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date: 15 January 2021

Victorianism and Contemporary Literaturefree

  • Molly Clark HillardMolly Clark HillardDepartment of English, Seattle University


Victorianism refers to contemporary texts that cede time and space to Victorian ideologies, modes, plots, and problems. In its broadest and most contemporary definition, Victorianism describes any literary, filmic, or cultural text that signals contemporary investment in Victorian literature and culture. Such works can be loosely grouped into three categories: original plots set in the 19th century; retellings of canonical 19th-century texts; and “hybrid” texts—those that oscillate between contemporary and Victorian time frames, for instance, or those that create a new story peopled with characters from Victorian media and/or history, including narrativized stories of authors’ lives. There are persistent modes and themes across these forms, including the networking of science and technology with the human; the detective or mystery story; and the connection between the contemporary Victorian and the gothic mode. While in the 20th century the primary archive was largely white and male, the 21st century has seen the advent of a more intersectional archive and authorship. The topic is often consolidated under the term “neo-Victorian” but is also sometimes referred to as “Victoriana,” “strategic presentism,” and other designations. Specifically under the rubric of “neo-Victorian” the study is sometimes associated with postmodernism itself. Other critical interpretations hold that its organizing principle is neoliberalism and its social corollary, liberal individualism. Yet others connect the subject with cultural studies and its corollaries gender studies, queer studies, and—much more recently—postcolonial or imperial studies. Underlying all of these critical interventions is the notion that the primary affective/aesthetic register of neo-Victorian media is nostalgia and/or belatedness. Nevertheless, critical trends of the 2010s and onward theorize not the continuity but the simultaneity of the 19th and 21st centuries. This suggests exciting implications and directions in contemporary Victorianism, including responses to empire, examinations of global crises, and an expansion of the canon to include media not usually included in considerations of Victorianism.


The relationship between contemporary and Victorian literatures is a fairly new and still emerging subfield in Victorian (and, to some extent, contemporary) studies. For a long time, “neo-Victorian” was the only way to describe contemporary texts that cede time and space to Victorian ideologies, modes, plots, and problems. In more recent years, terms such as “Victorianism” and “strategic presentism” have to some extent presented alternative ways to describe not only the primary literature itself, but the range of practices involved in consuming and critiquing Victorian media in contemporary contexts. However, this subfield is still most frequently consolidated under the title of “neo-Victorian” literature and studies. Yet Victorian studies must come to grips with “contemporary Victorianism” as a lasting subfield within its rubric, and this means acknowledging the wide range of media and the set of comparative critical practices it enables. Moreover, the subfield itself must shift to accommodate changes in the academic discipline of literary studies, particularly the ways in which we imagine literary history.

Neo-Victorian, Victorian Afterlives, Victoriana, Longue Durée

When it was coined in the early 20th century, “neo-Victorian” was a noun—a person whose “values, attitudes, or behaviors hark back to” the Victorian era. Two decades later it had become an adjective, meaning “resembling, reviving, or reminiscent of” the Victorian period, and largely referred to architectural and decorative motifs. This linguistic emergence reveals the play between body and text, between the individual and the wider cultural or communal practice that is fundamental to the relationship between Victorian and contemporary media. In the late 20th century, neo-Victorian came to describe literary works, but primarily novels, that “do things” with fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian (and, for many, Regency) periods.1 Twenty-first-century critical study has tended to broaden the definition of neo-Victorian so that any literary, filmic, or cultural text may signal contemporary investment in Victorian literature and culture.2

Primary Literature: Part I

These texts might be loosely organized into three groups: original plots set in the 19th century; retellings of canonical 19th-century texts; and “hybrid” texts—those that oscillate between contemporary and Victorian time frames, for instance, or those that create a new story peopled with characters from Victorian media and/or history, including narrativized stories of authors’ lives. The “original plots” category includes such novels as John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1968); Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988); A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects (1992); most of Emma Donohugh’s novels, from The Sealed Letter (2008) to The Wonder (2016); Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), and Fingersmith (2002); and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (2018).3

In the “retellings” category are novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel (2002, English translation 2013), Ibi Zoboi’s Pride (2018), Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriagable (2019), Lahleen Sukera’s short story collection Austenistan (2017), and a series of Penguin-commissioned rewrites of Austen, among them Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (2014). The “retellings” category also includes virtually all heritage film and television adaptations, as well as contemporary adaptations such as Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004), Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s “Sherlock” (2010–2017), and the transmedia offerings from Bernie Su’s Pemberley Digital, examples of which are The Lizzie Bennett Diaries (2012–2013), Emma Approved (2013–2014), and Frankenstein, MD (2014).

