Although I’m not sure if I’ve written about this topic before, I thought that I’d talk about how to write Victorian-style narration today. Although this is one of those skills that will probably feel like second nature when you’ve learnt it (and it’s been a while since I last read a proper Victorian novel), I can easily imagine that it might seem a bit more challenging if you’ve never tried it before. So, here are a few basic tips for making your story’s narration sound like it comes from Victorian Britain.
1) Read it (It’s easier than you think): The best way to learn how to write Victorian-style narration is simply to read it until you get a general sense of how people used to write back then. This won’t cost you much either since most Victorian novels are no longer in copyright in many parts of the world. So, you can often either legally find free copies online or find cheap “classics” editions of them in bookshops.
However, if you haven’t read any Victorian fiction before, then this might seem like a fairly intimidating and/or time-consuming task. After all, the Victorians have a reputation for writing giant three-volume novels and – thanks to some Victorian authors – their writing style isn’t exactly seen as “easily readable” either.
So, the best way to ease yourself into reading Victorian fiction is to start with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story collection “The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes”. For starters, each story is a short plot-focused thing that also contains an intriguing mystery that will make you actually want to read more.
Not only that, these stories also use a slightly more readable and “matter of fact” late Victorian writing style that sounds Victorian enough to teach you how to write in this style, whilst being just about modern and fast-paced enough for them to be relatively easy to read. Likewise, they are also written from a first-person perspective, which helps to cut down on things like unnecessary descriptions or long-winded asides.
Another good “starter” story for researching Victorian fiction is probably Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” due to the short length, timelessly quirky humour and easily-readable writing style. And, after getting used to the style, then perhaps try reading more complex/descriptive shorter Victorian novels and/or novellas like Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner Of Zenda” or Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.
Once you’ve read some Victorian fiction, you’ll probably start to get a general sense of the style used by Victorian writers. And, when writing for modern audiences, you’ll probably want to use a Victorian style that is similar to the more compressed, focused and readable one found in late Victorian short stories and/or novellas, rather than the more meandering (and less readable) style used in longer novels.
2) Formality and context: Victorian-style narration is usually a bit more formal and descriptive than modern-style narration. The sentences are often longer and more complex too, with more of a focus on “telling”-style narration than on “showing”-style narration. And, when you understand some of the context and reasons for this, then writing in this style will become a lot easier.
For starters, film and television didn’t really exist back then in the way they do now. This had an effect on the writing style used back then. After all, if a writer had never seen a film, then their main frame of reference for how to write would be telling a story in the traditional sense. So, Victorian-style narration will often just flat-out tell the reader things about the characters, backstory etc.. and will often use slower-paced, longer and more complex/formal sentences too. After all, Victorians didn’t expect their novels to be like slickly-edited modern Hollywood films – because they didn’t exist back then.
Secondly, books were actually popular entertainment back then. Many Victorian novels would actually be released in episode-like segments in magazines (full-size books were more expensive back then, and TV didn’t really exist) – so things like cliffhanger chapter endings still mattered back then, since they made people want to buy the next issue of the magazine. This is also why Victorian novels can sometimes be a bit on the long-winded side of things, since more chapters meant more issues of the magazine that could be sold.
Thirdly, the internet didn’t exist back then. Not only did this mean that Victorian novels would sometimes explain or describe things a bit more (since their readers couldn’t just Google, for example, a particular ancient pyramid or castle), but it also meant that they often had more of a focus on small-scale mundane everyday life and/or drama than modern novels do. Not only was this easier to write, but it was more likely to be recognisable and understandable to the average reader of the time.
This also probably had an effect on things like metaphors and references too. However, since it’s been a while since I last read a Victorian novel, what I’m about to say is a combination of vague memories, generalisations and/or speculation more than anything else, but it is still worth thinking about.
Anyway, whilst novels aimed at upper-class readers will reference the Latin, Shakespeare and classical mythology that their readers would have learnt at private schools, novels aimed at a wider audience would often either reference texts that the average Victorian person was likely to have encountered (eg: the Bible, popular myths, popular Victorian novels, maybe a few well-known parts of Shakespeare etc..) or more “everyday” things that people of the time would easily have known about. Again, people back then didn’t have the internet.
3) Have fun: Victorian-style narration sounds very melodramatic, and a little bit silly, pompous and/or over-written, when read today. It is often unintentionally hilarious. So, don’t take yourself entirely seriously when you write it and you’ll find the experience a lot easier. Just enjoy the theatricality and overwrought melodrama of it and you’ll find that writing it is a lot more enjoyable.
Seriously, if a piece of Victorian-style narration makes you laugh when you’re writing it, then you’re probably doing something right. This style is incredibly fun to use because of its silliness and hyper-dramatic “so bad that it’s good” nature.
And don’t worry about getting it “100% perfect” either – as long as it doesn’t contain anything glaringly modern, then readers will probably be a bit more forgiving for the simple reason that they will probably already know it is a modern text written in a Victorian style. After all, you probably aren’t trying to pass your story off as an actual, genuine piece of Victorian literature. Not only that, some level of humour and/or modern streamlining will also make your Victorian-style narration more readable to modern audiences too.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