Writing a work of fiction requires different muscles to writing history. The historian’s impulse is to prove an argument by inclusion of evidence, details, ideas. But the novelist, especially one trained as an historian must resist this impulse. Characters have no place noticing things that they see every day; only the extraordinary is worth their attention, even if the reader, decades ahead of them in the future, hasn’t the foggiest what they are on about.
I love a scene in my favourite Sarah Waters’ novel Affinity when Margaret is sitting by her mother, ‘with a book upon my lap and a knife. I was cutting the pages but had my eyes upon the fire…’ What on earth is she doing? the modern reader might wonder and Sarah Waters does not tell us. It was a couple of years in to my Victorian research when I came across the detail that explained this scene; namely, that Victorian books were almost always sold uncut and a reader would not be able to turn the pages without a knife. But I was glad that this point had not been explained in the novel. Margaret would have regarded any explanation as entirely superfluous. If Sarah Waters had included an explanation it might have eased the understanding of the reader, but it would have come across as exposition, the serious historical novelist’s most insidious trap.
So I try to remember that scene in Affinity when I am editing. As a reader, I would rather be left occasionally baffled by characters’ perceptions than spoon-fed explanations of things which they would regard as blindingly obvious.
So here, in a round about way, is my view of why historical novelists should be wary of bibliographies. The Conviction of Cora Burns is an entirely made up story. It is heavily researched but only in order not to break that essential fourth wall of the imagination. For me as a reader, an anachronism or historical inaccuracy can ruin a narrative so I have done my best to keep the setting of my novels as believable as they can be.
So here, then, for readers who want to find out more about Cora’s world are some recommendations for further reading. The list includes some works that are part of the lively current scientific debate surrounding nature, nurture and genetics. The literature in this area informed the plot and themes of the novel and a lot of it is very accessible to the general reader.
Domestic Life in Victorian Britain
Judith Flanders, The Victorian House and The Victorian City
Sarah Wise, The Blackest Streets
Jennifer Davies, The Victorian Kitchen
Liz Stanley ed. The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick - Victorian Maidservant
Pamela Horn, The Victorian Town Child and The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant
Prison/ Asylum / Workhouse
Lucia Zedner, Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England
Clive Emsley Crime and Society
Kate Summerscale, The Wicked Boy, and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Andrew Scull, Madness in Civilization , The Most Solitary of Afflictions
Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady
Jeffrey Lieberman, Shrinks
Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud
Hilary Marland, Dangerous Motherhood; Childbirth and Insanity in Victorian Britain
Robin Waterfield, Hidden Depths
Mark Stevens, Life in the Victorian Asylum
Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-house
Scientists and Psychology
Francis Galton, Memories of my life
Martin Brookes, Extreme Measures
Daniel Nettle, Personality
Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption; why children turn out the way they do
Tim Spector, Identically Different: why you can change your genes
Matt Ridley, Nature via Nurture
Carl Zimmer, She has her Mother’s Laugh : The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity (NB this book came too late for my research but it is a great up to the minute summary of current scientific thinking on nature and nurture.)
I would love to hear from interested readers about other sources in these fields that you have enjoyed.