Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-98) was a mathematics don at Oxford University who loved word play and puzzles as much as he did the study of Euclid. But then, Dodgson was a young man of many and diverse talents - and something of an enigma himself.

A skilful pioneer of photography, Dodgson was one of the first to create personal portraits - his work being much sought after by such fashionable luminaries as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Daniel Rossetti, John Millais, and Ellen Terry. 

But, despite having many adult friends with whom he often visited art galleries and the theatre, the unmarried clergyman also enjoyed the less complicated friendships that he had with younger children - if not so much the company of the boisterous male pupils found when Dodgson was once employed as a school teacher.

In 1856, Dodgson was to write in his diary: "School...again noisy and troublesome...I have not yet acquired the arts of keeping order."

One can imagine the nervous young man being mocked by all the thoughtless boys, especially as he was said to have a tendency to stammer his words.

At Oxford he sought a quieter life, mingling with the families of fellow clerics and dons while applying himself to research and study. He published many mathematical textbooks. He wrote plays and political essays discussing matters such as voting theories in The Principles of Parliamentary Representation.

Also, while at Oxford, he often mingled socially with the children of his fellow academics. This led to some strong attachments being formed on the part of Dodgson, about which the spectre of doubt often arises regarding his motivation. However,  the VV is keen to stress that there is no actual evidence that he was ever influenced by anything more sinister than the fact that he was a sensitive man, perhaps overly fixated on his own innocent childhood years.

Such friendships inspired Dodgson to write his  'nonsense' poems, such as  Jabberwocky and The Hunting of the Snark - and, as most of us well know, his fantasy: Alice in Wonderland.

By 1865, the original handwritten version of Alice's Adventures Underground had been reworked and expanded from 15,000 - 27,500 words. It was published by Macmillan and Co under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, though the author's own illustrations, which were not without some merit, were replaced by those of John Tenniel, a far more accomplished artist who was already famous for his work with Punch magazine.

Tenniel and Dodgson had a somewhat strained relationship, with the artist regularly complaining that the author was meddlesome and demanding regarding the precision of his work. But then, Tenniel was not averse to making complaints himself. The first 50 books to be printed were swiftly withdrawn from sale when he claimed to be dissatisfied with the quality of reproduction. Those rejected copies were distributed to children's hospitals and institutions, of which 23 copies still survive. They are known as the '1865 Alice'.

The phenomenal success of Alice in Wonderland  was followed in 1871 by Alice through the Looking Glass. By then, even Queen Victoria had written personally to the author to say how much she enjoyed his work.

But, in addition to his fantasies, she and Dodgson also shared a mutual interest in the spirit world. (The widowed Queen was fascinated by cult of spiritualism - even engaging mediums or seances in the royal homes, in the hope of making contact with her deceased husband, Prince Albert.)

Dodgson was a founder member of the Society for Psychical Research and (despite some claims that he may have been unduly influenced in his faith by the frequent use of hallucinogens) he firmly believed that the human mind was able to perceive other realms in which our spirits might live on. He also had complete confidence that scientific developments would one day enable living men to 'speak' with the dead beyond 'the veil'. 

In fact, much of his inspiration seems to have come from a far more down to earth source, with characters and themes in the Alice books reflecting people and places familiar to Dodgson's upbringing and subsequent academic life at Oxford University - all of which were so skilfully woven into a convincing, alternative 'whole'.

Tenniel's rendition of Alice

The character of Alice was based on Alice Liddell and has been discussed in detail in a previous post, THE REAL ALICE  IN WONDERLAND.


It has been suggested that the Cheshire Cat was inspired by ecclesiastical stone carvings, such as those at St Wilfred's church near Warrington where Dodgson's father was a rector. At a nearby mediavel church - St Christopher's at Pott Shrigley - a grinning cat can be seen carved into an outside wall. There is also a gargoyle at St Nicholas, Cranleigh, where Dodgson was once known to worship.

But, Dodgson was not the first to use the description of a 'grinning cat'. One was mentioned in 1795, in Pindar's Lyric Epistles - 'Lo, like a Cheshire cat our court will grin.'

The city of Chester, which once had cheese warehouses on the banks of the river Dee, was said to be full of cats which had ample hunting with mice and rats and were, therefore, very happy. In the Cheshire village of Daresbury, cheeses were moulded into animal shapes - one of which was a grinning cat. And then, the British Blue breed of cats are known for their 'smiling' expressions, and that breed was said to have originated in Cheshire.

