Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Victorian Immersion

Well, hello there. I'm now not only using this blog for procrastination, but also for occupying myself when I have insomnia. I should have gone to bed 30-60 minutes ago but I am so awake that it's not even funny. I am beginning to doubt the claims that this white tea has 1% of the caffeine as a cup of coffee.

Anyway, I've been rather busy, too busy to write, which is very distressing. I often find myself doubting my ability to be a real author when this happens. How am I ever going to adhere to a deadline when I can go weeks or even months without touching my book? I suppose if I was getting paid to write, then I would clear things out of my schedule to make more time (I've already decided that if I ever get a publishing deal, I'll all but close down my jewelry business), but still. I think that I should write as if I did already have a contract. That should be a goal for the new year.

But as you may have guessed from the title, that is not what I intended this post to be about. No, this post is about researching the Victorian era. Why? Because I like it. Because I'm a wannabe steampunk. And because one of my holiday gifts to my husband is a Victorian steampunk roleplaying campaign. Much like a book, a campaign needs to be well-researched. Especially when the research is into a subject I enjoy, such as the Victorian era.

Rather fortuitously, one of my holiday gifts from my brother was a copy of the book Our Deportment, an 1880s guide to etiquette. Let me clarify: a 125 year old book on etiquette. Not a reprinting, but a book that is almost five times as old as me. Reading this beautiful book has been a large chunk of my research so far. It's fascinating to see what has changed about manners in the intervening years, and what remains the same.

Other research has involved reading up on 1880s fashion on Wikipedia. Now, if this research was for a book, I wouldn't rely so heavily on Wikipedia, but for something as casual as a game, I'm not too worried about extreme reliability. This was probably my favorite bit of research, as I love Victorian-era clothing. It's entirely impractical (especially in Tucson) and I think I would die if I tried to corset myself into wasp-waistedness (slender though I may be), but their dresses were so beautiful.

And then there's the fiction. For the past few weeks, I've been working my way through Jules Verne's Five Weeks in a Balloon. It's the first story in a Barnes and Noble-published collection of his works. I have a similar collection of HG Wells' work. I figure that reading the two of them will help me establish an authentic steampunk feel, and besides, it's really about time that I get around to reading some classic genre fiction.

I finished Five Weeks last night, and I have to say that my opinion is rather divided. On the positive side, it's easy to be drawn in by the daring hero, his stalwart companions, and the sense of wonder about the unexplored portions of the world (even though now, a century and a half later, they're quite explored). Likewise, I love the language that Victorian authors like Verne used, words and turns of phrases that would seem too antiquated or formal in a modern story, and yet, they're so enjoyable (side note: when I first shared the first novel of my series with my writing class, I got dinged for antiquated and formal turns of phrase, even though I wasn't then in the habit of reading Victorian authors).

And yet... it's hard to accept the rampant racism inherent in an 1800s story about a trip across Africa. The ethnic slurs, the condescending tone, the commonly held truths that have since been debunked. I know it was the attitude of the day, but I can't help but expect better of authors and intellectuals. On a less uncomfortable note, there are aspects of the Victorian writing style that I don't enjoy -- the author holds the reader at a distance from the characters. So many times, I wanted to be inside the head of Dr. Ferguson or one of his companions, to truly get their reaction to the wondrous or frightful things they were going through. It was hard to be engaged when the characters were at an arm's length from me, and the many difficulties they encountered were often solved in a matter of paragraphs.

I'm going to read another story or two before I pass complete judgement on Jules Verne. After all, I believe Five Weeks was his first published work, and it's not one that you often hear mentioned, so perhaps his other, more famous stories will prove more engaging.


mjlayman said...

So, 150 years from now, what will those readers be thinking about us?

AJ said...

I just hope that 150 years from now, someone is actually reading my books ;) They can think whatever they want about me, I'll be dead and won't care.

But I do wonder. I like to think that I don't have a lot of prejudices, and the few that I might have, I try to keep out of my work. But I suspect that 150 years from now, people will look back at a lot of the work of the 20th and early 21st centuries and think that we were all very homophobic.

mjlayman said...

mmm, I was thinking they'd think we ruined the planet for them. I'm sure they'll see homophobia, along with other unpleasant beliefs, but not to the extent that you read in the book.