Writing the Late Nineteenth Century: Research Resources

I recently gave in to destiny and started writing historical fantasy. Destiny, you ask? Well, I have a PhD in British Literature and despite the fact that PhDs are literally research degrees, I’ve been putting off writing late-Victorian fantasy because I was intimidated about the logistics of research for creative writing.

Turns out, a lot of those skills are transferrable. But you don’t have to do a PhD to research your own fin de siècle fiction, because I’m here to round up my favorite resources for writing the late nineteenth century. Enjoy!

General Resources on the Victorian Period

  • If you can, track down a used copy of Sally Mitchell’s 1988 Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. It’s an excellent reference.
  • Richard Altick’s 1973 Victorian People and Ideas is also a great starting point to familiarize yourself with the era.
  • The Victorian Web can be a great resource for searches that involve art, literature, and technology.

Victorian London Wasn’t All Rich, Straight, Nondisabled White People

Okay, But What Did They Eat?

  • You’ll find a lot about how Victorians ate at parties online. But sometimes you just wanna know how they ate at home with their fam on a regular Tuesday, y’know? In that case, housekeeping manuals are your BFF and there’s none better at the game than Mrs. Beeton. I referenced Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book and Household Guide (1898) which contains party and family dinner menus.

And… How Did They Talk?

I’ve got two resources for you:

What About Transportation?

And, Please for the Love of Dog, How Did Money Work????

I’ve got one page for you: Measuring Worth. This site does more than just provide currency conversion, it contextualizes those numbers in terms of things like purchasing power and relative value.

Primary Texts

Thankfully for those of us writing historical fiction set in the nineteenth century, the era witnessed the rise of mass media. Victorians were the first information-age people to obsessively document their lives in whatever media they had to hand. There are newspapers, photographs, scrapbooks, journals, novels, non-fiction, handbooks for everything under the sun, and more–much of which you can probably find digitized. Here are some of my favorite places to look for these primary texts:

  • Hathitrust digitized public domain texts galore.
  • UPenn’s The Online Books page (I’ve found everything from novels to museum catalogs here).
  • The British Newspaper Archive (this resource is not free, but I’ve found it so invaluable I can’t not recommend it).
  • Newspaper archives in general (there are lots of digitized ones, and Googling may turn up something free. I’d also check with local libraries.) For example check out: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers; or, if you need some occult vibes in your novel IAPSOP (the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals); or, try searching country or topic + newspaper archives.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. I may occasionally circle back and add more resources. Feel free to drop me a line via my contact form if you know of something that should be on this list.

Cheers, Courtney