In the “hybrid” category are novels such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), which moves between contemporary academics in England and the pair of fictional Victorian poets they are researching; Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series (2011–2018), based on a collection of actual Victorian photographs; Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novel series (2001–2012), and P. D. James’s Austen fan fiction Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), a murder mystery that picks up six years after Pride and Prejudice leaves off. The hybrid category also describes fictionalized biographies of or stories about authors, such as Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George (2006) and Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay (2019), and films about authors such as Austen (Becoming Jane [2007], Miss Austen Regrets [2007]), and the Brontës (To Walk Invisible [2016]). It includes films such as Amma Asante’s Belle (2013), a fictionalized account of a real mixed-race daughter of a Royal Navy Admiral raised by her aristocratic uncle and aunt in 18th-century London. It contains television shows such as John Logan’s Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) and Richard Wardlow’s Ripper Street (2012–2016), which feature original plots that contain characters from Victorian fiction and history respectively. Finally, the “hybrid” category may best describe the steampunk subgenre of science fiction, often set in an alternate-history Victorian period and incorporating technology and design inspired by steam-powered machinery and industry. This includes fiction and graphic fiction such as Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates (1983), William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990), Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series (2008–2018), as well as films such as Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). All in all, then, in these forms and more, elements of the Victorian era have persistent currency (both literal and figurative) in various contemporary cultures.

While the iterations of this media are many, there are persistent modes and themes across the form. One such theme is the networking of science and technology with the human. This theme is important to the neo-Victorian form because the contemporary period shares with the Victorian period its rapid scientific and technological advance, similar mechanisms of global technocracy, and similar cultural fears and anxieties about those very systems. Another such mode is that of the detective and/or mystery story, whether because neo-Victorian and other Victorianist contemporary media often use the conventions of detective fiction, or because contemporary detective media frequently adopt a Victorian timescale. The fact that both the detective and detective fiction arose in the 19th century accounts for some percentage of the convergence of the two in contemporary media. More metaphysically, however, there seems to be a relationship between the detective story’s preoccupation with endings, solutions, and revelations and the questions of history and timescales that Victorianist contemporary media raise. Finally, there is an abiding connection between the contemporary Victorian and the gothic modes and themes of haunting, the uncanny, and the supernatural. The idea that the Victorian is “resurrected” into the contemporary no doubt begs this theme to some extent. But also, Victorian gothic fiction has its own conventions of retrospection as well as its own unruliness with regard to binary categories that would appeal to contemporary artists seeking to break with temporal conventions.

Discussion of the Critical Literature: Part I

Criticism of these various media has been codified under “neo-Victorian studies” roughly since the turn of the 21st century, and perhaps owing to that millennial turn. Since 2000, a number of monographs and edited volumes have appeared, including Ann Heilman and Mark Llewellyn’s Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-first Century (2010), Elizabeth Ho’s Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (2012), and Nadine Boehm-Schnitker and Susanne Gruss’s Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations (2014).4 Periodical contributions, such as the founding of the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies in 2008, and several special issues (among them “Neo-Victorian Experiments” in Victoriographies [2016] and “Neo-Victorian Considerations” in Literature Compass [2018]) exemplify neo-Victorianism’s entrenchment in the millennial/post-911 critical landscape. In the early 21st century, most Victorian literature conferences have had at least one explicitly titled neo-Victorian panel, and the themes of some conferences explicitly or implicitly provoke many such interventions.

