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GUEST POST: Sarah Pinborough on bringing Victorian London to life

To coincide with the release of Murder (the sequel to Mayhem) I had the opportunity to ask author Sarah Pinborough about creating the rich, gritty setting in her novels; Victorian London. Here is what she had to say! - thanks so much to Sarah and Jo Fletcher Books for arranging this post :)

Bringing Old London To Life, by Sarah Pinborough

The great thing about working in Victorian London, as it were, is that we all already have an image of it in our heads. The worst thing about working in Victorian London is also that we all already have an image of it in our heads. It's wonderful that readers can already almost picture the setting before starting, but Queen Victoria lived for a very long time and in a similar way to the late-Twentieth century, things changed quite quickly back then. We, however, tend to envisage it entirely as Dickensian London.


In both Mayhem and Murder I have very middle-class characters, but they do spend a lot of time in the rough and overcrowded East End – either hunting killers or visiting opium dens – and I wanted to get these elements of the city right. I have to say here – thank god for the Internet. There is a treasure trove of first person articles and contemporary accounts of the East End of the late 1880s, and I read many of these to get a flavour of what walking through the poorest parts of the city was like. The details of the people and streets that these writers provided was invaluable in bringing London to life for me. As was research into the opium dens, which weren't as widespread or heavily-used as we might believe from reading Sherlock Holmes.


Although Murder is a sequel to Mayhem, the action takes place several years later, and it is a much more claustrophobic and personal story than the first, although it still has the backdrop of real life murders and events (in both novels I have interspersed real newspaper reports between the chapters). For these, the Times Archives were my first port of call. For two pounds or so a month you can trawl through their database which goes back hundreds of years and, just by putting in the right search parameters, you can find all the insight into Vicitorian society you could want. In fact, interestingly, when Mayhem came out, one reviewer said that I'd got the tone of Victorian language right, apart from in the newspaper articles, which felt a bit 'modern', which once again shows the difference between how we see Victorian London and how it was. They weren't that far behind us in their expression of views and thoughts, despite living in a society that was insistent on politeness and morality.


For me, the most important thing, with writing Murder especially, was to get the motivations of the characters right. Society may have been different at the end of the nineteenth century, but people weren't. Their desires and hopes and dreams, both dark and otherwise, were the same as ours. People murdered and loved for the same reasons we do. It's only how those feelings were couched for the outside world that was different. The wonderful thing about Victorian London – and sadly perhaps our own society today – is that there were impoverished seedy areas rife with desperation and crime, contrasted sharply with the sophisticated elegance of middle-class living. How perfect to use the city as a metaphor for the dark and light of each of our souls.

Once again, thanks so much to Sarah for her post, and don't forget to pre-order Murder here!

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