“Is this silly enough for you yet? Gothic enough, mad enough, even for you?”: Nostalgia for the ‘Victorian’

Emily Bowles is a third-year PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research focuses on changing representations of Charles Dickens 1857-1870, exploring how the author’s posthumous reputation was shaped in the decades following his death and uncovering the foundations of public engagement with, and understanding of, Dickens in the twentieth century. Emily is also a postgraduate representative for the Northern Nineteenth Century Network, assistant administrator of the Women’s Life Writing Network, and tweets about her research as @EmilyBowles_.

“Is this silly enough for you yet? Gothic enough, mad enough, even for you?”: Nostalgia for the ‘Victorian’

Victorian studies (and literary studies more broadly) has occasionally been accused of a kind of misguided nostalgia: part of the nature of historical and literature-based research is that as researchers, by necessity, we spend time trying to reimagine and recapture something of the past, and as such we’re called on again and again to defend ourselves from accusations of navel-gazing and show the value of what we do for a wider audience. At the same time, research is often fuelled by passion – in fact, PhD students particularly are encouraged to find topics that they are passionate about – and this in turn engenders a love for the subject that means when TV series’ like Dickensian cross our screens, Victorianist academics can finally share that joy and love more broadly.

Nostalgia was a theme that ran throughout the panels at the BAVS annual conference last year, and the Victorians had a penchant for it themselves, as explored in A. Colley’s book Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture. [1] At the BAVS annual conference, the very nature of periodisation was questioned, reshaping the future of ‘Victorian’ studies, and the concept of nostalgia was interrogated and explored throughout the three-day event, from Professor Katherine Newey’s (Exeter) paper on ‘Golden Ages: The Victorian Theatre, Nostalgia and Modernity’[2] to Professor Nicholas Daly’s (University College, Dublin) plenary on ‘Modern Swashbucklers and Matinee Idols: The Age of Ruritania’, which guided the audience through the many manifestations of the fictional land of Ruritania since Anthony Hope’s original 1890s book series, including The Princess Diaries and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.[3] In its many forms, it represents a harking back to an imagined, idealised past blended with questions of modernity. My own research focuses on Charles Dickens and his changing representations, aiming to show how ideas and images of Dickens were created and shaped through the process of celebrity myth-making and biography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[4] It is a study characterised by competing kinds of nostalgia, for Dickens the author, man, and father, or even Dickens the dinner guest.

Nostalgia for the ‘Victorian’ has been well represented in the media recently, from BBC adaptations and appropriations like the recent Dickensian and Sherlock episodes, to passing references in news stories of all kinds. Just what it means to be ‘Victorian’ is often flattened and simplified into tropes such as Dickensian child poverty or opulent Christmases (for which we have Dickens to thank, again), with the nineteenth century viewed not only as an age of imperial power, but somehow also a Golden Age to hark back to in times of trouble. This is played out very literally in the Christmas episode of Sherlock, in which a crime in late Victorian London is used as a way to solve a modern-day conundrum. Throughout the 2015 Christmas special, nostalgic Holmes fans were rewarded with references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories alongside invocations of the Gothic, glimpses of The Strand magazine and a gamut of fan-pleasing references.

That is, until Moriarty turns to Sherlock (and the audience) to ask, “Is this silly enough for you yet? Gothic enough, mad enough, even for you?” For me, watching it at home and engaging with other enthusiastic academics on Twitter, this felt like a slap in the face after the Victorianist bingo that had been played out in the preceding hour. In one moment, the nostalgic enjoyment was thrown back at the audience, accompanied by the unspoken question: what is it that you’re nostalgic for? The way that the term ‘Victorian’ – and, indeed, ‘Dickensian’ – is used allows for a multiplicity of interpretations, from those that emphasise the poverty and poor living conditions to those that idealise a period of industrialisation and empire-building. Those that glorify a Victorian Golden Age are hard pressed to answer difficult questions about racism, developments in medicine and limited education provision, for example.

