- Victorian Textual Subversion
WHEN THINKING of subversive strategies in Victorian writing, late-century authors such as Shaw and Wilde or "dangerous" movements like Decadence, Aestheticism or French Impressionism spring to mind. However, Kenneth Womack and James M. Decker's collection of essays focuses on canonical texts and incidents of "intentional" and "unintentional" subversive writing. In examining Victorian literary cultures the volume's aim is to deconstruct or support accepted interpretations of so-called "mainstream" texts such as Dracula, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and stories on Sherlock Holmes. It features leading critical voices Nancy Henry, Julian Wolfreys, Ira Nadel, Joseph Wiesenfarth, and William Baker, among others, as they address ideas of subversion in nineteenth-century literature and beyond.
The volume is thematically structured in three parts (Women, Ideologies, Genres), each of which tries to tease out the "entangled relationships among writer, text, and reader." The short introduction (five pages) refers to a number of critics (Astrid Peterle, Judith Butler, Terry Eagleton, Louis Althusser, Stephen Greenblatt, Michel Foucault, M. M. Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, Tony Bennett, Keith M. Booker) and lays out the definition of subversion as an "unstable" paradox. According to Womack's definition subversion on the one hand is an intentional deviation from the norm, on the other hand a reflection of the reader's "desire to transform the text into a socially meaningful tool." As much as the diverse selection of essays in this volume reflects the "multiple voices" that call into question the basis of widely accepted interpretations, the introduction could have more clearly defined the study's [End Page 418] reader-response approach (following Booker, it is the role of the critic to "activat[e] the subversive potential of a text").
Overall this study holds good value in providing interesting new avenues to think about the accepted readings of canonical texts. The anthology challenges the reader through its broad variety of approaches, ranging from biographical exegesis (Troy J. Bassett) and comparative pieces to a book-historical analysis (Alexis Weedon). The first section is mostly concerned with the interpretation of authorial biographies, while the other two contain some thorough reworkings of canonical texts whilst introducing lesser-known works on the side.
The first part of the book focuses on "Subversive Women" with a chapter on the life of the writer of sensational fiction Helen Dickens, readings of Charlotte Brontë's anticipation of a "present-day feminist vision" and an enquiry into the existing biographical meta-canon on George Eliot. The emphasis on biographical exegesis is understood as a necessary tool for "ever-richer interpretative literary analysis," especially when it comes to Eliot's recurring depiction of "patterns of secrecy, lies and triangulations." While delving into detailed biographical research, this section does not seek a dialogue with existing scholarship on female subversive writing by the next generation of women writers such as Rita S. Kranidis discusses in Subversive Discourse The Cultural Production of Late Victorian Feminist Novels (Palgrave Macmillan, 1995) or subversive female voices as explored in Subversion and Sympathy: Gender, Law, and the British Novel edited by Martha Craven Nussbaum and Alison LaCroix (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Most relevant to ELT readers will be the number of essays dealing with the revision of gender-specific and colonial stereotypes. The section titled "Subversive Ideologies" opens with Decker's piece on the Orientalist representation of China in Carlton Dawe's "Yellow and White." Saidian close readings decode it as a tale of "personal colonizing" in which the main character, an Englishman, claims the "fertile body of the East"—the wife of his Chinese business partner. The ending of Dawe's story however, as Decker argues, is ambivalent in its suggestive irony. The protagonist's last lines comment on his own adventure and the consecutive death of his lover with the words: "Yes … all for a moment's folly. Good God, just think of it." Yet in this case, the author's [End Page 419] ironic distancing from the protagonist's derisive attitude allows for a sympathetic and even anti-colonial reading.