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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 October 2012

The Victorian Home

Isobel's post on Tuesday, about the difficulties of finding a suitable proto-residence for someone who doesn't live in Chatsworth-like splendor, resonated deeply for me.  You see, I'm in the midst of house-hunting and I have a very specific sort of house in mind.

For my next stand alone novel, my modern (2009) heroine is about to inherit a house in a suburb of London called Herne Hill.  The story goes back and forth between Herne Hill in 2009 and the same house in 1849.  Naturally, I went out to Herne Hill this summer, around the same time of year my heroine makes her initial trek up the hill (which, by the way, is, indeed, a hill-- and steep) and poked around a bit, but I had the usual on the spot research problem: things change.  The railroad came through in 1862 and with it a wave of Victorian villas that replaced the earlier and larger dwellings of the wealthy early Victorian bourgeoisie.  Herne Hill went from being a semi-rural outpost of the city to a genuine suburb.

Again, my problems echo Isobel's.  If I wanted to find a Victorian great house, I would have no trouble.  Many have been preserved and are open for view.  (My husband was dragged through several this summer, and announced that he never needs to see a Victorian kitchen again.)  There are volumes and volumes on the residences of the upper classes, from their town mansions to their country estates.

But what I need is something quite different.  My folks in this book are the wealthy middle class.  They made their money in trade; many of them are still in trade.  As close to the metropolis as they are, many have cultural pretensions, but their morals and tastes are still more middle class than aristocratic.  We're talking about people who have a cook, a parlor maid, and maybe an upstairs maid.  If there are children, there will be a nanny.  There are no footmen.  The odds are that they hire a carriage and horses rather than owning, or, if they do own, they outsource stabling.  We're not talking vast estates with large service wings.  The maids might share a room in the attic; the cook probably sleeps near the kitchen.  

Another challenge was the location.  This wasn't a country cottage, per se, even though the area still had rural aspects.  People were very aware of living within reach of the metropolis, many of the men commuting back and forth to their offices in the City.  On the other hand, it's not a town house either.  Unfortunately, very few houses of the right period remain, so it's hard to get a good idea of what the housing stock in 1849 would have been.  Most were torn down to make room for the late Victorian terraces that currently line the long street up the hill.  (Here's the hill in 1823, twenty-six years before my story opens.)

I generally like to start from a real house and tinker with it from there, so the house that I'm using as my model for the Grantham house in Herne Hill is Ruskin's childhood home.  Ruskin's parents moved to a grander house in the same neighborhood a bit later on, but this was his original childhood residence, eminently suited to a comfortable middle class family.

If you look closely, you can see the basement window next to the stairs, where the kitchen would have been.  Kitchen and scullery would be down in the basement area, with the parlor and dining room on the floor above.  Ruskin describes his childhood home as three stories, with garrets above.  My guess is that he's referring to the three main stories on which the family lived, counting neither the kitchen level nor the attic level in his floor count.

As you can tell from the facade, the house is pre-Victorian, which means that books on early Victorian architecture and floor plans, while helpful for mapping the homes of more up to date neighbors, weren't much use to me.  (Ruskin describes these more modern houses as "certain Gothic splendours, lately indulged in by our wealthier neighbours".)  Instead, what I wound up with for my 1849 family was a late Georgian home furnished to early Victorian taste.

Part of the fun of this particular project is that I get to revisit the same home in two different eras.  While the house my 1849 family lives in is reasonably simple, by the time my modern heroine inherits in 2009, there have been some major late Victorian additions, including a rather bulbous conservatory, and, of course, lots of twentieth century updates, including a hideously avocado colored kitchen with 1970s appliances.  

If anyone has any good sources for late Georgian/early Victorian suburban homes, let me know!

5 Comments:

Blogger CZEdwards said...

Have you tried looking at rectories? What you're describing is essentially a rector's economic situation, though with a different source of funds. (Sounds close to both Jane Austen's young life and the life of the man who built the home in which Bill Bryson lives.) Many rectories have survived as residences, though many, many have been sold off in recent years. From what I can tell, it's about even odds whose taste a rectory reflected; about half were built by direction of whichever rector, and about half by direction of the parish stakeholders (which, human nature being what it is, probably means under the direction of the person controlling the purse, or the loudest mouth on the committee). Rectories do have the advantage of being less likely to be pulled down and redeveloped because the land can't be sold.

For me, in that instance, Bryson's At Home would be my jumping off point, and I'd start chasing footnotes down rabbit holes. However, that will be a tough time frame to locate because of the infrastructure problem. Plumbing (for gas and water) is hard to retrofit. Those two inventions made it possible for the upwardly mobile, secure middle class to live comfortably with a smaller household staff, but plumbing almost required new construction. Thus, the waves of gentrification.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Thanks so much, CZ! I read "At Home" when it first came out (I'd read a phone book if Bryson wrote it), but hadn't revisited it for this.

My 1849 family has pumped water in the kitchen, but not elsewhere in the house, and no gas. (Their fancier neighbors have gas lighting.)

By the time my heroine inherits, the house has been converted to gas in the 1870s and then to electricity later on-- by the time she gets it, there are the remnants of the old gas fixtures, no longer functional, and very dingy twentieth century plumbing.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I so identify with this, as with Isobel's post! It seems as though to create a fictional house one also had to create a fictional history from whenever it was built to whenever one's story takes place (which can mean jumping to modern times in your case). I was going to have Charles and Mel/Malcolm and Suzanne live in South Audley Street until I saw a house in Berkeley Square that was perfect for them, at least the exterior. So that became "their" house. I created my own interior floorplan based on some other houses I'd seen and read about. In Edinburgh there's a wonderful smallish town house that's furnished in Regency style taht one can go through.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I’m so glad we’re sharing house angst! And yes, I do have to create a history for each house. Who built it? When? Why then and there? What happened to them? How did it come into the holdings of the family that is now able to make it availably to the younger son? The houses really are characters.

8:26 AM  
Blogger CZEdwards said...

Oi! Another reference- it's for the Romantic period, which ethic my heroine loathes - on cottages orné, which were the smaller houses initially built as picturesque additions to the landscape that would also house senior staff, retired retainers, difficult siblings, irritating in-laws or poor relations, but filtered out into more common use. If I'm reading the social history behind them correctly, they served the same purpose as contemporary developments - HOAs, mixed use construction, planned communities.

http://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/cottage-orn-philosophy/

1:45 AM  

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