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Ladies, Lunatics and Fallen Women in Neo-Victorian Fiction

Ladies, Lunatics and Fallen Women in Neo-Victorian Fiction
© Photograph by Joaquim Albano Duarte

Since the publication of Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ (1966) and John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ (1969) — texts which are often cited as the first contemporary examples of the genre — contributions to and scholarly interest in neo-Victorian fiction have drastically increased in quantity.

Following A.S. Byatt’s ‘Man Booker Prize-winning Possession’ (1990), neo-Victorian fiction has become a rapidly growing literary phenomenon as well as “a catch-all term for many different kinds of work: the romance version of the historical novel, post-modern fun and games with period settings, lesbian romance for heterosexuals, lightweight commercial thrillers with Jack-the-Ripper fog, gaslight and carriages”.

Patricia Duncker’s evocation of this literary landscape as a “cluttered maze” of plots, narrative modes and settings illustrates the sheer range of fictional works which have been labelled as neo-Victorian, rendering it problematic to assign to them any characteristics more specific (or serious) than Miriam Elizabeth Burstein’s mocking assortment of ‘Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels’, listed on her blog ‘The Little Professor: Things Victorian and Academic’.

As in the case of neo-Victorianism, the theories, strategies and forms collated under the label third-wave feminism are by no means straightforwardly demarcated or coherent. This is at least in part because, not dissimilar to neo-Victorian fiction, the third wave crosses cultural and generic boundaries and has been identified and practised in various, sometimes intersecting realms, ranging from popular culture to activism and academia.

Since Rebecca Walker first proclaimed ‘I am the third wave’ in a 1992 Ms. magazine article, the term has been adopted by more feminists of colour, as is perhaps best exemplified in the first-person narratives collected in Daisy Hernández and Bushra Rehman’s ‘Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism’ (2002). At the same time, however, a variety of other women have equally appropriated the label, not only in print publishing but also in popular culture, including girl-power advocates, the punk movement’s “Riot Grrrls”, and “the Hello Kitty-accessorised and lipglossed Girlies exemplified by the writers of zines such as Bitch and BUST”.

Due to the often anecdotal and confessional nature of third-wave writing and its frequent blurring of scholarly and popular forms and approaches, “some academic and second-wave feminists argue that these narratives are not ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ enough or are solely grounded in the personal […] They do not view the personal as academic enough, despite the feminist mantra, ‘the personal is political’.”

In academic circles, third-wave feminism has only reluctantly been accepted as a valid, productive approach to feminist issues. While publications by self-identified third wavers began to appear in the late 1990s, the first scholarly attempts to theorise third-wave politics, praxes and writing did not appear until a decade later with publications such as Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie and Rebecca Munford’s edited collection ‘Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration’ (2004), a product of the first academic conference on the topic, and Leslie Heywood’s two-volume ‘The Women’s Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism’ (2006), which comprises a selection of primary texts and a glossary of terms.

For the past decade, third-wave feminism has gained further momentum within the academy through various scholarly investigations of and contributions toward its theories and practices in disciplines such as sociology, women’s and gender studies, philosophy and mental health.

Both within this thesis and in existing scholarship, literary manifestations of the neo-Victorian span equally various kinds and combinations of re-visitations: Sarah Waters’ ‘Fingersmith’ (2002), for example, adapts the plots of canonical Victorian works, while Megan Chance’s ‘An Inconvenient Wife’ (2004), Michel Faber’s ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ (2002), Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Human Traces’ (2006), Linda Holeman’s ‘A Linnet Bird’ (2004) and Belinda Starling’s ‘The Journal of Dora Damage’ (2007) revisit specific cultural phenomena such as hysteria, prostitution and pornography.

Others utilise both historical and contemporary settings, like Margaret Forster’s ‘Keeping the World Away’ (2006) or Kate Walbert’s ‘A Short History of Women’ (2009), and some, such as Gaynor Arnold’s ‘Girl in a Blue Dress’ (2008), reinvent the lives of (in)famous or more obscure Victorians.

Dianne F. Sadoff and John Kucich ascertained in 2000 — in their introduction to one of the first essay collections dedicated to the revival of the nineteenth-century in contemporary literature and culture — that the Victorians’ “prominence for postmodernism has [despite their evident popularity] yet to become the subject of rigorous scholarly analysis” and “is a cultural phenomenon that itself needs to be historicized — needs, indeed, simply to be acknowledged”.

Redressing this “critical gap” Kucich and Sadoff identified over a decade ago, the subsequent years of the twenty-first-century saw the founding of the academic journal Neo-Victorian Studies as well as the publication of numerous articles, particular journal issues, essay collections and monographs on neo-Victorianism as a literary phenomenon and as a significant aspect of (popular and material) culture, politics, education, economy, the media and the arts.

It is undoubtedly because of neo-Victorian fiction’s and third-wave feminist writing’s formal and generic diversities that, with very few recent exceptions, no universal definitions have been attached to either phenomenon.

Neo-Victorian fiction has only been loosely described in terms of the formal features and modes its authors employ, notwithstanding the growing body of critical work which the genre has inspired; equally, third-wave feminism frequently remains accused of a lack of coherence and unity, despite some scholars’ recent attempts to furnish it with a more defined theoretical identity.

While this thesis does not endeavour to fill such gaps, the following sections of this introduction outline two defining and shared characteristics of neo-Victorianism and third-wave feminism which render the latter a suitable analytical framework for the former.

Establishing, first, the central role of history in the terminologies and definitions which currently shape scholarly debates surrounding the two fields, I argue that neo-Victorian fiction and third-wave feminism are characterised by a keen interest in the relationship between past and present.

Secondly, through an exploration of their conceptions and constructions of this relationship, I illustrate that neo-Victorian fiction’s and third-wave feminism’s historical and historiographic concerns shape their ambiguous and arguably paradoxical sexual politics in relation to sexualised Western consumer cultures.

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