Productive Procrastination: On Reading Gail Carriger’s Neo-Victorian Fantasies

Daný van Dam is a second-year PhD student at Cardiff University. For her PhD, Daný  researches representations of racial and sexual stereotyping in neo-Victorian fiction. Secretly, she also remains interested in science fiction and fantasy novels that play with norms of gender and sexuality. More on her work can be found on her academia page (https://cardiff.academia.edu/DanyvanDam).

With the increasing critical attention garnered by contemporary rewritings of the Victorian period and its fiction (what has become known as ‘neo-Victorianism’), the connected subgenre of steampunk has also made its way onto the critical agenda. In steampunk novels, science fiction meets Victorian industrialism to create a kind of retrofuturistic narrative where all kinds of Victorian machinery come in high-powered steam versions. Think, for example, of high-speed zeppelins or steam-powered computer systems that rival today’s world wide web. Although steampunk is certainly worth the attention it gets, it does tend to overshadow another subgenre, that of neo-Victorian fantasy writing. With such interesting creations as Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula (though he, to be fair, is of course based on earlier nineteenth-century incarnations of the vampire), the nineteenth century has provided us with some of the prominent denizens of present-day fantasy novels. The recent publication of Gail Carriger’s novel Prudence (2015), first in a new series titled the ‘Custard Protocol’, provided me with all the excuse I needed to also reread her first ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (2009-2012), an entertaining and easy-going read for lazy evenings at home. Considering, at the same time, the impossibility of switching off my inner critic of (postcolonial) neo-Victorianism, I use this blog post to share some of my critical findings.

custard protocol prudence coverCarriger’s novels are often described as steampunk and they certainly include some of the typical features of that genre (including an octopus-like metal ‘octomaton’ rampaging through London in Heartless). What makes the series more allied to fantasy, however, is the fact that most of the central characters are vampires, werewolves or, in the case of the protagonist, soulless (in the book she is called ‘preternatural’, the very opposite of supernaturals who have excess soul). As Carriger states in an interview posted on her website: “My steampunk is the result of the supernatural intrusion into the Victorian world. I think the path to world consistency for me was in letting my Victorians behave like Victorians, and react to my supernatural elements as they probably would have, by coming up with wild theories and gadgets” [i]. Like many other neo-Victorian novels, Carriger’s books returns not so much to the Victorian period and its history as to contemporary ideas about the Victorians, projecting present-day concerns upon an earlier period.

In another interview with Carriger, published in Soulless, the first book of the ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series, the author is asked about the subject of her novels and their mix of “alternate history, romance, and the supernatural” [ii]. As a response, Carriger claims to have asked herself: “what if all those strange and unexplainable bends in history were the result of supernatural interference?”, leading to the question what was “the weirdest most eccentric historical phenomenon of them all?” [iii]. The answer seemed obvious – the Great British Empire: “Clearly, one tiny little island could only conquer half the known world with supernatural aid” [iv].

For its recognition of supernaturals as citizens of the Empire, Britain is described as an extremely forward and civilised nation, a discourse recurrent of nineteenth-century justifications for imperial conquest. The acceptance of the supernatural element is also connected to the abolition of slavery, something emphasised by the presence of American scientists who prefer researching the supernatural in Britain. For example: in America it is almost impossible to perform autopsy upon supernaturals, as “the Americans burned to death any accused of being supernatural, leaving little behind for any scientist to study” [v]. Researching the supernatural state with the aim of finding a way to measure ‘excess soul’, an overabundance that allows people to become vampires, were-animals or ghosts after their death, is an important pastime for national and international science communities. This research clearly parallels the Victorians’ (and other people’s) obsessive research into scientific classifications of race. The novels are even concerned with the ‘risk’ of interbreeding: the two supernatural species show a distinct dislike for each other and though humans mingle with both vampires and werewolves, actually trying to become one (what we can compare to ‘going native’) is extremely hazardous. The preternatural state of the protagonist makes her a rare and dangerous creature, for her lack of soul allows her to temporarily cancel out the supernatural excess soul, enabling her to turn vampires and werewolves both mortal through a touch. When she marries a werewolf and falls pregnant, her offspring is seen as a danger to all of supernatural society.

parasole protectorate series coversAlthough the British Empire is explicitly referenced in the first, ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series, the furthest destination the protagonist and her companions reach is Egypt (to discover anti-supernatural mummies… obviously). The second series, however, promises to engage more explicitly with the history of Victorian Britain’s Empire. Supposedly on a mission to secure tea production for her adopted vampire father, protagonist Prudence (the aforementioned dangerous child) travels to India where she becomes involved in a supernatural (and religious) struggle. Both vampires and were-animals have evolved differently this far away, making for ‘rakshashas’ and ‘weremonkeys’. Rakshashas are based on demonic, fanged, man-eating figures from Hindu mythology and are greatly feared. The weremonkeys, conversely, are worshiped for their connections to Hanuman, one of the Hindu gods. Again, this different development of supernatural beings references nineteenth-century theories of race. Whether a debate about the origination of these different vampires and were-animals is raised (paralleling nineteenth-century debates on monogenism versus polygenism) as the series progresses remains to be seen.

Finding out how the relations between Britain as the metropolis and India as one of its main colonies are actually depicted further on in the narrative will have to wait until more books of the ‘Custard Protocol’ series are published. I know I’ll be reading them… for research’s sake, of course.


 

[i] Carriger, Gail. ‘The World of the Parasol Protectorate, Finishing School, & Custard Protocol’. [http://www.gailcarriger.com/about/interviews].

[ii] Carriger, Gail. Soulless (London: Orbit, 2010), p. 119.

[iii] Carriger, Soulless, 119.

[iv] Carriger, Soulless, 119.

[v] Carriger, Soulless, 119.

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6 responses to “Productive Procrastination: On Reading Gail Carriger’s Neo-Victorian Fantasies

  1. “What makes the series more allied to fantasy, however, is the fact that most of the central characters are vampires, werewolves or, in the case of the protagonist, soulless ”

    In combination with the love story, these elements also connect Carriger’s series to the genre of paranormal romance, where vampires & werewolves have been staples for many years. (And the cover quote for SOULLESS is from Angie Fox, a paranormal romance author.)

    Have you already come across Alexis Hall’s steampunk series? Apart from being really great, the series also does some very interesting things in regard to sex and gender (most of the central characters are queer, and there is also one gender-fluid character), contains lovely references to classic Victorian fiction, and constitutes a rather fascinating publishing experiment in regard to the form of the different installments.

  2. The blurred boundaries of speculative fiction are often drawn with conceptions of “explanation” – that is, science fiction has fantastical elements that are explained, whereas fantasy uses magic. However, this then gets confusing when someone like Brandon Sanderson (an author of fantasy, writing a world of magic) gets his novels classified as science fiction because he explains the magic! Similarly, Margaret Atwood complicates the boundaries further by calling some of her novels Science Fact, due to the less far-fetched nature of their speculation than traditional sci fi set in space. I’d be interested to hear some further elaboration on where this series sits, but a great read either way, thank you!

  3. Pingback: Victorian Monsters? Strategies of Appropriation in the Neo-Victorian Mashup | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates·

  4. Pingback: Neo-Victorian Review – Neo-Victorianism’s Overlooked Authors 2: Joan Aiken & Philippa Pearce | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates·

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