The drawing-room in the Palazzo Guidi in Florence, where Margaret Forster's "Lady's Maid," Lily Wilson, really did wait on her mistress, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. [Click on this and the following images for larger pictures and more information].
Margaret Forster's Lady's Maid (1990) tells the familiar story of the Brownings in a new way, from the point of view of Elizabeth Barrett's new maid, Elizabeth Wilson. Forster gives "Lily," shortened from the pet name "Lilabet," a voice, especially through her detailed letters home to her mother in Newcastle, a woman "married at seventeen and widowed at twenty-five, for whom nothing had ever gone right" (5). This allows the author to present the Brownings in a remarkably fresh, intimate light. The kind and attentive Lily, with her very different background, is also imagined with great inwardness, and the reader is just as involved with her life as it develops during her employment as with the various well-documented events in the life of her employer. As the two contrasting strands are subtly interwoven, Lily's experiences become as important and enlightening to the reader as the two famous poets', if not more so.
Forster's focus on the Victorian era, together with the mix of fiction and non-fiction in her narrative, and the way she runs together different social and intellectual strata, are all typical of a particular category of literature: the neo-Victorian novel. The most basic definition of this would be "contemporary fiction that engages with the Victorian era, at either the level of plot, structure, or both" (Hadley 4). But the "theory-friendly feminist Victorianist[s]" who are attracted to this area (Kaplan 4) generally focus more sharply on the way the multiple narrative is presented: "critics have agreed that a certain meta-critical apparatus or self-reflexivity regarding the adaption of the Victorian are requirements for a text to be considered neo-Victorian" (Ho 10). The multiple narrative is also likely to reflect "the collapse of the once fiercely defended border between high art and mass culture" (including "daily life") to which the influential Marxist critic Fredric Jameson refers in his "Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity" (100). Novels discussed under this heading range from wholly fictitious but meticulously researched works set in the period to detailed historical reconstructions; and from intelligent and witty thrillers and detective stories to more scholarly narratives that raise difficult issues as well as inviting critical debate.
Another scene from Victorian times recreated in neo-Victorian fiction: the assassination attempt on the Queen on 30 May 1842, which is one of the incidents re-examined by Paul Thomas Murphy in his novel Shooting Victoria.
Such novels may go to extraordinary lengths to assert their authenticity. Michael Cox's melodramatic neo-Victorian thriller, The Meaning of Night: A Confession (2006) is presented as a manuscript found among family papers deposited in the library of the University of Cambridge, and subsequently edited by a "Professor of Post-Authentic Victorian Fiction" at the university. It is accompanied by a preface, footnotes, a Post Scriptum purportedly bound in with the manuscript, and an Appendix. Works like this are not simply period pieces: they "do something with" their Victorian material, as Helen Davies says emphatically (2). Their conscious historicity demands our attention, and invites comparisons with our own age—the age in which these works are, so to speak, both "wrapped" (by the author) and "unwrapped" (by us). Paul Thomas Murphy's hefty Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem and the Modernisation of the Monarchy (2012) takes historicity in fiction to its limits. It carries a disclaimer on the copyright page: "This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously." Yet it reads entirely like history, with well over a hundred pages of perfectly authentic citations and seventeen of Works Cited (including archival sources). More fact than fiction, it has been received as such by reviewers, including biographers and historians, who take seriously Murphy's thesis that the Queen's "gutsiness" in the face of a number of assassination attempts helped to bolster both her own popularity, and that of the monarchy (x).
These narratives are apt to incorporate so many secondary supporting texts, whether fictitious or drawn from earlier literature and history, that they approach pastiche. From this point of view too, the neo-Victorian novel is very much a postmodern project: "one of the most significant features or practices in postmodernism today is pastiche," says Jameson (4). The novelist and academic A. S. Byatt is probably the most notable practitioner of this kind of novel, with its hallmarks of metafiction and intertextuality. Indeed, critics are apt to credit Byatt's Booker prize-winner of 1990, Possession, with having "catapulted neo-Victorian fiction into the mainstream" (Hadley 2), and the novel has subsequently become a key text for them. Prominent among these critics is Dana Shiller, who finds that it foregrounds "the process of attempting to assimilate historical data, and the necessity of literary and historical conventions to make a coherent and satisfying narrative out of the raw details of past lives" (552). It does so by following two contemporary literary researchers, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, in the "tiresome and bewitching endlessness of the quest for knowledge" (4), in this case about two Victorian poets, Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Engaged in or possessed by this pursuit, Roland and Maud establish their own relationship as well. The result is what Roland himself refers to as a kind of "self-referring, self-reflexive, inturned postmodernist mirror-game" (421), signposted by the "excerpts" from the work of the fictional poets. Retrieving the past themselves, sometimes the distant mythological past, these interpolated verses help to complicate the very notion of time, which, in Ash's words, is "[e]ver-renewed" as well as "ever-moving on" (262). This brings into question, too, the possibility of possession of any kind—except that of our own possession by forces beyond our conscious control.
