as being ‘...animalic and golden... warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk, and powdery orris.  

Hammam Bouquet soon became a great favourite with respectable Victorian gentlemen. It owed its provenance to the odours that were found in the Jermyn Street Baths, a place often frequented by homosexuals. Considering this, and the era's repression of freedom of sexual expression, it is somewhat ironic that the seductive musky fragrance that intoxicates the senses should have been so popular. Or perhaps that's exactly why!

The Harrogate Turkish Baths

With their connotations of harems and boudoirs, the concept of Turkish baths became very popular in later nineteenth century England. The practice was said to be introduced here by a man called David Urquhart, a foreign diplomat and sometime Member of Parliament who'd travelled extensively throughout Morocco and Spain.

The Roman Baths in the city of Bath

However, the idea of communal bathing stems back to the customs of ancient Roman. It consisted of first sitting in a ‘warm room’ which was heated by dry air to encourage perspiration. A spell in a second hotter room and the bather would be splashed and cooled in colder water. After this the bather would enjoy an entire body wash, a massage, then relaxation. 

An advertisement for the Southampton Turkish Bath

The Jermyn Street Baths in London also employed a resident tattooist well known for his skill in producing artistic dragon designs, and ~ if the rumours can be believed ~ some of Queen Victoria’s sons were decorated in this manner after visiting the establishment.

Cooling room of the Jermyn Street Bath in London.
From the Wellcome Collection

What would their mother have thought of that? Perhaps she would have encouraged them to keep away from the Turkish baths and install a 'Quaker Cabinet' for their private use instead. 

With thanks to Malcolm Shifrin and information gleaned from his website: Victorian Turkish Baths: Their Origin, Development, And Gradual Decline.



Vincent Van Gogh 30 March 1853-29 July 1890 - self portrait: As an Artist

In 2010 the RA in London exhibited the work of Vincent Van Gogh, with the artwork being complemented by some of the countless letters he wrote during his adult life. Many of those letters showed quite a different side to the character captured in history - that of a tortured depressive who pickled himself in absinthe, cut off his ear in a spate of passion after an argument with Gaugin, and finally shot himself in the chest in a badly bungled suicide, after which he took two days to die. 

Theo Van Gogh

Most of the letters were addressed to his brother, Theo, who worked as an art dealer. But, their existence, along with  the 65 paintings and 30 connected drawings displayed in the show, are still in existence today mainly because of Theo's wife.

Photograph of the graves of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh ©Suzette Raymond

Widowed only six months after Vincent's death, when her husband succumbed to the complications of syphillis (the two brothers are buried side by side in graves in Auvers-sur-Oise), Johanna Van Gogh took care to preserve every one of her brother-in-law's letters. And, rather than disposing of what had been Vincent's unsaleable paintings, all of which Theo had collected and stored, she devoted the rest of her life to promoting his talent and work.

Johanna Van Gogh

Many  of the letters are now in such a fragile state it is highly unlikely they'll ever be exhibited publicly again. Several of them contained sketches of paintings that Vincent was planning to make in the future, and although final pieces we know today are often composed using heavy and vibrantly coloured strokes of paint, these smaller preparatory works were very precisely executed, with fine straight lines and an element of realism. Entirely different to the Impressionist style of the larger canvasses. 

The letter found in Vincent's pocket after he shot himself is splattered with either paint, or blood, and the words that Vincent wrote there were: “I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it  -”

But many of the artist's earlier letters are less tragic, and are made up of thoughtful and eloquent prose. In them we 'see' a cultivated man who is clearly well-read and whose words convey poetic imagery. He describes the light shimmering on the sea -“like a mackerel ... always changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue...”

Of his paintings of Cypress trees, he said: "The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. [The cypress is] beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes... they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather."

Imagine talking to the man whose thoughts were so inspired!

Vincent Van Gogh as a child

Sadly, the darker moments obliterated the joyful. Even as a youth, Vincent possessed a brooding, troubled look. 

As a young man he found employment was with a firm of art dealers; his profession taking him to England and Paris. But a series of disappointing love affairs, along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the unscrupulous art world led him to contemplate life as a preacher - the same profession as his father. 

