- Queer Victorian Families: Curious Relations in Literature ed. by Duc Dau and Shale Preston
Publication of this collection coincides with the American Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage that inaugurates a sea change in the way families are legally formed in the United States. Appropriately, Queer Victorian Families contributes to debates among queer theorists about sex, futurity, and queer subjectivity. Same-sex marriage has long been an issue that divides queer activists and theorists. Queer theorists such as Leo Bersani, Judith Halberstam, and Lee Edelman argue that heteronormative imperatives to marry and reproduce are irreconcilable with queerness. For instance, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Lee Edelman rejects reproductive futurism, or procreation-as-telos, suggesting that queerness opposes relationality, and that queer politics must thus oppose kinship and family relations as the organizing principle of society. This stance, which advocates a retreat from society and relationality (sometimes called the “anti-social thesis” in queer theory) (Halberstam 140), both coincides and conflicts with what Duc Dau and Shale Preston refer to as the “queer turn” in Victorian scholarship, which has taken as its larger project the recovery and reclamation of lost (queer) facets of history (3).
Dau and Preston challenge the anti-social thesis by observing that to claim that queerness is incompatible with the family denies the historicity of the concept of family—the way in which the practice of the concept has changed over time. The Victorian era provides just one historical moment in the evolution of this cultural form. The collection’s larger argument is that “there is no such thing as an ‘unqueer’ Victorian family” (11). Today’s Victorian scholars might find this argument somewhat anticlimactic thanks to recent work by Claudia Nelson, Sharon Marcus, Carolyn W. De La L. Oulton, Holly Furneaux, Kelly Hager, Mary Jean Corbett, and several others, which deconstructs the Victorians’ alleged naturalization of the heteronormative and affective nuclear family. This body of work comprising the so-called queer turn offers evidence that Victorian marriages were frequently disastrous (or, considering mortality rates, simply beset by disaster); families were consequently blended, romantic friendships and other forms of same-sex intimacy abounded; and that some of what we conceive of today as incest was once the norm.
Aligned with this body of work, the essays in Queer Victorian Families argue collectively for the recovery of, and queer engagement with, family, domesticity, and reproduction. Dau and Preston state, “we and the contributors of this collection reject claims made by queer theorist Judith Halberstam in her study In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives that the family and reproduction are aligned with middle-class heteronormativity and conservative kinship” (4). The collection creates continuity by threading this thesis [End Page 204] throughout the essays. For instance, in her contribution tracing how the devoted aunt (Katharine Bradley) and her niece (Edith Cooper), under the pseudonymous identity of Michael Field, began to develop their queer family dynamics while living within a conventional household, Tracy Olverson asserts, “queer lives and queer desires are relational and conditional and not necessarily oppositional or isolationist” (60). The editors and contributors all deploy a fairly elastic understanding of “queer” to broadly designate “cultural deviations” or “the odd, the non-normative” or “to designate dislocations from normative, seemingly secure, or naturalized representations of gender, sexuality, and the nuclear family in favor of something aslant” (Dau and Preston 7; White 19; Brinks 134).
The collection is organized into three sections. The first, with the slightly ambiguous title of “Queervolutions,” contains four chapters that illustrate the instability, and even porousness, of the heteronormative nuclear family form. The first two chapters, by Laura White and Shale Preston respectively, provide new (possibly queer-revolutionary) readings of familiar texts: Bleak House and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The second two chapters, by Tracy Olverson and Michael Shaw respectively, place Michael Field and Fiona Macleod (the female pseudonym of Scottish poet William Sharp) in productive adjacency. These two essays demonstrate how queered authorial identities produced...