Along the way, scholars have suggested terms other than “neo-Victorian” for work that treats the presence of “the Victorian” in “the contemporary” broadly speaking. Picking up on the theme of haunting in contemporary remakes of the Victorian, John Kucich and Dianne Sadoff’s edited collection is called Victorian Afterlife (2000); Jay Clayton’s Charles Dickens in Cyberspace (2003) refers to the Victorian afterlife as well, but also talks about Victorian “hacking” of contemporary forms; Cora Kaplan prefers the term Victoriana (2007); Simon Joyce’s Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (2007) uses the analogy of driving forward while looking back; Simon Dentith’s Nineteenth-Century Literature Then and Now similarly suggests “reading with hindsight” (2014); and Lauren Goodlad’s The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic (2015) more simply invokes “longue durée history” (centering on long-term historical structures over short-term events) to describe her practice of finding Victorian aesthetic artifacts in contemporary settings.5 Nevertheless, “neo-Victorian” still remains the most common term to describe this branch of study, and its bibliography is often subsumed under the neo-Victorian rubric in bibliographies, encyclopedias, and round-ups such as this one.

Critics have suggested various theories for the presence of neo-Victorianism in contemporary literature. Because the subgenre seemed to congeal around the 1960s with the novels of Rhys and Fowles, it is often associated with postmodernism itself. For instance, Jay Clayton says that the affinities between the Victorian and postmodern derive from shared “counter-Enlightenment attitudes,” including self-reflexivity, an irreverence for rationalist thought, a merging of realist and fantastic genres, and “a relish for hacking” into older forms of literature for sport and profit.6 For critics such as Clayton, the contemporary Victorian can exist in part because of the postmodernist rejection of Romantic and Modernist notions that literature is the product of individual creativity and originality and must destroy what came before it. Instead, the postmodern resonated with the Victorian in its “undisciplined”—that is, disciplinary and temporally hybrid—literary production.7 Similarly, neo-Victorianism’s connection to cultural studies means there has been a good deal of practical overlap with gender studies, queer studies, and—much more recently—postcolonial or imperial studies. Elizabeth Ho’s work, for instance, argues that neo-Victorian literature emerged as, among other things, a critical response to the collapse of empire, that recovery from Victoria’s empire is a global cultural enterprise, and that neo-Victorianism has particular relevance in a postcolonial present.8

Other examples of the critical archive hold that neo-Victorian media’s organizing principle is economic neoliberalism and its social corollary, liberal individualism. The argument here is that neo-Victorian literature reaches maturity in tandem with the rise of laissez-faire economics and free-market capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s, the global political economies of Augusto Pinochet, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan, which many saw as a resurgence of 19th-century modes of economic theory and practice. Economic and political liberalism is connected to literature through the figure of the liberal individual. Critics frequently assert that Victorian literature, especially the novel, and most particularly the Bildungsroman, is responsible for codifying liberal individualism as the white male exceptionalist journey to personal achievement of all kinds, including sovereignty, knowledge, social assimilation, marriage, and wealth. Critics have hitherto frequently seen this plot, or these values, mirrored in media of the contemporary Victorian. Both Elaine Hadley and Lauren Goodlad examine the aesthetic, formal, and political links between 19th- and 21st-century liberalism. Hadley describes Victorian literature and its contemporary descendants as “fantasies of liberal agency” and identifies individuation as the key prehistory of modern liberal politics.9 Goodlad identifies literary realism (then and now) as the clash that occurs when “modern liberal ideals,” including globalism, struggle “to disintricate themselves from a powerful conservative vision of empire.”10

