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Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism. The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009

Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 323 p. ISBN : 978-0-230-24113-8
Georges Letissier
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Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism. The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 323 p. ISBN : 978-0-230-24113-8

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1Neo-Victorianism has now become a major field of studies, straddling Victorian scholarship and research in contemporary literature and the arts. Neo-Victorianism. The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009, which was co-authored by two major specialists in the domain, has now become a standard reference. Even if it focuses on a limited timespan: 1999–2009, it is, to all intents and purposes, much more than a mere update on the question of neo-Victorianism. Because it raises crucial issues on adaptation, appropriation, revival and translation, by historicizing the issue—showing, in particular, how creating from previous sources has been acknowledged as creation in its own right since the Renaissance and later thrived in the Victorian era—it is likely to bring grist to the mill of all those who are interested both in aesthetic reception and in the commoditization of the Victorian in the contemporary cultural and popular marketplace. As is most aptly argued, neo-Victorianism somehow blurs the gap between high and low culture, by appealing to two kinds of readership: ‘readers who know relatively little of the Victorian texts/authors being played with, and another type of reader who is aware of the “original” text (often an academic)’ (228). This study reflects this two-pronged approach, by investigating neo-Victorianism from challenging critical perspectives: trauma studies; postcolonial studies; epistemology and material culture, without eschewing the phenomenon of heritalogical interaction entailed by a chain of mutual inter/cross influences between TV costume drama, docu-drama, spin-offs and theme park experiences, such as the emblematic ‘Dickens World’ which opened in Chatham in 2007.

2The introduction initiates a stimulating debate on the plain, albeit persistent, question of why contemporary literature and culture repeatedly initiate returns to the nineteenth century. Some thoughtful answers are propounded right from the start. By quoting Zadie Smith, who does not count amongst neo-Victorian writers, the authors show that in an age of cultural fragmentation and disintegration, the 19th-century English novel offers the comfort of all-inclusiveness with a common purpose. The risk is of course that contemporary re-visionary fictions may wrongly construe ‘the Victorian’ as a homogenized identity, a single monological signifier, through what would amount to cultural iconization. Very interesting too is the idea of the belatedness of our contemporaries, as regards the Victorians, as a result of a sort of Bloomian anxiety of influence, owing to the fact that novelists such as George Eliot already pushed the English novel to its limits and so paved the way for further, subsequent experimentations. It is indeed increasingly acknowledged that the Victorians were the ones who ushered in (proto-) modernity. The attendant risk of such belatedness would of course be creative impotence, since emulating, or even worse, aping one’s precursors might stifle inventiveness. To pre-empt such interpretive impasse, Heilmann and Llewellyn come up with a foundational definition of what qualifies as neo-Victorian: ‘“neo-Victorian” is more than historical fiction set in the nineteenth century’, it implies the fact of being ‘self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians’ (4, original italics). Indeed, the prefix ‘neo’, when used in conjunction with genre, means new, modified, and fostering more or less radical changes, unlike what it signifies when it is associated with a political movement where a clear, conservative hankering after the values of the past is implied. Hence Margaret Thatcher’s Neo-Victorianism would be a different thing altogether from the type of cultural neo-Victorianism which is explored in this study. Following this logic, all contemporary narratives set in the nineteenth century need not qualify as neo-Victorian, and incidentally the current fashion of trivializing Victoriana to pander to market demands may rightly come in for parody. Heilmann and Llewellyn are thus more concerned with self-conscious, self-reflective fiction writing, and consider the metafictional mode as essential to the genre.

3The first chapter ‘Memory, Mourning, Misfortune’ highlights the ambivalence of the Victorian past, which is both oddly familiar and yet always ultimately intangible and severed off from contemporary experience. Its relative proximity in time and the abundance of its remaining traces in literature, art, architecture and the accessibility of its socio-cultural and political discourses could suggest a sense of immediacy, however the authenticity and the ‘truthfulness’ of the Victorian past is forever lost. So our relation to Victorianism is bound to be a story of mourning and lost inheritance. Heilmann and Llewellyn rightly remind their readers that previous neo-Victorian fictions such as Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx (1989) and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (2000) were preoccupied with the development of broken lineages which their texts set out to recover and heal. The same process of anamnesis is at work in the four novels treated in this chapter: Wesley Stace’s Misfortune (2005), Sarah Blake’s Grange House (2000), Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale (2006) and John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer (2004). So this first part operates a shift from Christian Gutleben’s path-breaking study Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel (2001), which regarded the neo-Victorian genre as a metaromance playing with the reader’s romantic longings, by underscoring painful reminiscences as the foundation of contemporary identity.

