Yep, the Victorians were insane... but not in the way you might think.
My interactive novel Attack of the Clockwork Army is steampunk, and features a family of mad scientists. They don’t think of themselves as mad, and by real-life 1850s standards they barely count as eccentric.
As you may have guessed by the title of this blog entry, it was the Victorians who invented roller skates. Casting an eye over patents of the era feels like reading a particularly ludicrous sci-fi novel. The Victorians invented an enormous and noisy device that (allegedly) automatically brushed down your horse. It featured long, spider-like iron arms and an array of cogs, wheels, belts, and counterweights. Any horse worth its meat would have taken one look and kicked it to pieces.
The Victorians also invented the moustache protector, the steam-powered lawnmower (which weighed over a ton and was remarkably difficult to either steer or brake), and (a personal favourite) the anti-garrotte cravat.
I’m fond of the cravat because it’s linked to my particular area of interest: Australia. When Australian residents managed to put a stop to the convict transports to Australia, Londoners feared that all their home-made criminals would be stuck on their own island, and could attack their own people at any moment.
Perhaps now is a good time to admit that I am, in fact, Australian.
I researched 1800s Australia in preparation for inventing my own steampunk version of that history, and to this day the more I read about the era the more incredulous I become.
Cross-dressing, for example. Australia’s early law enforcement was horrifically corrupt, and that corruption was especially blatant on the goldfields. People flocked to Australia from all over the world, and some became fabulously wealthy. Others were so unsuccessful that they couldn’t even afford to pay for a gold-digging licence. The licences were severely overpriced, and the fees for lack of a licence were even worse.
And that, dear reader, is why scores of tough colonial men would greet the local lawmen dressed in full female regalia, and claim that their “brother” or “husband” was elsewhere – “and he has the licence of course, officer.” It is frankly unbelievable that this worked, but it did.
And then we come to the Bentley family. Mr Bentley owned the Eureka Hotel on the Ballarat goldfields. He was good friends with powerful British men (including the magistrate), and was wealthy. One night when a drunken digger yelled to be let into the hotel for a few more drinks, Bentley refused.
From there the story gets murky, and the true events are still being argued over today. One thing is clear: the digger was dead by morning.
According to the small amount of evidence available, Bentley either did the murder or knew who did, but he was not convicted by his powerful friend. It looked like he’d get away with it. Some eyewitnesses said he followed the digger that night and killed him. One eyewitness report actually implies that his pregnant wife did the deed. (Never, ever mess with a pregnant woman.)
The simmering anger on the goldfields soon exploded, and Bentley’s hotel was burned down. For reasons that have never been fully explained, Bentley fled the scene alone on a borrowed horse... wearing a dress.
So if you think steampunk cross-dressing is unlikely, think again. And next time someone on roller skates nearly knocks you over, just be glad they’re not insisting you wear a corset and crinolines every day.
My interactive steampunk novel, Attack of the Clockwork Army is set in Australia. You can choose to be male or female, gay or straight, black or white. You can even choose to fight for the British, or not to fight at all.
The book is available as a Choose Your Own Adventure-style app for your device on Amazon, Apple, Android, and Chrome. You can also buy it directly from the publisher (an easy way to buy and read it on your computer).
The app stores list it as “free, with in-app purchases”. What this actually means is that the beginning is free, and then you pay $5 (once!) to read the rest.