When we think about beach reading, we often imagine someone on holiday, looking for a book to help them ‘get away from it all.’ The seaside holiday really took off in the Victorian period, but books could still be pretty expensive. We have a fairly good idea of what makes a beach read bestseller, but what did they read, back when the railway age was emerging and people were travelling to seaside resorts like Margate? Time to find out…
Margate Bookie chats with Carolyn Oulton about the release of her forthcoming book, Down from London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age, her literary journey and what we can all learn from women writers of the Victorian era.
What’s Down from London all about?
The title is slightly tongue in cheek. I wanted to know what people were actually reading down by the coast on their holidays. As books could still be quite expensive in those days, I wonder if they were worried about getting sand on what were likely to be library copies.
As part of my research into seaside reading from the 1840s to the 1930s, I came across dozens of authors I’d never heard of, but all of them suggest that there’s something special about the seaside setting. There’s also a consensus that the act of reading itself is somehow different when you do it by the sea. One of the great joys was to find so many novels set in Kent resorts.
I also learned more about the work politics of local libraries than anyone needs to know!
Where does your passion for Victorian women writers come from?
I’ve always been obsessed with the nineteenth century. I was a child in the 1970s, and the Edwardians were people you could still have a cup of tea with, so this was the earliest period that felt like proper ‘history’. As I grew older and learned more about the constraints faced by women authors, I realised just how impressive it was that they’d managed to publish at all. Social expectation is insidious, but it makes for subtle and exploratory writing.
You don’t have to agree with everything you read – sometimes you can learn more when you don’t. And without Jane Eyre, we wouldn’t have Wide Sargasso Sea or other Neo-Victorian fiction. We’re still arguing with these writers, which ought to tell us something.
How else do you pay homage to this era of literary greatness?
I’m the co-founder and Director of the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers (ICVWW) at Canterbury Christ Church University, the only research centre in the UK to focus on 19th century women authors. But I also work on male authors including Dickens and Jerome K. Jerome. Researching Kent resorts for the book made me realise just how much literary history we have across the county, which is where I got the idea for Kent Maps. While it’s not meant to be a Victorian fest, they do keep turning up on the site! A lot of my poetry is also inspired by Victorian figures or engages with them in some way.
Where do you see you and your writing journey going next?
I’m currently working on a book about the culture of shared reading in the Victorian period. One reason I have so few friends is that I will insist on getting them into corners and reading them passages from my favourite authors – I think I was born a century too late.
I also keep threatening to write a neo-Victorian poetry collection, which someone needs to talk me out of.
What’s your best advice for someone starting out in this line of research and writing?
Read up on the period – I love The Victorian House by Judith Flanders and The Victorians by A. N. Wilson. At least try the usual suspects: Dickens, Thackeray, all three Brontës, Eliot, so you know what other writers are talking about. Having some kind of overview is important or you’ll miss the significance of what you’re seeing. Then move on to whatever takes your fancy, including books you’ve never heard of – the charity bookshop will love you for it.
And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Victorianists are generally hugely supportive of each other, and happy to talk (the problem is getting us to stop). Finally, and most importantly, don’t ask what you’re getting into – but once you’ve started, you’ll never want to stop.
Carolyn’s amazing book Down from London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age is out in March 2022. Make sure you get your copy to follow this incredible literary journey.