I wanted to talk a little about the Victorian Style today and how I used it in my book. You see, I studied a lot of Victorian literature and when I set out to write All Men of Genius, I knew I wanted to emulate the style of the time. Not to copy any one writers style specifically, but to make sure that my book, in tone if not content, would have blended in with the novels of the late 1800s. So I used a lot of techniques that aren’t used very often today, and I wanted to run them down and talk about why they aren’t used today and why I used them.
The first would be the use of third-person omniscient voice. This was the most common point of view used in writing until about 1900, when it started to change. These days, you hardly ever see it. Most work today is written in third person close, or “over the shoulder” or first person. The difference between “over the shoulder” and omniscient is that “over the shoulder”, while third person, only stays in one persons mind. Yes, it can change which person’s mind that is, from chapter to chapter, or after a scene break, but omniscient is when the voice freely bobs in and out of everyone’s head in a scene. It’s extremely Victorian. And today, most readers would complain about it, and refer to it as “head hopping.” It’s one of the aspects of the book my editor was most concerned about, and we worked hard to trim the omniscience so it didn’t feel too jumpy. But I did want to keep it – I think it helps to give the book a more authentic tone.
Then there’s the aspect of showing and telling. Today any good writer or writing school will tell you to show, don’t tell. The Victorians felt differently. Many of their novels were long, flowery internal monologues – particularly the romances. The shift in modern novels to a more cinematic approach, where it’s all about the action, gestures fit in for thought and there’s more distance from the characters, is one I appreciate. I love it when a character can’t express how they feel, but the Victorians felt the best way to really show character was to explain how they thought. I tried to strike a balance. While Violet’s emotional state and thought process is always plainly on the page, I wanted to make it clear that there were parts of herself she didn’t fully understand, and I tried to show those, more than tell them. But again, I wanted to stay true to the Victorian Tone, and so there’s a good deal of narration about characters feelings and goals.
And finally, there’s the focus on more minor characters. This goes back to third-person omniscience, because in a third-person omniscient world, you can hop into anybody’s head, no matter how minor a character they are, for a brief moment. And that was often done. Sometimes you’d even get the ‘mass mentality’ of the crowd – something I tried to emulate in the scene where Violet and Ashton are leaving for the city and the servants all see them off. I confess, this was a little harder for me at first, but once I got into the idea of giving voice to the more minor characters (the professors, in particular), I may have gone too far. In Victorian novels, such characters are given mere sentences. But I felt that if I was going to do this, I should give my characters not sentences, but lives. Or at least paragraphs. So, the professors all got tiny plots of their own – which, I’ve pointed out in a previous post, had some links between them.
These are all stylistic details you see very rarely today and I know for some readers the style is so foreign that they were actually turned off by it. Which is fine – everyone goes into a book with different expectations, and everyone has personal taste. I tried to really pay homage to the Victorian tone in All Men of Genius. And I think that adjusting the style of the book was key to that. If you’re interested in the Victorian Style, you should go and read some of the classics. I’d start with Austen (technically Regency, not Victorian, but still key to understanding the Victorian tone), then go onto Jane Eyre and Mrs. Audley’s Secret. Read some Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone and The Woman in White being the classics), make sure to read Dorian Grey and Frankenstein, of course, as well as some Hardy and Dickens. Those are just the basics, in my opinion. I hope to post an extensive Victorian reading list at some point, though. I think reading Victorian literature, and understanding it, is one of those things you need to do to really call yourself an educated person. So much was happening in the arts then, and so much of the work that came out of then is so brilliant. So for the holidays, ask for a copy of a Victorian novel and read it over the break. You won’t regret it.