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  • Fingersmith's Coda:Feminism and Victorian Studies
  • Cora Kaplan (bio)

This past spring I found myself preparing an undergraduate lecture on Sarah Waters's much praised novel Fingersmith (2002) as a contemporary coda to a course on Victorian Literature. Waters's twisty, tasty tale that takes its switched at birth heroines from thieves den to country house and madhouse, imitating and queering Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins as it rolls along, is proof, if proof were needed, that the Victorian period and its literary legacies are still able to engage and entertain today's writers and their audiences.1Fingersmith and Waters's two earlier faux Victorian fictions, Tipping the Velvet (1998) and Affinity (1999), all quickly adapted for television, belong to a long tradition of pastiche Victoriana reaching back to the late 1960s. It seemed important that students be made aware of the political and critical genealogy of the genre, so that they might place Waters's work within the new millennium's rethinking of Victorian history, politics and culture. Sarah Waters has a PhD in literature from the very institution in which I was giving my lecture; she has said that her research on lesbian historical fiction suggested to her the potential of an underdeveloped genre. In its citation and imitation of their work, Fingersmith paid generous tribute to Victorian novelists; it also has a considerable indebtedness to feminist, gay, lesbian and queer critics and social and cultural historians of Victorian Britain. It would not be too frivolous to see Fingersmith – together with other examples of fictional Victoriana – in their synthesis of the detail and insights of several decades of new research on the Victorian world and its culture as one measure of the ways in which Victorian Studies has developed over the last half century. More particularly I want to use it in exemplary fashion, as a point of entry and exit to this brief exploration of aspects of modern feminism's enduring, if sometimes vexed, relationship with post war Victorian Studies. [End Page 42]

First of all, the structural imperatives and limitations that governed the development of these different entities need some definition. Victorian Studies, although nominally an interdisciplinary initiative was largely an attempt to widen the remit of nineteenth-century British literary studies – signalling its turn to history and away from the formalism of new criticism.2 A convenient milestone in its self-creation was the first number of the journal Victorian Studies, published in 1956, from the University of Indiana Press. A new postwar initiative, its relation to the emerging feminism of the following decade was familial, rather than romantic – Victorian Studies as an older brother, or cousin once or twice removed, and one, like certain elder male relatives, somewhat ambivalent about feminism's early ambitions. Both Victorian Studies and feminism can be seen as responding to progressive impulses in the United States and Britain, to liberal and left-wing reactions against the Manichean ideology of the Cold War, and the early stirrings of the social movements that would characterise the two decades to come. Part of this response was reflected in a new academic attention to the history of poverty and inequality: its causes; the subjects who suffered it; resistance to it; its cultural representations. In academia, in literary departments especially, one effect of this impulse was the tentative crossing and even more cautious blurring of disciplinary boundaries in research and teaching. The added value, but also the conservatism of this move as it applied to literature and history, is well described by Christopher Kent who suggests that 'Victorian studies meant in a sense viewing 'Victorian Britain', a clearly delineated space and time, from the perspectives of two clearly delineated and separate disciplines. The combined effect would be rather like binocular vision, giving greater depth'.3

Feminism's initial engagement with Victorian Britain requires a more complicated mapping. The feminist intervention into the field, both in history and in literature started in the 1960s. As it gathered strength through the mid and late 1970s it often seemed to pull in opposite directions, enthusiastically supporting an integration of fields, while creating new kinds of fragmentation. Feminism's provocative mission was at one register both...


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pp. 42-55
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Archived 2009
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