4Trauma, on a collective scale, and the difficulty of coming to terms with the Victorian colonial past, underpin the second section titled ‘Race and Empire’. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the case of postcolonial neo-Victorianism, the exotic Otherness of a fantasized Orient must take account of another form of overlapping otherness in popular culture, since the Victorian age itself has now become orientalised, as Western’s culture mysterious, eroticized and exotic other. Following from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which endowed the poor ghost of Bertha Mason, Brontë’s Creole madwoman, with subjectivity, Heilmann and Llewellyn select four recent novels intent on defeating the stereotype of the silenced, colonized Other. Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008) negotiates what Homi Bhabha designates as a ‘Third Space’ of enunciation, by playing up multilingual and/or intercultural dynamic interactions of speech acts and linguistic performances. Laura Fish’s Strange Music (2008) draws from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘The Runaway Slave Pilgrim’s Point’ to make a contribution to the hybrid genre of neo-Victorian bio-fiction. Ahdah Soueif’s The Map of Love (1999) introduces a left-wing Egyptian female intellectual in a two-tier fiction, in which she peruses the diary of a turn-of-the century lady. The key metaphor of the subversive stitch (needlework, embroidery, quilting), a recurrent symbol in postcolonial women’s writing, is used to translate the creative activity of the writer stitching together different sources: epistolary narratives, first and third person accounts, telephone conversations, factual historical documents and chapter epigraphs from different origins (Egyptian, Arabic and English), and blending history with mythic/supernatural interludes. Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing (2009) draws its inspiration from the life of Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon, a Victorian writer, traveller and highly unconventional intellectual who travelled to Egypt with her maid Sally Naldrett to help speed her recovery from tuberculosis. The novel argues that despite her nonconformist, broadminded stance, Duff Gordon proves unable to move beyond a near-feudal conception of her English servant. Once the unmarried Sally gives birth to a mixed-race child her mistress rejects her, placing her in direct correlation to the ethnic, subaltern Other Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has defined as the indigenous rural subject, silenced by both imperial and local structures of power, and epitomized by the sati ritual: the Hindu widow’s self-immolation.

5In neo-Victorian criticism, sexuality has often been tackled through the trope of sexsation: i.e. prurient voyeurism for sexual matters, supposed to have been secret and forbidden in a context of strait-laced morality. Hence the titillating promise of scandalous revelations (lurid divorce cases, male brothels, organized female child abuse and under-age girl trafficking) served as an incentive for reading. As Cora Kaplan showed in Victoriana. Histories, Fictions, Criticism (2007)—another reference book for anyone interested in neo-Victorian studies—Sarah Waters largely contributed to this explicit exhibition of Victorian taboo sex through her modern depiction of same-sex relationships. Heilmann and Llewellyn adopt a renewed, and more stimulating, approach by investigating the bond between science and sex (Ch. 3), notably through Barbara Chase-Riboud’s treatment of Sarjee Baartman the Hottentot Venus in a novel published in 2003. The choice is particularly felicitous as Hottentot Venus may be analyzed as the hub of a fulcrum of themes that are seminal to neo-Victorian fiction: ethnographic influences on cultural constructions of black women; scientific scopophilia and the pornographic gaze, racial categorizations and taxonomies of so-called sexual deviances, as catalogued in Michel Foucault’s ‘repressive hypothesis’ and the ethics (or absence thereof) of museum culture―or freak shows in the present case.

6The notion of specular reflection and reverberation as a means of conceptualizing the diverse links between the Victorians and the neo-Victorians was introduced by Simon Joyce in his The Victorian in the Rearview Mirror (2007). In the fourth chapter, entitled ‘Spectrality and S(p)ecularity’, Heilmann and Llewellyn propose a stimulating extension of the topic by tapping into Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Glassworlds (2008) to consider the intrinsic ambivalence of glass, as both transparent and bearing the ghostly or spectral presence of its creator’s breath. As an antithetical material, both barrier and medium, glass would afford a portal to the possibilities of the spirit world and mediumship. But instead of confining itself to a thematic analysis of neo-Victorian recreations of the paradigmatic Victorian ‘séance’, this highly stimulating chapter envisages the possibility that our own response to neo-Victorian fiction might be ascribed to a phenomenon of haunting. The historical pull of the past, our current obsession with knowing, summoning up, possessing and being possessed by the Victorians can be construed as a re-enactment in the present of a typically nineteenth-century preoccupation with the spectral, the ghostly and haunting in general. This ultimately implies a specific neo-Victorian type of poetics, predicated on what Jodey Castricano calls ‘cryptomimesis’, i.e. the play of revelation and concealment which is at the core of the experience of (ghost)writing. The influence of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994) is palpable in these pages (143–73) in which it is hinted that the omniscient narrator of classic high realism would have been superseded by the spectral presence of the neo-Victorian writer, ghosting an identity in both present and past.