Probably underlying all of these critical interventions is the notion that the primary affective/aesthetic register of neo-Victorian media is nostalgia and/or belatedness. While the themes of resurrection and haunting evoke the horror and grotesquery of the Victorian, haunting’s affective mirror image, revival, denotes a sentimental longing—and search—for a supposedly irrecoverable Victorian past. In contemporary primary texts, this may take on various forms, including the form of material nostalgia, such as the fetishizing of Victorian textiles, costumes, decorative and book arts, food, color palettes or typography, architecture, or industry. It may take a behavioral or customary form, such as with dilations upon Victorian conventions of courtship, dance, marriage, burial, or professional duties. It may take an erotic form, such as delivering the frisson of supposed Victorian restraint or repression, or conversely by filling purported lacunae in the Victorian archive with overt sexual action or agency—in the words of John Fowles, “something one of the Victorian novelists . . . failed to write.”11 We might even identify formal nostalgia, where authors sentimentalize Victorian fictional genres, tropes, and prosody. Critics variously note the “dangers of interpretively reducing such images to causal origins of commodification . . . or epistemological narcissism,” which “echoes Fredric Jameson’s attitude to historical fictions as a compensation for present day impotence to facilitate change.12 Simon Joyce explains that “returns” to the Victorian tend to produce “a mediated image like the one we get when we glance into our rearview mirrors while driving . . . looking forward to see what is behind us” and that such retrospection causes “the inevitable distortion that accompanies any mirror image” and results in our attempting to pin down the Victorian to a fixed and uniform identity so that we may assert ourselves against it, whether positively or negatively.13

The self-conscious study of 19th-century literature and culture has faced certain difficulties along the way. One challenge is simply definitional. In the inaugural issue of Neo-Victorian Studies, associate editor Mark Llewellyn suggested that neo-Victorian literature should serve “not . . . as a substitute for the nineteenth century but as a mediator into the experience of reading the ‘real thing’.”14 However, this proposal has proven insufficiently capacious in the evolution of the subfield. As Susan Zieger notes, “Neo-Victorian” study as such has reached “an awkward phase of struggle with its identity. Is it better understood as a subfield of contemporary literature . . .? An accessory to Victorian studies? … A critical trend chasing popular . . . historical fiction, biography, and related genres?”15 Because of its affiliations with postmodernism, because it overlaps in several places with cultural studies, or possibly simply due to its newness as a critical study, its practitioners have been—perhaps reluctant, perhaps perplexed—to label its parts and define its parameters.

Another challenge is one of perception and legitimation. In part due to its very definitional slipperiness, as well as to its transmedia and popular media archives, reception in other, more traditional or canonical circles of study in both Victorian and contemporary disciplines can be chilly. Neo-Victorian studies is sometimes dismissed as overly nostalgic or cathected, its archive lowbrow or otherwise insignificant. Mary-Louise Kohlke has noted “charges of de-politicisation, based on a decadent sentimentalism, nostalgia, or spurious liberalism,” while Llewellyn acknowledges that “specialising in the often perilously close to kitsch or clichéd engagements with the Victorian period might fall into the trap of ‘period fetishism.’”16 This is ironic because a significant portion of neo-Victorian scholarship is devoted to critiquing, rather than admiring, the nostalgia of contemporary uses of the Victorian.

But perhaps one of the most significant challenges is that of representation. As can be seen from a primary literature review, until the 21st century, neo-Victorian studies was investigating a largely white and often male mediascape. While women and queer writers have entered the canon since approximately the 1990s, it is only since the 2010s that the archive has opened significantly to include more writers of color (as well as intersections of queer, feminist, and writers of color) who draw upon Victorian materials.

After Neo-Victorian: Victorian Persistence, Contemporary Literature

There is no doubt that both the creative practice of Victorianism in contemporary literature and the critical study of this form of media have the capacity to endure. However, the time is right to consider whether the term “neo-Victorian” itself has a shelf life, and whether a different term might better describe the range of practices at play in this branch of study, or whether the branch of study itself is shifting to demand new terminology. For one thing, it is important to consider contemporary Victorianism in light of the recent shift away from historical and archival projects and toward ideology and theory. The reasons for this turn are logistical (the constriction of humanities budgets has all but obliterated funding for long, slow, and immersive archival projects) as well as ethical (scholars such as Saidiya Hartman [1997, 2006]17 have made clear how archival practices collude in systems of authority). In light of these changes in the academy, many scholars have turned inward, to more theoretical, more self-searching, self-problematizing projects. Finally, the term “neo-Victorian” is closely connected to postmodernism, both its temporal placement and its conventional ideologies. As literary studies seems to be on the verge of a creative and theoretical paradigm shift, “neo-Victorian” does not account for what “comes after” postmodernity (if anything), nor does it take into account the temporal, historical, and disciplinary ruptures that seem to be part of this emerging paradigm.

