The Victorian Era was in many ways like our own. It was the first age of consumerism, and the Industrial Revolution was the forerunner of the current Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes in the Victorian age. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. Mass production and increased international trade made more and more products available and affordable. And with the growth in industry and trade, the middle classes grew in number and wealth, and wanted to buy as much as possible of what was on offer.
Yet while the Middle Classes prospered in the Victorian era, the working class did not. Work in factories, sweat-shops and mines was dirty and dangerous; hours were long and poorly paid. Children had to work, in order for families to survive, and working conditions were often worse for children than they were for their parents. Towns and cities grew quickly to house the workers, but much of the housing was poor quality and overcrowded. Vast slum areas sprung up, putting pressures on water supplies and the disposal of waste. Coal fires and factories filled the air with smoke and other pollutants. The reaction to living conditions and the gap between the haves and have-nots generated rebellion and revolt in many parts of Europe, as people fought for basic human rights. These first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens are certainly amongst the best openings to a novel ever written. But not only do they set the tone and atmosphere of the book and give a flavor of what is to come, they also capture a taste of the challenges and uncertainties of the Victorian era.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way...”
Nowhere were these contradictions in Society more obvious than in the Morality of the Victorians. They say the Victorians invented Childhood, treating the child as someone who needed to be protected and nurtured, and yet children as young as five were working in mines and factories, quite legally, during much of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Women too, in the middle-class household were regarded almost as saints, “protected” from anything that might offend or morally corrupt. Yet they were often little more than prisoners in their own homes with few freedoms in terms of what they could own or how they could behave, and outside the home, prostitution and pornography were rife. We also know that drugs were readily available in Victorian times. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine when there are no stimulating cases to occupy his mind, much to the disapproval of Dr Watson. Opium dens also feature in Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Yet the real drugs “problem” in Victorian times was not with the illicit drugs that they frowned upon, but the propriety medicines they consumed in great quantities. Numerous popular household remedies and tonics contained substantial amounts of opium and yet could be bought over the counter. These included “Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” a general nerve tonic, “Dover’s Powder” used to treat a wide variety of common complaints and “Godfrey's Cordial” which was commonly given to children and infants to “help” them sleep. Opium and a range of other drugs were also used by brewers to strengthen beer Opium Dens were publically condemned and the smoking of opium was seen as a mainly Oriental vice, though few questioned the fact that China had been forced into accepting opium by the British. The wealthier classes in Victorian England had an almost insatiable demand for tea, silk, porcelain, and manufactured goods from China, but had nothing that the Chinese wanted to trade in return. So the East India Company began sending them opium until addiction was rife. The Chinese government resisted the trade, writing to Queen Victoria asking her to stop it. Eventually they dumped 20,000 chests of opium in the sea. Britain’s response was to go to war with China and impose the drug trade. My first novel “Avon Street,” is set in Bath in 1850. In writing it I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and its similarities to modern life. “Avon Street” takes the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city. It’s there that James Daunton has to fight for his life. His survival depends on the help of others, but who can he trust – the gentleman, the actress, the seamstress, the doctor, the priest, or the thief? – and how far can he trust them? Paul Emanuelli
Paul Emanuelli was born in Stoke-on-Trent, of Welsh parents and Italian grand- parents. He went to University in Cardiff and stayed in Wales for a few years before moving to Shropshire and then toSomerset. He is married and has two children who have now flown the nest. Paul studied creative writing for several years at his local further educationcollege and on occasional courses at Bath University, concentrating at first on short stories. He was a prize winner in the short story competition at the Wells Literary Festival in 2004. "Avon Street" is his first novel. It is set in Victorian Bath in 1850, a city which by then was in decline. Going behind the Georgian facades beloved of innumerable period dramas, it exposes a city rife with poverty, crime and hypocrisy. Paul is now working on a second historical novel, also based in Somerset. Visit Paul Emanuelli's site