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Hannah Dolby: What did the Victorian era ever do for us?

Hannah Dolby: What did the Victorian era ever do for us?

When we think of the Victorian era, we often draw a sigh of relief that times have moved on. The arrogance of Empire, the inequality of women, the extreme poverty and lack of social care – there are many aspects of Queen Victoria’s reign that should be consigned firmly to history.

But as I wandered round the streets of Hastings and St Leonards researching my book How to Solve Murders Like A Lady, I could not help but appreciate the beauty of the architecture and it made me think about the positive legacy the Victorians left behind for us too.

St Leonards was designed by James Burton, who also built most of Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park in London (his Brunswick Square is so impressive it is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma). Despite the occasionally ugly infiltration of later architecture, it is his grand ambition for St Leonards as a high-class seaside resort that still echoes most strongly nearly two centuries later, with its grand squares, its impressive, beautifully proportioned buildings, sweeping vistas and funicular railways.

St Leonards also boasts several parks, from the seafront Warrior Square Gardens to the larger Alexandra Park, with its formal gardens, wilder woodland, streams and reservoirs.  Most towns and cities across the UK benefitted from the Victorian craze for gardening and an obsession with studying and cultivating plants, which led them to create a proliferation of parks. Some were at first open only to the wealthy through subscription, but most eventually opened to the public. These much-needed green spaces featured cultivated landscaping as well as bandstands, tea houses and glasshouses, with many laid out by great designers such as Joseph Paxton, and we can still visit and enjoy most of them today.

The same is true of libraries, enshrined in the Public Libraries Act 1850, which gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries, stemming from the belief that books and reading led to self-improvement for all classes and would steer people towards temperate and moderate habits. This frenzy for reading was fed by an impressive canon of great fiction writers, with Brontës, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy and other great Victorian authors shaping the novel as we know it, and much of their storytelling still resonates with us today. On a less exalted scale St Leonards was home to several writers, from Coventry Patmore, who wrote the poem The Angel of the House about the Victorian ideal of womanhood, to Lady Brassey, who travelled the world on a yacht with her husband and wrote a book about her travels, The Voyage of the Sunbeam.

As I passed the West Hill Lift, one of two funicular railways built in Hastings in the late 19th century to take day-trippers up the steep hills, it reminded me of the Victorian passion for invention too, spurred on by the success of the Great Exhibition, organised by Prince Albert in Hyde Park in 1851. Without Victorian inventors, we might not have washing machines, flushing toilets (or toilet paper), telephones, lawnmowers, electric kettles, hot water, light bulbs or cameras, to name but a few. There were many odd inventions too, from the electric corset to the anti-garrotting cravat, but we can draw a veil over those.

I show both sides of the coin in my novel, because the Victorian era is a complexity of light and dark and many of its quirks are also hilarious. But whatever we think of Queen Victoria’s reign, it’s impossible to deny it made an impact on us, because its echoes remain whenever we turn a street corner or switch on the kettle.

How To Solve Murders Like A Lady, by Hannah Dolby, published by Aria (Head of Zeus) on 6th June (UK), in paperback, eBook and audio, online and in all good bookshops.

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