Friday, January 3, 2014

Beneath the Crinoline: Suffering to be Beautiful, With Carol Hedges

We’ve all heard the expression: ‘You have to suffer to be beautiful’. I didn’t realise how true this was until I started researching for my new book Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery and came across that essential part of every Victorian woman’s underwear: the corset.

For Victorian fashionistas, corsets were the must-have item. The corset created the teeny-tiny waist that was accentuated by the wide hooped crinoline skirt and was so attractive to men. Interestingly the corset was originally seen as a medical necessity - women were very fragile creatures and needed something to hold them up!

However by 1860, the corset had become part of the fashion scene and no well-brought up young woman would leave the house without one. Indeed, the wearing of a corset took on a moral aspect in that it showed to the world that you were a virtuous and modest person.

The corset was a vital part of everyday women’s wear, preferably tightly laced. In the book, Isabella Thorpe, the spoilt rich heiress laments the fact that her Mama won’t let her ‘’lace to 13 inches’’ any more (32 cm). This story is apocryphal .... most young women laced to 18 -20 inches (45 - 50 cm ) which, if you come to think about it, was actually pretty tiny.

Corsets may have given women the desired shape, but they were incredibly bad for their health. They caused fainting and asphyxia, and the constant compression of the internal organs could render the wearer sterile, or result in constant miscarriage. However, that wasn’t going to put anybody off. The solution was horrifically simple: in an early and drastic form of ‘plastic surgery’ if you wanted to gad around without fainting or being unable to draw breath, you simply had a rib removed.

Corsets were stiffened with whalebone and in the UK alone, 15 thousand whales were killed each year to support fashion-conscious Victorian ladies. So next time you squeeze into some support underwear, or suck in your stomach and complain, be grateful you didn’t live 153 years ago. Compared to our Victorian sisters, we have it so very much easier.

Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery is set in London in 1860. It tells the stories of three feisty young woman. Orphaned 18 year old Josephine King, rescued from a dreadful boarding school by her uncle Herbert King - and then re-orphaned once more when he is brutally murdered. Spoilt clever Isabella Thorpe, whose domineering Mama plans to marry her off to a totally unsuitable man and Lilith Marks, high-society prostitute and Herbert King’s mistress. Their various lives and adventures play out against the background of the great capital city, with its gas-lit streets and dark dangerous alleyways.

Carol Hedges is the successful UK author of 11 books for teenagers and young adults and one ebook. Her novels have been shortlisted for various prizes and her YA novel Jigsaw was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal. Diamonds & Dust is her first adult novel and is published by Crooked Cat Books.

It is available as book and ebook on Amazon at
or to order in bookshops.

Find Carol on Twitter: @carolJhedges

Read her blog:

When a horrific murder takes place on a dark night in 1860's London, it changes two women for ever. New light is cast upon past lives they thought they knew so well, and suddenly their futures become intertwined.

The death of her uncle will leave eighteen-year-old Josephine King an orphan, an heiress and the owner of a priceless diamond, The Eye of the Khan. For Lilith Marks, a chance finally arises to end her life as a highly paid prostitute and to prove herself as a serious businesswoman.

Set against the backdrop of the great gas-lit city, the two women are drawn together in their quest to discover just who killed the man they both loved.

Diamonds & Dust is a page-whizzing narrative, with an intricate and absorbing plot that entices you through the teeming streets of Victorian London. If Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle all washed up on a desert island, they might have come up with something like this.


  1. Thanks for having me on the blog again, Tara. Gosh, even re reading this makes me wince!!!

  2. I have been known to wear a corset now and again... and even only lightly-laced, I can report that such activities as walking upstairs and sitting down were practically impossible and rendered me red-faced and panting. Of course, the corset did have similar effects on male onlookers...

    1. I am convinced that a lot of the most uncomfortable underwear was designed by men. For obvs. voyeuristsic reasons!

  3. When we were teenagers, Carol, roll on corsets were still widely worn, if you remember! I had one myself but couldn't bear the thought of wearing it now. Well done on producing a truly riveting read.

  4. Corsets…yes, I remember my grandmother (who was born in the 1882) wearing them. Dreadful beige things with hard ribs. Later on, my mother also wore them, but a kinder variety, I think - with control panels or some such. I have never worn one, but now my daughters do - for fancy dress costumes! Great reading, Carol!

  5. I had a roll on, and I remember my mother struggling into a corset...though it was more of a long bra and tight girdle thig. Not as bad as the poor Victorian young ladies. Coupled with the rest of the underwear and a great crinoline, it must have been ghastly!