Thursday 27 October 2016

Researching Place for Historical Fiction – The Unseeing and 19th century London

I'm thrilled to welcome Anna Mazzola, author of the utterly magnificent The Unseeing to the salon; don't miss her fascinating post and her wonderful book!


Researching Place for Historical Fiction – The Unseeing and 19th century London

People often ask about how writers immerse themselves in the past, how they capture the spirit of the era and the location. Because that of course is absolutely essential to the success of a novel, especially a historical novel. When I think of the books I love, it is the ones that have taken me to another time and place and made me feel I was really there. So how do you create a world in which the reader will believe?

For me, the starting point is research, because I have to understand the world of my characters in order to write their story. The world of The Unseeing is the dark, stinking, corrupt London of 1837. Hannah Brown was murdered in December 1836, and Sarah Gale and James Greenacre were convicted in May 1837, a month before Victoria came to the throne. The Regency era is famous for its elegance, its fashions, its art and architecture, but beneath that lurked terrible poverty, rising crime, gambling, alcoholism and, of course, murder. 
In particular, The Unseeing’s world is that Newgate prison – the great stone fortress that once stood at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey. Newgate was torn down in 1902, so there was no possibility of my stalking its gloomy corridors, but I read prison diaries and parliamentary commissions, I visited the real door at the Museum of London, I searched for sketches and pictures, and I studied plans of Newgate to get a sense of what that prison might have been like. The short answer is: horrific. An 1835 Committee referred to Newgate as a ‘stain’ on the character of the City of London; an institution, ‘which outrages the rights and feelings of humanity.’ By 1837, thanks largely to the work of social reformer Elizabeth Fry, conditions on the women’s side were less squalid than they had been earlier in the century. However, prisoners were still cold, ill and underfed, and many female prisoners had children with them, some only infants, all living together with hardened criminals and the mentally ill. 

In order to try to understand the terror of confinement, I also read brilliant fiction set in prisons, institutions and concentration camps: Antonia Hodgson’s Devil in the Marshalsea, Andrew Hughes’ Convictions of John Delahunt, Alias Grace by Atwood, Affinity and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Gulag Archipelago, If This is a Man, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, Victor Hugo. And a lot of Dickens, who was fascinated by prisons and criminal justice in general, having witnessed as a child his father being imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt. It helped that I had spent time in modern prisons (as a solicitor, rather than an inmate) and I lingered in other dark and enclosed places: a fortress in Portugal, a monk’s cell, a dungeon, to try and get a sense of what it must be like to be detained. 

When it came to the streets of London outside the prison walls, I drew on various primary and secondary sources to try to establish what London might have looked, smelt and sounded like in the early 19th century: journalistic works such as Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, the fiction of the period, guidebooks, newspaper reports, court reports, letters, and the journals and memoirs of those who lived in or visited London (also useful for establishing the voices of my characters). As I was researching mainly in the evenings after work, I conducted a large part of my research online and found priceless gems about Regency London at Harvard University and in the British Newspaper Archives. Forgotten Books ( do a great line in out of print 19th century texts, Project Gutenberg has digitized versions of vast numbers of out-of-copyright books, and Google Books allows you access to snippets of various historical textbooks, legal journals and memoirs. There is also a wealth of recent books about London in the Regency and Victorian eras, for example Jerry White’s London In The Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God, Donald Low’s The Regency Underworld and Eliza Picard’s Victorian London.

As well as all this reading, I visited the places my characters did. I walked the same streets: Old Bailey, Inner Temple, Fleet Street, Hart Street. I found maps from the era and tried to imagine how the City would have looked. I also tried to envisage how the place had sounded and smelt – the cries of the hawkers, the street musicians, the stench of horse dung, wood smoke, fried fish. 

Although much of the action in The Unseeing occurs in Newgate and the surrounding area, key scenes take place in Camberwell, South London. Indeed, that was the reason I first started reading about the murder: it took place not far from where I live. I visited Minet Library in Lambeth to look at old maps, and read reports, newspapers and books to glean a sense of what Camberwell might have been like at that time. It was, so far as I could deduce, a small village surrounded by fields, populated mainly by upper middle class families who considered the area healthier and more pleasant than the City, and who commuted to London by horse and carriage. However, there were also poorer areas, notably the slums off Bowyer Lane in Walworth. James Greenacre lived nearby with Sarah Gale, on Windmill Street (now Wyndham Road). It was here that Hannah Brown was killed. After the murder, the landlord gave guided tours of the house, which proved so popular that the police had to be brought in to stop visitors removing relics of the crime – tables, chairs, even the door.

And of course there came a point where I had to stop myself from researching and finish the darned book. I had to remind myself that I am not a historian – I am a writer, blending together research and imagination to form a different kind of truth. I had to weed out all of the fascinating historical details that in fact did nothing to drive the narrative forward, and accept that the vast majority of the research I had done would reside only in the back my mind and in the files of my computer. Like all writers of historical fiction, I had to learn the most difficult part of the research process: how to leave it all behind and write the story. 

About the author:

Anna writes historical crime fiction and strange short stories. Her debut novel, The Unseeing, was published by Tinder Press (Headline) in July will be released in paperback in January 2017 (February in the US). Anna studied English at Oxford before becoming a criminal justice solicitor. She lives in Camberwell, not far from where the murder in The Unseeing took place, and divides her time between writing, reading, lawyering, and child-wrangling.

Website and social media links: 

Written content of this post copyright © Anna Mazzola, 2016.


Sarah said...

It is hard to put aside all that tantalising knowledge. Another good source I use a lot, usually as local colour, is the British Newspapers Online. It's a subscription site, and my eighty quid a year is my yearly Christmas present to myself, oh, and also able to be set against tax.

Anna Mazzola said...

Oh yes, it's marvellous. What a good Christmas present!

Christoph Fischer said...

Great post

Angelina Jameson said...

This book sounds intriguing. Hmmm... I haven't read anything dark in a long time. Must go read a sample. Lovely post about the research.