The White Rabbit is said to be based on Alice Liddell's father. As Dean of Christ's Church, Oxford, Henry Liddell was known for being late, often looking anxious while consulting the time on his fob watch. 

A narrow twisting staircase behind Christ Church's main dining hall was called the rabbit hole. This is confidently said to be the place that inspired the dark tunnel through which Alice was to fall when following the rabbit into Wonderland.

As far as the Hatter is concerned, the term 'as mad as a hatter' derives from a hazard of the trade in which mercury was often used in the processing of felt which was used in the lining of hats. Mercury poisoning could cause tremors and peculiar speech patterns, sometimes even hallucinations.

In Oxford, it was generally held that Tenniel's Hatter was a caricature of the local merchant, Theophilus Carter - a decidely eccentric man very rarely seen without his top hat.

Tenniel surely based his depiction of the Duchess on this 16th century painting by Massys, an imagined portrait of the Countess Margarete Maultasch who lived in the 1300's - and was notoriously ugly!

Some critics insist that the Queen of Hearts is based on Queen Victoria. But, Victoria enjoyed the Alice books. Would she really have been so amused by such an unpleasant caricature, or was she simply much too vain to notice the resemblance? 



Doctor William Price was a scholar and surgeon who gained fame at the age of 84 when cremating his dead baby son on the side of a Welsh mountain. 

A charismatic and charming young man, Price socialised as easily with the Welsh working class people among whom he grew up, as he did with the wealthier London elite met while he studied medicine. Being a talented student, at the age of only 21 he became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. 

When returning home to work in Wales be became very much involved in the Chartist movement, and also did a great deal to improve the health of the local workers - being very much against smoking, and keen on natural medicines, with a healthy diet (vegetarian here), and plenty of open air exercise. Such pioneering practice in a social healthcare system went on to have great influence on the views of Aneurin Bevan.

One of the earliest feminists, Price believed in Free Love in relationships and the abolition of marriage. He was also very much immersed in alternative religious faiths - studying Hinduism, Greek Mythology, as well as Egyptology, not forgetting the cult of Druidism that was very popular indeed in the Welsh Victorian era.

At this time there was a rising fear that the country may lose its identity and, inspired by the work and faith of the Druid, lolo Morganwg, Price hoped to encourage interest in the Welsh culture, language and history. (This was also the era when Lady Charlotte Guest was translating The Mabinogion to English, with competitive eisteddfods run to encourage the arts and the spoken word.)

Price believed the land’s many standing stones were places of spiritual worship and hoped to created his own ‘temple’ at the summit of a mountain overlooking the town of Pontypridd. When attempts to raise £10,000 to build a great museum failed, he refused to doubt his mission, especially after making a visit to the Louvre in Paris - after having been forced to flee to France when involvement with Chartists’ rioting placed him at risk of imprisonment.

At the Louvre he was said to have viewed a 2,000 year old Greek Stone, and believed that he could understand every one of its engravings, claiming that the stone had ‘spoken’ to him of his future as a ‘bard of the moon’, whose first born son would then become the Messiah of the Druid faith.

Back in Wales again, from around the age of 40, Pryce became yet more unconventional in his dress as well as his beliefs. Growing his black hair down to his shoulders and also wearing a long beard, he dressed in flamboyant outfits, often coloured emerald green, and wore a crown upon his head that was made from the body of a fox.

At the age of 71, having fathered three daughters, but still no son, he went to practice medicine in the medieval hilltop market town of Llantrisant. It was there, at the age of 83 that he met a young woman, Gwenllian Llewellyn, who was almost 60 years his junior, and who - despite all previous statements of not agreeing with marriage - he then went on to marry in a pagan open air ceremony, at which three women friends appeared as The Three Graces.

The longed for son was born to them on August 8, 1883 and was named as lesu Grist Price (the Welsh version of Jesus Christ). When that child then sadly died from a convulsion at only 5 months old, his father attempted to perform a cremation on East Carlen hill.

No doubt he had been influenced by the Hindu cremation ceremonies, and stories of ancient druids who were also said to burn their dead. But, ever the social activist, Price was very much aware of the growing movement in Great Britain for people to chose cremation ceremonies over traditional burials: an option then illegal.

There was a great deal of outrage and also suspicion that the child may even have been murdered, with Price only attempting to destroy any evidence of the crime. Crowds gathered and the corpse was taken away before the flames could devour it. A sensational court case followed on where Price defended himself and claimed:

“It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to living things.