That ambition was doomed to failure when Vincent failed to pass the necessary exams, though he did work as a missionary in Belgium, and it was there he produced The Potato Eaters - his first major painting. Like many of the earlier works, this was not a blazing of light, but suffused in dark and earthy tones to echo the paintings of Rembrandt. 

Vincent was also influenced by prints reproduced in English magazines that showed the toil of the working man. He purchased a ten-year run of the popular magazine The Graphic so as to study such gritty scenes which he then attempted to emulate.

 The Potato Eaters 1885-6

It was when Vincent travelled to the south of France that his obsession with colour began. Inspired by the French Impressionists he had hopes of founding a community of artists, but his sense of inadequacy and increasingly violent mood swings were far from conducive to such harmonious living arrangements. Even so, despite his 'sounds and strange voices...that cannot but frighten you beyond measure' the time he then went on to spend in an asylum did offer some security. Vincent said the close proximity of other people similarly afflicted was somehow reassuring. It soon became his daily routine to set up his easel and paint - either in the hospital gardens or the surrounding countryside, producing swirling images of corn fields and olive groves.


In the few years before his death, Vincent moved to Arles where he rented 'the Yellow House' - another subject of his paintings, and about which he was to write: "That's a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it's tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue." 

Well, however hard the task, there can be no doubt that Vincent succeeded in his ambition. And, how poignant it is that the artwork unappreciated during the course of his lifetime is now considered to be among the world's most sought-after.

The Real Van Gogh exhibition was curated by Ann Dumas. In this short BBC film you can hear her thoughts and view some more of the works on display.

If you have more interest in the letters of Van Gogh, Thames and Hudson have published them in a six-volume edition of books. They can also be viewed online at http://www.vangoghletters.org/.

Soon to be published in January 2023, the novel Mrs Van Gogh by Caroline Cauchi tells the story of Joanna Van Gogh, and her relationship with the Parisian art world and the two brothers who became so central to her life. 



Princess Lottie

In my new Victorian gothic novel, The Fascination (published by Orenda Books in June 2023), I have a character who never grows in size beyond the age of five.


There are many different forms of restricted growth, or dwarfism, but to generalise there are two main groups ~ disproportionate (achondroplasia) when the torso is generally much longer than the limbs, and due to malformed bone or cartilage the spine and legs can be curved, or bowed, and the forehead can be very prominent ~ or proportionate, when the body looks much the same as a fully-grown person's, but is simply much smaller.


My Tilly Lovell's proportionate condition first becomes apparent in the months and years after a serious blow to the head. It is then emphasised even more because her identical twin sister continues growing to reach a full adult size. In Tilly's case, the stress of losing her mother, combined with an addiction to opiates, and the trauma to her brain and pituitary gland has led to a deficiency in the production of growth hormones. However, this is never diagnosed as such in the novel. She is simply little, and therefore becomes something of a curiosity to be displayed in a travelling fairground show, before being hired as a fairy for the London pantomimes.


In the Victorian era, and for hundreds of years before that, such little people were often displayed in royal courts, circuses, travelling shows or taverns as jokers or as wonders of nature to provide entertainment for the masses. 


A real-life character such as Tilly was to be found in Princess Lottie who, at the age of 14, was only 20 inches high and weighed 9 lbs. In the later 1800's she belonged to a troop known as Harvey's Midges. In this photograph from the Welcome Library's Collection she can be clearly seen as perfectly proportioned, and despite her minute size her character is shining out as she looks straight towards the camera.


In the poster above (from a collection at the British Library) we see an advertisement for a show at the Piccadilly Hall in London. Princess Lottie is seen balanced in the palm of the showman's hand, with other members of Harvey's act standing in the foreground.


Today, it is very rare to see such small people, most probably because children are diagnosed with a specific deficiency at a time in their life when they can be offered growth hormones to address their conditions.

For another novel featuring a proportionate dwarf, The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn is based on the true story of the dwarf, Jeffery Hudson, who was also known as Lord Minimus after being gifted to the wife of Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria. The portrait below is displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in London. For more information, this article from History Extra may be of interest.