Article body

Following the craze for “rewriting” the Victorian novel which was such a noticeable element of late twentieth-century Anglo-American literary culture, there were a number of critical books and essays, as well as college courses, devoted to analyzing these sometimes post-modern literary productions from John Fowles to Sarah Waters. Cora Kaplan’s Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism is not only the latest in these analyses of the twentieth-century “afterings” of Victorian texts but also in some ways a commentary on the very process of analyzing them. She pushes herself and her readers beyond the notion of “nostalgia” to see in the late-twentieth-century obsession with the Victorians a narrative about our own moment in history. While the craze for Victoriana—Kaplan’s felicitous label to describe the variety of the late-twentieth-century novels, biographies, and films that she discusses with critical rigor and personal reminiscence—can seem a worn out phenomenon in 2007 (though the impulse to capture that world persists), Kaplan’s analysis of the literary craze and its critical aftermath seems only too contemporary in its evocation of our contradictory and shifting times.

Kaplan’s book is a collection of essays loosely connected by their consideration of “Victoriana” in all of which it is taken for granted that part of its project is to foreground the issues of race and empire, class, and gender that the Victorian pretexts marginalize or fudge. But Kaplan quickly goes beyond this by now obvious point about these works. She lays the groundwork for this move in her introduction, suggesting that the obsession with the Victorians in the post-war period is a function of the loss of a sense of history and a sign of a “restless” and “unsettled” historical imagination at work (3). In addition to the familiar issues of race, class, and gender that Victoriana foregrounds, Kaplan is also interested in “the high degree of affect” frequently involved in our responses to the Victorian past (5). The essays she brings together in this book thus engage what has been a recent and fruitful critical concern with affect as a critical category.

In her first chapter she analyses the critical responses to the exemplary text Jane Eyre as a “mnemic symbol” for a shifting “constellation of stories, images and interpretations” from feminism to postcolonialism and, freshly, “the powerful politics of affect at the heart of gender and modernity” (17) . Through this lens Kaplan is able productively to link Virginia Woolf and Raymond Williams (among others) as readers and critics who continue to be both disturbed and fascinated by Jane’s gendered and trangressional anger and desire.

As is characteristic of each of her chapters, the second, “Biographilia,” begins with various familiar explanations for the interest in biography in the second half of the twentieth century—a resistance to postmodernisms, a desire for narrative and plot, the happy confluence of feminism’s recovery of women writers and a readerly appetite for biography—but also the insight that the popularity of biography is partly an elegiac comment on Victorian realism. Even more interesting is her hypothesis that the biographical interest in the lives of Victorian men is a response to the late-century interest in explorations of masculinity both in the Victorian and contemporary periods. The exemplary texts are Peter Ackroyd’s celebratory biography of Dickens (1990), a pastiche of fact and fiction, and three fictional works published in 2004 that all, surprisingly, are about Henry James: Colm Toìbin’s The Master, David Lodge’s, Author, Author, and Alan Hollinghurst’s, The Line of Beauty. Kaplan links these textual representations, particularly Ackroyd’s heroic representation of Dickens, with the rise of recent critical interest in defining, analyzing and critiquing masculinity. Our anxieties about masculinity make biographies of these patriarchs or sexually ambivalent men an irresistible draw. “It is as if, paradoxically, the genre becomes early on not only the occasion for constructing exemplary masculine lives, but, together with the novel, the discourse where the incoherence of the psychic life of men can be safely expressed” (48). Toward the end of the chapter she concludes that “in these treatments we are seeing in practice the evolution of new forms of manhood, responding to, even sometimes hostile to, an extensive body of work on the history of sexuality in the nineteenth century and the focus of queer studies on Victorian masculinity” (78).

Given that Kaplan’s subject is “Victoriana,” it is inevitable that she must take up the well-tread subject of novels that “write-over” Victorian fiction. Even so, in her third chapter which focuses on the familiar rewrites and pastiches represented by John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), David Lodge’s Nice Work (1989) and A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Kaplan reads these texts as not so much recreating the past but rather as trying to construct a “virtual” relationship between the past and present in forms that are both influenced by and in competition with the theoretical moves of the second half of the twentieth century. As she admits, “my interest in fictional Victoriana in the last half century begins at this oddly contradictory conjuncture, when the libertarian impulses of the 1960s, so invested on the one hand in driving a final stake through the heart of Victorian values, reanimated them on the other through its prurient curiosity about the period—specifically in terms of sex, class, gender, race and empire” (86). This movement of historical fictions seems to me to have worn itself out, though Kaplan notes that “middlebrow Victoriana, which depends neither on over-elaborate pastiche nor an intrusive authorial presence, has been making a come back at the high end of the market in the last few years”; i.e., the novels of Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet [1999] and Fingersmith [2003]) or Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2003) (86). Taken together “the rehabilitation of the historical novel and of the Victorian period as a setting capable of producing a reading experience that is potentially both cerebral and sensuous, have gone hand in hand” (115) and thus speak both to our desires for pleasurable reading and also our sense of loss as to the sources of that pleasure. As Kaplan says at the end of her book, describing the takes on Victorian colonialism, Victoriana shows “respect verging on nostalgia for a long gone chastity, a supposed national as well as masculine innocence that may be class-bound and only historically relative, but is notwithstanding an object of regret and desire” (159).

The long fourth chapter is a close and enlightening reading of the complex texture of Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano which is, in a sense, a compendium of all the Victorian themes and genres as well as late-twentieth-century critiques of these themes and genres, “a marker of cultural literacy that extends—but only just—into the present.” The film plays a game of hide and seek with the viewer both inviting our identification with the subjects and at the same time insisting on their irreducible distance from us. In the course of the analysis of the film, Kaplan makes one of her resonant observations about Victoriana in general: “Victoriana can be seen as another subspecies of melodrama-as-hysteria, for historical pastiche today also appears to suffer from reminiscences—its obsessive recycling of the past less a confident reconstruction than a compulsive and displaced expression of the major impediments to an enterprise in a world where linear narrative no longer commands simple belief” (123).

Kaplan’s analysis of The Piano (which includes fruitful comparisons to The Scarlet Letter) seems the right place to end a discussion of Victoriana since the film seems in its ultimate self-reflexiveness a metacommentary on the whole late-century obsession with the Victorians and Kaplan’s analysis of it is a kind of final summation. As a result, to this reader at least, the subsequent “Afterword—The Empire at Home” which concerns the “thematising of the Empire in Victoriana from Jean Rhys and Peter Carey through Julian Barnes” (in Arthur and George [2005]) (10) feels a bit like a let down. Not because Kaplan’s critical readings are any less thoughtful and informative but because these writers seem to have, in contrast to Campion in The Piano, a narrower interest. Nonetheless, the take on the Victorian colonial past is an essential part of the movement and Kaplan’s discussion of these novels is, as ever, smart and insightful.

As someone who has herself contributed to the critical debate about the “aftering” of the Victorian novel, I found a certain amount of the ground covered in Victoriana familiar. But I also found much that was fresh. Inevitably, since Victoriana does not claim to be inclusive but rather a series of “linked” essays, the figures and works under discussion are selective and the whole not easily generalizable. However, the book does, as Kaplan claims, establish that there is a discourse of Victoriana through which we both experience affects of pleasure and desire we feared no longer possible, and at the same time reinforce our late sense of the ambiguities and fragmentation in both past and present in “the historical imagination on the move” (3).