In Praise of Bad Housekeeping

A local radio interviewer asked me what research I’d done for the Edwardian time frame of my novel, ‘The Tissue Veil‘; someone at my book launch had done the same. Admitting that the internet had been invaluable, I cast around for examples, managing to drag up a London Underground map from 1902 and to acknowledge the usefulness of the library’s subscription to the Times Online. I knew there had been much more and, suddenly, the other day I realised it was all still there.

My virtual housekeeping is pretty much the same as the actual variety when it comes to filing documents or deciding what to chuck or keep. I went to my internet ‘favourites’ to click on the local health centre website and there was the story of much of my research, interspersed with recipes, local bus timetables and a template for an elephant head mask – no idea why that was saved! There were articles on smoking and health in the nineteenth century and the history of shopping; on the Victorian music hall, rented accommodation in London, nursing, military hospitals and progress of the Spanish flue epidemic at the end of the first World War. There were visual records too: jerky, grey footage of mourners at Queen Victoria’s funeral, street scenes in East London, a photograph of women outside a pub in Bethnal Green.

Some of the websites were used for parts of the story which had ended up on the literary equivalent of the cutting room floor. I’d taken good advice and axed much of the original start of the novel, so the shipping records for 1900 and information on the use of bicycles in the Boer War never made the final version, but it’s good to feel you have more knowledge of your characters and their history than appears on the page.

The modern thread of my story needed less research, but I still needed to check facts, knowing that there’s always one reader who will know if you get it wrong. So – the dates of Ramadan and Eid in 2001, what team West Ham was playing on a certain Saturday, what new novels would have been in the bookshop in spring 2002… I also wanted to check that the house which was home to both families could have worked for their needs in 1901 and 2001, so found floor plans of a similar property for sale on ‘Rightmove’.

Perhaps it’s just as well I didn’t remember much at the book launch – I could have gone on all night!

Brenda Bannister

Photo credit: Silver Crow Books

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