Creative Licence: Writing (the) Victorians at BAVS 2017

Victoria Leslie is a third year PhD student in English and Creative Writing at the University of Chichester and her research explores how folkloric water women narratives were used by writers at the fin de siècle to discuss women’s sexual and political freedom. Her fiction has been short-listed for a number of awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award, and she has been awarded Fellowships at Hawthornden in Scotland and the Saari Institute in Finland. Her debut novel, Bodies of Water is available from Salt Publishing.


At last year’s BAVS Conference, Consuming the Victorians, I was thrilled to see novelist and academic Patricia Duncker delivering the first keynote entitled ‘Imagining George Eliot’, in which she talked about her new book, Sophie and the Sibyl and the history and processes of creating neo-Victorian fiction. As someone studying for a PhD in English and Creative Writing it was encouraging to see an academic talk exclusively about her fictional work. It was also the inspiration behind my paper at this year’s BAVS conference Victorians Unbound: Connections and Intersections, which attempted to embrace the hybridity of my thesis through a creative and critical exposition. The title of my paper, ‘Writing the Victorians; deviant femininity at the water’s edge’, was governed by my interest in the surge of mid to late nineteenth-century visual and literary representations which situated ‘deviant’ women in or beside the water. This idea forms part of a wider investigation looking at the connection between water and femininity and considers how, in different contexts, the water was represented as a site of danger, refuge and revolution. Dividing my paper in two, reading an extract of a short story based on these themes and analysing some of the critical perspectives that informed it, got me thinking about the way academic research informs and engenders creative endeavours as well as considering the connections and intersections between history and fiction.

Past and Present, No. 3 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863

Augustus Leopold Egg’s Past and Present (no. 3 of the triptych)

It was perhaps a natural fit that my paper was grouped with Catherine Redpath’s, ‘Corsets, Contraptions, and Convergences: towards a politics of the apolitical in Steampunk’, since both myself as a creative writer and members of the Steampunk community are intent on utilising the past and refashioning it to suit our own purposes. Redpath provided a fascinating look at the genre as well as discussing the many attacks that are often levelled against it, particularly those that accuse Steampunk of perpetuating negative stereotypes. For me, this was most evident in contrast to Edwina Ehrman’s keynote, ‘Unlacing the Corset: fabric, fashion and symbolism’ which looked at many of the debates surrounding the corset, which was seen by many feminist campaigners at the time as a way to keep women symbolically constrained. Redpath’s argument that Steampunk playfully subverts the negative ideas it is charged with promoting was demonstrated by enthusiastic members of the Lincoln Steampunk Society, who in their customised dress (including the tyrannical corset) functioned as, in Redpath’s words, ‘visual quotes’, to happily explain their interest in tinkering with the past and the very positive messages they hoped to convey.

The idea of reworking the past resonated with many of the fascinating papers at this year’s Conference, particularly those that pivoted on materiality. Heather Hind’s paper, ‘“Pondering on that little circle of plaited hair”: unravelling Mary’s hair bracelet in Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek’ focused on a hair bracelet and the mysterious story of its owner. Constructed from human hair, table work as it was known represented a linkage to the those absent or deceased and despite the morbid associations were woven into beautiful designs. In the story, a second strand of unidentified hair is worked into the bracelet, causing the source of uncertainty in the text. Leonard Driscoll’s paper similarly focused on a fictional object, one that drew on the past but in this case blurred the line between history and fiction. ‘Invented things: H. Rider Haggard’s archaeological paratexts’ looked at Haggard’s imitation of contemporaneous archaeology to invent a fictional object, an Egyptian potsherd, which functioned in the form of a facsimile reproduction as the preface for his novel, She. It put me in mind of the trend of using fabricated historical documents to convey authenticity, as with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, written over a century earlier, which professed to be a genuine translation of a medieval Italian story. Haggard went a step further, by actually manufacturing his fictional potsherd.

Gustave the bridge of sighs

Gustave Dore’s The Bridge of Sighs

The blurring of history and fiction was also explored in many of the neo-Victorian papers. Barbara Franchi’s, ‘Mapping boundless seas: travellers, naturalists and storytellers in neo-Victorian fiction’, explored the role of modern protagonists in piecing together the history of someone in the past and the interplay between biography and autobiography with the protagonists unable to exclude themselves from the stories they attempt to recover. As a writer drawing on nineteenth-century ideas and concepts, it is hard not to be influenced by doyennes of neo-Victorian fiction such as A.S. Byatt and Patricia Duncker who are so adept at merging historical fact with fiction and who have in their various works focused on specific historical figures. For my own creative response, I wanted to create a distanced perspective, but I also wanted the direction of my biographical focus to be on the water. I am not alone in looking for stories in the watery repositories of our cultural consciousness. My paper commenced with a quote from A.S. Byatt, whose 1990 novel Possession, is saturated with Breton myths of water entities and watery myth-makings of her own. And it is through the connections and intersections we make as readers and academics at meetings such as BAVS, that I learnt that with the proceeds of Possession, Byatt was able to buy a swimming pool, a suitably material outcome for her creative endeavours. Since my story draft is provisionally entitled, ‘The Pool’ it felt like a particularly serendipitous discovery

I’m afraid I have already been pipped to the post in the coining of the word, ‘waterbiography’ which forms the ingenious subtitle of Jenny Landreth’s non-fiction, Swell. Landreth’s book examines the history of women’s engagement with the water and charts the first instances where a different kind of ‘deviant’ women began to reclaim the water, making a powerful argument that women’s swimming and suffrage went hand in hand. It is these historical antecedents as well as the earlier representations of fallen women poised on bridges, cast out of doors with the Thames always flowing ominously close, as well as the neo-Victorian repercussions, that continue to inspire my own Victorian re-imaginings.


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