Victorian England: not boring.

I’m giving away a free copy of The Magpie Lord in the electronic format of your choice! Just leave a comment below, naming your favourite Victorian thing to enter the draw! (Anything Victorian – building, social innovation, person, book, sewage system, monarch…actually, maybe not monarch.) Contest closes 9am GMT 21 August. 

GIVEAWAY FINISHED. Thank you to everyone who took part.


Victorian England: not boring.

Friend: So what’s your book about?
KJ: It’s a Victorian gay fantasy mystery romance with magic, sex and violence.
Friend: Well, anything to make the Victorians less boring.

We all know the Victorians are dull, right? They never had sex, and they put frilly bloomers on their piano legs. They hassled fallen women and gay men and countries that didn’t belong to them. They wrote gigantic novels about politics and bonnets. Some of them built an iron bridge, or maybe a canal. Yawn.

Well, people are misinformed. Here are some of my favourite facts about Victorian England.

The Victorians were mostly high, or drunk, or both.

You could buy as much opium as you liked from the chemist. Mrs Beeton advised housewives to stock up on both powdered and liquid forms. Teething babies got a mixture of opium and black treacle. Florence Nightingale took it regularly (smack that nurse up), while the Prime Minister William Gladstone got buzzed on laudanum, a mix of opium and booze, before making speeches. John Sutherland writes of Wilkie Collins 

“During attacks [of venereal disease] his eyes were described as looking like “bags of blood”. Secretaries left his employment because they couldn’t stand the screams that punctuated his dictation. His medicine of choice was laudanum, which he consumed by the pint, with bottles of champagne as chaser (“refreshing”, he said). He claimed to have written chunks of The Moonstone so stoned that he didn’t recognise his work.”

Victorian England used arsenic like it was…um… not arsenic.

It was used in wallpaper, playing cards, the binding of children’s books, dresses, hat decorations, toys. This was not ignorance, just a robust attitude to Health and Safety and a keen sense of aesthetics. Toxicologist Alfred Taylor was a little narked to learn that his baker’s shelves were painted with arsenic-laden colours that flaked off onto the loaves. The painter admitted that the paint was deadly, but “without arsenic it is impossible to get a good green.”  Oh, well, that’s all right, then.

Victorian England had a press much like modern Britain. Sadly.

Snapshots, concealed cameras and the like came in from the 1880s. Queen Victorian got papped at the Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Penny Pictorial Magazine ran a regular page of photographs headed ‘Taken Unawares: Surreptitious snapshots of celebrities.’ (They hadn’t really got the headline thing down.)

The first tabloid Shock Paedo Sting took place in 1885 when crusading journalist WT Stead bought a prepubescent girl from her mother as a stunt, then ran a massive campaign against the sex trafficking of children. He called it ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.’ (See what I mean about headlines?)

Victorian fiction is nuts.

Think it’s all spinsters in bonnets discussing the vicar? Oh, no, my child, this is what Victorian England was reading:

Lady Audley’s Secret  by ME Braddon: bigamous heroine deserts her child, pushes first husband down a well, plots to poison second husband and attempts to kill off enemies by arson. A huge hit.

Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins. A young blind woman temporarily regains her sight while finding herself in a love triangle with two brothers, one of whom is blue. No, not depressed, the colour blue. Yes, all over. Don’t ask.

Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope: Heroine refuses to marry hero because his first name is so absurdly ridiculous that she’s embarrassed even to mention it. His name is Jonathan. (This is actually a fantastic romance novel. It’s young, modern, charming, funny, and the author has style.


Armadale by Wilkie Collins (again). This book has four characters called Allan Armadale. One of them very reasonably changes his name to Ozias Midwinter (because he’s on drugs) before falling in love with a woman who tries to murder him with poison gas (because she’s on drugs). Did I mention that Wilkie Collins was permanently blitzed?

The Victorians loved sex toys.

An advert for a Victorian blow-up doll.

And one for a dildo, or Wife’s Consolation.

Yes, you also got some delightful devices to discourage erections, like this:

anti masturbation device

Just looking at it would work, I should think. But there’s little evidence they were actually used. Even less that they were used twice.

 Victorian England had its very own Twilight. 

The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli. Just consider:

  • A massive, record-breaking popular bestseller, critically despised
  • Includes a female character for whom the author invented a new name. Everyone ever called Mavis was named after the heroine of this book. (Not great, I know, but still better than Renesmee.)
  • Features a devastatingly attractive supernatural being who is supposed to be a powerful evil force yet is effortlessly conquered by the unassuming ‘Who? Little me?’ heroine.
  • Chronic case of Mary Sue. The Mavis Clare character, who sadly does not get dragged screaming to hell at any time, is a blatant surrogate for Marie Corelli (same initials, both popular novelists despised by the literary establishment, both smugger than is humanly tolerable).

You can download it from Gutenberg, but I take no responsibility for the consequences. This is the face of a man who actually finished The Sorrows of Satan.

scary face.gif large

(Actually, it’s an artist’s impression of an inveterate masturbator. Bet those spiky devices seem a better idea now, eh?)

The Victorians did not put bloomers on piano legs.

Total myth. Never happened. They really didn’t need to put clothes on furniture to suppress their lustful thoughts: they were on opium, not E. Or acid.

