In developing Victorian era characters for my historical fiction horror novels, whether they are Americans from my early western, The Door That Faced West, or those from across the Atlantic Ocean used in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel A Brutal Chill in August, I give each of them a mindset appropriate for the environment of the tale in which they appear. Although broadly our forbears reacted emotionally the same as we do, the thinking behind their response to the natural world, disease, death, violence, and perpetrators of violence could be very different.
The mindsets of my characters often contrast dramatically with my own. Science provides me with answers to things that might have been mysterious and therefore mystical to those who lived in the 19th century. While writing The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, as it is both memoir and fiction, I had the opportunity to juxtapose my thinking with that of a 19th century serial killer. Although a weird, creepy exercise, it was a lot of fun.
Living in the United States in modern times, I did not grow up around much death. My grandfather, my father’s father, died when I was very young. I didn’t know him well. Other family members who lived in other cities died, but I knew little of the events surrounding their deaths. My family didn’t go to funerals. A boy who I played with was killed in a car accident, and he seemed to disappear from my life. He was an only child, so I had virtually no contact with his family after he was gone. I did not truly know much more of death until my early twenties, when I pulled a drowned friend from the ocean off the California coast and held his lifeless body in my arms.
If I’d lived in 19th century London, I would most likely have known much more of death and the rituals surrounding it. The infant mortality rate was very high throughout the Victorian period in both America and England. In London, through most of the 19th century, at least 30% of children died by the age of five. With that, the life expectancy of the average human being hovered around 40 years. The infant mortality rate was responsible for the lifespan number being so low. If one lived to become an adult, there was the chance, although somewhat slimmer than what we have today, that one might live to a ripe old age.
Death visited the living earlier, more often, and for what could frequently seem mysterious reasons in the Victorian period. The rituals surrounding the loss of life had a large presence in social culture, especially for the higher classes, with set terms for grieving, mourning clothes, and other observances meant to help the living let go of the dead.
A simple cut that drew blood could easily develop into a fatal infection. Of course, that can also happen today, but we have many ways to prevent or fight off such bugs. A secondary illness from a cold or flu, such as a sinus infection or bronchitis, was more likely to become fatal in a time before antibiotics. Because of the unknown associated with infection at the time, If I’d lived in the 19th century, I believe I’d have had more concern than I currently do about small wounds and simple viruses.
Science usually provides us with solid answers regarding cause of death today. The question of why some survive what kills others has never been settled easily by considering who is more fit physically, emotionally, intellectually, or morally, but imagine having to sort through such things without the aid of the science of today. Human beings have a tendency to seek what’s equitable, even in nature. If I were one living in the Victorian era, perhaps with religious views, I would probably view deaths by natural causes, disaster, and disease very differently. Regarding the mysteries that arose concerning who survived and who perished from such misfortune, I might have even considered whether or not the individuals involved deserved what they got. That is not how I do think of such things, in part because I am not a religious fellow.
The discovery of and acceptance of microbes as a matter of fact was a slow process in the 19th century. Although the word “virus,” meaning slime or poison—something that causes illness—had existed for many hundreds of years, the distinction from bacteria as a mechanism to bring on something like the common cold or flu would not be established until later. The discovery of the first pathogen of a type we call a virus today would not occur until 1901. Even late in the 19th century, when those in the medical community were accepting the science of microbes (we’re talking primarily about bacteria that could be seen with the aid of instruments of the period), the majority of human beings knew nothing of bacteria and continued to view infection, whether bacterial or viral, with a superstitious eye.
Today, although many seem to lack an understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses, most of the people I know assume that pathogens have no motive beyond simple survival and reproduction. Infection is neither deserved by the infected person, nor is it a particularly personal attack upon that individual. My view is that death, whether caused by violence—accidental or purposeful—or as a result of disease brought on by exposure to pathogens, wear and tear of tissues, or as a product of genetic traits, says little about the deceased’s character.
Many in the Victorian era could not understand crimes committed for reasons other than passion, greed, or hatred. If such abhorrent acts as killing, raping, or maiming resulted from impulse, superstition frequently colored the thinking of those trying to interpret motive. Today, with studies of criminal behavior and psychology, we often have much more substantial ideas as to what motivates those who commit violence and murder. Although we still do not understand completely, we don’t often call such criminals “Fiends.” The word means evil spirit or demon, which suggests the acts committed by such disturbed individuals have supernatural origins and are somehow furthering the motives of powerful, unseen entities. Jack the Ripper was referred to as a fiend, but I don’t recall the modern serial murderer, the Green River Killer, ever being referred to that way. He may have been, but that was probably not the trend.
Since the concept of the subconscious was young in the 19th century, the average person had no knowledge of it. Therefore, one was either consciously and rationally responsible for ones thoughts and feelings, impulses and compulsions, or, since those can seem to come out of the blue, one might consider they arrived in the mind from supernatural agencies or as a product of lunacy, both possibilities clearly a cause for extreme concern.
If a Baptist man working a coal mine in Virginia in the19th century found the impulse to strike his boss destructive, then did it on several occasions against his own better judgement and despite the consequences, he might decide that he was beset by demons.
If a Catholic woman from the Victorian era in Scotland found herself in the downward spiral of alcoholism, she might decide that the corrupting compulsion in her life was punishment for sinful thoughts or actions.
A soldier in the American Civil war whose eyes showed no injury, yet whose sight had been lost because his mind could not accept what he’d seen in battle, would be considered a willful malingerer. Consider how the soldier’s commander viewed him. If he didn’t believe that the soldier was indeed blind, he might reasonably think him a coward or insane.
If these uncontrollable aspects of the human psyche were attributed to insanity, again frequently supernatural forces were blamed.
I don’t mean to single out religion as the only purveyor of strange beliefs. Science of the 19th century, especially medical science, had just as much weirdness in it, but since science is a growing thing, most of the bizarre notions from the time, like the idea that illness was transmitted by smell, are not well known today.
Of course, I have generalized throughout this article. There are few absolutes when talking about the trends in human thinking. Little exists today in the way of human attitude and thinking that didn’t at least get its start among those living in the 19th century. And the people of modern times hold just as many, if not more, boneheaded beliefs and superstitions as did people of the past. Some throwbacks persist. For instance, I have family members who insist that I’ll catch a cold if I get wet and cold. I am certainly not immune to such thinking and have a powerful imagination. Human beings seek to make sense of what they don’t understand and work with what they have, even if that is purely imagination. That doesn’t mean we’re backwards or nuts. It just means we’re human, our thinking much like those who have gone before. Since I like history and human beings, I find it intriguing.
—Alan M. Clark