Of Things Victorian: the Lillian Story

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I have a project I’m pecking away at over time.  It is a story cycle set during the second silver bonanza in Virginia City, Nevada in the American West. It follows the intertwined lives and experiences of three central characters during a decade in that period (1868-1878), and is an intersection of fiction with historical events and real persons who lived there/then.

That is all I’m going to say about the Virginia City story cycle right now. However, to set up that cycle, and to get inside the most central character in that story, I have been researching a prequel that I am calling in my head ‘the Lillian story.”  This continues to nudge my hindbrain, and prods me ever-deeper into Victoriana.  Here is the synopsis of it.

The Lillian  Story

Lillian is English, born 1844 to a monied London family. Their fortunes are reduced by the bursting of the railroad speculation bubble in 1847; over the next 15 years her father’s increasingly risky investments (in ongoing attempts to recoup lost fortune) and a worsening gambling habit lead them to drastically altered circumstances. Looking for a new start, she and her father (mother died in the  1854 cholera epidemic) come to America in 1861 – unhappily for them, on the eve of the Civil War.

Her father’s intention to try his hand at professional riverboat gambling is diverted when the war shuts down most river traffic on the Mississippi.  The pair spend most of the war years in New Orleans and various locations on/near the Mississippi river.  The cocoon of Lillian’s privileged youth is quickly shattered by life experiences in these circumstances.  Living a life that is simultaneously glamorous and shady, elegant and decadent,  she learns to navigate a fine line between the refinement she was raised to, and the harsh realities she is surrounded by.   By war’s end, she is worldly wise, a charming showman who partners her father as a lady gambler when the riverboats resume their business after the war.  But the railroads have stolen the river traffic away, and when her father dies an untimely death in 1868, Lillian follows the rails westbound, to the big bonanza on the Comstock lode, in search of her own fortune and future.

Victorian History

Working on these stories has of course caused me to do a lot of reading and research in Victorian era material.  Actually, I’ve been doing that kind of reading and research for years, simply because I’ve always loved that period. Now I do so with a specific focus on London, 1844-1861, and southern and western America, 1861-1878.  My reading includes  history, social history, sociology,  economics and politics of the era, and much personal, anecdotal, and news information, from diaries and contemporary accounts of the period.

In this process, I have  become perversely fond of Google Books, which has slurped up an enormous amount of books from the 19th century, and a huge amount of things published in Britain. From entire volumes of “All the Year ‘Round” to Proceedings of various Societies, to diaries and more – I’m in research heaven, with access to things that only a few years ago  I couldn’t have located or touched short of a costly in-person visit to some library or archive far, far away.  Am also using a variety of academic and scholarly resources where those are available online (as is the ever-increasing trend, thank goodness).   The results of this are interesting. For instance, using such things as partial census records (can’t get the whole of ’em online yet) and the addresses of subscribers to a Society’s annual publication (donors listed alphabetically in the back), I’ve been able to reconstruct most of the local population of Hanover Square, where Lillian lives in 1854. Call me a history/demographics geek, but I think that’s way cool.


In this vein, then, here are some resources I like that I’ve been looking at lately. I thought I’d share them here because I think they’re good and wanted to plug them.

The Victorian Blog

This is the work of Dr. Bruce Rosen, aptly subtitled, “An idiosyncratic selection of short bits about elements of Victorian history.”  As far as I can tell with some quick google-fu, Bruce is an honorary research associate specializing in British Victorian social history and Australian history at the University of Tasmania.  This blog gives pithy and in-depth information on selected aspects of Victoriana. Recent topics include wetnursing, opium dens, and phrenology. His writing style is entertaining, and the content is also great for the other works he mentions and/or links to. Very useful compilation of info that gives a good feel for the times.

Lady Cavendish’s Diary

Lady Lucy Cavendish wrote a 2-volume diary covering the years 1841 to 1882. As far as I can find, it has not been reprinted in its entirety except for very recently in an edition from Kessinger Publications (which specializes in reprints of out-of-print works and books whose copyright has expired, as is the case with this diary).

A lady named Denise has undertaken to share this book as a series of blog entries at the above-named site. She supplements the entries with additional material about the Cavendishes and their milieu.  This is a fascinating look at an elite family and the life experiences of the interesting and truly beautiful (to judge by her picture) Lucy Cavendish.

Here’s what Denise says about this blog.

“Years ago I found a two volume diary at a used bookstore and I’ve been blogging the entries at http://ladylucycavendish.blogspot.com/.

“Lady Lucy was married to Frederick Cavendish who was killed in the
Phoenix Park Murders. But right now they’re in their first year of
marriage and have just set up home at 21 Carleton House Terrace, near her uncle Wm. Gladstone and Aunt Pussy. President Lincoln has
recently been murdered, the Transatlantic Telegraph is almost ready
for sea and “Isarel in Egypt” is playing at the Crystal Palace.

“I’m almost done with Volume One.”

Interesting reading in digestible chunks because of the blog format.

Sylvia Milne’s Victorian Links

This is a general collection of links, but a cut above what I generally find on the internet. It is, as Sylvia notes, “plucked from the web by a retired librarian.”  Being a former librarian myself, things like this catch my eye.  The links cover a broad spectrum of topics, and are a good jumping off point for further reading. Thanks for scouting these out, Sylvia.


Do you have Victorian information sites you like and think others should be aware of? Please share links and info about them in the comments!


My Other WIP: Queen Victoria’s Transmogrifier

Alternate History – Picking Out the Threads

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This community is focused most closely on 1880, but anything in the 19th century is considered on topic.

Thanks for the pointer, Bill. I especially like LJ communities of this sort because people are so willing to share information and engage in dialog.

Sort of thinking out loud a bit here, I will also share the observation that IMX many professional historians are dismissive of such communities, deeming the participants to be simply amateurs with no understanding of sound research or rigorous historical research. However, there are also many serious scholars and academics who haunt such communities as well – probably for the very reason that they *are communities, as such, and informal places to share info, in contrast to the often critical discussion environments of formal academic discussion lists.

My point to that digression is that I think high value info can be found in such groups regardless of their informal nature. As always, of course, it is incumbent upon the researcher to ask the right questions and be a critical thinker regarding information learned.

I look forward to browsing around there.

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