Inspired by Georgian London

Debra Daley is a longtime 18th-century obsessionalist. She talks about how she brought Georgian London to life in her new novel Turning the Stones.

If such a thing as a past life exists, I think I must have lived one in London during the 18th century. I grew up in beachy New Zealand, which is just about as far from Georgian London as you can get. But when my teenage self stumbled across Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa, I made an instant connection. The language, the look, and the sensibility of 18th-century England resonated so strongly with me that it triggered a lifelong fascination with this age.

When I finally migrated to London in my early twenties, I felt I had come home. I already knew the city intimately through its literary history and so it was never strange to me. True, I was taken aback by its size and vast crowds, but it went without saying that everyone in the world would want to live in this alluring, dangerous, exciting, glamorous, uncaring city. It was like that in the 18th-century too when London transformed itself into the capital of the world and bulged with waves of incomers looking to make their fortunes.

In my novel, Turning the Stones, I gave to my heroine Em Smith the observation that struck the young me when I first arrived in London:

‘As Mr Paine led us towards Piccadilly, where his peruke-maker kept a shop, I was greatly diverted by the sights around me. It was clear even to a novice visitor such as myself that London could easily mince one’s soul without giving a hoot, so enormously absorbed is it in its own interests, but at the same time there was something exhilarating about the indifference of those humming streets. There was a freedom in them that made one feel anything was possible and that one could do anything.’   

For the researcher Georgian London is still wonderfully present not only in print, but in the material evidence of its art, artifacts and architecture. It feels real–because it is. It still delights me the way you can casually chance upon a piece of Georgiana, like the house below in Soho.


Image: Authors own

And here is an original Georgian shopfront still minding its own business after all these years in a lane near Liverpool Street Station.


Image: Authors own

This sense of accessible history was something I wanted to bring to my book. The preoccupations of people in the 1760s were not dissimilar with our own times… fuming at the congested traffic and the excess of tourists, worrying about rising rents, and wondering where the housing boom and population surge are going to end. To encourage an empathetic connection with my characters, I researched places and objects that would tell me something personal about everyday Georgian life. In Sir John Soane’s brilliant house in Holborn, for instance, I was more interested in the domestic rooms at the front of the house. I visited as many Georgian townhouses as I could to get a feel for the interiors. Samuel Johnson’s house, below, was one of them.


Image: Authors own

I would take photographs whenever I could and make drawings like these sketches of items of clothing from paintings in the National Portrait Gallery because I was always looking for some little visual detail that might enliven a description.


Image: Authors own

I love it when a museum has a model or a tableau to offer like this one in the museum of the Bank of England in which a bank clerk is working at his ledger. That’s such a specific activity. I have a couple of scenes set in a bank and this image helped me to bring them to life. I also appreciated the tableau, below, of an 18th-century street scene outside the bank.


Image: Authors own


Image: Authors own

I use these images as prompts when I’m writing. This spread from one of my notebooks shows scenes of London’s Foundling Hospital. It’s not that I describe the scene exactly, but using visuals anchors the past in my mind.


Image: Authors own

Anyone who has spent any time in London knows that Londoners love clothes and pride themselves on their eccentric style. That was true in the 18th century too—a number of tourists remark on it in their accounts of their visits. (I found travellers’ journals very useful for getting a perspective on the city). I gave that observation to my heroine too. It’s those kind of little details that make historical writing ring true, I find. To bring the travails of my heroine in Georgian London to life, I imagined them in an intensely personal way, which subsumed the research, or so I hope, and even though I was writing about the past I always tried to let it chime with contemporary experience.

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Inspired by Georgian London

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