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Rewriting Fiction: A Neo-Victorian Contemporary Approach

Rewriting Fiction. A Neo-Victorian Contemporary Approach
© Photograph by Zan D. Kazuya

Neo-Victorianism has become a major trend in the contemporary world, a movement that tends to explore, recreate, reimagine or reflect the taste, style or simply, the characteristics of the Victorian Age. Matthew Sweet, in ‘Inventing the Victorians’, claims that the Victorian age actually gave us the modern twenty-first-century world and he aims to expose the Victorianness of the world in which we live, to demonstrate that the nineteenth-century is still out there, ready to be explored. His belief is that Victorian culture was as rich and difficult and complex and pleasurable as our own, that “they moulded our culture, defined our sensibilities, built a world for us to live in” (Sweet, 2002: 231).

Raymond Henry Williams, in his classic ‘Culture and Society’, enumerated a list of Victorian words that were either coinages or words that during the Victorian era acquired new meanings: “ideology, intellectual, rationalism, scientist, humanitarian, utilitarian, romanticism, atomistic, bureaucracy, capitalism, collectivism, commercialism, communism, doctrinaire, equalitarian, liberalism, masses, mediaeval and medievalism, operative, primitivism, proletariat, socialism, unemployment, cranks, highbrow, isms, and pretentious” (Williams, 1958: xv).

These words offer an unquestionable hint at the contemporary implications of the nineteenth-century. Victorian concepts, ideals and ideas, perspectives and values are, and never ceased to be, a shaping force throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries.

If early-twentieth-century repudiated, abandoned or rebelled against the heritage of Victorianism, in favour of a more modern approach to life, in stark contrast to this attitude of marginalization, the second half of the same century and the beginnings of the twenty-first-century manifested a wide spreading fascination with the period. Neo-Victorianism gradually became an aesthetic movement that spread out and invaded all areas of life: film, media, fashion, interior decoration, moral, advertising, art, but most of all, culture and literature.

An ever-increasing number of authors set their minds to recreate the Victorian period in their fiction, to make the reader revisualise the nineteenth-century world by rewriting, stylistically and/or thematically, at either the level of plot, structure or both, the past. Their main challenge was to find the right way to package the Victorian past for the tastes and demands of contemporary readers, to make “retro” accessible and successful (Mitchell, 2010: 3). Growing both in number and popularity throughout the last decades of the twentieth-century and the beginnings of the twenty-first, this new trend of rewriting the Victorian past embraced all literary genres, challenged and captured the imagination of writers of many nationalities, African-American, Canadian, Australian and of course English.

Critics have established that neo-Victorianism could be largely understood as an endeavour to explore the nineteenth-century past through historiographic (meta)-fictions, processes of remembering and forgetting, spectrality, (em)-plotting, self-reflexivity and/or nostalgia (Boehm-Schnitker, Gruss, 2011: 2). In ‘Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel’, Christian Gutleben defines retro or neo-Victorianism as “a new literary movement whose very essence consisted in re-thinking and re-writing Victorian myth and stories” (Gutleben, 2001: 5).

Still, there is one question that requires an answer: “Why, when we want to reinvent and revisit the past, do we choose the nineteenth century as the place to get off the train? What is it about the look of this past that appeals to the late-twentieth-century passenger?” (Lewis, 1996: 30).

Critics have argued in offering suitable explanations. Some explain this tendency of rewriting the past as a nostalgic attempt to collect its relics and celebrate its virtues, while others argue that it is the result of an acute, present need to think the present historically, to appeal “to a cultural memory, to be remembered, and imaginatively re-created, not revised or understood” (Mitchell, 2010: 7). As a result, contemporary novelists manifest this tendency of reconstructing, in their writings, pieces of the Victorian past that they reimagine both in the text and in the reader’s imagination. Under these circumstances, the reader him/herself becomes the embodiment of a re-imagined past.

Cora Kaplan in ‘Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism’, explains the modern obsession with Victorianism as one sign of a sense of the “historical imagination on the move”, “history out of place”, “something atemporal and almost spooky in its effects”; as a late twentieth-century desire to know and to “own” the Victorian past through its remains: the physical and written forms that are its material history (Kaplan, 2007: 1–6).

