Friday, February 22, 2013

Her Ladyship's Magazine

For me part of the fun of writing an urban fantasy set in an alternate historical era is definitely the research. I've been a history lover since the first time I read Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, which drew some very interesting parallels between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries. Truth be told there's nothing I like better than sifting through the past to find inspiration for my fiction.

Writing about an alternate Victorian-era America meant revisiting real publications from the latter half of the nineteenth century to find character, timeline and world-building sources. One of the most valuable was Godey's Lady's Book, a popular periodical written by and marketed to women of the time.

The Publisher defined his publication as "The Book of the Nation" and had this to say about it in 1851:

The publisher of the Lady's Book having the ability, as well as the inclination, to make the best monthly literary, and pictorial periodical in this country, is determined to show the patrons of magazines to what perfection this branch of literatire can be brought. He has now been publishing the Lady's Book for twenty-six years and he appeals to his subscribers and the public whether the "book" has not improved every year, and he now pledged his well-earned reputation that, in the Morality and Superiority of his literature, and in the Purity and Beauty of his engravings, The Lady's Book for 1851 shall exceed every other magazine.

Mr. Godey wasn't modest with his self-promo, but at times it was probably deserved, as he often published some fascinating writers. Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Washington Irving were all published in the Lady's Book.

In the Toriana universe my protagonist Kit reads the Rumsen Daily, a local newspaper sold by boys on street corners each morning, and Godley's Gazette, which is my version of Godey's. The Gazette, published four times a year by Louisa Antionetta Godley, advertises articles, stories, advice, embroidery patterns, recipes and household spells. Exclusively written by women and female mages for "the most genteel of Torian ladies" the Gazette is quite popular among well-to-do merchant's wives as well as some of the younger women of society, but is regarded as "too modern" and "somewhat vulgar" by the older, established matrons. Having access to real issues of Godey's has given me an excellent guide on the sort of content I should have in my fictitious magazine, and that in turn lends more realism to the universe.

If you're interested in checking out the real Godey's, here are some fun links:

This UPenn page links to online scans and transcriptions by the Princeton, the HathiTrust, the New York Public Library, the University of Michigan, Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive spanning 50 years of Godey's issues.

Hope Greenberg from the University of Vermont has a marvelous Godey's site with many samples from the magazine as well as three complete issues from 1855 that you can flip through and read online.

85 blog posts about Godey's Ladies book


  1. Fascinating. I love reading those old Mrs Beaton cook books and the etiquette books. You're really making this world come alive and I'm now keener than ever to read the book!

    1. Thanks, Fran. While I love all the convenience of technology, sometimes I do envy the ladies of the past. They had such interesting reading material -- such elegant style, too. Even the old newspapers are wonderfully entertaining.

      I hope researching the old periodicals and such will help me give more authenticity to my world-building. I might even try making some of the Victorian-American recipes I've been finding so I can "taste" the era.

  2. I have an old, old book (1880) that I picked up years ago in an antique shop. The Golden Gems of Life. It's big--608 pages--and filled with short chapters on how to live the good life. (The article on Trials of Married Life is truly a gem!)

    The first paragraph in the Preface: "The design of this work is to rouse to honorable effort those who are wasting their time and energies through indifference to life's prizes."

    Sounds apropos for today, doesn't it?

    1. Wow, that must be a real gem, Terlee. I love the opening of the preface -- we need to stamp something like that on a few foreheads. :) I can only imagine how hilarious the section on married life is, too -- they had some strange ideas about what and what didn't constitute marital bliss. :)

      I love big old books like these. To help with one of the magic systems in the Disenchanted & Co. books I just acquired an 1889 edition of a book on animals, The Savage World. It's over 700 pages in length and weighs a ton. You can see my pics of the cover art here and a couple of pages on snakes here.