The best offbeat books about the Victorian Era

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in a reading and history-loving family. My parents read all the time, and their books of choice combined historical fiction and nonfiction. It’s no wonder I ended up teaching high school history for over three decades. The first books I read were my older brother’s hand-me-down Hardy Boys. Then, I went on to Agatha Christie. Books written in the 1920s and 30s were historical mysteries by the time I read them decades later, so the historical mystery genre is a natural fit. As for the Victorian age, all that gaslight and fog makes it the perfect milieu for murder.


I wrote...

Murder by Lamplight

By Patrice McDonough,

Book cover of Murder by Lamplight

What is my book about?

The year is 1866, and a killer stalks the twilight streets of Victorian London. Dr. Julia Lewis and Inspector Richard Tennant join forces to stop a vicious serial murderer. She’s one of Britain’s first female doctors; he’s a Scotland Yard detective under pressure to catch the killer. At first, Julia and Tennant are reluctant allies; slowly, they learn to trust one another.

Clues to the murderer’s motives point in different directions: to London’s grim workhouses, its music halls, and the fallout from the city’s deadly cholera epidemic. The murderer taunts and teases with letters inked in purple and quotations from a children’s song. The stakes rise when the killer’s attention turns to Julia. This book is the first book in the Dr. Julia Lewis Mystery series.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy

Patrice McDonough Why did I love this book?

The author’s unusual lens made this a captivating history. Murphy examines Victoria’s reign through the multiple attempts on the queen’s life. While the title isn’t entirely accurate (one would-be assassin used a walking stick rather than a gun), Murphy makes a persuasive case for the monarchy’s “rebirth.”

Defying death helped the queen survive some rough patches in her reign. Through eight attempts to kill her, the queen modeled “keep calm and carry on” in the best British tradition, and the public adored her pluck. After the final gunman failed to murder the queen, the aging Victoria said, “It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.”

By Paul Thomas Murphy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shooting Victoria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'It is worth being shot at to see how much one is loved.' - Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria was attacked an astonishing eight times during her sixty-three year reign.

Victoria's would-be assassins succeeded in changing the course of British history; whose penal system, legal system and policing would never be the same again. Taking the queen's mad, marginalized attackers as his starting point for an investigation of the entire era, Paul Thomas Murphy weaves elegantly through all layers of nineteenth century society and culture. A rollicking, riveting history, Shooting Victoria is the most multi-faceted story of Victorian Britain to date.


Book cover of The Secret Life of Dr James Barry: Victorian England's Most Eminent Surgeon

Patrice McDonough Why did I love this book?

This superb biography is an engrossing account of the mysterious title surgeon and the doctor’s fascinating world. James Miranda Barry joined the British Army in 1813 as a regimental surgeon and served in colonial posts for the next fifty years. But Barry had been born Margaret Bulkley, an anatomical female—a surprise revealed after the doctor’s death.

Was Barry’s masquerade strategic, the doctor’s only route to a medical career? Was Barry a transgender person? I wondered if the “truth” would remain a mystery. Rachel Holmes persuaded me that the probable answer lies in a document “gathering dust” in Edinburgh’s medical school archives, a revelation she saves for the last chapter. 

By Rachel Holmes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Secret Life of Dr James Barry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A reissue of Rachel Holmes's landmark biography of Dr James Barry, one of the most enigmatic figures of the Victorian age. James Barry was one of the nineteenth century's most exceptional doctors, and one of its great unsung heroes. Famed for his brilliant innovations, Dr Barry influenced the birth of modern medical practice in places as far apart as South Africa, Jamaica and Canada. Barry's skills attracted admirers across the globe, but there were also many detractors of the ostentatious dandy, who caused controversy everywhere he went. Yet unbeknownst to all, the military surgeon concealed a lifelong secret at the…


Book cover of Palaces of Pleasure: From Music Halls to the Seaside to Football, How the Victorians Invented Mass Entertainment

Patrice McDonough Why did I love this book?

This delightful book erases the stiff, sepia portraits of a bygone age, painting the Victorian world in living color. It shreds the era’s image as fun-challenged. The Victorians knew how to have a rollicking good time, inventing popular entertainment on a commercial scale.

