Storytelling Insight from Victorian England

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I was watching a British period drama — I haven’t met one yet that I’d pass up —  when it struck me that in Victorian times, according to literature written in that time and about that time, people used to die of anything. Even, simply, the loss of desire to keep living.

It is really quite remarkable. They decided they were too upset to go on, and then they didn’t.

It’s a convention found in the work of many, many authors of the era. There was no real need for a cause for death, for  a catalyst; the desire not to live was enough.

It’s one thing you can count on in Victorian novels. If a character doesn’t want to keep living, he or she won’t.

Is that an aspect of Victorian storytelling itself, or was it a sign of the times? In the time-frame of the show, somewhere in the late 1860s, a great deal of medicine was a mystery. In fact, it was only around that time that Louis Pasteur was drawing the connection between germs and disease. Without the science, a lot of life and death could look like mind over matter.

On the other hand, it does make for a convenient plot device, especially since it relies on the audience’s familiarity with the idea to do part of the work. Once someone seems to give up on life, any reader knew the clock was ticking.

It’s probably easier to see these kinds of shortcuts from a distance, especially when they are based on common assumptions that are later proven wrong. But it makes for a good question for any writer to ask him or herself while writing:

Is this here because it’s real? Or is it here because it’s easy?

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Putting the Period in Period Drama

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I have been obsessed with period dramas recently. British period dramas (though that might be a bit redundant. Can something be a bit redundant? Hmm).

I have absolutely no idea why. I’m not a person with a shiny nostalgia for the days long past. I know well enough–mostly from watching period dramas, I guess–that not everyone was the lady in the fancy clothes imported from France. And even she had her constraints, not the least of which was her corset.

But still, there’s something about them, something about opening a television-sized window into the past, thinking about the day-to-day lives of people from a hundred years ago as people, not as hazy lines of paint in the works of the impressionists.

It’s a way of remembering that, all the way along, people have simply been people. They were not bustles or feather-and-ribbon-laden hats. They were not horse-drawn carriages or cobbled streets.

They were simply people. As are we.

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