Writers Club: The Rabbit Hole

I have a PhD in English. In my research, I focused on the Victorian period. Doing that research allowed me to dig into the reality of the Victorian period and I’d dive in and find myself in a rabbit hole. Specifically a warren with all kinds of tunnels and burrows. Eventually I’d remember to come out. Did I need to know this stuff? Mostly, no. Well, kind of. All the knowledge helped inform my understanding of characters in books and the implications of things that were said, or the events that happened and let me realize that sometimes I got the reading all wrong.

Case in point: Not Victorian England, but comes from Shakespeare. In Hamlet, Hamlet tells Ophelia “Get thee to a nunnery.” Nuns lived in convents. Now Shakespeare was inventive and could have and likely was using the term to mean a convent. But. Nunnery also meant whorehouse. There’s doubled meaning there that adds depth to the understanding of the characters.

Another case in point: Pride and Prejudice. How shocked Darcy is when Elizabeth says he was not a gentleman. From the way he reacts, a modern person would wonder what the hell? She didn’t call him an ax murderer or a rapist. The thing is is that in that era, for a man of his station and position in society, being a gentleman was an essential requirement. In encompassed a number of rules of behavior, speech, dress, and lifestyle. In this society where manners and lack thereof could mean destruction–especially financially but also socially–a person’s name (in this case gentleman) was a prize beyond gold.

1885 — Original caption: The World’s Plunderers. “It’s English you know.” Thomas Nast, 1885. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Let me take you down the rabbit hole a little bit farther. Keep in mind I’m oversimplifying everything. This was a time when the middle class was starting to rise–gaining enough wealth to interact at a social level they were not born into. Mister Darcy is untitled, though wealthy and came by his money in gentlemanly fashion–i.e. he didn’t work a job for it. Working was ungentle (except for gentlewomen who became governesses and companions, but that’s another hole altogether). The upper classes did not want to be subject to the crassness and boorishness of the nouveau riche. (Incidentally, some of these were nabobs–men who’d made their fortunes in the British East India Company and now returned home with a whole lot of money who wanted to establish themselves in high society and in positions of power in the House of Commons, but were distinctly not welcome.)

In this society, if you wanted to know someone, you had to be introduced. Otherwise, you simply pretended  they weren’t there. Those who offended you (of your class, but usually lower in rank) you could snub if you felt they’d overstepped polite boundaries. For someone trying to rise in society, if nobody would deign to be introduced to you, then you were stuck. A lot of business started happening over society dinner tables and in salons. If you weren’t invited, you couldn’t establish a foothold for doing business. And of course, being in trade was definitely lower class. Like I said, you weren’t supposed to have to work for your money. It should come from investments, rents, and the work of your tenants. I know, what’s the difference? But there was one, because the gentleman never got his hands dirty. He managed from on high.

So what does that have to do with Darcy? Well, to be ungentlemanly put him in a class he despises, especially since he prides himself in being a gentleman and being correct. (It was obvious who was raised in that world v. who was trying to join it–I have ettiquette books on my shelves designed to help the nouveau riche navigate polite society. They teach everything of penmanship to how to propose to how to be a wife and a husband and how to talk to servants. Amazingly fun books to read). For Elizabeth to accuse him is to give him the deadliest insult he could get, aside from being accused of being a coward.

Now if you’re reading Pride and Prejudice and don’t understand how devastating the condemnation is, then you don’t get the richness of the story and characters and you don’t get that social interplay and why it’s so impactful on the story.

Now, I said all that to say this. Rabbit holes are lovely. Today I researched insurance on certain business and how claims would be filed and how adjusters would handle it and how long before the payout and so on and so forth. All for a short passage in my novel. You see, getting details correct matters. Your reader will get thrown out of a story if you make obvious mistakes (and you never know what counts as an obvious mistake). Another case in point: I recently read the draft of a student story where the character loses a hand and yet climbs a tree. It certainly could be done, but it requires additional explanation of how in order for the reader to picture it and believe it. Otherwise, they quit trusting the writer and put the story down, which is the last thing any writer wants.

Ask any writer and s/he’ll tell you that they do research, and may even regale you with cool things they’ve learned. Want to know what inspired this post? I wanted to see pictures of pattens, which are wood or wood and metal platform overshoes that strapped on over your regular shoes. In bad weather, when you stepped in puddles or mud, the pattens kept you high enough so that your shoes, trouser cuffs, dress hems, cloaks and so on, remained clean.

You also have the issue of figuring out how much research is enough and how much to include in your story. Topics for another day. For now, understand that doing the research is part of the job–a really fun part–and embrace it. But don’t lose yourself in the rabbit hole and forget to write. Research is necessary and also dangerous. Like a nunnery, it has two opposing sides.





Writers Club: The Rabbit Hole — 6 Comments

  1. I love the rabbit hole–but then my degrees are in history.

    I have to say that though I agree with most of the P&P commentary, I don’t agree that Elizabeth’s “not a gentleman” put him in a class he despises. They both knew the context: that his manners were at fault. Gentleman implied birth, yes, but they both knew that his mother was daughter of an earl, which put him into the nobleman rank. The term came from the french gentil, i.e. good manners, and that’s her context.

    It was especially galling as they’d both been spending time with Lady Catherine, whose manners were atrocious. But she, like the Princesse in Versailles who expected servants to follow her around with a chamber pot for whenever she got the whim to let go, knew that being a noblewoman lifted her above anyone else so she could do and say what she liked. But Darcy has enough of a sense of decency to take that hit right where it counts–and his manners improve vastly from then on.

    (None of Austen’s nobles come off well, actually.)

  2. No, gentlemen invested and funded companies that traded slaves, insured slaves, worked slaves on plantations in which they invested.

    Actually though, what really strikes one, particularly reading rising fellows of the 17th century such as Pepys, is how much more friendly the English upper classes were to entering trade than those in France, for instance. Though of course all upper classes of all countries knew better than to stay away from trade and investment if they want to stay funded themselves.

  3. Thanks, everyone, for the interesting tidbits. Yes, Elizabeth’s jab at Darcy went straight for his manners, and he “got it.” I, too, love research and those fascinating rabbit holes — I’m wandering around in one right now, about the invention of Pykrete, for my current WIP….