Elsewhere, texts similarly integrated into neo-Victorian novels may be taken from more mundane but verifiable historic sources, such as nineteenth-century newspaper reports and other archived documents. Here is Julian Barnes, some years later: "Apart from Jean's letter to Arthur," he writes in Arthur and George (2006), "all letters quoted, whether signed or anonymous, are authentic; as are quotations from newspapers, government reports, proceedings in Parliament, and the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle" (505). Barnes's explanation is somewhat disingenuous, given that the one fictitious letter that he mentions (which appears on p. 329 of the novel) is extremely brief—nothing compared to the vast amount of invented dialogue and detail fleshing out the known facts all through the narrative. Barnes reconstructs his principal focuses here, the "Great Wyrley Outrages" case, and Conan Doyle's personal life, in depth and with considerable imaginative flair. The issues he raises about knowledge, identity and belief are as profound as Byatt's; the questions about what we know but are unable to substantiate, and therefore might only believe we know, are as pertinent to academics as to those involved in court cases or drawn towards spiritualism, as Conan Doyle was. Could any scholarly biography do more to bring its subjects to life than this "fictional" one does? Is not every biography an interpretation partly or even largely based on conjecture anyway?
The blurring of the line between fact and fiction is another characteristic of neo-Victorian fiction. Having researched the known territory, neo-Victorian authors make intelligent guesses about the unknown or little-known territory beyond it, and invite us to follow them over borders that they have carefully made invisible. Forster, in her rather early experiment of this kind, worries about puzzling us. "Fact and fiction have been threaded so closely in this novel," she says in an Afterword to Lady's Maid, "that it might help to know exactly how much of it is based on truth" (535). She then proceeds to tell us. Lily really did keep a boarding house in Florence later on, for instance, where she managed to endure the rages of the demented Walter Savage Landor: "All the information comes from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's letters" (535). But part of the challenge and pleasure of reading these books lies in not knowing, or at least in not knowing exactly. The reason for this is suggested in the quotation at the beginning of Possession. Byatt has taken her key from Hawthorne's remarks in the Preface to the House of the Seven Gables, in which he defines the work as a Romance rather than a Novel. This, he explains, is because the former provides more latitude, adding specifically, a little further on: "The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us." Such an attempt, whether made in the nineteenth or the twenty-first century, encourages both writer and reader to probe the values of past and present, and to ask their own questions about where the two overlap or differ.
Then and "Neo-"
Mr Micawber in Phiz's illustration in David Copperfield, setting off for his adventures in David Barry's Mr Micawber Down Under.
Typically, the neo-Victorian novelist may expose the prejudices of the past, and the exploitation that went hand in hand with them, by empowering a previously marginalised character or class of characters—as Forster does in Lady's Maid. Seeing what Elizabeth Bowen once called "yesterday reflected in today's consciousness" (qtd. in Spurling 100), we may congratulate ourselves on our superior moral standards. We may do so too when we note that Dickens's feckless Micawber still has his problems in David Barry's Mr. Micawber Down Under (2011), rather than becoming a colonial magistrate as Dickens himself had intended. In other cases, however, standards may seem to have slipped rather than risen. We catch a glimpse of ourselves in Cox's villainous anti-hero, with his self-absorption, enormous sense of entitlement, and total inability or unwillingness to realise the suffering he inflicts on others. In these respects, he may seem less like a Victorian, and more like someone from our own times. Not knowing exactly where the borders between then and "neo-" are, we cannot help but realise how much common ground we share. Our "need to imagine and re-invent the past" (Shiller 552) may stem from a desire to discern not so much progress or decline, but simply our common humanity, our shared strengths and, less fortunately but in a way just as comfortingly, our shared failings. In short, we are apt to discover, as Shiller says, that "we are not alone, that we are always accompanied by the ghosts of bygone days’ (555).
Neo-Victorianism and Empire
The horrors of 1857, depicted here only a few years later, are "replayed" with an extraordinary mix of wit, humour, pathos and profundity by J. G. Farrell in The Seige of Krishnapur.