After being found not guilty, Price demanded his child’s body back, and while his wife kept a mob at bay with pistols and Irish wolfhounds (that, the VV would have liked to see!) the cremation was finally performed, after which Price erected a 60 foot pole with a moon symbol on top of it, as a token of remembrance.

The event was a cause celebre which went on to greatly influcence a law that was passed in 1902, to legalise cremation. Meanwhile, Price fathered two more children, another son and then a daughter until, at the age of 92, he stood at his doorway one day and announced, “I will lay on on my couch and I shall not rise again.” When his wife tried to give him some cider to drink he demanded to have champagne instead, and while he sipped away at that Price peacefully passed away.

Following her husband’s death, on January 31 1893, Gwenllian ordered 9 tonnes of coal to be delivered to the summit of East Caerlan. There a great iron grid was built to hold the coffin. 20,000 tickets were sold to those who wished to view the cremation, with many of those spectators coming dressed in full Welsh costume, with an almost carnival atmosphere.

Price’s daughter, Penelopen Elizabeth grew up to devote herself to promoting the Cremation Society of Great Britain. In 1947 she unveiled a statue of her father in the Welsh town of Llantrisant.


Dylan Thomas’ short story, The Baby Burning, is said to be based on these true events.

The film in this link , and also shown embedded in the post below, was based on this story, and was created by Matt Brodie as part of his senior thesis at Emerson College.

Also with thanks to www.llantrisant.net



Recently, the VV gave a talk to the Dracula Society, discussing some aspects of her research into the Victorian Cult of Death. This is a transcript of that talk... 

I adore the gothic genre. Even when I was a little girl there was nothing I liked much better than to spend wet winter afternoons snuggled up on the sofa by a fire, with the curtains closed against the rain which was rattling against the window panes, while I watched all the flickering black and white films... like Fanny by Gaslight, or Wuthering Heights, not to mention the Hammer Horror films shown late on every Friday night. How they informed my teenage years!

And then, at university, I discovered Victorian Sensation novels such as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. All those twisting, turning, daring plots filled with such audacious themes – divorce or illegitimacy – doomed love affairs – lost inheritances – and very often harking back to Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto which inspired a host of fevered tales, perhaps even Castle Dracula, where an isolated protagonist, usually female, usually young, is engaged in a mental and physical battle against monsters, madness, murder, disease, sex, and the supernatural; with visions induced by drugs or despair which may be real, or otherwise might be explained as little more than the fears of an irrational mind. And all with claustrophobic scenes, such as crumbling castles with dripping crypts. Even a rotting corpse or two.

I think these isolated ruins – painted by Sebastian Pether in the early nineteenth century – add so much to the Gothic atmosphere of what looks like an illustration to grace an adult fairytale. A story subversive and dark enough to disturb the most cynical of minds, and to cause a shiver of delight. Just as when small children thrill to hear those opening few words: ‘Once upon a time’... 

When it comes to my own novels, I try to distort that fairy tale theme, with the concept of good versus evil sometimes being confused with twilight realms where nightmares meld with reality. Sometimes even the spirit world. But, at the heart of all my books is a gritty and real Victorian backdrop, with the darkness of what is often now referred to as its Cult of Death – though I would say that everyone, whether in the past or the present day, holds such a fear inside their hearts. It’s just that today our modern lives are somehow much more sanitized, making it easier to forget. Unless we are directly involved in what we might call the funeral trade, we rarely see the ‘face of death’. The ill are contained in hospitals. Even those who die at home are very quickly whisked away to undertakers’ mortuaries. We busy ourselves with the rituals. The choice of a coffin, the fittings, the flowers – all of which almost distract us from what we’re really dealing with; which is the pain of grief and loss. 

During the Victorian era, it was much harder to forget.

Mortality rates were very high. There was no National Health Service. No inoculations protecting the young against fatal childhood diseases. No antibiotics to kill off infections, some of which we might consider as being trivial today. But a finger scratched on a rose thorn while gardening this afternoon might result in a case of blood poisoning that would see you off within the week; not to mention the complications faced by women during childbirth.

Death could strike at any time. Ruthless, swift, invisible, whatever your age or social class. And for those who strayed too far away from the path of moral righteousness there were other forms of death as well, so virulent and widely spread that they only enhanced the sense of dread. 

One of them was  syphilis – that infection being rampant in nineteenth-century England where beneath a moral social veneer many scandals were simmering below. The consequence of such ‘sins of the flesh’ became the time’s great leveller, not discriminating in the least between rich, or poor – or famous.

