Writing Steampunk: Victorianism
I hope you guys had a good week. Today, I'm continuing my series about writing steampunk fiction. This post will cover some details about Victorianism because it's a major influence on the steampunk subculture. This post should give you a general background and explain why Victorianism is so important for steampunk authors. Honestly, you could spend an entire year or more researching the Victorian era. In fact, some college campuses offer coursework about the Victorian period. So, if you seriously want to write steampunk fiction, I recommend diving into the worldwide web and/or college libraries. It's worth mentioning that college libraries have more resources than public libraries for this type of subject.
A Google search said the Victorian era ran from 1837-1901. I'm not sure if those dates are completely accurate, but it seems to be the consensus. The Victorian era was a significant part of Great Britain's history during the 19th century under Queen Victoria's reign. Victorians valued righteous morality, self-control, and modesty. They also valued industrial growth. The Victorian era had significant progress on railroads and everything else that used steam power. Other inventions included electricity and the telephone. Culturally, the arts were very important. It was a time of huge population growth, particularly in the middle and working classes. The middle and upper-classes valued their leisure time, so outings at the theatre and home activities like afternoon tea were very common.
Like every culture, Victorians had two different sides. In certain ways, Victorianism advocated progress, morality, hard work, cultural and artistic growth, ambition, Romanticism, family values, and integrity. However, there was also a very dark side to the Victorian era. There was a huge divide among the social classes. While the upper-classes enjoyed their wealth and leisure time, the working-classes worked in very poor conditions. Work environments were often unsafe and people worked for long hours with very low wages. Sanitation was really bad in working-class neighborhoods because they didn't have indoor plumbing. It was not unusual for more than one family to live together in a small house. So, it wasn't a pleasant experience for many people. Child labor and prostitution were significant issues during the Victorian era. Lack of proper medical care and nutrition also created high mortality rates among the working-classes. I'm going to be completely honest. Some 19th century novels make working-classes men look like saints who really try to take care of their families. I doubt this vision is realistic. Despite having large families and minimal incomes, many working-class men blew their money at pubs, gambling dens, brothels, and opium dens. If it wasn't for poor working-class men, those industries would have gone broke and that's the unfortunate truth.
On a different note, men were considered superior to women. Married women were virtually part of their husband's property. A proper lady was expected to find a husband and be completely submissive to him. Victorians believed a good wife is pure, obedient, domestic, and dependent on her husband. Women did not have the right to vote and married women weren't allowed to own property. Therefore, a divorce would be disastrous. Many men carried extramarital affairs and tried to be very discrete because it was considered scandalous. Some men were misogynistic and had a double standard in their marriage. I'm pretty sure these men were considered the traditional type who followed customs that were passed down through the decades. Modern Victorian men had a more Romantic view on relationships and family. Some Victorian men gave their wives a lot of domestic power, like making decisions about raising the children and decorating the house. It was also common for Victorian couples to spend more time together and build a friendship. Some men also asked about their wives' opinions regarding many subjects, which was not common practice in earlier time periods. Many middle-class men also stayed away from extramarital affairs because such activities were considered vulgar and immoral. Also, more couples married for love and companionship during the Victorian era. Unlike previous decades, many Victorian men were very affectionate and nurturing to their families. I guess men were divided into two camps during the 19th century. Keep one thing in mind. Great Britain had a ruling queen instead of a king during the Victorian era. I'm pretty sure that influenced the treatment of women and it might explain why select men gave their wives more respect.
Imperialism and Colonialism were also trends during the Victorian era. The Britons traded and communicated with many places outside of their nation. Some Victorians felt the need to allegedly educate and refine other cultures in the Middle East, the Orient, and Africa. Naturally, Victorian views on other cultures were prejudice and erroneous. Part of the Imperial movement was an effort to expand their industries and take goods from other countries. As a result, many international locations became British colonies. The Victorians were often cruel to the natives in these colonies. Slavery and other forms of labor were commonplace during the Imperial movement. The Victorians also wanted Christianity to become the mainstream religion in their colonies. That's why some of these locations are predominantly Christian today.
What have we learned so far? Victorianism is totally hypocritical. The basic concept of Victorianism is actually very good, but it's not how most people lived during the 19th century. Steampunk works often include dystopian environments with a huge divide between socioeconomic classes. Themes like political corruption, poverty, and working-class uprisings are popular in the genre. Gender inequality is also a major topic in many steampunk works. That's partially why many steampunk protagonists are strong and rebellious women who are trying to make great changes. Sometimes, these elements are subtle and buried deep within the text. Occasionally, supernatural creatures are treated like slaves or labor forces in steampunk fiction. It's probably a reference to Imperialism or issues with the working-classes. Some steampunk works are a reaction against the hypocrisy of Victorianism. Most steampunk attire is more sexualized or punkish than traditional Victorian clothing. This is a reaction to Victorianism's prudish stereotype.
Steampunk fiction also takes the positive and romantic elements from Victorianism. Nearly all steampunk works include huge technological progress that's rooted in fantasy. Steampunk books usually have steam powered airships, locomotives, gadgets and gizmos, time machines, different types of weaponry, submarines, robots, etc. All of these elements come from the Victorian ideal of progress. It's not unusual for steampunk books to have quite a bit of romance. The rebellious female lead will often fall in love with a man who's a gentleman and respectful, but also troubled in some ways. It might be a reaction to the misogyny that took place during the Victoria era. I think it could also parallel the Romantic movement that overlapped during the time period. Despite its dark and gritty nature, steampunk tends to be more bright and shiny or warm and fuzzy in comparison to other punk genres.
This was a long post, but you should gather a lot of information from it. Believe it or not, this post only scratches the surface. You can perform additional research to find more details about Victorianism. It's an important concept for steampunk writers to understand because it directly influences the book's content. If a writer has a basic understanding of Victorian history and culture, it will help them put the material in context. Otherwise, it looks like randomly placed gears, gadgets, corsets, goggles, and dirigibles without a purpose. I usually mix modern elements with Victorianism because my stories take place in the future. Also, I take the more romantic and idealistic approach to Victorianism. I would love to hear feedback if anyone wants to say something. Leave comments and maybe we can have an interesting discussion. I'm going to post links and references below that might be helpful. Happy reading!
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