Posted by: Sarah | March 15, 2006

The Official Rules for Writing Victorian Historical Fiction

Here are the essential rules for this very popular genre, also known as “clog and shawl sagas”, of which the late Catherine Cookson was the undisputed queen, and there is no shortage of successors. These Rules originally appeared in Solander, The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, in December 2001.

by Sally Zigmond

1. There’s always trouble up factory/mill/mine (always referred to as t’factory, t’mill or t’pit).

2. Britain was a smaller place then. It consisted only of The Industrial North (Yorkshire, Manchester and South Shields) and London (West End, sleazy and rich; East End, sleazy and poor, but full of loveable rogues).

3. Rain falls for 360 days a year. On 4 days, the sun is shrouded in smoke, soot and grime or never seen as everyone toils day and night in the factory/mill/mine. Star-crossed lovers always spend one day out on’t moors in brilliant sunshine, make a baby, then return home in a violent thunderstorm, after which they are forcibly parted or dead.

4. The main characters are: rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner; rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner’s son; rich and virtuous factory/mill/mine owner’s son; poor and virtuous factory/mill/mine worker; rich and virtuous factory/mill/mine owner’s daughter; rich and wicked factory/mill/mine owner’s daughter; poor and virtuous daughter of factory/mill/mine worker (delete where not applicable).

5. The necessary love interest occurs when a male from list 4 falls in love with a female from list 4 (write names on cards and throw in the air). This inevitably leads to 3 or 1 or both.

6. One of the men is a Luddite. Another believes in progress. They are probably brothers (either rich or poor, but both virtuous). They are at odds until the penultimate chapter when one saves the other’s life (see 1 and 10).

7. The wife of the factory/mill/mine owner is an invalid. The virtuous factory/mill/mine worker is a widower and his daughter is dying of consumption. Only the virtuous contract consumption. The wicked enjoy robust health.

8. The wicked factory/mill/mine owner always cuts wages or lays workers off to pay his or his son’s gambling debts or his daughter’s dressmaker (see 1). Or the virtuous factory/mill owner may be forced to cut wages or lay off workers to pay his wife’s medical bills. His guilty conscience leads him to drink or death (see 1 and 7).

9. There is always a strike at the factory/mill/mine and the wrong (virtuous) man is always accused of being the ring-leader and is thrown in gaol where he dies or is saved by his enemy (see 1 and 6).

10. All factories/mills/mines have leaking roofs, lethal machinery and dangerous chemicals. They always blow up or burn down in the penultimate chapter (see 1).

Sally Zigmond is working on a fictionalised account of the life of Henriette d’Angeville, who was the first woman to personally organise a successful ascent of Mont Blanc in 1838. (A woman did get to the top thirty years earlier but she was basically carried and pushed up half unconscious as a publicity stunt.) The novella will be published by Biscuit Publishing later in 2006.

As well as being a Reviews Editor for The Historical Novels Review, Sally is also assistant editor of QWF magazine. It’s a magazine of fiction for and by women. It welcomes new readers and short story submissions, including historical short stories. Sally’s Email address is



  1. Tee hee. Good thing some rules are meant to be broken 🙂 Especially like #3.

  2. Hilarious. Thanks.
    Although you forgot the obligatory brothel owner with ‘eart of gold and/or malevolent scheme.
    And at some point, someone virtuous must cough into their fine linen kerchief/dirty scrap of canvas (depending on Rule 4) to reveal a spot of blood.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: