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  • Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism
  • Tamara S. Wagner (bio)
Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism by Cora Kaplan; pp. 264. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. $24.50.

Neo-Victorian historical fiction has increasingly gained the interest of Victorian scholars over the last decades. While this renders Cora Kaplan's Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism particularly timely, her study offers significantly more than a discussion of pseudo- (or neo-) Victorian fiction or film. Instead, it probes an uneasy fascination with reworkings of the Victorian without undercutting the pleasure that underpins them. The Victoriana she draws on ranges from such experimental literary biography as Peter Ackroyd's Dickens (1990) and its adaptation for the stage by Simon Callow, as well as historical pastiches as different as A.S. Byatt's Possession (1991; turned into a Hollywood film in 2002) and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) to an "emotive history" (25) of reactions to Victorian literature generally. Most intriguingly, Kaplan includes literary criticism itself among the narratives that become part of Victoriana through their interpretative rewritings of Victorian texts.

Kaplan's readings are most persuasive when they juxtapose various layers of narration and counter-narration. While Byatt's Possession or David Lodge's Nice Work (1988) represents the usual suspects in critiques of contemporary adaptations of the Victorian, as does John Fowles's influential The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), Kaplan goes a step further in illustrating how Faber's recent novel can be read as an engagement with Fowles, with the sexual revolution, and with feminism. She thus casts a different light on a tradition that she sees as emphatically high-brow historical fiction: narratives that combine the campus novel with historical pastiche. In diagnosing this growing tendency, Kaplan chooses a very pointed title for a subsection of chapter 3: "Smartening up the Sex Novel—Victoriana goes to College" (88). Far from rehearsing why such Victoriana gives us (however uneasy) pleasure, she dissects the "teacherly voiceover" (90) in The French Lieutenant's Woman and the self-consciously postmodern "inter-chapters" in Ackroyd's Dickens, which she suggests can appear "at once fey and awkward" (57).

In the form of individual essays that focus on various manifestations of Victoriana, Kaplan's study brilliantly analyzes some of the most outstanding works among a plethora of products. Expertly establishing the phenomenon's larger context, she maintains focus by highlighting the significance of juxtaposed counter-narratives. Thus, her chapter "Biographilia" includes a penetrating reading of Ackroyd's work as a highly interpretative, even emotive, narrative as well as a comparison of two recent novels that Kaplan terms "biofiction": Colm Tóibín's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author (2004), both based on the life of Henry James. It also evokes Byatt's The Biographer's Tale (2000) as a self-consciously satirical narrative that seeks to counterpoint and yet also reaffirms the current renaissance in biographical writing.

Narrativization thus forms the trajectory that links the essays. This focus receives an intriguing twist when criticism itself provides the material for [End Page 243] this rereading. The first essay takes twentieth-century interpretations of Jane Eyre as part of narrative Victoriana: they turned the novel into "yet another type of mnemic symbol, a Western cultural monument" (15) and hence also "a mnemic symbol for American-based feminist critics in the 1970s" (23). In tracing readings of Jane Eyre as an account of changing feminisms, Kaplan shows that criticism, like the literature it analyzes, is propelled by critics' "powerful affective response," generating an emotive history of interpretative reading and retelling. "For Spivak," Jane Eyre was "one of the exemplary fictions of its time about the Empire at home" (28). In what can be seen as "Jane Eyre's critical genealogy," Spivak's interpretation should be read as "a sign of the cultural effects of postwar decolonisation" (29). Evoking more recent work that seems to bring "Brontë 'back home' from a kind of world tour that has not particularly benefited her reputation, although it may have enhanced her celebrity" (31), Kaplan juxtaposes these narratives of literary criticism with a similarly interpretative reworking in Paula Rego's recent "anti-illustrations" to Brontë's novel. This...


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