Today, the disease can be easily cured by a course of antibiotics. Then, there was no hope at all. It was true to say that sex could kill, and sex was on sale most everywhere, on any Victorian city street – with many so-called respectable men (the married and bachelors alike) seeking to satisfy those needs that we accept as natural now.

Hidden in veils of silence and shame, the disease spread through every social group. This photograph was taken of Isabella Beaton who I often used to imagine as a battle axe of the kitchen range. But, the domestic goddess of her age died when she was twenty-nine, and may well have been infected as a virgin on her wedding night – as were so many others then, quite unaware of any wrong until the symptoms took a hold. Although she died from childbirth fever, she was also said to be in a much weakened state from illnesses brought on by infection with syphilis.

A state of near national hysteria led to the passing of an act whereby any woman on the streets, whether a prostitute or not, could be apprehended and physically examined for showing signs of the disease. Those found to be infected were placed in isolation, in medical institutions such as the London Lock Hospital: a cross between a prison and a convalescent clinic where there was no hope of any cure. But at least their souls might yet be saved to die and enter heaven’s gates. Meanwhile, they suffered hellishly, kept out of sight and out of mind, while the highly infectious but physically well continued to spread the plague about. 

Illicit sex was a gamble. The risks were very high. ‘One night of love with Venus...a lifetime spent with Mercury.’ 

Ah, mercury – the so-called cure – the toxic effects of which could be as grim as the disease itself, with ulcers, hair loss, headaches, fatigue and gross disfigurement, paralysis, blindness, madness too. A nightmare! A real life horror tale – which may have been in Bram Stoker’s mind when he wrote his novel, Dracula.

I’m sure you may well be aware that the author was often rumoured as suffering from syphilis, even though the official cause of death was said to be physical exhaustion. This was a popular euphemism, very often used in Victorian times, but whatever the truth of the matter I often ponder on this fact, especially when considering the central theme of Dracula – seeing anew in its pages the descriptions of a vile and unrelenting corruption of the blood: a corruption passed on sexually, from a man to his wife, then through her blood to infect the child inside a womb. The fate of the Beatons yet again.

So, a sort of immortality. A scourge that did not always die, even when its victims had.

For those who were then left behind there was grief, but life still carried on. While observing the mourning rituals that very often took their leads from the widowed Queen Victoria, who – following her husband’s death at the age of only 42 (and not from syphilis, I stress), went on to turn her misery into a grand obsession, and something of an art form, with the man she had adored in life then worshipped as a god in death – with the Queen very often heard to say that wished that she could have died as well, to join him in Eternity.

But, while waiting for eternity, her mortal flesh still needed clothes – and, it was around about this time that the fashion for mourning dress became such a massive industry. Victorians really revelled in what we might describe today as a mawkish sentimentality, with items worn and placed in homes to signify remembrance; all the things that could be purchased from enormous mourning emporiums – either by going to the shops in a personal capacity, or else by ordering items via adverts placed in newspapers, magazines, or traders’ catalogues. The mail order business is nothing new!

Hats were an essential. But, a mourner might also like to choose some black-edged stationery to use, or black embroidered handkerchiefs, even black satin ribbons to thread through the lace of their undergarments.

And, oh, what fashions could be found - as displayed in 'Death Becomes Her' – an exhibition held last year at the New York Metropolitan - though, the strictest rules and traditions were applied to the colours of the dyes, with various shades being allowed, depending on the time elapsed since the beloved’s end was met – and also the griever’s relationship. So, after the blacks, there were greys and browns, purples and various shades of mauve, though some, such as Queen Victoria, the so-called Widow of Windsor, remained in black forevermore.

Jewellery was acceptable, but nothing too bright or colourful, which was why jet was so popular – a great boost for places like Whitby where the very finest was said to be found; with necklaces, brooches, bracelets, rings very often being customised with a loved one’s name or initials. Even the numbers to signify the date or age when death occurred. 

Hair was a treasured keepsake too – allied with the fact that a woman’s hair was her crowning glory when alive. And then, the rather creepy fact that it often grew, long after death, as exemplified in the story told about the artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, when Lizzie Sidall, his muse and wife had died, wound a book of his poetry through her hair before her coffin was interred in a grave in Highgate cemetery. But then, seven years later, when he was in need of money, and in something of an artistic rut, he decided to reclaim that book, digging her up at the dead of night and then ...

... as shown in this lurid still from Ken Russell’s Dante’s Inferno – was shocked to see the way his wife’s lustrous red locks had grown so long, as if she never had been dead! As if she was a vampire. 
Poor Lizzie was no vampire – and who knows if she had syphilis. But she certainly was the victim of another great scourge of the era – and that was the use of opiates. 

