Daný van Dam submitted her PhD on postcolonial neo-Victorianism in July 2016, at Cardiff University. She is co-editor of a special issue of the online, peer-reviewed journal Assuming Gender on the topic of ‘Consuming Gender’, see here (if you’re interested: the proposal deadline is 16 October 2016). She’s also one of BAVS ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’ conference organisers. Daný is currently setting up a new research project on non-English-language neo-Victorian writing. More information on her work can be found at her academia page.
In this blog-series on neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors, I discuss writers and texts that I haven’t come across in critical literature, even though, in my view, they are certainly worth mentioning. Of course, I’m only one person, so if you know of any material that does analyse these authors and their work in a neo-Victorian context, I’d be happy to hear of it, either via the comments section at the bottom of this page, or on my facebook or twitter accounts.
Robin Gilmour, in “Using the Victorians: The Victorian Age in Contemporary Fiction” (2002), discusses “the use which novelists have made of the Victorian period and its products in their fiction”.[i] While Gilmour doesn’t use the term ‘neo-Victorianism’, he explicitly states that by “use”, he means “something more self-conscious than the straightforward historical novel with a period setting”.[ii] Instead, he refers to those works which are not only familiar with the period and its literary conventions, but also “draw on the meanings which these have come to have for us today”.[iii]
In an article predating much neo-Victorian criticism, Kelly A. Marsh describes what she calls the ‘neo-sensation novel’. Sensation novels, Marsh claims, are “novels with a secret” that are “designed to shock the reader”.[iv] More recently, Jessica Cox also argued for a clearer recognition of the influence of the genre of sensation fiction on neo-Victorianism, as she discussed the uses made of the (female) body in (neo)sensation fiction (2013). Cox is planning to explore neo-sensationalism in more detail in a monograph-in-progress.[v]
This introduction about neo-Victorian sensation novels brings us to today’s overlooked author: Barbara Ewing.
Ewing (b. 1944) grew up in New Zealand but moved to the UK in her early twenties to go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. She has performed on stage as well as in various films and TV-series (for the Victorian interconnections: among them a role as Rachael in a 1977 TV-adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Hard Times). Only twenty years after Ewing’s first novel Strangers (1978) was published – curiously enough not listed on the ‘Novels’ page of her website – Ewing started writing and publishing more. Between 1997 and 2014, she published eight novels, most of them set in the past. In this blog, I want to highlight three of them, all neo-Victorian.
Ewing’s first neo-Victorian novel, The Trespass, published in 2002, is set in mid-nineteenth-century London, in the midst of a cholera-outbreak. It follows the life of Harriet Cooper, daughter of MP Sir Charles Cooper, as she attempts to find a purpose for her life. Harriet’s older sister Mary – named after Mary Wollstonecraft rather than the Virgin Mary – is their father’s major disappointment as she was born with a malformed foot. When Harriet was born (after two sons had followed Mary), Charles Cooper treated her as a precious and special. The book deals with several grand themes, female sexuality, politics about city-hygiene and emigration among them. Just as Victorian sensation fiction does, however, it relates these to the family home, highlighting a supposed safety within against the intrusion of dangerous outside forces. Of course, this being neo-Victorian sensationalism, it seems obvious that the reader should question how safe it actually is within the Cooper household.
Ewing’s other two neo-Victorian novels engage even more explicitly with the binary of the safety of the family inside versus the dangerous outside world. The Mesmerist (2007), also set in London but several years earlier, in 1838, most certainly fits the description of (neo)sensation fiction as ‘novels with a secret’. Together with a friend, ageing and out-of-work actress Miss Cordelia Preston starts a business, working as a ‘Lady Phreno-Mesmerist’ to supply relationship advice to young couples. Through their success, the two women are able to move up into the world but, as the back flap of the novel also states, “success is fragile when you have a past full of secrets”. Expect to read about the London theatrical scene, the development of mesmerism and its later follow-up movement, hypnotism, about supposed ‘fallen women’ rising up again, broken families and, naturally, about murder and mayhem. There is a follow-up novel to The Mesmerist titled Circus of Ghosts (2011), but don’t look for a description of this novel if you want to avoid The Mesmerist giving away its secrets before you’ve finished reading it.
Ewing’s most recent novel is The Petticoat Men, first published in 2014. Unlike the other two books, this one is clearly a biofictional one – the ‘petticoat men’ in question are Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, also known as Fanny and Stella (for an extensive set of images of them, dressed in both male and female garb, see here). However, while Boulton and Park’s trial for “inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence” forms a detailed background to much of the novel’s actions, the focus lies not on these two men, but on the house they sometimes used to change into their female garb, 13 Wakefield Street. The house is inhabited by the Stacey family: widowed Mrs Stacey and her two children Martha (who is in her late teens) and William (early twenties). Highlighting the safety of the family-home versus the dangers if one can no longer afford to maintain a respectable home, the novel describes what happens to the lodging house maintained by Mrs Stacey and Mattie, and to Billie’s attempts to develop a respectable career when the address becomes associated with the sensational Boulton and Park trials. The novel tells of what may happen when certain people’s secrets become public knowledge and to what lengths people are willing to go to avoid that happening.
All three novels are clearly twenty-first-century texts, visible for example in their treatment of female sexuality and casual references to homosexuality. Money is also explicitly discussed in all three novels, focusing on how women were unable to access or maintain their own finances, except in very circumscribed circumstances.
In some examples, authors of neo-Victorianism are not so much overlooked as consciously ignored – because their work isn’t very original, or just not that well-written. In the case of Barbara Ewing, however, neither of this is the case. Her novels have been listed for several national and international literary prizes and they are well-crafted and fun reads (I think The Mesmerist is my favourite, because of all of its secrets).
If you want to expand your reading with regard to location or time period, consider looking at Ewing’s novels Rosetta (2005) and The Fraud (2009), both set in the later decades of the eighteenth century. The Circus of Ghosts, the novel that follows from The Mesmerist, is set in nineteenth-century New York.
Keep an eye out for next week’s blog of this series on neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors!
See here for earlier blogs in this series:
Neo-Victorianism’s overlooked authors 3: Barbara Ewing
[i] Robin Gilmour, “Using the Victorians: The Victorian Age in Contemporary Fiction”, in Rereading Victorian Fiction, eds. Alice Jenkins and Juliet John (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 189-200 (189).
[ii] Gilmour, p. 189.
[iv] Kelly Marsh, “The Neo-Sensation Novel: A Contemporary Genre in the Victorian Tradition”, Philological Quarterly 74.1 (1995), pp. 99-123 (p. 100; p. 101). In describing sensation novels as “novels with a secret”, Marsh is quoting Kathleen Tillotson’s 1969 Riverside introduction to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859).
[v] Jessica Cox, “‘[T]he Ghost of Myself’: Women, Art and (Neo-)Sensational Representation in Joanne Harris’s Sleep, Pale Sister”, Contemporary Women’s Writing 7.3 (2013), pp. 346-360. Cox’s university homepage mentions her work-in-progress.