Researching the Minutia of Edwardian Daily Life for “The Beauty Doctor”

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In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.

Last fall, I was approached by historical fiction author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard to review the manuscript of her historical suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor. She had already done a tremendous amount of research but needed someone to help her fill in a few gaps as well as to ensure that she had accurately captured some of the nuances of the Edwardian era. In particular, she was concerned about subtle differences between the Victorian period, about which there has been so much written, and the Edwardian period, which was relatively short but did represent a huge shift in certain aspects of American life and culture. I soon fell into a rabbit hole of research, exploring the fascinating world of early plastic surgery and gender politics in 1907.

Conducting research for a novel, as opposed to many academic articles, had me seek out interesting details of daily life that aren’t often recorded. (Do you make note of which streets in your town are paved or unpaved? What about if there are electric street lights on the corner of your street? Did you change your clothes before you went out for a walk this afternoon, or not?) Luckily for me, the action of the novel largely takes places in New York City, one of the most documented cities in the world! Still, some details remained elusive. The Edwardian era was a time of flux when it came to technology as well as social values: an excellent backdrop for a historical drama!

A lot of research starts with a concrete question, and the author had noted in her manuscript quite a few specific ones about what she wanted me to either weigh in on or help answer with further research. Here are some of the useful resources and fascinating details I uncovered while researching The Beauty Doctor

  1. How do you start a car at this time? 1907 was very early in the history of automobiles, and they were largely considered playthings for the rich – and they were dangerous. One of my favourite sources for perceptions of cars in the early days was this podcast episode from 99% Invisible. But how do you operate a car from this time period? It was far from standardized like it is today. My best source was to simply go on youtube and watch people start vintage cars like this one. A picture – or video – is worth a thousand words!
  2. What kinds of clothing would a character wear on particular kinds of occasions? What a character wears says a lot about them as a person, and it will change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Reading historical etiquette manuals helped me get into the mindset of what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear – and remember, not all characters act according to society’s wishes. This was something that the author and I discussed frequently, as she had very definite ideas about what some of her characters should and should not do or wear. I found that her instincts about such things were quite good. For example, her character Alexandra Gagarin, the Russian countess, often wore a kimono; the Asian influence actually was quite in vogue at the time. I found collections of  historical fashion plates invaluable, particularly for characters from higher classes. Mail order catalogues are also very handy to see what an everyday person could buy, ready-made, and that’s not just limited to clothing! Of course, photographs of women and what they really wore, as opposed to illustrated fashion plates, are also incredibly useful, and fascinating to boot.
  3. Would they have said it like that? How do you check and see if a word was in use over 100 years ago? The author had actually been very careful about her selection of words and researched the origins of most all of them that were questionable. However, a second pair of eyes is always a good idea! I’d often reach for two different resources to confirm or deny my gut feeling of a word or phrase sounding too modern. Google Ngram is a nifty tool that allows you to search Google Books for the prevalence of words or phrases over time, and displays them in chart form. Here, for example, is a graph depicting the published use of the phrase “makes them tick” in published material. (It seemed to come into popular use after the Second World War.) This online etymology dictionary was incredibly handy to see when a word first joined the English language and how it has evolved over the centuries. I learned, for example, that the word “concussion” has a long history: “c. 1400, from Latin concussionem (nominative concussio) “a shaking,” noun of action from past participle stem of concutere “shake violently,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + quatere “to shake” (see quash). Modern brain injury sense is from 1540s.” A lot of words that I checked because they felt too modern to me turned out to have older origins than I anticipated! The word “boss” dates from the 1640s. The word “handy” dates back to the 1300s! And sometimes it’s just the way a word sounds, rather than its date of origin.  For example, the author liked my suggestion to use the word “position” instead of “job.” Either would have been perfectly correct, but the former has a more old-fashioned “ring” to it.
As for the medical aspects of the book, especially plastic surgery, the author was quite an expert in that herself. She did, however, ask for my help in finding some photos of operating rooms from the first decade of the 20th century, including how the doctors and nurses dressed.  Of course, most of the medical scenes in The Beauty Doctor don’t take place in a hospital but instead in a private doctor’s office set up as an operating room. There was definitely some improvisation required!
     I really enjoyed the story of The Beauty Doctor and think you will, too.  The book is available now through these fine retailers!

 

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