No-one had look too far to find their chosen daily dose. Following the Empire’s expansion into other eastern lands, Victorian England was awash with the drug. It was sold in every pharmacy and no need for a prescription, after which it was ingested in the forms of powders or potions, which often led to overdose, with many children being lost while doped with supposedly innocent tinctures of cough medicine, or teething drops.

Mrs Winslow had much to answer for, with respectable and assuring ads that offered -

“ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep so that the little cherub awakes “as bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhea. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 11⁄2d. per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford- street, London.” 

But perhaps the most popular potion to sit in Victorian medicine chests, or to lie close at hand on bedside stands, were the ladylike bottles of laudanum, which even Queen Victoria used for her headaches and menstrual cramps. A potent narcotic it was as well, containing all opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine.

Lizzie Siddal was addicted, and this hopeless situation is thought to have been the inspiration behind a poem her husband’s sister wrote. Christina Rosetti’s, Goblin Market - illustrated here by Arthur Rackam – is a subversive, so-called fairy tale, which is full of longing for sex, and drugs, and in which another Lizzie is seduced by the juice that the goblins sell: ‘Their fruits like honey to the throat, But as a poison to the blood.’ 

That poison may have been the cause of the stillbirth of Lizzie’s daughter too. The next child conceived was never born, when its mother slipped into a coma, following an overdose - after which Rossetti painted his famous Beata Beatrix, where a woman holds a poppy flower. The source of the drug that killed his wife.

I wonder if, when he dug her up, Rossetti saved poor Lizzie’s hair to place inside a locket – which was how so many Victorians remembered loved ones lost to them. 

Or he might have had those longer lengths woven into the ‘lace’ of a mourning wreath – though it does seem rather creepy now; this ritual of remembrance by ‘hair’. 

Today we are more likely to remember those who’ve passed away by looking at photographs we keep. And, of course, we have videos – voicemails too. But, in the Victorian era, photography was very new. Even when studios opened up in which personal portraits could be made, this was something of a luxury; an expense that many poorer folk could very ill afford to bear – which is why some people at this time only had their pictures taken once, and often only when they’d died – when a family member would rush out to call in the photographer while the body would be washed and dressed and then posed as if still living – sometimes alone, and sometimes in the midst of the rest of the family, thus creating a personal memory to treasure in years to come. 

Such Post Mortem photographs are easily found online if you want to do a Google search. But I warn you, they can be disturbing, which is why tonight I’ve only loaded two for you to view on screen.

The first one is this photograph of beloved family pet.

The second, is this...where two children are standing beside the bed in which their younger sister seems to sleep, where, due to the long exposure time the living children look like ghosts, because they are blurred, because they moved, whereas the little girl who died is very clear for us to see. But then, of course, she was quite still. A beautiful, sad photograph. 

Such accidental blurring soon became a deliberate method used by Victorian charlatans who claimed to take photographs of ghosts as they hovered about in the background while their living loved ones posed in front. I’m actually writing about this now in a novel about the film industry – which was another miracle that began in late Victorian times, when stage magicians often turned to the trade of directing films, using their smoke and mirror tricks as the forerunners of the special effects that we often take for granted now.

But, back to spirit photography. It was double exposure, nothing more. Still, it is astonishing to think how people were convinced. But then, we see what we want to see. We often believe what we want to believe, particularly in times of grief.

How Victoria grieved for Albert, seen here upon his death bed when the soul had clearly fled the flesh. But his wife often tried to call it back, at the forefront of another part of the Victorian cult of death when she met with spirit mediums.

This ardent belief in the spirit world was thought to have gained momentum in America with the Fox sisters, and during and after the Civil War, when so many young men had lost their lives and survivors were desperate to contact them. And again, there were lots of tricks involved. Many mediums were fine magicians. 

But clairvoyance was also strongly linked with the early suffrage movement – with women not allowed to speak so controversially ‘themselves’ – but they could utter all sorts of views through the voice of any spirit guide!

I’ve written a lot about this in another article on this  blog - in the form of Victoria Woodhall; an amazing American woman who was also a newspaper publisher, a woman’s suffrage activist – and the very first female broker on Wall Street. She even went so far as to stand against Grant for the US presidency, back in 1872. What a woman! And there’s so much more about her exciting and scandalous life, She was not at all a retiring rose who fainted away at the slightest threat of any inconvenience. And she realised that power lay in the cult that was known as Spiritualism, followed as a religion by so many in Victorian times, with a lucrative ‘entertainment’ trade growing up around it. 

