Researching the Victorians

I promised last week to share some favourite research resources for the Victorian era. But first, some news that despite being 6 days old is still enough to make me jump up and down! A Spy in the House is shortlisted for the Ontario Library Association’s 2011 Red Maple Award! Yes! Let me throw in a couple of extra exclamation points, like so!!

This is a reader’s choice award for ages 11-15, it’s linked to a great reading-promotion program in Ontario schools, and the whole thing culminates in a 2-day gala at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. The craziest part, though? Being in the company of writers I think of as superstars, like Kelley Armstrong. And Gordon Korman, for crying out loud, whose work I loved as a kid. Plus, there are writers on the shortlist whose work I don’t know, but am really looking forward to discovering (click here for full shortlist). It’s all a bit dizzying.

But enough diva-ish fluttering. There are thousands of resources, both print and online, that I used when writing the Agency books. This is because my research began long before I thought of writing a novel, back when I was working on a PhD thesis in Victorian literature and culture. And that’s the beautiful, maddening, addictive thing about research: you start in one place and end up light years away, with pages upon pages of facts and anecdotes that probably won’t make it into the finished work. And it doesn’t matter, because you’re the richer for having read them. It’s brilliant.

But it’s also a pretty unhelpful thing to say here. But there are some books and sites that I go back to very regularly, and those are the ones I’ll share here today. Without further ado:

Online Resources (no particular order)

I adore Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London, a compilation of primary sources (that is, sources from the Victorian era). It’s addictive reading; I dare you not to spend four times as long there as you’d intended. Don’t miss the “Flash Dictionary” of slang!

The Old Bailey Online archives the proceedings of London’s central criminal court, from 1674-1913. Again, utterly addictive and a fantastic window into Victorian crime. My friend John Nicholls first told me about to the site. Thanks, John!

The Times Archive is just that – a searchable archive of every article published in that newspaper, from its launch in 1785. You have to pay for access, unless you belong to an institution (eg, university) that subscribes.

The Victorian Peeper (I know – sounds vaguely rude) is an truly wonderful blog written by Kristan Tetens, “a historian of nineteenth-century Britain based in twenty-first century America”. It’s an endless delight and offers links to previously unknown sources, such as the one below.

Hidden Lives Revealed is a sometimes heartbreaking archive of case files and photographs of orphans at the Children’s Society, 1881-1918. The photographs are particularly illuminating.

The Victorian Web is an academic site with about 40,000 short articles on the Victorian period. Many of these were written by Brown University undergraduates and some aren’t 100% reliable, but it’s a terrific starting point and most of the essays have a partial bibliography for further research.

Print Resources (alphabetical by surname)

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. 2001. An authoritative history of the city.

Flanders, Judith. Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain. 2007. Wonderful social history and a window into real people’s lives.

—. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. 2004. You wouldn’t think a book about domestic life could be gripping, but this is. One of my favourite non-fiction books, period.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London. 2005. A lively general overview, but if you’re already deep into the era, you can skip this one.

Ross, Ellen, ed. Slum Travellers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920. 2007. Letters and reports from reform-minded ladies of the period. Great for contemporary flavour.

Smith, Stephen. Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets. 2004. Useful chapter on Victorian burial practices.

Sweet, Matthew. Inventing the Victorians. 2002. Debunks a lot of tenacious myths about Victorian culture and morals.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. 1990. Definitive biography of Dickens’s long-time mistress. It’s also a sparkling social history and portrait of theatrical life.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians. 2002. Authoritative, sometimes infuriating, interesting.

Wilson, Bee. Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats. 2008. Gripping stuff – the chapters on “food adulteration” are wonderfully, horribly vivid.

This is a longish blog post but a very short bibliography. Don’t forget the goldmine at the back of nearly each of these books: the notes and bibliography, which will lead you in all kinds of wild new directions. I hope you have a blast!

Bookmark and Share

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to “Researching the Victorians”

  1. Philipp of Upper Canada says:

    Congrats on the nomination! I love the “Hidden lives revealed” website, those old photos are amazing.

  2. Ying says:

    Thanks, Philipp! And I couldn’t agree more about the old photos.

  3. […] I’ve posted a list of resources about the Victorian era for those who are interested (, most of which were immensely helpful to me as I began to research the […]

Leave a Reply