This week I’ve been researching a couple of pieces with a historical setting, one fiction and one non-fiction. In an attempt to understand how people felt at the time I used contemporary sources. Many voices from the nineteenth century, a period of particular interest to me, survive. Often the texts are available in digital format and some are free, being out of copyright.
Newspapers with their stories of crime and social conditions provide background detail. They are supplemented by reference works such as Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851) and Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People (1889). These provide valuable information on the condition of the poor who generally didn’t write their own stories or find someone to do it for them. The autobiography of Ned Wright (1877) is one exception. You can also find biographies and memories of more famous characters, allowing you to compare views from different ends of the social spectrum.
The most important rule about this type of research is to avoid judgements and preconceptions based on our modern values. We cannot learn about the past if we view it through the eyes of the present.
Paul Williams is a writer best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.