It’s not really as odd as it might seem – that so many people could be duped – if, in fact, we think they were. Victorians often had strong faith, with a fervent belief in an afterlife. And with scientific discoveries, such as the harnessing of electricity, or X Rays to see beneath the flesh, or voices heard through the ether as they travelled along a telegraph wire – why should it not be possible to discover another invisible force, and to tap into the energies of the spirit dead who still lived on: only waiting for us on the other side of the ever present veil of death? 

I’ve actually covered some aspects of this cult in The Goddess and the Thief, in which we see Queen Victoria meeting with spiritualist mediums. In fact, though the mediums in my book are entirely fictional, Victoria really did consult with famous clairvoyants of the time; and those meetings began even before the time of her husband’s tragic end. On one occasion when the royal couple were holidaying on the Isle of Wight, they met a Miss Georgina Eagle, who impressed the Queen so much that Victoria gave her a golden watch, on the back of which she had engraved – ‘For Meritorious and Extraordinary Clairvoyance. Produced at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, July 17th, 1846’.

Perhaps Miss Eagle was also there when a table began to levitate, leaving Prince Albert so horrified that he ordered the object be destroyed, and then demanded that his wife never dabble in such things again. 

But, she did – when he could not stop her – perhaps mindful of some words that he once wrote to her in happy times: ‘We don’t know in what state we shall meet again, but we shall recognise each other and be together in eternity I am perfectly certain.’ 

Another man who fervently believed in the afterlife to come was Robert Lees, the medium who wrote a letter to the Queen when he was just 13 years old, detailing certain private things about her life with Albert that he could not possibly have known; all of which so impressed Victoria that later on she invited him to join the court in London as its resident Spirit Medium. Lees, however declined that role, and suggested the situation would be better filled by another man. Many have surmised he had a certain Mr Brown in mind; the gamekeeper turned confidente, who claimed to have a psychic gift, and who, it was said, became the channel by which Prince Albert’s soul could visit with his wife again! If only Victoria’s diaries had not been edited when she died. What entries might have been destroyed. 

Whatever she wrote of them while alive, both men – in one way or another – were to share her final resting place, and perhaps in her eternity, when her body was laid besides Albert’s at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore.

In death Victoria took along mementoes of those she’d loved in life. So, she lies with Albert’s dressing gown, one of his cloaks, and a plaster cast that was made of one of her husband’s hands. She also has her wedding veil, some shawls, some family photographs, and various items of jewellery – but according to many intimates, including her physician, the royal tomb also contains some private mementos of John Brown. A lock of his hair, a photograph, several of his letters, and a ring that belonged to his mother.

The Queen – like many Victorians, went to her grave a Christian. But she was also influenced by the eastern religions and ideas encountered through the Empire’s reach; with those myths and supernatural themes also inspiring Stoker - with the fear of something alien arriving on our English shores, as well as the sense of attraction for the sensual and darkly exotic. 

The Empire built in India also inspired The Moonstone, a novel by Wilkie Collins’, which is filled with drugs, and which also involved the theft of an infamous diamond. He based it on the Koh-i-noor, which caused quite a sensation when claimed by the British Army at the end of the second Anglo Sikh war, after which it was brought to England and displayed in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

I’ve also woven this diamond – which was said to be both blessed and cursed, with supernatural magic powers, into my latest mystery, the story of Alice Willoughby, who was born and raised in India with her father, an army doctor – until at the age of eight, she is sent away to England, where she lives with her Aunt Mercy, and finds herself reluctantly involved in Mercy’s business as a fraudulent spirit medium. But, Alice in fact is not a fraud, often seeing things she’d rather not – and while still a young defenceless child she is often forced to play a ghost during Mercy’s séances; as described in this extract from the book - 

And that is how I was reborn: to walk the path of Mercy’s ghost, to act in Mercy’s Mysteries. I became an apprentice in the trade for which she placed advertisements: discreet invitations in magazines for “Tea and Table Moving” - though my aunt did not spread local lures, not wishing to cause more offence to the vicar, not wanting to encounter those who might recognise her spirit guide as being so like the orphaned niece who had recently come to live with her. However for the first few months, there was less risk of being known – when I spied from behind the sitting room door where I could eavesdrop on those ‘guests’ who sat in the hall and waited, until my aunt walked down the stairs, as resplendent in her finery as any actress on a stage. 