Piano Legs

Sorry, should I have tagged that NSFW?

Prince Albert did not actually have a Prince Albert.

You win some, you lose some.

My first book, The Magpie Lord, is set in Victorian England! Woo! As if that’s not enough, it also has gay romance, mystery, magic, sex, violence and none of those bear trap devices at all, and it comes out on 3 Sept with Samhain Publishing.

Magpie Lord

A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

A Charm of Magpies, Book 1

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude…and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.

Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.

Warning: Contains hot m/m sex between a deeply inappropriate earl and a very confused magician, dark plots in a magical version of Victorian England, family values (not the good kind), and a lot of swearing.

Author Bio:

I’m a writer of romance, mostly m/m, often historical or fantasy or both. I also have a contemporary thriller coming out soon. I like to mix it up.

I’m a commissioning editor in my daily life and I blog about writing and editing at

I live in London, UK, with two kids, a tolerant husband and an even more tolerant cat.

KJ Charles is on Twitter at kj_charles and blogs at Or say hello on Facebook and Goodreads.

26 thoughts on “Victorian England: not boring.

  1. I can’t tell you how upset I was that I had to do Victorian history at GCE instead of an earlier period. I thought the Victorians were boring but once I’d started to learn a little more about them, I realised they weren’t as bad as I’d feared. Though socio-economic history wasn’t ever my favourite subject. What I did like – were canals. I know it sounds geeky but the work that went into building them and then using them and we still have them today – admittedly not as business transport system but when I walk on a towpath, it’s easy to imagine horses pulling the barges and lots of traffic passing – rather than the odd long boat.

  2. Hey Barbara! Victorian large-scale schemes are fascinating. The Tube, the London sewage system, the canal network, the railway network. Vast amounts of forward thinking, appalling labour conditions, massive corruption and political wrangling behind the scenes…

    Thanks Kat, glad you enjoyed!

  3. My favorite Victorian thing is Steampunk! I know Steampunk may seem like a modern invention that borrows from the Victorian aesthetic, but the core philosophy of Steampunk actually grew out of the creativity and innovation that defined the Victorian era. It’s not merely a selective repicking of the bones of the Victorian world–it’s the Victorian world reborn and reimagined, in a way I believe the true visionaries of that era would have imagined themselves. It’s a shame that for most the time period is defined by a bunch of nonsense about wide-spread prudery.

  4. I loved the Victorians’ Maths … Complex numbers, Florence Nightingale’s data representation and summary techniques, Philosophy of Number, the beginnings of a lot of modern logic (Lewis Carroll’s logic books for children, …) … such a fermenting period for the later flights at the start of the 20th Century!

  5. all the infrastructure things, it must have been such a productive time – canals, the sewers, especially Bazelgette’s London main lines – I always laugh when I see the engines named after Victoria and Albert!

  6. Dont think my first try worked!
    I like learning about all the infrastructure developments at that time – the canal system (feats of engineering, especially appreciated when walking over PontCysyllte Aquaduct! and Bazelgette’s London sewers – always amuses me to see the engines named after the royal family!

  7. Pingback: Playing with the past: some thoughts on historical settings | KJ Charles

  8. I love Victorian Buildings… I mean… They’re just so majestic when you come upon them…. You can’t help but catch your breath to be in their presence.
    Now the fashion too… OMG… Those dresses… Magnificent… there are so many things to love about this era.. but those two are probably my top fav when thinking about it. lol

    Buwahaha!! OMG! that “twilight” bit totally made me laugh out loud. LOL!! good one! LMAO

    Thank you for the contest!!~
    heh.. really enjoyed the post.

    Judi P

  9. I love a good Victorian scandal! Be it murders, political coups, or not so secret affairs, I love it all! Congrats on your up coming release!

  10. Thanks for all the comments and the nice remarks, much appreciated! I’m completely onside with both the scandals and the sewers: two things the Victorians did absolutely right. Lord Palmerston was cited as co-respondent in a divorce case when he was a) the Prime Minister and b) 79. That’s classy.

  11. Aaaaaaaaand the winner of a free ebook is….

    Margaret! I’ll be in touch shortly (I need to get your email off the mods here first) and will then whizz it over in the format of your choice.

    Many thanks for playing, everyone! Oh, and here’s a link to a bonus picture of a Victorian newspaper advert for a special health tonic: champagne laced with cocaine. Apparently this has “a bracing effect on the nerves, brain, and muscle.” No kidding.

  12. Does the Victoria And Albert Museum count? No? Oh well, then my favourite thing about the Victorians was how enthusiastic they were about Archeology – just like me 😀

  13. Pingback: So, Those Horny Romance Novels Weren’t So Far Off All Along… | Dominatrix Daily

  14. Oops – I’m a bit late here. Great post!
    My fave bit of Victoriana? Hmm, it’s a toss-up between “Sins of the Cities of the Plain” and “My Secret Life”. Purely for research reasons, obviously! 😉
    I’d list “London Labour and the London Poor” by Mayhew as well, but it’s sadly lacking in pornography…

  15. Pingback: Bye bye 2013 | ukgayromance

  16. Pingback: Where Magic meets Science: Victorians and the paranormal | KJ Charles

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