Sunday, December 30, 2018

Culling my research library


While we are all thinking about New Year resolutions, I am reminded of the horror with which I contemplated the hideous prospect of getting rid of my books. Moving house became imminent at the beginning of the year and there was no way I was going to be able to take them all with me. But oh, my research books!

I used to have a huge seven foot high bookcase full of material covering all aspects of life, mostly from the 18th Century with a smattering of books on other periods along with my crime library concerning investigations and murder. The move, when it came, was to a really tiny flat, and that bookcase was not going to fit in.

I had to make some crucial decisions. I had room only for one largish bookcase. I managed to create space for a couple of small ones and most of the books that fell by the wayside were novels, I'm afraid. Culling my research books proved well-nigh impossible, but I did get rid of those I decided I was never going to have time to use. I absolutely had to keep the main ones relating to the Georgian and Regency periods, many of which I cannot do without.

The most used is Cunnington’s Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century, without which I couldn’t function, although I usually leave these descriptions to the editing stage. The great thing about Cunnington is the detail, from fabrics to accessories, with year on year changes for both men and women.

She details everything, from bonnets and hairstyles, to materials used and when they were fashionable, whether women wore ruffles, what colours were worn when to such intimate little gems as false bosoms and using mouse skin artificial eyebrows. What about this little aid to beauty?

"Cork Plumpers were occasionally worn to restore roundness to the hollow cheek."

Invaluable material.

One book on antiques has a useful set of images depicting the way rooms actually looked, as well as individual items of furniture - for which I’ve also got Chippendale’s workbook. Ackermann helps with scenes of London, such as Brooks’s, Astley’s Amphitheatre, Covent Garden and the Pantheon. The Romance of the Road gives two whole journeys from London to Bath and London to Portsmouth in drawings, so you get distances, inns and the likely traffic. I had to hang on to my books on Georgian cookery, and all those books with satirical drawings are wonderfully evocative of the period.

Setting is vital and I’m in love with my book of maps from the late 18th century covering the entire country. I’ve also got London and greater London A-Z style maps, and a whole raft of detailed Victorian books about London and surrounding districts with interesting snippets, like who lived where, what’s there and the history behind it, plus sketches.

Of course there is the internet, and I will dive into Google for little facts and figures. For example, an expression so common to us now like "mad as a hatter" might not have been current in the period. Google is excellent for little things like that. And for details about old inns, towns and distances from place to place.


Pinterest is a mine of useful images. You can pretty much find out what anything looked like, from a copper foot warmer to how a lady manages the exigencies of ordinary life wearing all those petticoats. I add to my boards all the time, though whether I shall ever be able to find the exact image I need at any given moment is a moot point.


I like images best because they help me picture the scene, and I can garner textual stuff to furnish detail. It’s amazing how it puts me into the period in my head, which in turn enables me to write it for the reader to imagine.

This is what I love about books, and why research is vital. You can’t detail everything you’ve read. Instead you draw the scene in brush strokes of words, letting the reader fill in the gaps. I have to immerse myself in the data, even if only about 10% ends up in the book.

To be honest, I’m far too apt to lose myself in the books and forget what I’m actually looking for. One piece of research leads to another, besides throwing up new plot points I hadn’t thought of. Research for me is as much part of the process of writing as it is exploration of the period.

Just as well I've managed to hang on to most of my precious books!

Happy New Year
Elizabeth Bailey

22 comments:

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Respect, Elizabeth! I, too, am in the throes of culling my bookshelves. I agree 100% that the Cunningtons' guides to costume are invaluable - in my case the 19th century. At the moment, I'm going through everything and making a list - I'm hoping to sell some of the hardbacks. My Medieval historian brother sells his unwanted books to an antiquarian bookseller BUT they only buy hardbacks.

Otherwise, I might offer the appropriate ones to Birkbeck's library (where I did my MA in Victorian Studies). In these cash strapped times, they may be glad of the more obscure books, at any rate.

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

I admire your courage, Elizabeth,and I feel for you. I find it very painful disposing of ANY book, no matter what it is.

had to give away lots of books when we moved house last year, mainly novels, but I was fortunate because I managed to keep most of my research books - this time around! Costume books, and more obscure history books are a must - more generic ones are not so valuable, but still painful to part with.


I know people say you can find most things online these days, but its not quite true, is it?

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