7With the following chapter ‘Neo-Victorian Metatextual Magic’, Heilmann and Llewellyn return to a more standard approach by considering neo-Victorianism as a sub-genre of postmodernist fiction, through its use of self-referential gambits, followed by metafictional playfulness and ludic intertextual overkill, all leading up to attempts to disentangle the inscription of historical veracity from the constructedness of history and historiography. A new slant is brought in by the authors, however, by emphasizing the relationship between neo-Victorian author and reader in terms of conjuring trick and performance of illusionism. By drawing on Michael Mangan’s Performing Dark Arts: A Cultural History of Conjuring (2007) and Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘simulation and simulacra’, it is shown that a number of contemporary novels and films mimic Victorian conjuring techniques to probe into our fantasies and interrogate our blind-spots. Misdirection, which consists in showing while hiding, is equated with Jean Baudrillard’s postmodernist concepts of simulation and hyperreality. A telling example would be Disneyland, or more appositely, Dickens World, whose very inauthenticity as simulacrum, by serving as substitutive reality in our imagination, masks the more general inauthenticity or hyperreality of the world in which we live. Thus Neo-Victorian fiction or films (Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, 2006 and Neil Burger’s The Illusionist, 2006, are also cited) engage their readers and spectators in a game of hide and seek, playing with their desire to rediscover the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ by offering them a hall of mirrors full of copy. Ultimately, metanarrative neo-Victorianism employs the same performative techniques as Victorian stage magic, but allows readers insight into how the illusion is produced.

8The last chapter, which also functions as conclusion to this thought-provoking volume, broaches more down-to-earth and pragmatic aspects of Victorian afterlife, including its commercial consequences. The multiplication of classic serials, resulting in a seamless seguing between them, tends to blur into the same block an artificially recreated vision of a fake Victorian culture. Therefore neo-Victorianism is not immune from the risk of presentism, which François Hartog diagnosed as the closing off of a future, swallowed up by an omnipresent all-annexing present (Régimes d’historicité, présentisme et expériences du temps, 2012). What contemporary adaptations of Victorian precursor novels do may sometimes amount to utilizing previous texts as a means to reflect the ideology of the present as divorced from the past.

9Neo-Victorianism. The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009 is a major critical work which should engage the attention of researchers in both Victorian and contemporary literary studies. It also makes for very good read, as it is well documented and well illustrated. The presentation is flawless with each chapter beginning by exposing the necessary critical premises before proceeding with detailed studies of a sample of novels and methodically concluding on a few salient remarks. It offers a privileged access to a choice of very recent novels which have not come in for much critical attention yet. Such an ambitious undertaking cannot of course be fully complete and a closer definition of the national scope of neo-Victorianism could have been interesting. For instance, does an Egyptian novelist like Ahdaf Soueif, even if she writes in English, fall under the neo-Victorian umbrella appellation to the same degree as writers steeped in the English tradition such as Sarah Waters, or even Amitav Ghosh who, as a writer from the Indian subcontinent, partakes in the English cultural heritage too? Why has nothing been written on steampunk, or the art of Victorian futurism which is a major trend in the most recent development of neo-Victorianism? It could also have been worth thinking of the possibility of a return to the nineteenth century by following tracks radically opposed to those of the neo-Victorian approach. To some extent, this is what Tom McCarthy does in his (anti-)novel (2010) where he calls up the early years of radio transmission in a historical fantasy purporting to dispense with the notion of character. This being said, Heilmann and Llewellyn invite readers to think of neo-Victorianism in innovative ways and prove how dense and intellectually demanding this no-longer nascent genre proves to be.

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Georges Letissier, « Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism. The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009 », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 83 Printemps | 2016, mis en ligne le 27 mai 2016, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL :

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Georges Letissier

Université de Nantes

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