Claire Evans is the author of The Fourteenth Letter. Her latest novel, The Graves of Whitechapel, was published by Sphere on 25 June 2020.
Claire has written a guest post about the 1880s, the decade that changed everything.
It’s a bold claim perhaps.
Mostly, we think of time as a continuous drip of evolution, a slow march of progress and subtle shifts in ourselves and the world around us. Shown a photograph of our younger self taken a year ago and we’re unlikely to laugh at what we were wearing. But go back twenty years, or thirty, and we’ll probably say, ‘what was I thinking?!’ But once in a while, the tap turns and that drip of evolution becomes something else: a boisterous stream of revolution.
The 1880’s were just such a time. I would go further still and claim that the 1880’s were THE decade when the modern world was born. We often think of the Victorian era – a vast span from 1837 to 1901 – as somehow cast in aspic, a foggy Dickensian mist of primness, urchins and gaslight. But something radical changed over the course of the nineteenth century, and at the heart of that change was one thing: Science.
The 1880’s saw the invention of the telephone, electricity, cinema, the motor car – just a handful of modern phenomena that can trace their origins back to this signature time in human endeavour. Let’s imagine we plucked a well-read individual from his or her cluttered living room in, say, 1885 and propelled them into the twenty first century, then once they had got over the sheer impropriety of our actions, how much of our modern world would really surprise them?
Electricity, and the variety of machines it powers in our homes, would delight rather than shock. George Armstrong (1810 to 1900) had already by the 1880’s built prototypes for a dishwasher, a washing machine and even a lift. The box in the corner? Ah yes, moving picture of course, just in colour and with more resolution. And how do they arrive in your house? Ah, via wires, just like a telephone, well that makes sense. The sleek shape of modern vehicles would be new to them, but they would recognise what was under the bonnet. Of course, the flying machines in the air would be a marvel to them, but the principles of flight were understood by the 1880’s, it was the search for the right materials and the complicated formula that were only just out of reach. Computers and the internet might be a struggle (let’s face it, they are to most of us) but the idea of a vast virtual library accessed via the telephone would not result in overload I don’t think.
But the 1880’s wasn’t just a radical decade in terms of scientific development. Ideas themselves had never been more catalytic, particularly in the rapidly shifting world of politics. Engels and Marx had been at work in London two decades earlier, and their socialist ideas were lighting the touchpaper of revolution everywhere in the western world. Universal Suffrage was the big idea that wouldn’t go away. The gentleman socialist was born and it was quite common for middle class drawing rooms to ring with the conversation of impassioned communism, not just the pubs and taverns of dockworkers and miners. Even the way we saw and understood ourselves was changing: Sigmund Freud set up his practice in Vienna in 1886, and by the end of the decade, the principles of psychoanalysis had made their way across the Atlantic: self-reflection, one of our main preoccupations in the modern world, was born.
So is there anything that would shock or surprise our poor 1885 resident as they encountered 2020 for the first time? I think there are a few things, and they have little to do with science, the machines we have built or the buildings we live in, but they have everything to do with that deepest of human flaws: our continued battle to understand and accept each other, and to respect each other’s freedoms.
Female emancipation was a very nascent idea in the 1880’s – confined to the margins, the preserve of a few idle blue stockings with too much time on their hands and who were obviously born without a maternal urge. Aberrations of nature in other words, who would rather qualify as doctors than start a family. Our residents of 1885 would be astonished at the lives of modern women – from their right to vote to their roles in the workplace. They would also baulk at our anti-discrimination legislation, holding as it does the principle of equality before the law for black or white, gay or straight. And it is here that we come full circle to the heart of this article: the advances, but also the limitations, of scientific thinking at that time. In the world of 1885, homosexuality was a disease that just hadn’t been cured yet, and to be black was for many, to belong to a different species. Charles Darwin had published the Origin of the Species in the 1860’s, but was reportedly horrified by the pseudo-science it spawned, finally given its name by his cousin Francis Goulton in 1883; Eugenics.
This was a decade where time leapt forwards, for better or worse, that gave us light bulbs and central heating but also chemical warfare, that bolstered personal freedom but found bogus scientific reasoning to repress it in equal measure. It’s a decade that continues to compel, and both of my novels have been set there. L.P. Hartley said in The Go-Between, ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there.’
Yes and no, Mr Hartley. Yes and no.
About the book
Victorian London, 1882.
Five years ago, crusading lawyer Cage Lackmann successfully defended Moses Pickering against a charge of murder. Now, a body is found bearing all the disturbing hallmarks of that victim – and Pickering is missing.
Cage’s reputation is in tatters, and worse, he is implicated in this new murder by the bitter detective who led the first failed case. Left with no other alternative, Cage must find Pickering to prove his innocence.
Did Cage free a brutal murderer? Or is there something more sinister at work?
About the author
Claire Evans is an established business specialist in the UK television industry. At the BBC, she headed up operations and business affairs across the TV commissioning teams. In drama, she led the BBC’s commercial relationships with the independent production sector and a wide range of international co-producers and distributors. Since leaving the BBC, she has advised a number of drama and film production companies, working on series including The Honourable Woman and Doctor Foster. She is Chief Operating Officer at Two Brothers Pictures Ltd, the company set up by Harry and Jack Williams, the creators of The Missing, producers of Fleabag.