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In The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror, Simon Joyce seeks to advance recent arguments about the complex relationship of modernity or postmodernity to the nineteenth century by examining a series of historical moments in which the Victorian past was and is being theorized. He argues that “we never really encounter ‘the Victorians’ themselves” but merely their mediated mirror image, subject to “inevitable distortion,” that often fails to displace “commonsense assumptions” about the Victorians and, indeed, “may even paradoxically help consolidate them” (4-5). Nevertheless, Joyce traces three efforts at unsettling these popular notions of Victorian values—a “confidently triumphalist imperialism,” a separation of public and private spheres, a “repressive sexual morality,” and the emergence of bourgeois ideology: first, the “laborious work of opposition” that approaches ideological critique; second, the effort to recuperate the voices of those excluded from “our received notions” and the “dominant records” of the Victorians; third, the effort to stress aspects of nineteenth-century society or culture that “most closely resemble our own” (5-6). Yet the first of these projects posits merely an anti-Victorianism, Joyce maintains; the second “presumes a normative definition” that leaves the official view of the Victorian “uninterrogated” and against which otherness may itself be constituted as a non-normative condition; the third produces “some immediate benefits,” enabling the viewer to glimpse “multiple narratives” under the surface of our notions of the Victorian (7).
Joyce positions himself against, in particular, the argument of John Kucich’s and my collection of essays, Victorian Afterlife (2000), in which we argue that postmodernism takes the Victorian as a primary—and overdetermined—origin because late-century valuing of cultural emergence and rupture produces multiple and overlapping stories of the Victorians’ influence on the present and of historical transition. Joyce maintains that this concept fetishizes emergence, merely “defers the troubled question of definition,” and produces a logic that surreptitiously affirms the setting up of binaries (7). He prefers to view the Victorian past not as a moment of origin or emergence, however contradictory and multiply determined, but to see the present as a moment in which the Victorian past is constituted as a “condensation of contrary tendencies and oppositions” that “harden[s]” in the twentieth century into “doxological assumptions and attitudes” that sustain various arguments about Victorian political and cultural values, arguments that position themselves as “for or against a partial image of the whole” and so constitute each other in a “form of dialectical spiral” (7). Despite the purchase this notion provides post-Victorian critics (about which I’ll speak later), Joyce here imagines, even if merely implicitly, that from his millennial perspective, some version of “the whole” may be pictured, as though his own view were not, like the others that address this historical problematic, limited, partial, or subject to the inevitable distortions of retrospection.
Joyce’s chapters describe various twentieth-century moments in which writers, visual cultural practitioners, politicians, and historians confront the Victorian past to either denigrate or idealize their nineteenth-century forebears (and predecessors who also privileged the Victorians) so as to advance their own political agendas. Thus Joyce describes the Bloomsbury Group’s ambivalent and contradictory evaluation of the Victorians as only apparently a wholehearted revolt that, he maintains, is nevertheless still tied to many of Victorianism’s “core elements,” including class privilege (19). He demonstrates Evelyn Waugh’s and E. M. Forster’s nostalgia for the Victorian past yet notes that each novelist nevertheless “stage[s] self-reflexive discussions of the benefits and dangers of nostalgia” (41). In a chapter on heritage aesthetics, he positions Merchant Ivory films and BBC classic serials (Waugh and Forster, once again) against an emergent and progressive Victorian anti-realist art photography and a post-Victorian metacinematic heritage culture. A chapter on the modern welfare state’s links to the Victorian past places Gertrude Himmelfarb as spokesperson for a “neoconservative return to the Victorians” that underwrote and sustained Margaret Thatcher’s (and Newt Gingrich’s) “contemporary efforts to reform welfare” by invoking nineteenth-century attitudes toward poverty, welfare, voluntarism, and the state as “Victorian values” suitable to address the massive problems of a late monopoly-capitalist economy (114). Finally, Joyce examines Charles Dickens’s rehabilitation on stage, screen, and television and in late twentieth-century and millennial fiction to mobilize the Victorian project to investigate the “mutual responsibilities of classes of people for each other, and of the state for its citizens” (143). In this series of chapters, then, Joyce traces the ways that, given the pressures and needs of various historical moments, the Victorians have gone in and out of fashion, as they have been retrospectively reconstructed by twentieth-century intellectuals, politicians, novelists, historians, and filmmakers, photographers, and television dramatizers.
