What is Neo-Victorian Fiction?
As I consider myself a writer of neo-Victorian fiction, I thought I’d clarify the meaning for readers, students and scholars who are interested in the term.
Neo-Victorianism is a compound noun formed by the following two terms, ‘Neo’ and ‘Victorian’.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the prefix neo refers to: a compound referring to a new, revived, or modified form of some doctrine, belief, practice, language, artistic style, etc.
Ironically, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word ‘neo’ as prefix, was first used in Victorian times, in 1880.
The term Victorian isn’t as straightforward as it seems. It can refer to the period of Queen Victoria’s life (1819-1901) or her reign (1837-1901). It can also refer to the 19th century in general, and some historians consider it spans from the French Revolution in 1789 until the beginning of World War I in 1914.
It is an enormous amount of time, so many divide it into ‘early period’, ‘the Height of the Victorian Era’, or ‘The Mid-Victorian Period’ (1848-1870), which was the greatest period of economic prosperity and growth of the Empire, and the ‘late Victorian period’.
Neo-Victorian is a relatively new term, Neo-Victorian Studies journal, was first published in 2008. According to Marie-Luise Kohlke, founding editor of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, Neo-Victorianism is “the afterlife of the nineteenth century in the cultural imaginary.”
So, a loose definition would be that the term Neo-Victorian refers to contemporary re-engagement, reimagining or artistic revival, of everything related to the Victorian era, such as fashion, history, art forms, famous and infamous people, literature, including authors, novels, and characters.
Most contemporary views of Victoriansim have been and are largely derived from fictional narratives and their film and television adaptations. So let’s have a look at some examples of Victorian literature and culture mediated through neo-Victorian representations such as:
Cartoons and children’s films such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol
BBC adaptations of the works of Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, Hardy, Mrs. Gaskell, George Elliot.
Films such as Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights.
Novels: Sarah Waters, Fingersmith, A.S. Byatt Possession are my favourites.
Characteristics of Victorian Novels.
Let’s look back at Victorian novels before returning to neo-Victorian fiction.
The world was rapidly changing in Victorian England, and so were people’s views of themselves and how they should interact with this evolving world.
The major changes were bought by the growth of the population due to expansion and colonization, the growth of the working classes and the advances in science and technology.
Steam power, improved forms of transport, more jobs in factories and cities, scientific knowledge, improved many aspects of their lives, but also brought new problems such as overcrowding, increased poverty and crime.
The growing working classes required more social investment in education, health, and housing. Women were becoming more independent and demanding equal rights.
A new philosophy, Utilitarianism, advocated by John Stuart Mill was concerned with the promotion of happiness and wellbeing of the majority of the population, instead of the elite. More egalitarian and ethical modes of thinking led to increased social awareness.
As a result, the themes which interested the Victorians were:
Ethical: Right and Wrong / Good versus evil, which can be exemplified in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde
Industrialisation and progress: Class and Social issues such as prostitution, orphans, wages, living conditions, education, workhouses, addiction. These themes are prominent in Dickens.
Science versus religion and/or superstition. This can be seen in their interest in science Fiction and detailed and systematic crime fiction such as Sherlock Holmes.
Women and their role in society also figure prominently in literature as authors and main characters in novels.
However writers hadn’t abandoned Gothic, Fantasy, and Romance. Literature as a purely aesthetic endeavour providing pleasure and entertainment was also present.
The Victorians wrote about love and life and the torments and pleasures of loving and living. Their characters, stories and themes are still relevant and exciting for modern audiences as we have seen. So what did they write about? Well, they wrote about everything and anything.
You name the genre, they wrote about it first:
Detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes by Conan Doyle
Vampire novels: Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Dystopian: H. G. Wells The Time Machine, Trollope The Fixed Period
Fantasy: George MacDonald The Princess and the Goblin, the precursor of Tolkien / C. S. Lewis
Romance: Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
Sensation Novel: Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
Comedy: Dickens, G. K. Chesterton, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde,
Social criticism: child labour, work houses, especially in Dickens’ Oliver Twist
Prostitution: Jenny a long poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Drug addiction: Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an Opium Eater
Erotic: The Romance of Lust, by Anonymous, The Pearl is a collection of erotic tales, rhymes, songs and parodies in magazine form that were published in London between 1879 to 1880.
Paranormal: The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde.
Adventure: Treasure Island by R. L. Stevenson
History: Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe
Science Fiction: H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds
Travel: Around the World in 80 Days, Kipling’s Jungle Book
War: Kipling’s Soldiers Three
Poetry: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning.
Short Story: Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy all wrote short fiction.
Theatre: Oscar Wilde, G. B. Shaw
Musicals: Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, and music hall was also a popular form of entertainment.
The Victorians were avid readers. The number of readers was expanding. Even those who couldn’t read, read by listening to public or private readings. Reading aloud was a Victorian form of entertainment. Dickens gave many public readings of his work and reading aloud was a popular pastime for families.
Many novels were serialized and some were sold as magazines. Most of them were later printed into three volumes, also called triple deckers. Many were lent through the lending libraries.
‘Penny bloods’, which came to be known as penny dreadfuls was the name for booklets which told stories of adventure, such as gothic tales, pirates and highwaymen, and crime. They were published weekly with illustrations.
Fiction written by a contemporary author which employs Victorian settings and/or styles to self-reflexively invoke the Victorian era for the present.
The aim is not simply to set a novel in the Victorian era due to nostalgia. There must be something more than an aesthetic or historic recreation.
In other words, fiction that is consciously and purposefully set in the Victorian era in order to reinterpret, rediscover, or make a statement concerning one or more aspects of Victorian literature and transmitting these findings, or conclusions to a contemporary audience.
Neo-Victorian novels have a specific and conscious aim to put forward an argument about Victorian culture and literature, which the author considers has a message or relevance for a contemporary audience.
Many of the neo-Victorian writers could also be called Postcolonial. Some have considered that Victorian authors and their works represented the mainstream or traditional Victorian society, which supported Colonialism and the Empire either implicitly or explicitly.
They could also be called Feminist because their aim is to discuss, raise awareness, and promote equal rights and opportunities for women in all walks of life, especially in education and employment. More on Feminism in Victorian Literature in this post: https://lucciagray.com/2014/03/24/the-madwoman-in-the-attic-part-i/ and
These writers are writing back to their imperialist forefathers. So for example, Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea is both Postcolonial, neo-Victorian and Feminist.
Jean Rhys writes back to Charlotte Bronte by reimagining Bertha Mason’s life before during and after she married Mr. Rochester. Rhys takes a Creole woman, who was a minor character from the colonies, without a voice. Bertha had no rights in England. Rhys reinvented her life and gave her a voice and the central role in the novel, which brings us to why I wrote The Eyre Hall Trilogy, but more about that in my next post.
It’s an ample topic and I’ve skimmed through, but if you have any ideas or suggestions, let me know.
In my next post I’ll tell you why I write neo-Victorian fiction and I’ll discuss What’s the point of Reading Neo-Victorian Novels instead of reading the real thing.