Eagle Designs
Nancy Herriman

Nancy Herriman received a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati. After 20-plus years in Arizona, she retired from a career in the high-tech industry, returned to Ohio and took up the pen. She hasn’t looked back. The Irish Healer is Nancy’s debut novel. When she isn’t writing, or gabbing over lattes about writing, she is either watching history shows on cable TV or performing with various choral groups. She lives in central Ohio with her husband and two teenaged sons, and wishes there were more hours in the day.

Genre Happenings

The English Victorian Era

To many people, the Victorian era, the period during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901), was a time of stiff manners and unbending rules, tea parties and rose gardens, steam engines and dirty streets, bustles and stiff collars. Those are true, if limited, characterizations of the era. At its most basic, the Victorian era was a time of great change. And though The Irish Healer predates the Victorian period by a few years, it deals with many of the issues that society would increasingly come to confront: the strain on the social fabric caused by a large influx of ill-educated and poor rural folk and immigrants into London; the shifting role of women as more left the home to work outside of it; new developments in medicine and the sciences and what they meant to prior notions of how the world functioned; and the changes that industrialization created, both for good and for ill.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, England was largely rural. Families worked on farms or in cottage industries much as they always had, living in or near where their ancestors had lived and died. Transportation and farm work was accomplished with horses. Labor was done during daylight, by firelight, or, if it could be afforded, by candlelight. Women and children worked to support the farm or the family business unless they were hired out as servants. It was a traditional way of living that had existed for hundreds of years.

By 1900, however, almost 80 percent of the population had moved to cities to work in the factories. New technology changed the face of farming as well as traditional cottage industries, putting many rural people out of work. Also, unrest in Eastern Europe and famine in Ireland drove large numbers of immigrants into English cities, taking London from a population of one million at the beginning of the century to over eight million by the end. Gas lighting enabled factories to function twenty-four hours a day. Women and children, some as young as eight or nine, worked in dangerous factories, their newfound livelihoods causing an often uncomfortable rearrangement to domestic life.

Making a living was difficult and the streets were, indeed, dirty. Cities couldn’t effectively manage the enormous increase in population, so a dozen people might crowd into a one-room apartment meant for a small family. The sewer systems couldn’t handle the overcrowding either, resulting in regular and fatal outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. In London, the Thames River went from a clean source of drinking water loaded with fish to so badly reeking from garbage that those working in the Parliament buildings alongside dreaded opening the windows in summer. Poverty and crime rates grew, as well, leading to all sorts of possible solutions: the creation of the modern police force; increased numbers of workhouses and debtors prisons; the foundation of so-called “ragged” schools, where volunteers attempted to educate, feed, and provide Christian instruction to more students than they could possibly attend to.

And by the late 1800s, there was the dreadful London fog—smog, actually—caused by hundreds of thousands of coal-fueled fires, so thick that on the worst days people couldn’t see the street from their windows, even at noon. Soot covered everything, seeping into the houses through every crack. Keeping clean must have been a nightmare.

But the Victorian era also brought positive change. The railroad and steamers shrank the world, enabling people and goods to travel to nearly every corner in a fraction of the time it took before. The invention of the microscope and improved surgical techniques allowed medicine to move from believing in “bad humors” and “miasma in the air” to understanding infection and contagion, and learning how to better treat disease. Factory-produced items became more affordable: clothing, furniture, kitchen wares, toys. For those women who wished it, the period provided them with new opportunities at jobs and at home, where domesticity became more greatly appreciated and marriage was pursued for love, even among the wealthy. Also across the span of this period, more of society recognized the great need that existed in their communities, so there was an accompanying upswing in organized Christian charity. Significant numbers of hospitals, schools, and benevolent societies were founded to take care of the unfortunate. Society struggled and managed to persevere.

So yes, people did drink tea (which became the drink of choice over coffee) and stroll in rose gardens, wear bustles and stiff collars, and believe in proper manners. But by the end of the era, the world had forever altered.


The Irish Healer