Joyce’s arguments—themselves complex and contradictory—are variously compelling and persuasive. He confesses that his rhetoric shifts, in the book’s middle chapter, from the “neutral tone of the deconstructionist,” content to “highlight the internal tensions within modernism’s relationship to the past,” to a “more assertive” voice that “seeks to restore and revalue” aspects of Victorian culture that take more politically progressive stances than those normally associated with nineteenth-century thinkers. I find the deconstructionist’s stance rhetorically more convincing than the activist’s. In his chapter on the country house novel, for example, a genre that values family, heritage, historical continuity, and the English landscape, Joyce’s anchoring of this discourse in the 1920s Victorian revival—a “fashion for Victorian ephemera” among the Oxford undergraduates who later wrote this ambivalent, nostalgic fiction—is fascinating, and its argument usefully situates Waugh’s and Forster’s novels within an emergent, yet nostalgic, material and social culture. His chapter on Himmelfarb and 1980s politics rehearses an already familiar view, yet his careful attention to the welfare state—and to the work of Lauren M. E. Goodlad—deepens our understanding of the Victorians’ emerging belief in the liberal state as a necessary buffer against poverty and class division. In his chapter on heritage aesthetics, which is highly indebted to work by Andrew Higson and other 1980s anti-Thatcher cultural critics, Nancy Armstrong, and Jennifer Green-Lewis, Joyce’s argument is skewed by its focus on too few examples of heritage film—a much more capacious and multivarious discourse than his argument allows. Indeed, had he focused on Merchant Ivory films other than Howards End; sampled the heritage debaters critical of Higson’s views, such as Claire Monk; or attended to heritage film’s inclusion of gay projects and politics, he might well have produced an entirely different heritage aesthetic. Yet Joyce instead reinscribes Higson’s notion that the Merchant Ivory films’ focus on spectacle undermines their source narratives’ ironic political investments, never questioning whether the aesthetic of long takes, period décor, lack of close-ups, and deep focus might serve an oppositional politics.
Nevertheless, Victorians in the Rearview Mirror significantly advances our notion of the complex intrication of nineteenth- and twentieth-century political and cultural projects. Joyce’s notion of an historical dialectical spiral, in which different twentieth-century decades differently revise the Victorians, often in response to earlier rewritings, gains purchase on the question of post-Victorianism’s relationship to the Victorian by virtue of its historical sweep, complexity, and specificity. Although multiply rehearsed throughout the book, Raymond Williams’ concept of the “nostalgic escalator,” in which historical subjects, looking back, discover ever earlier moments of idealized pastoral or social-organic bliss, often situated in or as though like their own childhoods, nevertheless well grounds Joyce’s historical thinking about retrospective reinvention. More historically sophisticated than Kucich’s and my Victorian Afterlife, which seeks to open a critical dialogue and in which a variety of critics consider separately different features of the post-Victorian; than Cora Kaplan’s Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism, which deploys a permanently restless and unsettled twentieth-century “historical imagination on the move” rather than theorizes the complex and troubled retrospective thinking in post-Victorianism; than Jay Clayton’s Charles Dickens in Cyberspace, which argues for recuperation of the anachronistic, of oddity and the untimely, as a form of historical knowledge, Joyce advances our historical understanding of Victorianism’s status as an unstable term for us as postmodern thinkers. Joyce’s fine book joins these and other volumes, as we begin to define and shape post-Victorianism as an emergent field of study.
Dianne F. Sadoff is the author of Monsters of Affection: Dickens, Eliot, and Brontë on Fatherhood (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982); Sciences of the Flesh: Representing Body and Subject in Psychoanalysis (Stanford University Press, 1998). She has co-edited Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates (Modern Language Assocation of America, 1994) and Victorian Afterlife: Contemporary Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). She is currently working on a book called Queen Victoria at the Movies: Film Adapts the Nineteenth-Century Novel.