I wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, and as Husband had a day off, he suggested we go. Next time I’ll go on my own.
I have a few wisps of stories in my head at the moment, and one is set in the past. As my knowledge of anything historical is pretty much limited to slushy films and novels, this might prove something of a problem. I want to write about people living in another age, but have no idea what they wore, ate with, sat on, etc. So I thought the V and A might be a good place to start. I could look at a few artefacts and decide whether it was even plausible to set a story in a past century.
The V&A is walking distance from Victoria Station, so we had a nice walk, past interesting statues, very posh mansions and pretty mews. I love walking through London. Then it began to rain. If you plan to visit a London museum, do not go on a rainy day. It is full of people with umbrellas who are more interested in being dry than looking at the exhibits.
Husband needed to make a phone call, so I dumped him in a coffee shop and went up to the second floor. There was some lovely 1700s furniture. I was quite taken by a little table with spindly legs and inlaid wood. It had side panels, and one was a drawer, and I could see someone might hide something in there. The table would be in the corner of a room, partly hidden by swathes of curtains (did they have curtains in 1760?) and a young woman would hide something in the drawer and lock it.
There was also a cabinet, called a commode, patterned with scenes of a Chinese garden. Perhaps the girl would hide the key, dropping it into one of the Chinese urns before rustling away. (Did they wear clothes that rustle?)
There were tables, set for dessert, showing food that was served in those days. People had just begun to buy cutlery, so guests didn’t have to bring their own; and food was served in courses. Desserts were fashionable, (the word is derived from the French ‘desservir’ meaning ‘unserve’ because the main food had been cleared away.)
I could see my young girl, glimpsing the complicated stand designed to hold sugared fruits, as she passed the dining room. (Did they have dining rooms?) The people would be drinking wine, having moved on from the traditional ale and now importing wine from abroad. She would be fascinated by the slender decanters, stored in the sideboard and produced only when there were guests of note. But who would be eating? Did men and women eat together? And were meals usually in the evening, or at midday?
Grumpy Husband joined me, and began to say (loudly) that, “the museum is actually just full of very expensive tat. It should be renamed ‘The Museum of Tat’. And how does someone get their stuff accepted by the museum? Everyone has stuff they don’t want to throw away, but they don’t really like – weird gifts and things collected on holidays. Clearly if you are Royal, you can simply shove it all in a museum and pretend it’s interesting.”
I suggested Husband sit in a chair and play a game on his phone, then I walked on.
There was some furniture designed by Thomas Chippendale (1718 – 1779). Perhaps my story house could have a couple of chairs, designed by Chippendale and chosen from his furniture catalogue. The grumpy husband of the house could moan, not liking that James Rannie, a Scottish man, backed Chippendale financially. In 1707, there was the Act of Union, which made Britain a single nation, joining England, Scotland and Wales under a single parliament and monarch. Grumpy Husband (in the story) could be cross about this, feeling it was a mistake, and therefore resentful when his wife suggested they buy furniture associated with a Scot.
Perhaps later generations of my story could live in 1870. Fruit from abroad was imported, and my character, an awkward young man, could agonise over how to eat it politely. When faced with an array of fruits, he always chose a banana, which he did not particularly like, simply because it was easy to peel with a knife and fork, and could be chopped into pieces and eaten delicately.
I could have the militant lady of the house, presiding over her tea-table. Millie the servant had laid a large tray of cups and saucers and silver pots, ready for the mistress. She removed the embroidered tea-cosy, and poured for her guests, offering milk or lemon. But did they serve tea with milk and lemon in those days? And who would be invited to tea? And did the maid stay, or leave when tea was served?
I clearly need to do lots more research before I write my story. Perhaps I will write it first as a serial on my blog, then I can write it as I learn snippets of information, like I did when writing Counting Stars (which I later rewrote as a complete book.) I will find some books and look online. I sort of have an outline for my story – am just not sure if I can learn enough facts to flesh it into something realistic.
We had a quick look at the displays of clothes before we left. But there were too many people avoiding the rain for me to stand before a glass case and imagine how it would feel to actually wear those corsets and layers of cotton.
I rather like the V&A. Husband is sort of right – it is an eclectic mix of stuff, but it’s interesting. There is also a wonderful reading room, and a hall full of statues, and even a paddling pool for sunny days. I will definitely return. Perhaps after I have done some research so I know more of what I’m looking for, and I can use the exhibits to imagine how my characters would have lived; I can see textures and sizes and think about the comfort of things. I will go on my own….
Thank you for reading.
If you want to read the finished version of Counting Stars, my novel set in the future, the UK link is below (though you can buy it from whichever Amazon is local to you.)