This Sunday, I’m delighted to welcome Carol Hedges to my blog, for this week’s Sunday Sojourn.
What first attracted you to the era you’ve written about?
My period is the mid Victorian one – the 1860s. It’s the time of Wilkie Collins, who wrote the first ‘detective’ novel (The Moonstone), Charles Dickens, WM Thackeray and Mrs Gaskell. It’s the time of railways, chloroform, mass circulation of newspapers, a couple of cholera attacks and Bazalgette’s sewers.
I love the entire Victorian age, but a lot of fiction is based on the 1880s (Jekyll & Hyde, Sherlock Holmes) and a lot of modern histfic writers write in that time also, so I decided to drop back twenty years and see what I could find to write about. I love Victorian novels, and studied them at university and part of the challenge for me was to emulate the style of the period in my books.
What sparked your first foray into historical fiction?
I’d come to the end of writing teenage fiction – the market was no longer profitable for ‘mid listers’ so I decided, rashly, at the age of 62 to change genre and age group. The first drafts of Diamonds & Dust were rejected out of hand by my agent, who said they were ‘unpublishable’. I think subsequent events have proved her wrong. Diamonds & Dust now has over 71 reviews on Amazon, Honour & Obey nearly 30, and the new book Death & Dominion is racking up its own set of 5 star reviews 2 weeks after publication.
The fun of writing historical fiction is the lack of modern gadgetry ..there were no computers (well, there was Babbage’s calculating engine but it wasn’t a household object), no mobile phones. The main form of communication was by letter. This means I don’t have to be constantly thinking:no, the character would know this because someone would have texted him. Oh joy!
Tell me a bit about your research process – are you able to stay focused, or do you find yourself distracted by new, interesting snippets or stories?
I research copiously and during the writing period. I get out every book on the 1860s from 4 different local libraries, renewing them as I go. I have my own stock of books, novels, diaries and non-fiction of the period and I refer to them as and when. I also download stuff, like period maps, reports and stuff – The Victorian Web is brilliant, as are the National Archives.
I read the novels as I go, to pick up words and phrases. Finally, I visit London (the books are set there) and take pictures of the buildings, so that I can immerse myself in the scenes and sights that the characters would have seen as they went about their daily lives.
Of course, there are always those unexpected alleyways you get lured down…I spent a whole afternoon reading up on Victorian sex toys (yes, really) – but even if it doesn’t actually appear in the book, it’s always handy for a blog post!
I can imagine! Which is your favourite of any real historical characters who have appeared in your writing?
Charles Dickens makes a brief appearance in Diamonds & Dust. He is a fascinating man – he wrote so much and so prodigiously – not just the novels, he edited Household Words and wrote the brilliant Uncommercial Traveller, a series of topical essays. He was a great criticizer of authority, ridiculing schools, the judiciary and the mores of the upper classes in his books. He also co-founded Urania Cottage, a home for street women.
Dickens was the first writer to do the ”celeb’ thing: he split from his wife, had an affair with a much younger woman (and an actress to boot!) and heroically rescued passengers from a train crash. He was rarely out of the news, and I love that a ”writer” was also held in such high esteem. When The Old Curiosity Shop reached its final chapters, with the death of Little Nell, people queued on both sides of the Atlantic to snap up copies.
If you could visit any historical event or period (as a witness only, no changing things!), which would it be, and why?
I’d love to go back to my period….well, no, I’d hate the actual smog, filth, poverty, disease,crime,smell BUT I’d love to stand in Regent Street and just watch people passing. We only get a faint flavour of the times from contemporary fiction…we know people sounded completely different then, but we have no recordings of how they spoke. I’d love to hear an actual conversation taking place!
Finally… You’re allowed a whole afternoon to yourself with anyone from history. Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
I’d love to meet with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – she was the first woman to get a medical degree.She had to fight male prejudice every step of the way, but she finally qualified as a surgeon. She started The New Hospital for Women to enable poor women to obtain medical help from qualified female practitioners – in that era a very unusual thing. It later took her name.
In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher tried to close the EGA and I was one of those who marched through London to try to save it. I’m sure if she were alive today, she’d be fighting to save the NHS from the incursions and ravages of the current Tory government.
Thank you for joining me, Carol.