On 24 May 1819, Queen Victoria was born in London’s Kensington Palace – Happy 200th Birthday to Her Majesty!
I have to admit, I’m not exactly Victoria’s biggest fan. I wouldn’t say I disliked her by any means – like all people, she was complex and I appreciate her complexity – but I’ve never quite been able to forgive her for not agreeing with women’s suffrage. Come on, Victoria, really?
That aside, she was a pretty impressive woman.
Before the current Queen Elizabeth II surpassed her, Victoria was Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, reigning from 1837-1901. Her reign was a time of great change across society, industry and technology; the world looked so different when she died compared to the day she was born, and her nine children married into the royal houses throughout Europe. In fact many of the rulers during the First World War were cousins: England’s George V, Germany’s Wilhelm II and Russia’s Tsarina, Alix of Hesse, were all Victoria’s grandchildren.
It was actually through Victoria’s lineage that Alix and Nicholas II’s only son, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, inherited hemophilia.
118 years since Victoria’s reign ended, it’s an era that we just can’t seem to get enough of. This is especially interesting when we almost didn’t have a Victorian era at all!
23 years before she was born, George IV’s heir Charlotte, Princess of Wales was born in January 1796. Despite her grandfather George III having 15 legitimate children (I know – 15!) Charlotte was his only legitimate grandchild.
She married in 1816 and soon fell pregnant. Then, in November 1817, tragedy struck when Charlotte delivered a stillborn son and passed away soon after. While Britain mourned, George III’s unmarried sons quickly sought out wives to produce an heir.
It was Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn who would ultimately succeed when he married the widowed German Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and thus Queen Victoria was born.
Why do we love the Victorian era?
There isn’t an easy answer to that question. Possibly the simplest explanation is that, in the grand scheme of history, the Victorian era really wasn’t that long ago.
My Grandma’s father served in the First World War as a young man. This meant he was born into a world in which Victoria was still the queen, and though I never met him and he wasn’t alive for much of my Dad’s childhood, my Dad still remembers him as a man who wouldn’t go anywhere in anything but a suit.
We love history that we can touch – that’s why so many of us history nerds love going to museums and looking into mirrors that have seen hundreds of years of reflections – and because the Victorian era was so recent there’s still so much around for us to look at, including photographs of the people who lived through it. Not only paintings of the monarchs, but photographs of average people, like you and me!
It was also an era that saw the birth of detective fiction and children’s fiction, not to mention the development of real detective work. In London you might hear police officers referred to as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ – that’s down to the 19th century Prime Minister, Robert Peel, who saw to the creation of London’s first organised police force!
It was an era of the Brontës and Jack the Ripper, of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, of Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, of science and spiritualism. It was an era in which the wealthy lived lavishly and the poor lived in squallor. It was an era in which Ireland suffered the Potato Famine and the Koh-i-Noor diamond was taken from India, re-cut and set into one of Victoria’s crowns (the inspiration behind Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, the first English-language detective novel).
Why Victorian era fantasy?
The Victorian era has long inspired novelists, including the ones who were writing as they lived through it. We can immerse ourselves in the industrial revolution throughout Elizabeth Gaskell’s work and echoes of the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act can be found in Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.
Fantasy and science fiction weren’t 20th century inventions either. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely considered the first science fiction novel, and it was a genre that continued to grow throughout the Victorian era, but fantasy wasn’t left out. What are Dracula and Carmilla if not works of fantasy? Or perhaps one of the most famous novels of the Victorian era, A Christmas Carol?
Let’s not forget Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is probably one of our earliest portal fantasy novels and is a story that continues to inspire us over 150 years since its release.
It’s an era that today’s fantasy writers can’t seem to get enough of either, but why?
Well, on an entirely shallow level, the Victorian era is an incredibly aesthetically pleasing era. Those corsets and bonnets and hoop skirts were no doubt a nightmare to wear, but there’s something so delicious about them, too.
Given that this era of history is often remembered as a very formal and repressed one, writing fantasy into it also gives writers a chance to have a little more fun with an era that can seem so monochrome at first glance.
For writers who enjoy writing historical fantasy, Victorian era fantasy also has the benefit of being set in an era that most people are familiar with even if they don’t have an in-depth knowledge of it. Most of us (especially here in the UK) probably covered the Victorian era in school, and even if you didn’t touch upon it in History you probably had to read something from the era in English Literature that gave you a glimpse into what society at the time was like.
It’s also a much easier era for writers themselves to research, so it’s no wonder it’s such a popular period of history to write about!
So, if you’re in the mood for some Victorian era fantasy, what should you read?
Books I’d recommend…
Soulless by Gail Carriger: If you want some tongue-in-cheek, self-aware Victorian fantasy goodness, you need to read Gail Carriger. She’s one of my favourite authors and the Parasol Protectorate series is one of my favourite series, set in a Victorian era in which vampires, werewolves and ghosts are known and have ingratiated themselves into society. It’s fun, funny and sexy, and you need it in your life.
The Falconer by Elizabeth May: Imagine if Buffy had been a Fae slayer rather than a vampire slayer. Then imagine she lived in Victorian era Edinburgh. That’s The Falconer. Like Soulless, The Falconer has a steampunk edge to it, but there are still enough calling cards and corsets to know what era it’s set in. It’s a really fun read, and a great book to fill the void if, like me, you’re impatiently awaiting the release of The Queen of Nothing.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: I’d be very surprised if you haven’t read this one already – it’s beloved across the bookish community – but I couldn’t mention Victorian era fantasy and not mention The Night Circus. It’s one I’d actually like to re-read as I didn’t love it as much as I hoped to when I first read it, but there’s no denying that Morgenstern brings this sumptuous circus vividly to life.
Books on my TBR…
A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess: Henrietta Howel is the first female sorcerer, and I love me a historical fiction book in which a heroine fights the patriarchy. I’ve seen fairly mixed reviews of this one, but I’d like to check it out all the same because I’ve heard it does a brilliant job of completely deconstructing the ‘chosen one’ trope.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng: This debut novel features a heroine who must venture into the land of the Fae to find her missing brother, who has been working as a missionary there. That premise alone has me so intrigued – I should have read this one by now!
The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles: K.J. Charles is an author of LGBT+ historical fantasy romance I’ve been meaning to try for a few months, and The Magpie Lord is the novel I’m most drawn to. Much like Soulless, this book sounds sexy and fun and I’m never going to turn down a book that has a magician in it.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: It’s 2019 and I still haven’t read Libba Bray which, frankly, is sacrilegous. The Gemma Doyle trilogy has been on my TBR for the longest time and it’s about time I read it.