So what is neo-Victorianism? A working definition.

Basically, Neo-Victorianism is the explosion of corsets, top hats, high tea parties, BBC adaptations of Dickens and Austen, tattoos of Alice in Wonderland, Steampunk everything, and novels set in smoggy London.

It is the contemporary re-engagement with and the reimagining of the Victorian era. It is, as put so delightfully by the founding editor of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies Marie-Luise Kohlke, “the afterlife of the nineteenth century in the cultural imaginary.” And it is a huge and expanding industry.

Neo-Victorian fiction is a particularly interesting area. Television adaptations of Victorian texts are rampant, and filmic adaptations from within the last two years include Anna Karenina (2012), Great Expectations (2012), Les Misérable (2012), The Three Musketeers (2012), Wuthering Heights (2011), and Jane Eyre (2011). Then of course there are the novels, which range from recognisable adaptations of Victorian texts such as Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which offers the colonial perspective of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, to the novels by Sarah Waters, which place fictional characters and events in a Victorian setting. Quite a number of these novels are winning Man Booker and other prestigious prizes, including A.S. Byatt’s Possession, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and 2013’s own (antipodean!) Man Booker winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

But what does all this mean? Why is it so popular, and how does that reflect on us? What do these works of fiction say?

And why should anyone care?

These are the types of questions that I hope to answer through my PhD research, and share through this blog. I am especially interested in an ecocritical approach to neo-Victorian fiction, which as far as I can tell has never really been attempted before. But before I can answer these important questions, I must answer a much more simple one:

So what is neo-Victorianism?

The answers above are examples, not definitions, and many people have taken these same artistic, cultural and literary works and produced very different definitions of neo-Victorian fiction. For a selection of these, see the bottom of this post. But, like all researchers in this field, I must decide which definition suits my study, and support this definition.

To begin, what is meant by Victorian?

Victorian is used varyingly to refer to:
The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
The life span of the Queen (1819-1901)
The ‘long’ nineteenth century of ‘Victorian’ culture and characteristics. (And trust me, as defined by Eric Hobsbawm, it is long – from the French Revolution in 1789 till the beginning of World War I in 1914).

Periodisation is a problematic concept, as it necessarily oversimplifies, homogenises, and superficially summarises an entire era. It creates chronological boundaries, with highly disputed start and end points, and implies that there is a uniqueness to traits of the era, and that these are common within that era. Ultimately, since history is continuous, periodisation can only occur in retrospect and is more or less arbitrary.

Yet nevertheless, it is a very useful framework and system of shorthand. Much as geological time is too vast to research without some divisions, so too is literary studies aided by more specific periodisation than the broad ‘fiction’ genre. The particularly marked contemporary return to the nineteenth century would be lost if this phenomenon was treated as undifferentiated from an interest in historical fiction in general.

Accepting then the problems and use of periodisation, what does Victorian refer to, as I am using it?

My research will be engaging with texts from across the British Victorian Empire. Arguably, periodisation is problematic for Australian and other postcolonial historical fiction as it always refers to European events (particularly, in fiction written in English, to Britain). Yet there does seem to be a return to the nineteenth century in fiction across the once-Victorian empire, and analysing them using the framework of neo-Victorianism could allow similarities, differences and points of discussion to emerge. As such, I will be using a broad idea of the long nineteenth century, in order to encompass the widest range of British and post-colonial neo-Victorian texts. Fiction set as late as 1914 is still relevant to my research because I will be looking at texts of Antarctic exploration – and what is more ‘Victorian’ than a group of Englishmen pitching themselves against the wild? Similarly, much Australian historical fiction is set in the pre-Victorian reign, because that is when many of the English of arguably ‘Victorian’ disposition were encountering the continent and the native Aborigines. This is not to say that a ‘Victorian’ ever existed, or that ‘Victorian’ traits were maintained from the French Revolution to World War I. Yet certain characteristics did emerge, and they are particularly marked in neo-Victorian fiction because authors of such texts are aware of periodisation. After all, neo-Victorian authors only know the Victorian era through archival remains, particularly the literary. Hence, periodisation is a particularly relevant concept in studies of historical fiction.

And what does “neo” mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the relevant definition of the prefix is:

1. a. Forming compounds referring to a new, revived, or modified form of some doctrine, belief, practice, language, artistic style, etc., or designating those who advocate, adopt, or use it.

Importantly, within the study of neo-Victorianism, the title of this genre is disputed, and isn’t even always neo-Victorianism! In fact, the online Neo-Victorian Studies journal, first published in only 2008, included an article by Andrea Kirchknopf that attempts to define the still vague terms used in the new field, and concludes that “post-Victorian” is actually the most appropriate (page 66). Kirchknopf sees the variety of prefixes used to denote the current re-engagement as suggesting different emphases, with retro- and neo-Victorian highlighting the emphasis on the past and the future respectively, and post-Victorian striking a balance between the two. Other titles include Victoriana (Kaplan), nostalgic postmodernism (Gutleben) and historiographic metafiction (Linda Hutcheon).

Nevertheless, the term neo-Victorian has continued gaining a self-perpetuating value through usage. (A quick Google search shows a million and a half results for neo-Victorian, but only somewhat over 70,000 for post- and 10,000 for retro-Victorian. And while Victoriana turns up more than two million hits, it is used much more broadly, often referring to material items from the Victorian period itself.)
A somewhat consensual title allows the field to continue developing in new directions, and a journal employing such a title allows more straight-forward dissemination. Moreover, in my research, I am taking the stance of accentuating the neo of neo-Victorianism, so as to focus on the contemporary era revisioning the past. As Louisa Hadley puts it, there is an interest in the “historical specificity of both the Victorian and the contemporary/postmodern context of neo-Victorian fiction rather than blending them”(3). I am hierarchically ordering the focus, so that the emphasis is on the “new” or present moment, with a strong interest in and use of the past.

