Neo-Victorian Cannibalism Towards an Aggressive Ambivalence

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Many critics have seen literary history in terms of a multi-generational family of writers. In his ‘Anxiety of Influence’ (1997[1973]), for example, Harold Bloom alludes to Sigmund Freud’s notion of “family romance” (8) to describe later poets’ struggles with the influence of their powerful and famous precursors. According to Sigmund Freud (1909), “The liberation of an individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents is one of the most necessary through one of the most painful results brought about by the course of his development”. Yet, few critics have theorised the relationship between the different literary generations as cannibalistic. In this section, I will first discuss how the Victorian and the neo-Victorian can be seen as distended generations sharing the same ancestral background. In a later section, I will consider how members of later generations aggressively consume their ancestors in an attempt to fashion an independent identity.

Christian Gutleben in ‘Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel’ (2001) sees the familial relationship as one of the pivotal aspects of neo-Victorian fiction. He contends that ‘for the writers of retro-Victorian fiction, the Victorian novelist seems to play the role of a genealogical — almost genetic — ancestor.

Possibly also of a mythic ancestor’ (185). In ‘Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative’ (2010), Louisa Hadley agrees that the Victorians are “Close enough for us to be aware that we are descended from them” and “occupy a similar place to our grandparents” (7), while Andrzej Diniejko (2007) notes that “The Victorian novel has produced many offsprings in the twentieth- and early-twenty-first centuries.” As Louisa Hadley suggests with the term “grandparents”, the Victorians are not the immediate parents of neo-Victorian authors (these would be instead of the modernists or early postmodernists). It seems therefore that this particular ancestor has been chosen for their qualities and characteristics. Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo (1962) said that “Every writer creates his own precursors” (201, emphasis original), which is particularly true of the relationship between the neo-Victorian and Victorian.

Of the triple ancestral roles Christian Gutleben mentions (genealogical, genetic, mythic), he seems particularly interested in that of the “mythic ancestor”, on which he elaborates: “Inevitably a mythic ancestor is partly envied, partly rebuffed, partly appropriated, partly discarded; inevitably retro-Victorian fiction’s relation to its mythic ancestor is one of identification and rejection, of allegiance and distancing” (185-86). Although the Victorian can be seen as both a genealogical and genetic ancestor for the neo-Victorian, Christian Gutleben’s idea of the mythic ancestor is the most relevant to my discussion. To see the Victorian author as a mythic ancestor is to concede that he is not a direct predecessor of the contemporary writer per se but instead is imbued with mythological qualities and is the subject of worship and reverence. This may be one reason why neo-Victorian writers have decided to use the Victorian as their primary source material. The Victorian is considered by many to be the Golden Age of the English novel, in some sense its most “mythic” period, and thus provides the most powerful epoch with which to seek identification and to reject or criticise.

For British writers, the nineteenth-century is also “a period of British history […] perceived as particularly significant in the construction of the nation’s sense of self and cultural identity” (Rousselot, 2011:176). Seeing the Victorian as a kind of mythic ancestor helps further explain why neo-Victorian fiction has spread beyond the confines of Britain to overseas writers. If we view the Victorian novel and its artistic accomplishments as a kind of universal model with which all writers who choose English as a medium are familiar, then it is easier to understand how writers from divergent geographical backgrounds, political affiliations, ideological viewpoints, races and nationalities can regard the Victorian author as a common “ancestor”.

Neo-Victorian authors, however, have a complicated relationship with the Victorian. Christian Gutleben — referring to writers such as Peter Philip Carey (whom Laura E. Savu [2009] has called the literary son of Charles John Huffam Dicken [163]), Antonia Susan Duffy, Charles Palliser, Margaret Forster, Matthew Kneale and Thomas Stanley Holland — points to “the ambiguous kinship” that exists “between contemporary fiction and its illustrious ancestor” (186-187). Other critics also identify “ambiguity” as one of the most important characteristics of the neo-Victorian. Indeed, neo-Victorian novels often present mixed, even contradictory views of their forebears and can be at once admiring and highly critical of the Victorian past.

Criticism of the genre has often tried to parse this ambiguity with a variety of binary opposites: fidelity/betrayal, submission/destruction, pastiche/parody, nostalgia/criticism, conservative/subversive and inheritance/burden. These pairs (and there are many more) share one thing in common: they all attempt to unpack the ambiguous or ambivalent relationship between the contemporary and the Victorian; specifically, they seek to understand the negotiations between past and present, source and originality, aggression and admiration. Much of the critical analysis of neo-Victorian fiction correctly identifies the ambiguity and ambivalence of the genre towards the past yet does not provide a convincing explanation for the root of this ambiguity; in short, it does not explain why the neo-Victorian genre as a whole demonstrates both admiration and revulsion towards its source material. My proposed theory of neo-Victorian cannibalism which I propose provides an explanation for the genesis of this ambivalence and a model to understand the relationship between the Victorian and the neo-Victorian.

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