Glimpses of Victorian London

A sketch of Temple Bar
I’m currently inserting the copy edits for Devil’s Return into the file in order to make the novella ready for release this weekend. What has struck me as I was working through Chapter 2 is that writing the setting of a historical novel to some extent resembles archaeology: you’re trying to reconstruct something that, for the most part, is no longer there.

As has been noted in several reviews of my works, my stories tend to be filled with lush descriptions of the setting, for I simply love bringing a bygone world alive for my readers (I guess this is also one of the reasons why I enjoy teaching the history class in our British Studies program so much). Victorian London is no exception.

What would it have felt like to walk through the streets of London in the 1840s? What were sounds? What were the smells? These were all questions I asked myself when I was developing the idea for Allan’s Miscellany. Thus, to set the scene, in each novella the hero is introduced via a street scene and he is shown making his way to the editorial office of Allan’s.

The hero in Devil’s Return is Alex Crenshaw, who writes for Allan’s as Mr. Wodemarsh, Our Man Abroad. He spent the past years in far-away places, but now he has returned home to England:

Alex entered the City through Temple Bar, which had once been crowned by the heads of executed traitors. The only sightless heads staring down from it now where the two Charleses on their pedestals high up above the bustling street. Arrogantly, their stony eyes watched the efforts of carts, carriages, and pedestrians pressing through the gates. A bleating flock of sheep blocked the path of an omnibus, and the driver swore a blue streak, waving his fist at the woolly blusterers. Passengers were hanging out of the windows, complaining about the delay, while behind the bus a long line of carriages had formed. A hearse, going in the opposite direction to the Strand, tried to pass by and nearly ran down a boardman, sandwiched between advertisements of the latest fabric cleaner and hair water.

The din reminded Alex of an Eastern bazaar, but as for the smell—

He wrinkled his nose.

It would appear that today Fleet Street was permeated by the poignant aroma of eau de sewer.

And that’s what an Englishman calls civilization, he thought wryly. He stepped around a shoeblack, who huddled against a wall covered in advertising posters.

In the rise and flow of vehicles and pedestrians from all walks of life, nobody paid much attention to the tall, blond man walking down Fleet Street, his face deeply tanned by Eastern suns. But then, how could they have known that here walked Alexander Crenshaw, a man whose adventures in America and in the Far East many a reader had followed avidly. Indeed, to his own surprise, Alex had found that in the seven years he had spent away from England, he had become something of a celebrity. Society hostesses vied for his attention, invited him to their balls and parties, and men were eager to talk to him, to invite him to their clubs.

A great bother, all of it, really, yet if it ultimately helped to bring in additional funds for Layard’s excavations, Alex would not complain. He owed the man a lot, so the least he could do was to properly prepare for Layard’s arrival in a few months’ time and to get the newspapers interested in his findings. Writing that column for Allan’s magazine, it would appear, had done the trick.

Further down the street, across from St Dunstan’s, a muffin-man ran his bell vigorously and proclaimed his ware. As Alex walked past him, a whiff of warm muffins and crumpets rose from the street seller’s basket to tickle Alex’s nostrils.

His stomach rumbled and reminded him that it had been a long time since luncheon. For a moment he was tempted to hand over ½ d for a muffin – for surely even without butter, it would have pleased an empty stomach – but then remembered Allan’s warning about the very plentiful dinner that awaited those who attended the editorial meetings of Allan’s Miscellany.

It was strange to think, Alex mused, how long he had been writing letters and reports (to be ably illustrated by Robert Beaton) to the address in Pleydell Street without ever having actually visited that worthy establishment of Allan & Son, Printers & Publishers before.

And now you also know what’s up with that sketch at the top of this post. 🙂 (The sketch will go into the enhanced edition – I was thinking of including a few more sketches done by yours truly in the enhanced editions of both A Tangled Web and Devil’s Return.)

Now I better get back to my copy edits and leave you with a picture of my desk right now (with the Roman romance WIP in the background)

a picture of Sandra Schwab's desk with notebook & copy edits of DEVIL'S RETURN

The dreaded (dratted) copy edits