In two generations, theatrical performances, professional sporting events, and seaside holidays were accessible to the masses. Jackson traces the social and economic transformations that made it possible.

Book cover of How to Be a Victorian

Patrice McDonough Why did I love this book?

I adore immersive, hands-on history. Gordan took me on an intimate, hour-by-hour tour of a Victorian day, from the morning wash routine to the five-minute hair-brushing ritual at bedtime. She tested the power of the natural bristle brush; I’ll take it on faith that one can go weeks without shampooing.

Ever wonder how Victorians cleaned their teeth before Colgate? Coal soot is the surprising answer.  From what they ate to how they dressed, worked, and played, Gordon charts differences across social classes and down the century. 

By Ruth Goodman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked How to Be a Victorian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ruth Goodman believes in getting her hands dirty. Drawing on her own adventures living in re-created Victorian conditions, Goodman serves as our bustling and fanciful guide to nineteenth-century life. Proceeding from daybreak to bedtime, this charming, illustrative work celebrates the ordinary lives of the most perennially fascinating era of British history. From waking up to the rapping of a "knocker-upper man" on the window pane to lacing into a corset after a round of calisthenics, from slipping opium to the little ones to finally retiring to the bedroom for the ideal combination of "love, consideration, control and pleasure," the weird,…


Book cover of The Corset: A Cultural History

Patrice McDonough Why did I love this book?

I love a book that upends my assumptions. Valerie Steele applies science and common sense to “history’s most controversial garment.” In her hands, long-standing Victorian myths unravel. Gone are fainting, wasp-waisted women whose corsets cut their livers in two and fairy tales about the cosmetic removal of ribs to produce a trimmer waistline.

The book is a visual delight, richly illustrated with period advertisements and humorous, anti-corset cartoons from popular journals. Steele traces the garment’s history across the centuries and explores what finally killed the “lethal” corset; it wasn’t its deadly health effects. 

By Valerie Steele,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Corset as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The corset is probably the most controversial garment in the history of fashion. Although regarded as an essential element of fashionable dress from the Renaissance into the twentieth century, the corset was also frequently condemned as an instrument of torture and the cause of ill health. Why did women continue to don steel and whalebone corsets for four hundred years? And why did they finally stop? This lavishly illustrated book offers fascinating and often surprising answers to these questions. Valerie Steele, one of the world's most respected fashion historians, explores the cultural history of the corset, demolishing myths about this…


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Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

Book cover of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

Edward Benzel Author Of Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Coming from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, I have witnessed many successes and failures over more than four decades. I recognized decades ago that communication with patients at a level that involves emotions is a necessary part of being a complete physician. This involves being empathetic and, henceforth, digging deep to find the strength to be transparent, vulnerable, compassionate, understanding, and, when needed, forceful (some would call this paternalism). Although the five books I have chosen to highlight vary widely in content, they have one common theme – finding within us the will and wherewithal to succeed.

Edward's book list on awakening of the strengths that are hidden deep inside each of us

What is my book about?

My book is a collection of monthly Editor-in-Chief letters to the readership of World Neurosurgery, a journal that I edit. Each essay is short and sweet. The letters were written for neurosurgeons but have been re-edited so that they apply to all human beings. They cover topics such as leadership, empathy, vulnerability, stress, burnout, and on and on…. These essays are relevant for all who strive to craft a better version of themselves.

Life lessons learned by the author during his 40+ year neurosurgery career are shared and translated into real-life scenarios. Between the covers are many lessons that are derived from the experiences of the author and then applied to all humans. The mastering of these lessons should translate into a sense of pride and satisfaction. In keeping with the theme of the book, this process should culminate in the feeling at the end of the day that ‘Today was, indeed, a good day.’

Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon

By Edward Benzel,

What is this book about?

About the Book
Today Was A Good Day: A Collection of Essays From The Heart Of A Neurosurgeon features many topics that pertain to how neurosurgeons interact with others and how each of us can use introspection to modify how we are using tools and strategies such as empathy, respect, stress management, and much more.
This book provides some insights into leadership, effective communication, and fulfillment from the perspective of a neurosurgeon, and it causes the reader to think about and consider many, many attributes of a leader.
We all want to have a good day. This book provides strategies…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Victorian, medicine, and London?

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