An author guest blog
by F.M. Parkinson
When I wrote the original version of The Walled Garden, personal computers didn’t exist and the internet was a thing of dreams. So what was it like then, researching and writing a novel? How did it differ from researching and writing a novel today? I had no easy access to information except through libraries and I didn’t live anywhere where there was a large library with a good reference section and a wide-range of stock on its shelves. How could I find out what I needed to know, having set the novel in the England of the 1850s? Books were certainly the answer but how could I get hold of ones with relevant information?
Above anything else, style was very important for the writing. I didn’t want to write in the way I’d done short pieces up till then. They were modern and reflected up-to-date language and pace. I needed to know how people spoke to each other in the 1850s (at least in novels), as well as the sort of style an author used in writing a story. Therefore I read novels published at that time, titles long forgotten these days, but still to be found quite easily then in second-hand bookshops. I got the feel of the pace of the stories, the words used and the way in which authors used them. Both the plots and the language used made me very aware of the class differences that existed at the time and how outwardly rigid society could be. So I adopted the far more measured pace that novel writers used, and adapted their style to suit my own story. The Walled Garden deliberately does not rush through the development of the plot or the relationship between Hillier and Ashton for that very reason. As for the language used, I would refer back to the books of the 1850s if I was concerned as to whether a particular word or term was used then, or how words would have been phrased.
But I still needed a vast range of information. I read up about the law concerning homosexuality (only it wasn’t called that then) in 19th century Britain, particularly the law as it stood in the 1850s. Quite different in some ways from the earlier part of the century, as well as from the difficulties Oscar Wilde was later to be faced with. I read about Victorian attitudes to sex. Not just the public attitudes but those expressed in diaries and letters and certainly never intended for the public eye. It became obvious that people in Victorian Britain were just as uninhibited and passionate as anyone today but they kept their behaviour far more private. And how did I find the books I needed to discover such information? By visiting the local library, checking its card catalogue, looking on the shelves to find books that might give me information, then looking through the bibliographies at the ends of the books for other titles that sounded as though they might be useful, and which I could borrow through inter-library loans. It was a slow process. One book took months to arrive and when it did, they had sent me the wrong volume (the library’s fault, not mine). The relevant volume arrived in record time!
Looking back through my research notes, I have details on men’s clothing: their outer clothes, depending on their status in life; their underwear (it was amazingly difficult to find out what the 1850s man wore under his trousers); the hats they wore; their general appearance. I have information on Victorian society of the time. I found out about Victorian servants, their jobs, and the hierarchy that existed in households. There are notes on bathrooms and plumbing in 19th century houses, on gardens and gardening, and flowers and plants that would have been grown at that time.
In libraries I found books that had photographs of London in the 1850s, including the parliament buildings and street scenes and houses to be found in the capital. I came across articles on London life, and information on railway journeys and railway stock. I read up about the Australian gold rush of the 1850s, and found out about illnesses that were common in Britain then and what sort of treatments were given to those who could call on a doctor for help.
I also wrote to museums and societies for information. I have a letter from the Merseyside Maritime Museum giving me details about emigration from Liverpool to New York and which docks the ships sailed from, as well as listing books that I might find to be of use. The National Railway Museum in York supplied me with details about Waterloo Station. I wrote to the House of Commons Library when I realised that parliamentary sessions of that period did not begin and end at the times they do today, and they gave me precise dates for the years I needed, as well as information on the buildings associated with Westminster.
I was given recipes and details of foodstuffs that an invalid might eat, as suggested by Mrs Beeton. I discovered newspapers from the 1850s in a very rundown second-hand bookshop, and they contained advertisements for servants for a variety of work and which was exactly what I needed. I bought and studied plans of the Liverpool docks at that period and postcards of paintings of them. Articles from The Illustrated London News, obtained through inter-library loan, were a mine of information on emigration and the whole process of leaving the country.
The house where I had set my story was then open to the public (it no longer is). I visited it on a weekend away to that part of the country and was able to look at its layout and grounds, including an old walled kitchen garden. I looked at plans and old photographs of the place, available from books on country houses and in guidebooks.
All this took some years (including several house moves and changes of job) and it was a case of constantly looking for information and checking what facts I could glean from the various sources. Everything was typed up on a manual typewriter with carbon papers between several sheets for copies. Insertions and additions meant pinning pieces of paper to the pages, or cutting up typed pages and rearranging where I wanted the text to go. Amstrads were available by then but I certainly couldn’t afford to own one. Compared with today’s ease of altering and amending text, it seems something of a marathon.
Would it be different today, now that the internet is available at the click of a mouse or a tap on a screen? There is a vast amount of information ‘out there’ and it would certainly be easier to find out some of what I needed to know, as well as in contacting various museums and societies through email, rather than having to compose a letter and post it and then wait for ages for a reply. I would be able to track down useful books and possibly a greater range of books than I could through looking at their bibliographies. My library service now gives me access to encyclopaedias and the full Oxford English Dictionary, with updates, which would have been very helpful when deciding what words were appropriate for the 1850s and which were far too modern.
But not everything is on the internet and not everything on the internet is accurate, as we all know. I still find in my current work that I usually have to go back to books for detailed information on a particular subject. The internet cannot help me. And details can make all the difference to a story. However, I think we now have the best of both worlds. When I came to revise the story for publication, the internet proved very helpful when I needed more photographs and descriptions of places and settings which I had not thought about before, so I was able to amend some details in the text (as well as taking editorial advice and cutting down on a cast of thousands, and rewriting the story in places). But overall, the work I did originally was not negated by anything I found out during the revisions. All the ways I used in order to do my research were of great help. It’s perhaps just a little less complicated these days.