All of which brings me back to that original question: so what is neo-Victorianism?

Neo-Victorianism, for my study, at my present point in time, is contemporary fiction that employs Victorian settings and/or styles to self-reflexively invoke the Victorian era for the present.

That is, I am focusing on creative works that are at least somewhat self-conscious (if not fully meta-critical), that use Victorian culture and literature, and talk back to Victorian culture and literature, in order to create original works that speak to and for the contemporary age. Which is not to say that fiction that does not ‘knowingly’ or self-reflexively employ a Victorian setting (so, a sort of costume or period drama that use the era only as a backdrop) could not be neo-Victorian, but merely that I shall not necessarily be engaging with such texts in my research. Moreover, I embrace neo-Victorianism as a highly, engagingly interdisciplinary field, but I shall be restricting myself to fictional texts in order to explore them in more depth.

I welcome comments and responses to this! Agreement, qualifiers, objections and feedback on presentation are all valuable.

A few other definitions of neo-Victorianism.

Hadley, Louisa. Neo-Victorian and Historical Narrative: The Victorians and Us. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
“In order to encompass the range of fictional responses to the Victorians, I define neo-Victorian fiction in the broadest possible terms as contemporary fiction that engages with the Victorian era, at either the level of plot, structure, or both.” (4)

Heilmann, Ann and Mark Llewellyn. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
“To be part of the Neo-Victorianism we discuss in this book, texts (literary, filmic, audio/visual) must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” (4).
“more than historical fiction set in the nineteenth century” (4)

Ho, Elizabeth. Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012.
“critics have agreed that a certain meta-critical apparatus or self-reflexivity regarding the adaption of the Victorian are requirements for a text to be considered neo-Victorian” (4)
“Neo-Victorianism is a deliberate misreading, reconstruction or staged return of the nineteenth century in and for the present across genres and media.” (5)
The Victorian “has become a powerful shorthand for empire in the contemporary global imagination… Regardless of the actual reality or the complexities of historiography, we… remember or misremember the nineteenth century as the apex of the British imperial project.” (5)

Kirchknopf, Andrea. “(Re)workings of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Definitions, Terminology, Contexts.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1.1 (2008): 53-80.
“In my view, the current investment mainly involves a drive to unearth – or invent – material not part of the official historiography of the nineteenth century, and utilise this to reinterpret the Victorians.” (58)

Kohlke, Marie-Luise. “Introduction: Speculations in and on the Neo-Victorian Encounter.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1.1 (2008): 1-18.
“What this introduction will not, indeed cannot pretend to do, then, is provide the (still) missing definitions or delineate possible generic, chronological, and aesthetic boundaries – objectives which more properly belong to the project ahead. The same refusal of pre-emption also underlies the editorial board’s decision to adopt the widest possible interpretation of ‘neo-Victorian’, so as to include the whole of the nineteenth century, its cultural discourses and products, and their abiding legacies, not just within British and British colonial contexts and not necessarily coinciding with Queen Victoria’s realm; that is, to interpret neo-Victorianism outside of the limiting nationalistic and temporal identifications that ‘Victorian’, in itself or in conjunction with ‘neo-’, conjures up for some critics.” (2)

Another neat definition (with lots of links and a reference list!) can be found at Oxford Bibliographies.

Related Victorian and Neo-Victorian Blogs

A brilliant and hilarious list of “rules” for writing a neo-Victorian novel.

My local, the Australasian Victorian Studies Association blog.

The very valuable blog from the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA), “Of Victorian Interest.”

The marvellous British equivalent, “The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates.”

The online supplement of the Journal of Victorian Culture.

A collaborative blog of Victorian early career scholars.

A delightful blog by a post-postgraduate researcher.

An undergraduate’s blog about Victorian and neo-Victorian literature.

A researcher of Victorian literature and culture.

The name says it all – “Interesting Literature”!

A writer of American neo-Victorian fiction.

On the other end of the scale, a collection of images and thoughts about everything from neo-Victorian haircuts to Victorian seances.

And another entertaining one about neo-Victorian tastes in all aspects of life.

Plus an inclusive Steampunk one!


9 thoughts on “So what is neo-Victorianism? A working definition.

  1. I can’t help but wonder, When looking at your blog and other information Regarding neo-Victorianism , if the interest in that era , albeit a difficult time in many respects, perhaps might be an expression of something we have lost in the way of ethics, a sense of honor and duty. I recently became acquainted With the study of Virtue ethics. There is a very good book on this subject By Dr. Nancy Snow. Yes, There were certainly many During the Victorian era who behaved badly. However, I yearn for a time when polite behavior and kindness mattered.

    • That’s an interesting proposition Leslie! I think that the neo-Victorian trend is popular for a whole variety of reasons, and I would certainly say that nostalgia and the yearning for a different time is one of them. Nostalgia is of course not only wishing for a different time, but wishing for a different *better* time, and to that end we do accentuate certain aspects of the Victorian era, such as their ethics and social etiquette!

  2. Pingback: Don’t Modernize Historical Characters (too much) – Beatrix Conti

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