The Secret Language of Victorians — Welcome Guest Mary Winters

There’s nothing better than a new intriguing series and Murder in Postscript fits the bill! Mary Winters also writes mysteries as Mary Angela. We’ve been on several panels together and she’s always a delight.

Mary: When you imagine life in Victorian London, you might think of colorful fans, large bouquets of flowers, and enormous dresses—with good reason. In the 1860s, dresses were so large that Victorians hired carpenters to widen their door frames. You might also recall the numerous etiquette books produced during this time period, which included everything one should not do, including whistling, touching one’s ears, and scratching one’s head. Positively head-scratching!

But Victorians were masters of circumventing the rules they so revered. They invented new ways of talking without saying a word.

Imagine a man staring across the ballroom at a would-be lover. He couldn’t approach her without an introduction, and she certainly couldn’t approach him. But if she had a fan, a requirement in any stuffy ballroom, and if he knew the signals, he could hold a clandestine conversation with her. A fan across the cheek meant she loved him. A fan through the hand meant she hated him. And if she displayed a particular number of spokes on the fan, he could meet her at that hour for a private conversation.

Like fans, flowers had secret meanings, too. In fact, the first dictionary of flowers was published in this time period. Most people know that red roses signify love, but Victorians knew many other meanings. Yellow carnations meant disdain, begonias meant beware, and columbine meant foolishness. General floral characteristics had implications as well. For instance, striped flowers were often signs of refusal. Even the way the flowers were given meant something. If given with the right hand, the general answer was yes. If given with the left hand, the answer was no.

Letters, while less secretive, also held clues to the sender’s situation. Stationery with a black edge and black seal meant the sender was in mourning. A red seal was often used by men while rose-colored seals were preferred by women. By the 1880s, other colors were being used to reveal emotion, stymied so frequently in social interactions.

Like most Victorians, my sleuth, Amelia Amesbury, is adept at subversion. Despite being a countess, she pens a weekly agony column at the penny paper under the pseudonym Lady Agony. Her editor is childhood friend Grady Armstrong, and he passes along the missives in secret. New to the peerage, Amelia is used to work, and spending her days helping others, even from afar, gives her life purpose. When she finds one of her readers dead in St. James’s Park, it also puts on pressure. She knows she must find whoever did this and bring the person to justice.

The next time you picture the Victorian era, go ahead and imagine fans, flowers, and letters. Just remember their secret meanings, and tip your hat (It’s okay! It’s in the etiquette books.) to the Victorians’ contributions to the world of mystery.

Readers: Would you want to live in the Victorian era? What would you like about it and what is a no way for you?

© Julie Prairie Photography 2016

Bio: Mary Winters is the author of Murder in Postscript, the debut novel in A Lady of Letters mystery series, which received a starred review from Library Journal. A longtime reader of historical fiction and an author of two other mystery series, Mary set her latest work in Victorian England after being inspired by a trip to London. Since then, she’s been busily planning her next mystery—and another trip!

25 Thoughts

  1. I love reading about it. And I just learned about the secret language. Fascinating. Live through it? No, thank you. Way too restrictive.

  2. Welcome, Mary! I wouldn’t enjoy cold floors and horse manure in the streets at all, but maybe life in the countryside would have been more pleasant. All best with your new book.

  3. Very much enjoy reading books in the Victorian era. Although it might be nice to visit (like a time traveler), I would have a rather difficult time living in it. I’m too straight forward telling things the way they are without going around the bush to do so. I’m more so that way not that a senior citizen. 🙂 Plus I’ve never been one to follow or to keep up with the styles, but go my own way, which would make me stick out like a sore thumb. This all means that I’ll stick with visiting there through the great books I read.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  4. Congratulations on the new book, Mary! I enjoy stories about the Victorian era, but I’ll take a pass on visiting. I like my 21st century creature comforts too much!

    1. Thank you, JC! I really appreciate it. And I agree. It would be very hard to give up so many of our conveniences. I would be lost without my hairdryer!

  5. Thank you, Sherry, for having me on the blog! I’m so glad to be here.

  6. I think I’d enjoy visiting Victorian England for high tea, but I don’t think I’d want to live there.

    Congrats on the new book!

  7. I would if I could live my own life.
    A NO Way for me is I would not if I had someone controlling my every move and punishing me at their every whim if they thought I did wrong.

  8. Congrats on the new series. It sounds delightful!

    I would love to visit the Victorian era – but the corsets, well, I’d need a work around!

  9. Welcome to the Wickeds, Mary. And congratulations on Murder in Postscript. I would love to travel to the Victorian era for a visit, but I suspect my own Victorian ancestors wouldn’t approve of me!

  10. Congratulations, Mary! Great cover and great author pic. I fear I would get the fan language all wrong in Victorian England. On the plus side, there would be no TikTok.

    1. Thank you, Priscilla! I love the cover too, and just as a side note, the picture was taken in 2022. (I’ve fixed it on my website.) No TikTok is fine by me, but then again I don’t use it!

  11. I don’t know that I’d want to live in that time period. I picture it too formal for sarcastic me. I feel like I’d constantly be in trouble.

    Congrats on the new series!

    1. Thank you, Mark! I think I’d be in trouble too (my sleuth always is). But hey, what’s the fun of having rules if you can’t break them once in a while?

  12. I love the styles of clothing, but I do not think that I could handle the corset. I also could not be submissive to a man. I would want to stand up for myself and not be a quiet woman who did not have a brain. Thank you for sharing. God bless you.

  13. Hi Mary! I didn’t realize your new book had released. Yay! I agree with Kay – I’m too direct to be polite at times – so sometimes I just smile.

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