Altering the Victorian Era with Magic
One of the most interesting parts of the process of creating an alternate history is the research. I’ve already written a post with a list of my research materials for the Fay of Skye series (and I’ve pinned some of my visual research on my boards over at Pinterest), but this entry will be about how I’m using the information I found.
Essential Magic begins in 1895. I considered many different eras and historical events around which to shape this series, including the Regency because that’s such a popular period for historical romance. But the mix of innovation and repressed social mores during the Late Victorian period fascinated me, and the more I read about the turn of the century and the years leading up to the First World War, the more I knew this was the right time for my story.
Most of the Victoriana you will find in fiction at the moment is steampunk-oriented. I enjoy reading steampunk, but I’m a fantasy girl, so instead of extrapolating about inventions and technology, I’m adding magic.
ETA: While browsing Goodreads today, I found an anthology called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy. I have read many of the authors in this anthology, and never knew that this subgenre I am writing in has a name! So I can officially say that I am writing Gaslamp Fantasy Romance.
I chose 1895 in particular for a few reasons. First, because I needed a certain number of generations to have passed between the Napoleonic Wars (in which the Fay Clan matriarch, Lilias, played a large role) and my current hero and heroine. Second, because it is in a relative lull in British history. There were many things happening behind the scenes and in the far reaches of the Empire, but the United Kingdom was not officially at war with anyone until 1899 (Boer War). Because this is the first book of the series, a time of peace is an ideal period to illustrate the existing status quo at the end of the 19th century. As the series progresses, I will show some of the events that led to the Great War, and the final books will take place during the war. Essential Magic represents the antebellum Empire, before things fall apart.
So what, exactly, have I changed from real history?
Not much. I want this world to feel familiar and for the broad strokes of history to remain in place. The only difference is that some things now have magical causes (or were facilitated by magic) rather than mundane ones.
For example, the power position filled in our world by the Catholic Church is filled by the Magisterium – headed by the magister, who is the equivalent of the pope. They function as a kind of magic council for Europe. Instead of churches and cathedrals, they built magic schools and beautiful buildings on leylines so they would always have a source of power. There was a schism, led by my world’s Martin Luther, about the uses of magical energy and the treatment of magical creatures. Luther’s schools are called academies, and their council is the Academe. This world’s Henry VIII broke with the Magisterium for the same reasons as the real Henry from the Catholic Church – he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. But in my world, Anne was a wild talent not affiliated with the Magisterium. They wanted Henry to stay married to Catherine, who was a good Magisterium student and a moderately powerful sorceress.
Because of Henry, my world also has the fallout between the Magisterium and the Academe in England, which led to the Stuarts being removed from the succession and the various Risings against the House of Hanover. Victoria is the last monarch of the House of Hanover, and her son will be the first of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which his son will later rename the House of Windsor.
In the world of the Fay Clan, magical abilities are typically concentrated among the noble class. I am not making a statement that a noble is somehow intrinsically better than others, merely recognizing that magical abilities would give a family more power than its neighbors. Historically, that family would be able to hold its land and enforce its will over others, and would end up with privileges and titles. Also, magical talent runs in families (passed most strongly through matrilineal descent), so they would be able to maintain that power over time.
In our world, that kind of power came from various places (military expertise, land ownership, nepotism, etc.), and that exists in this alternate world, too. Magic does have limits, and those without power seek ways to obtain it. So the Renaissance and expansions in science and technology that led to the Industrial Revolution happened very similarly to our world.
But most of these changes will never show up in the story, or will only be referenced obliquely. I’m sharing this blog because it’s fun to know more about worldbuilding than what fits into the strictly defined structure of a novel. I don’t want to overwhelm my readers with history lessons – I only want to give what is needed to understand the story I’m telling.
That’s one of the reasons why I decided to tell Etta’s story first. She’s an American witch from the south, who isn’t allowed to do magic because of severe laws of attrition following the Civil War. The choice of an outsider heroine allows me to explore how magic works in this world in an organic way. Etta learns about it along with the reader, and her process of discovery builds her character.
There is one big change to history that forms an undercurrent of conflict in Essential Magic, and will become the overriding series goal for the Fay Clan. But I won’t tell you what it is – you’ll have to read the book to find out!
Essential Magic releases in just three weeks, on June 23, 2016.