Such revisitings provide new words for the critical lexicon only when they result in a distinct body of new work: Dylan Thomas and other poets of the early 1940s, for example, were called neo-Romantics when they rebelled against the political poetry of the previous decade; postmodernism took off when the iconoclastic modernists no longer seemed so iconoclastic; and postcolonialism, for all its element of anti-colonialism, could only follow the collapse of empire and its ethos.
Some critics associate neo-Victorianism very specifically with the latter: "the return to the Victorian in the present offers a highly visible, highly aestheticized code for confronting empire again and anew; it is a site within which the memory of empire and its surrounding discourses and strategies of representation can be replayed and played out" (Ho 5). A fine example of just such a return is also one of the earliest—J. G. Farrell's deservedly "Best-of-the-Bookers," The Seige of Krishnapur (1973), about the Indian Mutiny. The Collector here says, "We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us … but what if we're only an after-glow of them?" (203). But the process of re-enactment does not stem from nostalgia, any more than postcolonialism does. Far from it. No one would like to return to the arena entered by the relieving force at the end of Farrell's novel, peopled as it is by the emaciated, ragged, stinking and altogether "wretched selection of 'heroes'" (311) who survive his version of the events of 1857. It is a matter of re-assessment, and of understanding, and relating to, the ever-receding past.
"Are we painting red roses white, or white ones red?" cries little Daisy Bradley in Lynne Truss's Tennyson's Gift, echoing the anxiety of the gardeners in Chapter 8 of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
Writers can hardly proceed without a sense of history, and without drawing on tropes, themes, character-types and modes from earlier works. There is nothing new, either, about seeing the process of such returns and borrowings as creating a relationship or even a dialogue with the past. This is not a tendency peculiar to literature, or to our own age: neoclassical and neo-Gothic are terms in the architectural world that express the Victorians' own fascination with the past, and indeed their longing to recover something from it—the grandeur of Athens and Rome, the spirituality of the Middle Ages. That recent novelists should look to a particularly vibrant historical and literary period for their inspiration is hardly surprising, then. What is new is only the degree to which they are so "self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians" (Heilemann and Llewellyn 4). It could be said, in fact, that what makes Neo-Victorianism so special is its postmodernism.
What of the future? This popular trend is already resulting in a much wider and looser category of fiction than some politically orientated critics suggest, and is likely to continue and grow. "Once you have glimpsed the glorious garden through the poky little hole, nothing will prevent you from wanting to see it again," says Lynne Truss in another, more light-hearted neo-Victorian novel, Tennyson's Gift (171). She is describing the actress Ellen Terry daydreaming about the charismatic American phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler, and shows her feeling like Alice in Wonderland as she does so. If the "glorious garden" cultivated by the Victorians turns out to have its quota of painted flowers, so much the more scope for "(re)visions," and so much the more satisfaction from engaging in them. It would seem that the more closely we look, and the more intently we see ourselves looking, the better.
- The Brownings in Florence
- The Neo-Victorian Sensation Novel in 2008: Michael Cox's The Glass of Time
- Authenticism and Post-Authenticism: Wilkie Collins's Armadale and Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night: A Confession
- Arthur Conan Doyle as defender of the Unjustly Accused
- "Tell Us What Really Happened": Evidence and the past in Julian Barnes's Arthur and George
- The Fallen Nature of Narrative and Knowledge—Fragmentation and Byatt's Possession
Barnes, Julian. Arthur and George. London: Vintage, 2006.
Byatt, A. S. Possession : A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991.
Cox, Michael. The Meaning of Night: A Confession . New York & London: Norton, 2006.
Davies, Helen. Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction: Passionate Puppets. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Farrell, J. G. The Seige of Krishnapur. London: Phoenix, 1993.
Forster, Margaret. Lady's Maid. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.
Hadley, Louisa. Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Heilemann, Ann, and Mark Llewellyn. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Ho, Elizabeth. Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire. London & New York: Continuum, 2012.
Jameson, Frederic. "Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity." In The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998" . London & New York: Verso, 1998. 93-135.
Kaplan, Cora. Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticisms. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Murphy, Paul Thomas. Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem and the Modernisation of the Monarchy. London: Head of Zeus, Ltd., 2012.
Shiller, Dana. "The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel." Studies in the Novel. Vol. 29, No. 4 (Winter 1997): 538-60.
Spurling, John. Foreword. The Hill Station, and an Indian Diary. London: Phoenix, 1993. 7-10.
Truss, Lynne. Tennyson's Gift. London: Profile Books, 2004.
Last modified 26 August 2013