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  • Writer's pictureS. Yumi Yamamoto

The Murky Waters of the 19th Century

I am indelibly attracted to the 19th Century: the fashions, the cultures, the stereotypical stories, but mostly the mesh of old traditions colliding with the race to a technologically advanced future. In England, the death culture surrounding Queen Victoria's reign created traditions and courtesies, some of which we still observe today, while also becoming a powerhouse of industry and trade. In Scotland, there were major advances in medicine and psychology, but had conservative thoughts (or no thoughts) on morality. Japan had been forced to open trade, and the mix of Western and Eastern merchandise blended uniquely in every country. In the US, industry moved faster than society, and immigrants from all over flooded the country, bringing everything from religion to heirlooms from the old world. During the latter half, women in the western world were protesting for rights. Communism was getting its first legs in the world. The old empires were dying. Class boundaries were shifting. The people we call "serial killers" were first seen in this century. The world was expanding and shrinking all at once, and this was a time of murk.

There are a lot of reasons this century (and just after its turn) is iconic to us, particularly in entertainment. First, there is the massive expansion of the United States, where war was waged against the Native American tribes and Mexico, and the law was... well, not strictly adhered. We get our beloved Spaghetti Western movies from this era, and fights over land caused memorable scars in the annals of history. War defined this century in more than simply the westward expansion, too. The Civil War was the beginning of the US race toward the future, and whether by force or by choice, the Reconstruction era defined the trade industry on the east coast for over a hundred years after the Civil War ended.

Second, there is the appearance of the first detective stories, first by Edgar Allan Poe and more iconically by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote all the Sherlock Holmes books. Police scandals and cover-ups were common, and we had cases like H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper as real-life stories to follow. As psychology, medicine, and forensics budded and advanced, so too did our interest in murder and the deviations of the mind. Again, this has lasting repercussions, as the old asylums and penitentiaries which were modern and innovative for the 1800's have become the haunted, abandoned places of modern times. We know those places of "healing" as torture houses. Devices and methods thought to be "cures" were guesswork, causing lasting damage to the patient and even killing them in some cases. While lobotomies wouldn't be seen until the 20th century, it's roots are firmly planted in the terrifying asylums of the 19th century.

Third, we had an amazing amount of adventure. Europe was exploring and dividing Africa, the US was filled with people who crossed oceans to find something better than they had, Asia was open for trade and exporting labor, and Australia was far away and yet (for most of the 19th century) was a prison colony. There are lots more reasons, but there is a common thread among them: danger. It was a hundred years of thrills no matter where you looked, and we are still fascinated by it.

Fourth, the new modes of technology. Steam and electricity were integrating into nearly every aspect of life. Steam engines allowed for ships and trains to be more efficient and travel farther, electric lights were replacing gas lights and candles, cars were for the extremely wealthy but were available, and factories had more efficient machines for their workers to use. To those who had seen simpler times, it probably felt like the world was moving faster than light and nothing could ever be so modern. (If they only knew 😁)

Yet, this was also a time where nothing was precise. Forensics and psychology were just getting a start, and any science starting out does not have enough information to be truly precise. Machinery, running on steam and coal, was sturdy but still dangerous enough to cause hundreds (even thousands) of deaths. Not all boats made it across the sea, not all trains made it to the next town without being robbed, not all guns fired correctly. Detective work was becoming more complicated than it had been before. New modes of thinking needed to be developed in order to adjust to the modern world, but were held back by tradition. This causes a wonderful gray area in which storytellers can work.

As writers, we often hear to write what you know. In a sense, that's exactly what needs to be done, but the more accurate saying is probably "write what you know is true". That implies a lot of research: on the science, on the culture, on the taboos, on the technology, on the genre and sub-genre. You don't necessarily need to start with all the research done, but before you produce the final product your search history should look like a dozen academics got hold of one computer, possibly a serial killer if that's relevant to your book. We need to have a decent level of accuracy because this allows our readers to suspend their disbelief once we deviate from reality. This, however, doesn't always apply to stories set in the 1800's, particularly the late 1800's.

For example, in the movie "From Hell" we're introduced to a detective who is searching for the infamous Jack the Ripper. The year is 1888, and yet this movie predominantly shows off the early methods of lobotomy which historically wouldn't have happened until at least thirty years later. However, 1888 is when psychosurgery got its start. We give the lobotomy inaccuracy a pass because it isn't radically far off, the rest of the world is well formed, and the murky era allows us to believe that something like this might have happened even if we're not aware of it. This is a very different kind of pass than in the movie "Van Hellsing", which shows weaponry that has gatling gun-type firing in a movie that is profoundly middle-aged. We give "Van Hellsing" a pass because it's the kind of movie that's more fantasy than historical and the world-building makes the ridiculous enjoyable. We allow "From Hell" its historical trespasses (even with the supernatural, drug-induced visions) because of the way the 1800's were: foggy at best.

This is why I love the 19th century: for all its focus and eccentricities, there is wiggle room enough where we can accept inaccuracy. Recently, I watched Netflix's "The Alienist", which features a serial killer hunted by someone we would now call a psychologist, a news illustrator, a couple of coroners, and the first woman to work at the New York Police Department as a secretary. Let's say that upon a close look at the details, there's a long list of things that don't quite add up strictly historically speaking. And yet, I enjoyed watching this mixed team try to track down a child-killer using nothing more than random clues that the writers may (or may not) have planted in for convenience. The reason these conveniently-found details work is precisely because the 19th century wasn't accurate. If they found a knife that looked good enough to be the murder weapon, they ran with it. There wasn't a CSI-type classification for modes of murder, or even a vernacular to discern types of cuts. Good enough was good enough, and in turn that is good enough for the audience.

Writing in this era requires a different kind of clever and a different level of detail. It's almost more important to have the people, culture, and environment to be believable than anything to do with technology or science. Is why genres like steampunk can exist more as a "what if" scenario than be exclusively an escapism fantasy. It's exciting to know there's a time and place for writers to play with inaccuracy, especially since we're usually so focused on that.

I don't think that enough literature sets itself in the 1800's, or at least in such a way that takes advantage of the gray area. I'd love to read something compelling like "The Alienist", where I can feel the people cringe at the thought of a killer loose on their streets, or a rag-tag team of people running through the overcrowded factories of London, or sailing on a new steam powered ship to a wild country for an adventure that probably won't be accurate to the explorers of the time. Unfortunately, I don't think that a lot of people like to devour these novels the way they do historic fiction, and those who enjoy the murky 1800's often love the original stories of the age. I wish there were more!

Please leave recommendations! I'd love to come back to this topic ❤️

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