Victorian Hats

Tonight, I’m packing to go to New York, so this will be a short post with lots of pictures. Of hats.

Last night, I was up very late revising the first five chapters of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. Around 3:00 a.m., I sent the revised manuscript to my writing group. In my email, I apologized for the roughness of the manuscript, and it really is rough at the moment: it’s at the stage where I’m still trying to get all the elements of the plot right. I’m trying to figure out the pieces of what will eventually be the central mystery of the novel. And at the same time, I’m trying to get a feel for my characters, for how they will act and interact. Since this is a historical fantasy, that includes figuring out their environment, including such seemingly mundane elements as what they wear, what rooms they go into and what furniture those rooms contain, when and what they eat. How they interact with their physical surroundings. I have to be able to imagine all those things in order to make them move through space smoothly.

In order to do that, I often have to consult research sources. Last night, for example, I was trying to figure out exactly what Mary Jekyll would look like. Here is how I started the first chapter. This may or may not be the eventual beginning of the novel.

Mary looked at herself in the hall mirror.

The face looking back was pale, with dark circles under the eyes. A halo of pale gold hair was visible under the brim of the black hat, and a high-collared black dress made the girl in the mirror look particularly sepulchral.

“What are you going to do?” Mary asked her.

“No sense talking to yourself, Miss,” said Mrs. Poole. “That’s what your poor mother started doing, toward the end. And much good it did her.”

“I doubt it did any harm,” said Mary. She turned to look at the housekeeper. “Is it still raining?”

“Yes, and you’d better take a cab or you’ll be soaked,” said Mrs. Poole.  “A week it’s been, and when will it stop, I wonder?  I’ve never seen London in such a foul mood.  Mr. Byles about snapped my head off when I asked for chops for your dinner, and the children in the park looked as though they’d been told there would be no Christmas this year.”

There are several reasons I started this way. First, the monster looking at itself in the mirror is a classic scene. I won’t go into the whole history of the scene, but I could: Frankenstein’s monster looks at himself in a pool, Jekyll uses a cheval glass to confirm his transformation into Hyde, etc. Second, in writing workshops, you’re always told not to have characters look at themselves in mirrors, and I like breaking writing rules. Third and most importantly, it simply felt right.

But the main issue for me was, what does Mary actually look like in this scene? Originally, I had her wearing a bonnet, but then I realized that a bonnet would have been worn earlier in the century. So I did some research, and found these pictures of late nineteenth-century hats. There were so many of them, so many different styles. I had to decide what sort of hat my character, Mary Jekyll, would wear.

They were a little earlier than the time during which my novel is set: the 1890s, when the New Woman movement became prominent.  Hats became more masculine, and therefore more sensible, during those years.  And Mary herself is a sensible girl.  She would wear a sensible hat. But these pictures could at least give me some ideas.

The ones below were far too feminine, too fancy. Mary would never wear anything like that.

These, too, were too fancy, and far too extravagant for a girl like Mary who has no money and must make her own way in the world. In the Victorian world, financial status was almost everything (social status was everything else). And so it has to be in my novel as well, even though it’s a fantasy.

No, no, no.  Seriously? Did women actually go around wearing these things?

Now we were getting closer.  These were hats specifically for sports, but some of them resembled the sorts of rather plain hats that Mary might wear. The one in the upper right, which looks almost like a woman’s black bowler, would fit both her pocketbook and her personality.

The last set were hats for children, and while Mary is of age, she is still young.  These hats gave me a better sense of what a younger woman might wear.  I decided that she was wearing something like the hat in the upper left, the black one.

The nice thing about being a writer is that you can leave so much to the reader’s imagination. So I don’t have to tell you exactly what sort of hat Mary is wearing. But it does become important later in the novel when she comes home and takes her hat off. Does she first take out a hatpin? I decided that she does not, that her hat is simple enough to just be taken off her head, and that her hair is probably in some sort of low bun that would allow her to wear a close-fitting hat. At least, that’s what I think for now. As I write the novel, I’ll get a better sense of who Mary is and what she looks like.

So there you have it, a small glimpse into what I was doing after midnight last night: revising a novel, but also looking at pictures of women’s hats from the 1880s-1900s.

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