Falling in Love with the 19th Century

Most of us live in the present, although some of us think the grass will be greener in the future, but for a few, the past has an allure that draws us back to quainter times.  Or maybe the past is seductive because it represents an archeology of the mind, explaining how we came to be.  I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s always daydreaming about science fictional futures of the 21st century, but now that I live in the 21st century, I spend a surprising amount of time mentally retracing the steps in the 19th century of how I came to be in the 20th century.

The older I get, the more I tire of CGI science fiction fantasies and crave elegant Masterpiece Theater costume dramas about Victorian life.  I occasionally like mixing science fiction with history via steampunk stories, but for the most part I love reading actual history books about 19th century science, or reading fictional observations of the time via 19th century residents like Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Anthony Trollope, or Louisa May Alcott, or I like modern fiction that uses the 19th as a setting to understand modern times through contrast and comparison with the present.


The allure of the 19th century is hard to explain, but lets start with Possession a 1990 novel by A. S. Byatt.  Byatt, like John Fowles before her, uses the trick of twin stories, with a couple in the present trying to decipher a couple in the past.  Byatt starts with two modern characters, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey coming together because Michell is researching poet Randolph Henry Ash, and Bailey is studying poet Christabel LaMotte, and they get on the academic trail that the two had an illicit affair previously unknown by all other scholars.  Ash and LaMotte are totally fictionalized, but Byatt creates them in such a way, quoting long poems, journals, diaries, letters that readers feel they are based on actual historical characters.  There’s even a label for such stories, historiographic metafiction.

Byatt is playing with us readers.  Because her story is entirely fiction she has 100% control over what we know and what her characters know.  At times, the readers knows more than Michell and Bailey because Byatt is the omnipotent narrator of her reality and writes third person narrative that lets us know what actually happen, while the poor academics all rush around to know the truth must piece it together with rare tidbits of surviving facts.  At other times, we follow behind the eyes of Michell, Bailey and Cropper, learning about Ash and LaMotte from the clues they unearth that generate endless speculation about the past.

There was a pitiful film adaptation of Possession in 2002 starring  Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud Bailey, Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell, Jeremy Northam as Randolph Henry Ash, and Jennifer Ehle as Christabel LaMotte.  The movie is good for seeing the visual contrast between the 19th and 20th centuries, but not for much else.  All the power of the story is in Byatt’s writing, and the movie comes across as a slim summary of the story.  The trouble is, Byatt only barely hints at the richness of the 19th century in her 555 page novel.  How much you admire Possession really depends on how much you’ve read of and about the the 1850s and 1860s.  Byatt gives us a very rich taste, making her novel worthy of the Booker Prize it won, but it’s only a start if you’re going to fall down the rabbit hole of the 21st century speculation about the 19th century.


A subplot of Possession is LaMotte’s interest in spiritualism.  Most 21st century folk will not understand what spiritualism is, at least not in 19th century terms.  Beginning with the Fox sisters in 1848 a wave of fascination swept the U.S. and Europe over the idea that living people could communicate with the dead.  Strangely still, 19th century Spiritualism is intertwined with 19th century feminism.  Byatt hints at this, but for a more detailed painting I recommend Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith, subtitled “The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and The Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.”  Byatt understood that the 19th century was an awakening for women and reflected this in Cristobel LaMotte.   LaMotte was a poet in her own right, independent, living with a woman lover, when she meets Randolph Henry Ash.  LaMotte risks everything to communicate with someone she considers her equal.  Ash and LaMotte’s poetry become their language of love.

Possession is about the many kinds of possession we fall into.  Ash and LaMotte are possessed by their love, but also by their art.  Michell and Baily are possessed by the need to know Ash and LaMotte.  We, the reader are possessed by the need to understand why we love fiction, and why the 19th century entices us.  One clue for the last thing is the recent science series Cosmos.  Many of the episodes were about 19th century science and scientists.  The 1800s was a tremendous age of discovery, especially by gentlemen scientists.  Charles Darwin exploded on the Victorians like an H-Bomb.  On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin came out in 1859, the mysterious year of Possession.

Darwin made the Victorians doubt God. LaMotte was a believer, but Ash was not, or at least a serious doubter.  LaMotte was daring far more than Ash.  Byatt makes Ash more interesting because he’s an amateur scientist.  I think it’s the amateur scientist that is one of the great appeals of the 19th century to modern people.  It was an era where individuals could still figure out the mysteries of reality on their own.

The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin

Right around this time too, Charles Dickens began his affair with Ellen Ternan, which was also during the time he wrote Great Expectations (1861).  This affair was chronicled by Claire Tomalin in her book The Invisible Woman (1990) and made into a movie last year.  It seems there’s a certain amount of demand for stories about Victorians having affairs.  The Victorian times are when women awoke to see themselves as equals to men, both in mind and body, but it was also a time when people in general began to question the religious view of reality.


Which ties in two other books, both by John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller, which are about Americans during this same time period, and two very important women, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller.  Once you start on the quest, it’s endless.  I could link book after book that I’ve read about the 19th century because they all amazingly fit together like puzzle pieces.  That’s the difference between reading science fiction about the future, and reading about the past.  Science fiction provides an infinity of possible futures that don’t fit together, whereas the appeal of reading history is every new book adds more pieces to the puzzle of what was, making my mental picture of the time more detailed and precise.

We can never know the future, but then, we can only know the past in fragmented clues—a hazy view.  We think we know the present, but do we?   But which is more enlightening?  Studying the past tells us how we got to the present.    Studying the present overwhelms us with details.  Studying the future only helps us know what we fear about the present and maybe hope to find in the future.  In terms of acquiring satisfying details that make us feel like we’re learning something real, studying the past seems to offer us the most philosophic bang for the buck.  Studying the past makes us feel wise.  Whether that wisdom is real or not, is hard to judge.

Reading Possession inspires me to read the English Romantic and Victorian poets, to study the Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers, to look at illustrations of Victorian decorative arts, read about the scientists, painters, architects, and study their drawings.  One of the cool thing about people from those times is they kept wonderful diaries and illustrated them with their own drawings.

Like I said, this is a rabbit hole.

JWH – 6/16/14 (Happy Birthday Susan)

4 thoughts on “Falling in Love with the 19th Century”

  1. James, have you read Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin? It’s fantastic, and really illuminates the times as well as Darwin’s own life. The first volume, especially, is brilliant.

        1. I’ve read a short biography of Darwin, and several books about him and evolution, so I should like a detail view. I need to get around to reading On the Origins of Species.

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