Material/ities of Memory: Re-Fashioning the Victorian Past

Danielle Mariann Norman is a second-year PhD researcher and part-time lecturer in the Centre for Studies in Literature at the University of Portsmouth. Her thesis examines the ongoing contemporary desire to revise the nineteenth century in present-day fiction through the representation of Victorian clothing, costume and dress. She explores the revision of the period’s materiality through the sartorial- an apt trope with which to literally re-fashion the Victorian past. In addition Danielle is an editorial assistant for the online, academic journal Victoriographies and recently, she organised a postgraduate conference, entitled ‘All Things Victorian: Exploring Materiality and the Material Object’ (supported by the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS): www.bavs.ac.uk). She tweets at: @DanielleMNorman.

Critical engagements with Victorian materialities – specifically the materials of Victorian clothing, costume, and dress – often proffer some sort of self-justification, for, as Margaret Stetz argues, the ‘sustained study of either actual Victorian clothing or of fictional representations of it have yet to find a permanent place in academic research’ (Stetz, 2009). A dearth owing perhaps, to what Valerie Steele notes is academia’s treatment of fashion as ‘frivolous, sexist, bourgeois [and] materialist […]’ (Steele, 2001, cited by Stetz, 2009). This blog post, in foregrounding a concern with sartorial matters in neo-Victorian reimaginings of the nineteenth century, similarly demands elucidation.

Unlike its Victorian predecessors’ apparent propensity for categorisation and definition, the neo-Victorian genre has paradoxically and repeatedly eluded classification; a distinction not least characterised by its terminological complications. In her seminal essay ‘The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel’, Dana Shiller coins the titular term ‘neo-Victorian novel’ and defines it as both ‘characteristic of postmodernism and imbued with a historicity reminiscent of the nineteenth-century novel’ (1997, p. 538). Sally Shuttleworth introduces ‘retro-Victorian’[1] to describe historical literature that explicitly engages with a nostalgic longing for the Victorian past (1998); whilst Andrea Kirchknopf’s review of such terminology underlines the potentiality within ‘post-Victorian fiction’ citing the term’s ongoing relationship with its current postmodern context and its integrative nature that recalls the interdisciplinarity of the field (2008, p. 59). Despite the genre’s diverse system of nomenclature Helen Davies notes that ‘“neo-Victorian” is emerging as the most frequently used phrase for delineating contemporary engagements with the nineteenth century’. She suggests that the term ‘neo-Victorian’ unlike ‘retro-Victorian’ ‘implies a genre of writing that is doing something with the Victorian era’ [original emphasis] (2012, p. 2). Indeed, attempts to define and theorise the genre as a whole are conceived of within strictures that require neo-Victorian works to do more than nostalgically look to the past.[2] Heilmann and Llewellyn’s study of the neo-Victorian phenomenon in novel, film, televisual adaptation and commodity culture format, distinguishes neo-Victorian fiction from historical fiction set in the nineteenth century by arguing that it “must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” [original emphasis]. (Heilmann & Llewellyn, 2010, cited by Kohlke & Gutleben, 2012, p. 42).[3] Louisa Yates identifies such self-conscious revision as a central and defining element of the neo-Victorian; she suggests that whilst engagements with the Victorian era ‘take many narrative forms, the shared impulses behind neo-Victorian re-writing and re-vising broadly coalesce, maintaining a form of generic identity’, as such the neo-Victorian ‘urge to revise can be held as an approximate standard of the genre […]’ (2009, p. 187).

If the revisionary element of neo-Victorianism provides an apt distinction between the latter and historical fiction set in the nineteenth century, it also provides a useful tool for analysis and a starting point for this blog post. For example, it is significant to consider the recurrent emphasis in topical academic commentary on the ‘process of fashioning the neo-Victorian’ (Boehm-Schnitker and Gruss, 2014, p. 1) or, on the act of ‘re-fashioning’ the Victorian past. The verb re-fashioning – like revising – encapsulates the premise that the neo-Victorian must be doing something with the past. In its association with the neo-Victorian, the term re-fashioning is multivalent, for instance, in their introduction entitled ‘Fashioning the Neo-Victorian – Neo- Victorian Fashions’, Nadine Boehm-Schnitker and Susanne Gruss contextualise their use of ‘fashioning’ as doubled in meaning: ‘on the one hand, it refers to the shaping of the neo-Victorian […]; on the other, it also alludes to the fact that neo-Victorianism has already become something of a fashion both in academic institutions and on the market’ (2014, p. 4).

What is surprising in the repeated recourse to (re-)fashioning as a way of articulating the neo-Victorian’s preoccupation with the re-vision and re-formation of the Victorian era is the lack of engagement with the literal and metaphorical connotations of the word. Through an examination of Boehm-Schnitker and Gruss’s differentiation of ‘fashioning’ it is possible to draw from the word ‘fashion’ a third meaning from the Oxford English Dictionary Online as ‘with reference to attire: a particular cut or style’. In its appropriation of the past, neo-Victorian literature’s propensity for literally re-fashioning the Victorian period is, I suggest, primarily developed through representations of the sartorial. By providing a visible, tangible trace of the Victorian past in present-day contemporary fiction, the sartorial invites us to traverse the boundaries between past and present intrinsically facilitating a direct comparison between the two.