I would listen to those visitors, (nearly always women, nearly always old) exchanging confidential woes, and thus revealing vital clues. And later, when they had been called to sit beside the parlour fire, when the front door bell would chance to ring, requiring that Mercy be called out on a matter of some urgency – that subterfuge was all it took for me to show my aunt the page on which I’d scribbled down the facts that I had learned while hiding: those names and sorrowful events that might then drip from Mercy’s lips. 

When guests returned as regulars, when no more secrets need be learned, I wore the garments of the ghost, the hushing silks, the sheer black veils, the darkness of which obscured the face on which my aunt brushed silver paste, with ashes smudged around my eyes, to make me look half skull, half corpse. At other times a mask transformed my face into that of an infant child’s, whose tiny rosebud mouth would cry, ‘Mama - dear Mama. I am here!’ 

In daylight, it was pitiful to see those crude deceptions. I felt ashamed to play a part, to cause yet more unhappiness. But in the parlour’s darkness, the power of those wicked acts! Truly it was astonishing when, at Mercy’s given signal – a pre-arranged word, a certain look – her spirit guide materialised from behind ‘The Filmy Veil of Death’, which was generally the Chinese screen or the drapes in the room’s dimmest corner. From there I would float across the room, leaving a trail of apports behind – the rosebuds, or other fragrant blooms that might be construed as Spirit-sent: as were the kisses that I gave – the touch of veiled lips on tear-damp cheeks – the diversion of which then gave my aunt the chance to fling some sprays of dust from her pocket down into the hearth – where those chemicals would cause the flames to crackle purple, orange and red, exuding a dense grey pall through which I opened the door and left the room, during which my aunt would stand and chant: 

Through the mists that hide the Light of God, 
I see a shapeless form of Death. 
Death comes and beckons me today to glimpse the sacred Summerland. 
And with commingled joy and dread, I hear the far-off whispers . . . 

My heroine’s own Indian past is often whispering to her, in the characters, myths and legends that stem from her lost childhood, with stories of souls being born again, of deposed maharajah’s, and vampires - such as Vikram and the Vampire, translated by Sir Richard Burton: a story you can find online in the Gutenberg digital library. 

She is also very taken with the exploits of Varney the Vampire in the penny dreadful magazines that she finds beneath her grandmother’s bed – and in these lurid tales (which I’m sure Bram Stoker would have known) while she’s under the influence of opiates, having taken a dose of cough medicine, she falls asleep having reached the part in which she reads of Varney's dramatic death, when – in a fit of dark despair – he flings himself into the flames rising up from Mount Vesuvius. My heroine then has nightmares, thinking of Varney’s charred black skull – and that image is revived again in the form of an extreme Hindu sect: another sort of cult of death.

The Aghori in my Victorian tale are real, and they still exist today. They worship the god Shiva – who dances and beats his drum to conjure life into the world, but also to beat the dance of death. Shiva is said to represent both the good and the bad held in the world, and only by immersing themselves in equal measures of both things do the Aghori faithful hope to find Nirvana. Meanwhile, they inhabit burial grounds, immersed in death and vile decay, drunk on drugs and alcohol and eating human excrement. It is also a custom, or trial of sorts, for each new member of the sect to find himself a human skull from which he must drink human blood; finding this in the decomposing flesh of the dead who are left in the burning ghats – cremated before their ashes are scattered in sacred rivers.

Fire as a means of final death – for humans, or for vampires – is something my book also explores through the ancient practice of Suti, when Indian widows were burned alive with the bodies of dead husbands, although this was something outlawed by the British when they ruled there.

Cremation was also illegal in England until 1885, after in 1884 an 84 year old Welsh druid, a Dr William Price, cremated the corpse of his baby son. The old man was arrested, but released when no crime was found to be proven – and soon the law was also changed, and as early as the following year the first formal cremation was performed on a Mrs J Pickersville, taking place in the town of Woking – a setting less exotic than some in The Goddess and the Thief.

And now, in this final extract now, I’ll read a part of a letter that occurs at the novel’s opening, when a pregnant English woman (actually this is Alice’s mother) who has married an army officer and come to live in India, goes on a night time visit to a temple in Benares – as inspired by this painting by the artist, Albert Goodwin.

There was a temple that looked like a palace. It gleamed like silver against black skies where a bright full moon was shining down upon the domes and balconies, and the ornate marble arches, and in every arch a deity, and every deity shimmering in the flare of the torches set below. A pair of golden fretwork doors drew back to show a golden god... hailed by a thousand beating drums, the crashing of cymbals, the blaring of conches. I could not drag my eyes away, even though the god’s were closed. I kept thinking, ‘He cannot see me’. And yet, I knew he could, as if he could look into my soul through the gleaming ruby in his brow, or the ruby eyes of the cobra that coiled around his throat. That put me in mind of the devil in Hell, as did the trident in one of his hands. But then, the way he raised one palm – that seemed a benediction – and when a gust of air rose up, it was the strangest thing, because, I thought, “A gift, a blessing. A kiss from the lips of Shiva.” 

