- Queer Victorian Families: Curious Relations in Literature ed. by Duc Dau, and Shale Preston
In this eclectic collection, Duc Dau and Shale Preston have assembled ten inventive chapters written by a mixture of early-career and senior scholars whose work stands to advance the field of gender and sexuality studies. These compelling essays cohere around one central premise: the Victorian family was neither as uniform nor as conventional as we have imagined it to be. Each entry presents a unique “queer family” dynamic in order to challenge the angel-in-the-house and queen-in-her-garden models of bourgeois, middle-class, English domesticity. At a moment when our own conceptions of the family are rapidly expanding, Dau and Preston offer this collection “as a corrective against limited and traditionalist definitions of the family” (2), hoping to reveal that a multiplicity of kinship relations exist—both now and then—alongside the reproductive household of husband, wife, and children. Their point, as this collection illustrates, is that “kinship is and always has been heterogeneous” (9).
The chapters are divided into three parts, although the wide range of texts, authors, and subjects—from marriage plot novels and same-sex desire to masculinity and femininity, challenges to reproductive futurism, and Victorian revisionist historicism, among others—could allow for any number of groupings. Opening part I, “Queervolutions,” Laura White names a plethora of queer (read: odd) clusters of disparate characters that make up Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland tales, from ineffectual queens and their card-servants to unstable dinners attended by dodos and dormice. In these fantastical imaginings, White suggests, Carroll crafts a world without authority, where family is forged only by accident (though she does not address the fact that most children’s literature escapes to such alternate worlds). Moving to other canonical texts, Shale Preston looks to Dickens’s Bleak House, where she identifies Esther’s non-normative same-sex attractions, and Tracy Olverson considers the same-sex eroticism underpinning the queer aunt-niece pairing behind the authorial identity of “Michael Field.” Through historical dramas, Olverson suggests, Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper expose possibilities for same-sex connection while living their own queer Victorian partnership—a lifestyle acknowledged and accepted by their family. Closing this section is Michael Shaw’s work on William Sharp, whose metaphors of nation-building reject traditional masculinized myths in order to embrace a more fluid gender identification, which Sharp himself practiced through a female pseudonym. Overall, what this section lacks in coherence of topics and texts, it gains in heterogeneity, thus meeting Dau and Preston’s intentions.
Part I enumerates narrative constructions of alternative family systems and examines applications of history to tell the various stories of Victorian sexualities. The three essays of part II, “Queer Actually,” discuss queer characters who are integrated into rather than rejected by the Victorian family, thus extending our sense of that system’s malleability and breadth. Monica Flegel studies the “pet-centered paternity” (103) of The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, whose affectionate attachment to his pets, she claims, marks a broader social concern: couples and individuals who adopt pets as surrogate children may complete their own family circle but defy the social obligation to reproduce. While Fosco’s pet-centric life mocks the masculinity that his own queer relations expose as performative, Clare Walker Gore confronts masculinity via disability studies in her chapter on Dinah Mulock Craik and Charlotte Yonge. In Craik’s and Yonge’s texts, Gore finds disabled characters with queered gender identities [End Page 388] who may be denied their own marriage plots but are nonetheless accommodated by normative families. Lastly, Ellen Brinks likewise sees the Victorian family as more inclusive than expected. She turns to Elizabeth Anna Hart’s The Runaway, a story for young women that celebrates gender rebellion by imagining two adolescent tomboys forging an eroticized female friendship.
The third and arguably strongest section of the collection, part III: “Queer Connections,” features pieces by Talia Schaffer, Alec Magnet, and Lauren...