Beautiful dresses. Stately homes. Titled aristocrats. Wealthy yearly incomes. Those are usually the things that readers love to fantasize about when they read historical fiction or historical romance.
The best-selling books on the market are not about the miserable lives in the Victorian era. It has become obvious by some harsh reviews I received on The Price of Innocence, that some called a “miserable book,” readers would rather not think about the squalor 90% of the population experienced in Victorian England. Nevertheless, the authors who lived in those eras – like Dickens and Gaskell – had no qualms about penning reality in their stories because they were important social issues.
Toil Under the Sun, the first book in my series, will be somewhat Dickenish in a few chapters. I’m attempting to soften the blow by interesting characters. There are no beautiful dresses, stately homes (unless you’re hired as a brickmaker to construct one), or wealthy yearly incomes. Instead of canopy beds, it’s a hard, lumpy mattress on a platform or more likely the floor. Those with no home slump over a rope in a doss house to get some shut-eye, or pay a few shillings a night to share a bed with a lice-ridden individual in a common lodging house. (The lice were free.)
There was no running water, so people bathed at washhouses if they could afford to pay the price. Public fountains were around town to fill up your buckets for water and carry them home but were a cesspool of germs. (Read More Here) I’ll spare you the gory details about where and how people relieved themselves because you’ll die from the stench alone or some related disease. Some parts of Manchester were called hell on earth in those days. (Read More Here) I was shocked to learn that my third great-grandfather, Henry Holland, lived two blocks away from the slum area in this article during 1851, and he was a journeyman bricklayer that could make a wage. It broke my heart.
“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness…” (Angus Reach, a London Journalist 1849)
When Elizabeth Gaskell wrote North & South, she lived in Manchester. (I’ve visited her home and you can read about here on my author blog.) Even though she chose Milton as the make-believe town where Mr. Thornton had his cotton mill, the hell as penned by Margaret was, “I’ve seen hell and it’s white.” Perhaps that was true inside, but outside the air filled with smoke from the chimneys of factories, and the brick buildings were blackened with soot.
The idea of children being cared for by nannies and brought up by governesses is a far cry from the reality of young children who worked in factories to help with family finances. Rarely, did a child have the opportunity to learn to read or write. The boys were taught more often than the girls even in the middle class. Quite a few of my ancestors, including my second great-grandfather, merely put an “X” on the marriage bann because he couldn’t scribble his own name.
Nevertheless, out of the poverty, one person can rise above and build an empire of wealth for his family and descendants. How my second great uncle accomplished that task in the world described above is beyond my comprehension.
As I write how my protagonist, William Leighton, accomplishes it, the entire story is purely conjecturing on my part but, hopefully, will make for good reading.
Sorry for the downer post! I promise the majority of the squalor will only last the first eight chapters, then things start looking up! No need to throw book one across the room when you finish it.