Such sacrilegious thoughts I had. I forced myself to turn away, to run on down the steep stone steps that led me to the river’s shore. How wide it is, that river? I could barely see to the other side where the flames of fires were burning and such strange shadows dancing. It must be one of the funeral ‘ghats’, where the Hindoos go to cremate their dead. But if only I’d not noticed ... that sudden stench of burning flesh...and then, the hand upon my wrist. A hand with fingers more like claws, with nails filthy, cracked and long. And there the horror did not end. In the other hand he held a staff, a drum, and what looked like a human skull. He wore nothing more than a loincloth. His flesh was black and wrinkled. And the toothless face that leered above... I could only watch when he dropped my wrist, unable to speak when his fingers spread and lowered to my belly. And just at that moment my baby kicked and that motion so sudden and violent that I gasped at the very shock of it. But it did bring me back to my senses again. I screamed. I pushed that wretch away. And he made no attempt to prevent me, only smiled as his hand was lifted, the palm extended forward, just like the golden god’s before. And then, he said the queerest thing... 

‘Do not fear thine death. Death is the blessed sacrifice with which to glorify The Lord. The Lord will claim thy womb’s new fruit, the goddess thus to be reborn.’ 

Poor woman! To hear such a prophecy: a prophecy that will come true, to curse her, and the child in her womb – a child who then grows up to see Hindu gods, and ghosts, and skulls – and to face the madness of a man who has lived among the Aghori, who then follows her to England, hoping to employ her skills in deceits far worse than any to be found in Mercy's parlour games.

And on that note, I’d like to end the talk I’d given you tonight with a thought about the only certainty that we all share in life - which is so perfectly described in the Latin Memento Mori - which means,  Remember You Must Die. 



Ada Lovelace 1815-1852

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke. However, Ada never knew the father who deserted his wife only a month after her birth and who died when his daughter was nine years old.


As a child, Ada was often ill and suffered serious complications following a severe bout of measles. After that her domineering and hypochondriac mother kept her in isolation whilst also attempting to allay any trace of ‘immorality’ or inherited poetic tendencies. She insisted that her daughter was tutored in music and mathematics. She must have been very relieved when Ada proved to be gifted in scientific areas  - the child even going so far as to produce a design for a flying machine.

Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Ada’s talents really came to fruition when, at the age of seventeen, she met with Charles Babbage, Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. Babbage had already begun his work on the world's first mechanical computers, even though his machines were never constructed with parliament refusing to sponsor his plans for the ‘Difference’ and ‘Analytical’ Engines. 

Ada Lovelace

Babbage did find some sympathy abroad when aided by the Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea. And when he returned to England again, Ada - his little Enchantress of Numbers - helped him with translating Menabrea’s notes. From these she formed an algorithm: a code to enable the actual processing of the machines that her mentor had in mind, even though they were never constructed during their inventor's lifetime. But, as such, she is now viewed as being the first computer programmer, and there is also some evidence that Ada suggested punch cards for use with the Analytical machine, even suggesting that its scope might aid the composition of music.

Ockham Park in Surrey

Ada married the 1st Earl of Lovelace, afterwards residing at Ockham Park in Surrey where the couple produced three children. But Ada was destined to die when young. Suffering from uterine cancer, at the age of 37 she perished from an excess of medicinal blood-letting - at the same age and from the same cause as Lord Byron before. She was then buried beside the famed father who, in life, she had never known.

Finally, if you like the idea of ‘steampunk’ Victorian fiction, then why not try reading The Difference Machine, an alternate historical novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In their combined story, the Analytical Engine has been built, changing the balance of world power. Babbage has great political influence. The Prime Minister is the scandalous Lord Byron (still living, rather than dying in Greece) who heads the Industrial Radical Party: a party in which his daughter, Ada, is also a prominent figure. Her computer ‘punch cards’ have been developed to enable a gambling ‘modus’ – betting being a penchant of our heroine, just as it was in real life.
And, with steampunk in mind, the VV would like to end this post by sharing something seem recently on the Datamancer website; a wonderful hybrid laptop encased in a Victorian music box – something that Ada Lovelace would surely have loved to own.