The neo-Victorian writers manifest a quite unique approach to literature and to the past. They find it important to turn to the past, but at the same time to remodel it and make it suitable for present, modern times or, why not, even the future. The past is also seen as a vehicle for influencing the reality. Their aim could easily be understood as an attempt to connect history and present, fiction and reality, to reinsert Victorians into a historical narrative and, at the same time, to explore the implications of this type of fiction on the present response to the past.

The neo-Victorian novel has not been referred to as a new genre but as a colonizer of genres, “the novel of all genres, the composite novel of its epoch, which highlights the cannibalizing, ever-broader, all-encompassing and all-assimilating nature of the novel” (Gutleben, 2001: 223). The neo-Victorian novel deals with a hybridist of genres ranging from detective novels to social, industrial and sensation novels, science-fiction, Bildungsroman, historical novels, biographical novels and the list could continue.

Neo-Victorian texts engage with Victorian literary narratives, from writing sequels or responses to individual Victorian texts, to adopting Victorian genre conventions, to engaging with Victorian realism. The purpose is not to simply adopt these Victorian forms, nor to pass as Victorian novels, but to acknowledge the need of transforming Victorian conventions within contemporary narratives (Hadley, 2010: 29).

The similarities shared with Victorian fiction are various. The average length and structure of Victorian novels stood as an indicator for neo-Victorian writers. In concordance with the Victorian pattern, neo-Victorian rewritings are also divided into books and chapters often preceded by summaries and epigraphs. The time of action has a dual connotation: it is either anchored in the nineteenth-century or spans both the nineteenth- and the twentieth-centuries. The setting is mainly in England, in London or in the countryside. The narrative design of the Victorian novel is also mirrored. Neo-Victorian fiction typically employs the same narrative voices used in the nineteenth-century texts, that is the first person character narrator or the third person omniscient one (Kirchknopf, 2008: 54).

Famous Victorian writers such as Lord Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles John Huffam Dickens, Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson, Thomas Hardy and Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde have been largely commemorated in Neo-Victorian fiction. For example, Peter Philip Carey’s ‘Jack Maggs’ re-imagines Charles John Huffam Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ by exploring the character of Magwitch, while Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini’s novel ‘The D Case: The Truth About the Mystery of Edwin Drood’ tries to solve the mystery of Charles John Huffam Dickens’ unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. Antonia Susan Duffy’s ‘The Conjugal Angel’ responds to Alfred Alfred Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly rewrites Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ from the perspective of a housemaid, and Emma Christina Tennant’s Tess imagines a lineage for Hardy’s Tess, from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. James Wilson’s ‘The Dark Clue’ explicitly positions his novel as a sequel to William Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’ by continuing the account of the lives of Collin’s protagonists.

Other neo-Victorians rewrite and reimagine not only Victorian novels and characters but also their writers’ lives. Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens or Colm Toibin’s ‘The Master’ are both literary biographies of Charles Dickens, respectively Henry James. Still, this type of narratives mainly abounds in the case of Oscar Wilde. Many neo-Victorian writers largely focused on Oscar Wilde who is seen as a victim of Victorian discrimination, prejudice, and persecution. For example, Giles Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde mystery series, Stephan Rudnicki’s Wilde, Clare Elfman’s ‘The Case of the Pederast’s Wife’, and Thomas Kiroly’ ‘The Secrete Fall of Constance Wilde’. Oscar’s historical and fictionalized character in neo-Victorian texts, fiction or histoire, often receives respect for and acceptance of, its complexity, its coherence amidst change, its aesthetic integrity along with its contradictions. He is presented both as the selfish giant and the self-sacrificing genius, characterizations that reflect not only “the actuality of Oscar’s existence but also the depth, roundness, and careful verisimilitude these neo-Victorians writers allow him, resisting both the historical and contemporary stereotypes of the man and the myth” (Robinson, 2011: 24).

Written in one period, but evoking another, neo-Victorian fiction adopts a dual approach by combining a concern with the past and one with the present, a desire to recuperate the past and re-establish its connection to the present. Pointing to both the Victorian past and the contemporary present, neo-Victorian fiction often adopts a dual plot. This is the case of a neo-Victorian category of novels in which the plot is split between a nineteenth-century one, and a twentieth-century one: Colin Dexter’s detective novel ‘The Wench is Dead’, A. S. Byatt’s ‘Possession’, ‘Ever After’ and Michele Robert’s ‘In the Red Kitchen’. This fact emphasizes the longing of our contemporary world for a relationship with the past.

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