- Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations ed. by Nadine Boehm-Schnitker, Susanne Gruss, and: Nineteenth-Century British Literature Then and Now: Reading with Hindsight by Simon Dentith, and: Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Victorian Literature ed. by Laurence W. Mazzeno
In an essay in Nadine Boehm-Schnitker’s and Susanne Gruss’s volume Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations, Sally Shuttleworth evokes the material persistence of the Victorian built environment into the 1960s: the terraced housing with outside toilets, coal fires, and Victorian factories that still housed heavy industries. Since these traces vanished, Neo-Victorian literature and culture sprang up to supply their loss, richly reimagining the period in a variety of consumer practices and aesthetics, from immersive fiction and irreverent mashups to elegant steampunk stylings. Such forms oblige scholars to scrutinize their own relationships to their lost object of inquiry, the Victorian period, which recedes with each passing year. What desires and expectations drive us to interrogate the nineteenth century?
Grappling with such questions, Neo-Victorian studies has grown from its infancy into an awkward phase of struggle with its identity. Is it better understood as a subfield within contemporary literature in English? An accessory to Victorian studies? A field focused on historiographical and theoretical problems, for example within postcolonial studies and queer theory? A critical trend chasing popular Victorian historical fiction, biography, and related genres? However one may view it, Neo-Victorian studies has become a significant new paradigm for scholars interested in the self-conscious study of nineteenth-century literature and culture. Of the three volumes reviewed here, the [End Page 131] edited collection Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture demonstrates the greatest range and depth in its approach to the Victorian period.
Earlier Neo-Victorian scholarship focused on trauma, specters, and hauntings, and these concerns are still on display in Boehm-Schnitker’s and Gruss’s essay collection. The trauma thesis proposes that Neo-Victorian literature can witness or voice—and thus repair—historical trauma suffered in silence during the Victorian period. A pitfall of this approach is that it requires Neo-Victorian literary criticism to amplify Neo-Victorian fiction, rather than to truly interrogate it. Gruss’s essay on John Harwood’s novels The Ghost Writer (2004) and The Asylum (2013) and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale (2006) establishes the centrality of trauma, ghosts, and haunting to the field, only to note in conclusion the limits of their reparative gestures and to mark the current moment as the point at which they have saturated the field. Jessica Cox’s essay on adaptations of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60) mounts a similar skepticism, demonstrating how both the original novel and its theatrical reinterpretations ambivalently attempt to redress injustice while also appealing to consumers’ voyeurism. These essays grapple with the trauma trope in order to exorcize it. Let’s hope the spell holds. Plenty of newer conceptual rubrics could help scholars better understand the impulse to return to Victorian scenes of domestic, imperial, and other kinds of violence, and I look forward to reading that future work.
Some of those fresher approaches are already on display in the more ambitious essays in the volume, such as Elizabeth Ho’s “The Neo-Victorian-at-Sea: Towards a Global Memory of the Victorian.” Ho illustrates Neo-Victorian fiction’s shift from static locations to sea passages, and from settler colonialism to journeys, in texts such as Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (2000) and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). Drawing on Paul Gilroy’s idea of the Black Atlantic, and Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, Ho calls for an end to center...