A day in the (not so) fictional nineteenth century

On landing in the nineteenth century, the first person I seek out is Jane Austen’s Emma, of course. Of all my favourite nineteenth century ladies, I feel like she would accept my whole from the future situation quickly and with minimal fainting.

I’m right. She sorts me out, fashion-wise and corrects the most alarming aspects of my modern manners. Getting out my phone (although she doesn’t know it’s a phone, obviously. She just refers to it as ‘the devil gadget’), is apparently not acceptable behaviour.

As much as I love her, Emma doesn’t get the concept of having an Instagram account to maintain.

Once I’m presentable, we go fetch Jane Austen herself and, after she and Emma share their Stranger than Fiction I-am-Harold-Crick moment, proceed to London as fast as our carriage will carry us because I have limited time and an extensive game plan. During the journey I bask in the witty, political and occasionally mean banter of my new lady friends. I’ll explain Shine Theory to them while they laugh and shake their heads at my 21st century manners. One of my goals for the day is to contribute to the feminist conversation of the nineteenth century. When she seems comfortable, I briefly explain to Jane that I am from the future and she’s surprisingly cool about the whole thing. The nineteenth century, she tells me, is like a new world. Time travel is a possibility she always suspected.

When we arrive in London we head immediately for New Gravel Lane, to The Kings Arms pub. Emma and Jane express a degree of trepidation, but I shut them down. There is a notorious murderer to be apprehended.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place in December of 1811. The first attack was at number 29, a linen drapery. Within an hour someone had broken into the building and massacred the Marr family. Only twelve days later, similarly brutal killings were discovered at The Kings Arms pub. The official story, I tell Jane and Emma, concerns one John Williams, a sailor of indeterminate heritage (though most likely Scottish or Irish) who had a vaguely gossiped about grudge against the Marr family. The evidence that he hacked to death both the families was largely circumstantial and Williams hanged himself in his cell before a verdict was reached (they were definitely going to find him guilty).

I would like to find a solution more concrete to this horrifying mystery, and I know that Jane Austen, Emma Woodhouse and I are the perfect team to do it. It’s a shame that, being the nineteenth century (when women were’t exactly allowed to participate in murder investigations), the contribution we made to any cracks in this case will have been totally under-reported.

After a long day of hunting for murderers, I leave Emma and Jane to get dinner together, and head over to the Institute for Psychical Research. I have a date with renowned medium Daniel Douglas Home. People in the 19th century were crazy for the supernatural. The institute tested mediums and magicians as a means to test their legitimacy and despite extensive testing never found a satisfactory explanation for Home’s tricks.

(I plan to ask for a magic class later).

Home sits me down for a candlelit dinner. In his sexy Scottish brogue he describes to me his sickly childhood. Diagnosed with tuberculosis aged nine, he spent the hours many other children would play, sitting alone and communicating with the dead, who he believed surrounded him. Eventually, due to the unwanted undead, his aunt threw him out of the house he grew up in, and he was forced to make it on his own in the world as a medium of extraordinary natural talent.

He went on the show me a few of his party tricks. These included summoning spectral hands which patted me in a way I found creepy, but ultimately friendly. He shrunk his body to half its natural size.

Then he began to levitate. He took my hands as he floated toward the ceiling.

It was all very impressive, but hardly conducive for conversation.

When I told Jane and Emma over drinks about it after, they both rolled their eyes knowingly.

Emma promised to find me someone much more suitable.

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Author: Lydia Tewkesbury

24. Loves a good story.

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