So what exactly is the nature of this nostalgic enjoyment? A variable one, certainly. Victorian nostalgia has had many changing faces over time. In the early twentieth century the Victorians were rejected by Virginia Woolf and writers who were so close to the Victorians that they needed to forge something new: in Orlando, Woolf hails the advent of the nineteenth century: ‘All was darkness; all was doubt; all was confusion. The Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun’. She goes on to describe ‘the great cloud which hung, not only over London, but over the whole of the British Isles on the first day of the nineteenth century’. [5] The Victorians had started to look old and stuffy (and like they had always been that way), perhaps aided by the fact that photography had only become widespread when the canonical Victorians were old, and consequently we only have photographs of figures like Dickens, Darwin and Tennyson as bearded old men. In spite of a move away from the Victorian in certain literary and scholarly circles, Victorian literature remained popular for the reading public; the difference being which Victorians and which novels they chose to read. For example, The Pickwick Papers was lauded as Dickens’s best work in the early twentieth century,[6] and yet it doesn’t seem to grace many literature courses, at any level, today. Figures like Sam Weller, that early critics thought would be universally popular and universally recognised, have faded into insignificance next to Oliver, Fagin and Miss Havisham – themselves interesting choices that reflect something about societal concerns today.

Dickensian is an interesting intervention in the debate about nostalgia: in many ways it harks back to an idealised Victorian period, with sumptuous costumes and the tantalising idea that you could walk down one street and meet your favourite Dickens characters. However, they’re not actually Dickens’s characters yet: with some exceptions, like the married Bumbles, the characters are largely pre-Dickens manifestations. Dickens’s ‘old’ characters, caught in one frozen moment by Dickens, have been given new, younger lives. It’s also striking that, alongside characters from Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, the stories focus heavily on characters from his later novels: the series centres particularly on the backstories of Bleak House and Great Expectations, with characters from Our Mutual Friend also playing key roles.

Nostalgia, for better or for worse, is an important shaping influence in the afterlives of the Victorians and their texts: hopefully Dickensian marks the beginning of a period of new and interesting interpretations and adaptations, with the counter-argument provided by Sherlock challenging us to cast a critical eye on the processes of nostalgia.

____________________

[1] A. Colley, Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

[2] Kate Newey, ‘Golden Ages: The Victorian Theatre, Nostalgia and Modernity’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

[3] Nicholas Daly, ‘Modern Swashbucklers and Matinee Idols: The Age of Ruritania’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

[4] Emily Bowles, ‘From Charles Dickens’s Character to the Characteristically Dickensian’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

[5] Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Ed. Rachel Bowlby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992: 216-17.

[6] One example can be found in the Boz Club papers, 1904, held by Charles Dickens Museum (H59); members found Pickwick to be so clearly superior that they refused to discuss it in a debate about Dickens’s best work as it ‘would limit the scope of the Discussion’ (8).

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5 responses to ““Is this silly enough for you yet? Gothic enough, mad enough, even for you?”: Nostalgia for the ‘Victorian’

  1. I was slightly disappointed to hear that Sherlock had succumbed to Victorian nostalgia in its latest episodes, so I was relieved to read your description of Moriarty’s corrective taunt. I’d always appreciated the modernity of the Sherlock adaptations, and the use of new technology which seemed to fit with the originals’ emphasis on the Victorian advances of tube travel etc.
    Nostalgia’s a tricky one, because it harks back to a golden age. As Victorianists, we’re very well informed that this age can certainly not be located between 1800 and 1900. And I don’t think the more general public would say it was either. So I end up asking, what are viewers nostalgic for? ‘Sumptuous’ Victorian costumes? Dickens’s myth of the family? A world where you knew your neighbours? Certainly Victorian authors can be held responsible for some of these myths, but otherwise couldn’t nostalgia prompt ‘neo’ literature based on any period?
    I liked your explanation for Victorianists’ love of things Victorian. Sometimes it can come over as a bit cult-like, so I think it’s always good to relate it back to love of the discipline.
    Thanks for writing this, and good luck with your PhD – sounds like an excellent topic.

  2. Pingback: Wearing the damned hat: The interesting case(s) of Dr Watson and Mr Holmes | Victorian is the New Black·

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