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  • Victorian Sensations, Neo-Victorian Romances: Response
  • Rohan McWilliam (bio)

A specter is haunting the world of Victorian studies: the specter of neo-Victorianism. We might choose to call it the study of post-1901 Victorianism or Victorian afterlives, but either way a new scholarly field is announcing itself and was much in evidence at the 2009 joint NAVSA/BAVS conference in Cambridge, UK. The theme of the conference was the relationship of the Victorians with the past, but the conference program also asked participants to ponder “the heritage that the Victorians invented for us” and to consider whether we are “still living in a Victorian world” (“Programme”). By the end of the event, Victorian Britain felt like a haunted house, haunted by history and offering a past that haunts us. Speakers responded to the first theme with papers covering topics such as folklore collecting, constitution-making, medievalism, optical technology, costume history, the domestic interior, and Victorian views of Pompeii. Nineteenth-century attitudes to the past were rarely presented as simple exercises in nostalgia, antiquarianism, or even as early forms of the heritage industry. Rather, they emerged as dynamic strategies for dealing with the present and the future. The Victorian relationship to history was, in an odd sort of way, not backward looking.

The other theme, that Victorian culture was not something that ended in 1901 or 1914 but has continued to shape the social and political imaginary since then, is relatively new. Ten years ago it barely entered academic discussion, but it has grown so quickly that it can now boast its own web-journal, Neo-Victorian Studies. An early indicator of this tendency was the 1994 collection After the Victorians, edited by Peter Mandler and Susan Pedersen, which located Victorian influences in a range of twentieth-century figures. Since then there have been important monographs on modern Victorianism by John Gardiner, Simon Joyce, and Cora Kaplan as well as a number of useful books of [End Page 106] essays.1 Victorian studies as a field is redefining itself by examining nineteenth-century influences after 1901.

Why have we become so preoccupied with these Victorian afterlives? What is at stake in this agenda is a set of question marks about the so-called “modernity” of the twentieth century. The implication of a number of the papers I have selected is that the Victorians never went away. Twentieth-century moderns (for all the anti-Victorianism of the Bloomsbury Group) failed to truly disown the Victorian inheritance. The Victorians proved good to think with, to react against, or to serve as a convenient reference point. The Victorians matter because their agendas have continued to be reworked in different ways by political figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Newt Gingrich, and Tony Blair. Tracking the different forms of engagement with the category of the Victorian, we now see, is a profound way of interrogating culture since 1901. We were inevitably going to view the Victorians differently as we moved further away from them. I view this literature as emerging from the experience of the millennium and the disorienting feeling that we can no longer speak of the Victorians as inhabiting the last century. Neo-Victorianism has the effect of reintroducing us to the Victorians and reclaiming their relevance in a new century. Neo-Victorian studies also proves to be another way of talking about familiar themes like gender, class, race, empire, heritage, and postmodernism. Most of the people who have considered Victorian echoes since 1901 come from a Victorianist background. In the future there are likely to be studies of Victorian appropriations undertaken by people more fully grounded in twentieth-century (or post-1901) studies. We look forward to the different perspectives they will bring.

The present time is distinctive because a number of novelists have deliberately adopted Victorian voices and narrative devices or simply set their stories in the nineteenth century. A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), and Sarah Waters’s first three novels count as some of the most prominent examples of this tendency. The attraction of these novels for scholars is that they take place...


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pp. 106-113
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