Reading the Present through the Past – Neo-Historical Fictions and Their Relation to (Neo-)Victorianism

Daný van Dam is a third-year PhD student at Cardiff University. She researches the function of racial and sexual stereotypes in neo-Victorian fiction. She recently organised a one-day symposium on neo-historical fiction in Amsterdam (see http://www.oslit.nl/symposium-reading-the-present-through-the-past/ for more info), which set her to thinking about this blog-topic. Daný is also involved in the organisation of the 2016 BAVS conference ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ at Cardiff University (see http://bavs2016.co.uk/). More information on her work can be found at https://cardiff.academia.edu/DanyvanDam.

Reading the Present through the Past – Neo-Historical Fictions and Their Relation to (Neo-)Victorianism

For my PhD research, I am concerned with postcolonial neo-Victorian novels. Neo-Victorianism, a term increasingly familiar to people working on Victorian-era related material, is a genre in which modern (twentieth and twenty-first century) texts – and I use ‘texts’ in the broadest possible meaning – display a critical interaction with the Victorian period, its culture and the texts and objects it has produced. While the Victorian age appears to be the most visible period when it comes to such self-conscious returns, it is by far not the only period that attracts such critical rewritings: Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning books on Thomas Cromwell (2009/2012) return to the first half of the sixteenth century; Jeanette Winterson’s novel The Daylight Gate (2012) takes the trial of the Lancashire witches in 1612 as its source material; Tracy Chevalier jumps around time periods, including the late eighteenth century in Burning Bright (2007); and Sarah Waters recreates the 1920s in her most recent novel The Paying Guests (2014). If we expand our consideration to films, numerous other examples pop up, from A Little Chaos (2014) about gender and gardening at the Château de Versailles in the seventeenth century, to Belle (2013), a film about the mixed-race daughter of a British officer set in the eighteenth century, to one of the most recent – though certainly not the most successful – in a spate of adaptations, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies (2016).

Like neo-Victorianism implies a self-conscious interaction with the Victorian era, the term ‘neo-historical fiction’ is used to describe such reimaginations in a broader sense. Elodie Rousselot, editor of Exoticizing the Past in Neo-Historical Fiction (2014), describes how neo-historical novels, even though they return to different historical moments, are all “characterised by [their] similar creative and critical engagement with the cultural mores of the period [they revisit]. In addition”, she continues, “the genre is also defined by its participation in, and response to, contemporary culture’s continuing fascination with history”.[1] A key term in Rousselot’s description of the neo-historical is ‘verisimilitude: “on the one hand, it strives for a high degree of historical accuracy, while on the other it is conscious of the limitations of that project. The mode of verisimilitude employed by the neo-historical novel therefore confirms its simultaneous attempt and refusal to render the past accurately”.[2] Neo-historical texts, diverse though they may be, all display a return to the past that is, as Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn also state of neo-Victorian fiction, “more than historical fiction” set in a certain period.[3]

On 4 March 2016, I organised a symposium at the University of Amsterdam titled ‘Reading the Present through the Past’,[4] to consider the phenomenon of neo-historical fiction, at which Elodie Rousselot provided one of the two keynote lectures. In her lecture, as she did in her introduction, Rousselot linked neo-historical fiction to neo-Victorianism. Rousselot analysed Pat Barker’s novel Another World (1998), in which a 101-year-old WWI veteran wants to share his war history with his grandson, who avoids the horrors of his family history by escaping into another Victorian family’s history, in connection to Melissa Pritchard’s novella “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” (from Pritchard’s 2011 story collection The Odditorium), in which American surgeon Captain Brown is supposed to bring the hospital’s practices up to date for the expected influx of soldiers in connection to the D-Day invasion. Both these texts, Rousselot argued, while not set in the Victorian period or overtly related to it, still draw on the era, in this case on its notions of mental health.

Neo-historical fictions perform a balancing act between what Rousselot described in her lecture as “the dangers of retreating into a sensationalised version of the past” and the argument she makes in the introduction to Exoticizing the Past, namely that “in problematising historical representation the neo-historical novel not only seeks to expose past wrongs and omissions of the historical record, but also to problematise the participation of the present itself in these returns to the past”.[5] The difference between neo-historical fiction and earlier, more experimental postmodern historical novels is, as Rousselot claimed in her lecture, that neo-historical fiction’s “potential for subversion is carried out in implicit ways”, so that it has its “potential for subversion seamlessly embedded” in its texts.

Based on Rousselot’s two examples, it seems like neo-historical fiction is somehow inherently connected to the Victorian past and its reconstructions in neo-Victorianism. Whatever period we return to, we would always also evoke the Victorian era. This claim, however, implies the same kind of ‘colonisation’ that Elizabeth Ho warns for in relation to neo-Victorianism, when she argues that “neo-Victorian studies might be seen as implicated in its own ‘Victorian’ project to colonize all historical fiction set in the nineteenth century, regardless of geographical or cultural differences, for academic and non-academic consumers”, but then on a grander scale.[6]

It is important to recognise that while neo-Victorianism might be one of the more recognisable time periods that media return to, considering the numerous Sherlock Holmes adaptations[7] and television series like Penny Dreadful and Ripper Street, it is most certainly not the only one. One thing (of very many…) that the symposium ‘Reading the Present through the Past’ taught me was how easily influenced we become by our own period of research. As a (neo-)Victorianist, one sees the Victorian period in everything. Thinking about neo-historical texts more generally forced me to widen my perspective and consider my own work in a much broader context than I usually would. While becoming engaged with your research and feeling part of it may serve to a certain extent, taking a bird’s eye view of your work to see how it relates to other periods, genres, people, etc. may enable a fresh outlook. Considering my own recent experience, I can certainly recommend it.

[1] Elodie Rousselot, “Introduction: Exoticising the Past in Contemporary Neo-Historical Fiction”, in Exoticizing the Past in Contemporary Neo-Historical Fiction, ed. by Elodie Rousselot (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan 2014), pp. 1-16 (pp. 2-3).

[2] Rousselot, “Introduction”, p. 4.

[3] Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009 (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 4 (italics original).

[4] See http://www.oslit.nl/symposium-reading-the-present-through-the-past/.

[5] Rousselot, “Introduction”, pp. 11-12.

[6] Elizabeth Ho, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 10.

[7] Though of course Sherlock Holmes stories continued well into the twentieth-century, most adaptations evoke Victorian stereotypes of gaslight and misty cobbled streets. The recent Mr Holmes (2015), about Holmes’ later years, is an exception to this rule.

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