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.

Books I Read At University

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Emma- Jane Austen

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Emma is a match-maker and a control freak. She bores easily. At least as far as her family are concerned, she’s always the smartest person in the room. She’s a massive snob. Such attributes may not make a likeable protagonist, but they do make for a pretty great story.

Her life is highly restricted. After her mother’s death her father’s life became completely ruled by his anxieties. The thought of Emma leaving home is unbearable to him, so Emma has decided she never will.

But that’s fine with her. In the small community around which her life revolves, Emma is Queen Bee.

I wrote a project arguing that Jane Fairfax is actually the main character is this novel. I said that Emma only hates her so much because in Jane she sees her own inevitable future: a life of passivity and little to no self-determination. I spent almost an entire semester reading feminist literary writing about Jane Austen and it was wonderful.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland- Lewis Carroll

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One day Alice chased a rabbit down an endless hole and found herself in Wonderland. Madness ensues.

Reading children’s book as a grown up is a really eye opening experience. I highly recommend it.

Nights at the Circus- Angela Carter

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This is the story of a woman with wings. Nobody knows her origin. Journalist, Jack Walser is determined to discover it, even if he has to travel across Europe with a magical circus in order to uncover her secrets.

I read this during my first year of university. It was the first time I had read any magical realism. Needless to say, I fell in the love.

Lolita- Vladimir Nabokov

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Humbert Humbert, grown man, falls in love with Lolita, a twelve year old girl. In order to be close to her, he gets with her mother. After her death, he steals Lolita away on a road trip across America.

This book is horrific. It’s totally disturbing and weirdly funny. It is the height of unreliable narration. The writing is incredible. It got a group of first year students seriously riled during a 9am class. For anyone in doubt, let me assure you, that never happens.

We studied this book in order to learn about post-modernism. What I learned is that post-modern is a name we stick on seriously weird shit.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem- Peter Ackroyd

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Someone is ripping people to shreds in Limehouse. The papers are referring to the murderer as a golem, a horrific creature from whom nobody is safe. Meanwhile retired actress Elizabeth Cree is facing trial for the poisoning of her husband. With her lie the secrets at the heart of the murders. Unfortunately is likely she’ll be hanged before anyone can discover them.

This book is historical fiction at its best. Set in the 19th century, against the backdrop of the Jack the Ripper and Ratcliff Highway murders, it weaves its way through the darkest parts of London. Ackroyd does an amazing job of blending fact and fiction. Along with the fictional Elizabeth Cree, we see real historical figures such as Dan Leno and George Gissing (whose novel New Grub Street nearly made this list, incidentally). It also has one of the best plot twists I have ever read.

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

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Woolf presents us with a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a high society lady knee-deep in depression, regret and party preparations.

We also meet Septimus Warren Smith, an ex-solider losing his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In this module we began by reading a realist text (New Grub Street), we then read through all the writing styles that emerged in protest of it. Woolf, a modernist, was a pretty vocal anti-realist. Realist texts, she felt, failed to get to the heart of what it is to be a person. She felt their preoccupation with houses and landscape was to the detriment of the representation of real human experience.

I tended to agree.

What were your favourite books that you read in school or university?