Tuppence Middleton as the young Miss Havisham in the BBC One Series, Dickensian.

Tuppence Middleton as the young Miss Havisham in the BBC One Series, Dickensian.

One such example, is that of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861). Miss Havisham’s gown is one of the most iconic images in English Literature, and as a central article of dress in one of the most enduringly popular Victorian novels, has since been reworked and reimagined in countless televisual adaptations and reproductions of Great Expectations. Most recently, an interest in, not only the characters and their afterlives, but their imagined lives prior to the novels has been the focal point of textual and televisual returns. Dickensian for instance, is a BBC One television series that premiered on 26 December 2015 centring on the fictional realms inhabited by Dickens’s main protagonists prior to their appearance in his novels. The series locates Miss Havisham, who is named Amelia throughout, in the months leading up to her wedding day.

Similarly, Ronald Frame’s 2012 novel, Havisham foregrounds and fetishes contemporary readers’ interest in the clothing of the nineteenth century through a reworking of Dickens’s Miss Havisham prior to her decline. At the recent BAVS funded postgraduate conference ‘All Things Victorian: Exploring Materiality and the Material Object’ Dr Claire O’Callaghan highlighted the paratextual encoding of the pivotal wedding dress onto the cover of the Picador editions, thus foregrounding its significance. The white, seemingly, disembodied gown atop a black background not only recalls and foreshadows the haunting presence that Catherine Havisham (for so she is named in Frame’s text) will become, its ‘physical’ presence also points to a re-materialisation of the past in the present (O’Callaghan).

Not only does Frame provide the backstory to Catherine Havisham (a wealthy heiress of a brewery), expounding the events that lead to her decline and voluntary incarceration within Satis House, he also refashions her, examining the materialities of her identity.

dress2Frame traces Catherine Havisham’s decline into madness, in which her identity is increasingly dependent upon the objects that relate to her wedding day. Speaking of Satis House’s liminal position, existing in a state of timelessness, Catherine says ‘the wedding feast remained where it was, set out on the extended dining table. If I were to lose that, I would be abandoning all hope’ (2013, p. 244). Similarly the wedding dress is, by her own admission, representative of the ‘symbols and gestures’ (p. 275) of her old life.

The materials of the feast and the fabric of the wedding dress – those materials of memory – are the conduits through which past and present are connected. Whilst the presence of the wedding dress links Havisham irrevocably with its precursor Great Expectations, thus encoding it within the realms of the Victorian, it also provides a tangible, visible entity facilitating contemporary reader’s voyeuristic participation in an immersive relationship with the nineteenth-century past.


 

[1] A term subsequently endorsed by Christian Gutleben in acknowledgement of what he perceives to be the genre’s ‘repetition, recycling, [and] want of originality and creativity’ (2001, p. 29).

[2] As opposed to David Lowenthal’s claim that neo-historical fiction’s custom of ‘looking back’ seeks not to engage with the past but rather ‘to collect its relics and celebrate its virtues’. A perspective that trivialises the concept of neo-Victorianism as merely ‘a past nostalgically enjoyed that does not need to be taken seriously’ (2003, p. 7).

[3] Marie Luise Kohlke maintains however ‘that such demarcation proves inadequate for conceptualising the full range and diversity of neo-Victorian writing’ (2014, p. 25).

Bibliography:

Boehm-Schnitker, N., & Gruss, S. (2014). Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations. New York: Routledge.

Davies, H. (2012). Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Frame, R. (2013). Havisham. London: Faber and Faber.

Gutleben, C. (2001). Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi.

Kirchknopf, A. (2008). (Re)Workings of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Definitions, Terminology, Contexts. Neo-Victorian Studies Journal, 1(1). Retrieved July 15, 2015, from http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/past_issues/Autumn2008/Kirchknopf.pdf.

Kohlke, M. L. (2014). Mining the Neo-Victorian Vein: Prospecting for Gold, Buried Treasure and Uncertain Metal. In N. Boehm-Schnitker, & S. Gruss (Eds.), Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations (pp. 21-37). New York: Routledge.

Kohlke, M. L & Gutleben, C. (2012). Neo-Victorian Gothic: Horror, Violence and Degeneration in the Re-Imagined Nineteenth Century. [Electronic Version]. New York: Rodopi.

Lowenthal, D. (2003). The Past is a Foreign Country. [Electronic Version]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shiller, D. (1997). The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel. Studies in the Novel (29)4. Retrieved July 11, 2015, from https://studiesinthenovel.org/read/issue-archive/volume-29.html.

Stetz, M. (2009). Would You Like Some Victorian Dressing with That? Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 1(55). Retrieved September 10, 2015, from http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/039557ar.

Yates, L. (2009). “But it’s only a novel, Dorian”: Neo-Victorian Fiction and the Process of Re-Vision. Neo-Victorian Studies Journal, 2(2). Retrieved September 9, 2015, from http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/past_issues/Winter2009-2010/Yates.pdf.

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