This may be the twenty-first century but, everywhere you look in the media, the Victorians are flourishing. On TV Mr. Whicher has his suspicions and Ripper Street is crowded with Whitechapel tarts and their clients. At the movies, Guy Ritchie has turned his attention in the last few years from East End hard cases and Cockney geezer gangsters to Sherlock Holmes and gaslit streets. True tales of nineteenth-century scandals such as Mr. Briggs’ Hat and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace make the book bestseller lists. And, in crime fiction, novels are filled with Sherlockian lookalikes, Scotland Yard inspectors with mutton-chop whiskers and more private detectives than ever really roamed the streets of the Victorian capital. I’ve just made my own small contribution to what seems like some sort of cultural trend. My debut novel Carver’s Quest (Corvus) is set in 1870. It follows the adventures of a young gentleman named Adam Carver and his stroppy servant Quint Devlin as they seek out an ancient Greek manuscript which may hold the key to the whereabouts of gold that once belonged to Alexander the Great’s father. In the process they stumble across dead bodies in London, find themselves the targets of anti-English rioting in Athens and spend time in one of the strange, isolated monasteries of Meteora, in Thessaly, where visitors are hauled up to the mountain-top retreats in nets. The inevitable question arises. Why are so many of us so obsessed by the Victorians?
I think the fundamental reason lies in the fact that the period is simultaneously both reassuringly familiar and challengingly remote. At first glance, the Victorians seem remarkably like us. They don’t dress in togas and tunics like the ancient Romans. They don’t don suits of armour and ride into battle waving lances like the knights of fourteenth-century Europe. They appear recognisably ‘modern’ in ways that individuals from further back in history don’t. Give or take the odd peculiarity of dress, hairstyle and vocabulary, a Victorian lady or gentleman would surely not look or sound too out of place on the streets of modern London. Yet delve a little deeper into the lives of nineteenth-century men and women and they prove as strange as any Roman legionary or medieval warrior. In a world before cars, before planes, before the cinema and before most of the media which have shaped modern minds, in a world where London was the largest city on earth and Britain ruled over a fifth of the world’s population, people thought and acted in ways that can seem very alien to us today.
It’s this combination of familiarity and strangeness that makes the Victorian era so appealing. And it can be particularly appealing to fans of a certain style of crime fiction. Modern technology opens up all sorts of possibilities for writers, of course, but it closes plenty as well. How many plotlines become impossible in our forever connected world of internet and mobile phone? In my own novel, Carver and Quint are in quest of a manuscript that might be in a monastery library. Today, they could go on the monastery’s website and check the manuscript in a matter of minutes. In 1870, they have to travel to Turkish-occupied northern Greece to see it. Another crucial episode in the book depends on the hero not knowing the exact whereabouts of his companions. If all of them had mobiles, any tension in the scene would be non-existent. They’d be swapping texts and smiley faces every few minutes. Writing about the Victorian era can be a liberating experience. And, as all those novels and films and TV series show, plenty readers and viewers enjoy travelling back there.