Discussion of the Critical Literature: Part II

For if “neo-Victorian” is a “harkening back,” a return to, or a “revival” of the Victorian, it must follow that at some point we stopped being Victorian. But at least since the founding of the V21 Collective in 2015, that notion has needed rethinking. “We are Victorian” in Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan’s words, “living in, advancing, and resisting the world the Victorians made.”18 The term neo-Victorian does not account for the prospect that in at least some of these literary texts, nostalgia or belatedness may not be a structuring principle at all. V21 has brought home not merely the continuity but the simultaneity of the 19th and 21st centuries: the swelling of empire through its machinery of endless, conveniently distant wars; the dissolution of labor movements; the mobilizing of technocratic regimes; the wheels of global capitalism; the seemingly paradoxical but actually resultant rise in white nationalism; the rapid changes in modes and modalities of literacy and literature. Grand narratives of progress similarly circulate around these time periods—narratives of industry, prosperity, and advance; but V21 has recognized that some of the most trenchant, most pressing crises in the 21st century were enabled by the “breakthroughs” of the 19th century.

So then, why shift thinking to say that Victorian literature lives still, rather than again, in the rhetorical spaces of our neoliberal accumulations and catastrophes? Perhaps it is the global condition of market capitalism—its failures, brutalities, and crises. Maybe it is more specifically the impending collapse of any number of grand narratives—as large as Western dominance, as fine-grained as the future of the English department in higher education. It is also possible that we are witnessing a general rejection—or at least recalibration—of literary “period” as a focus of academic study. Between 2005 and 2007, a prolific conversation on the limits of the term “Victorian” emerged in the journals Victorian Studies, Literature Compass, and 19, in which 19th-century scholars such as Amanda Anderson, Joseph Bristow, Margot Finn, Kate Flint, and Martin Hewitt debated whether “Victorian” was still a useful or pertinent designation, given the need for decolonized, globally expansive canons.19 At that time, the debate seems to have been resolved, albeit uneasily, in the affirmative; most scholars apply some version of Kate Flint’s “Why Victorian: Response”:

Perhaps we do not need to be asking whether the term “Victorian” has outgrown its usefulness so much as we need to remain continuously alert to the implications that are embedded in our usages of it … and in the long run . . . establish the institutional as well as the conceptual validity of other, coexisting, and ultimately more flexible and empowering disciplinary categories.20

Several years later, that institutional and disciplinary change seemed at last to be afoot; job calls suggested, first, an increasing preference for temporal elongation (for instance, the “long” 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries), and, more fundamentally, a focus on global categories such as comparative anglophone literatures, comparative modernities, and postcolonial literature. Publications such as Nathan Hensley’s Forms of Empire (2016), Nasser Mufti’s Civilizing War (2017), and Megan Ward’s Seeming Human (2018) emphasize this shift too.21

There appears to be renewed urgency to rethink paradigms of literary history and to imagine the discursive relationship between contemporary systems and past literatures. These ethical and logistical calls to action coincide with the critical turn to structural and ideological matters such as affect, aesthetics, and modes of reading and reception. As widely varied as these works are, what they share is their rejection of fictions of liberal individualism in favor of attending to our webs of mutual obligation. For instance, Bruno Latour calls attention to our networks, to concern ourselves “not with nature or knowledge, with things-in-themselves, but with the way these things are tied to our collectives.”22 In doing so, he also challenges the very idea of “the modern” per se. Elaine Auyoung (2018)23 queries the processes by which Victorian fictional texts remain persistent in their effects for readers in the present. Kandice Chuh demands epistemologies that define “human-beingness not by discrete and self-possessed individuality but instead by constitutive relationality,” that bring “encounter without conquest and entanglement in lieu of” bourgeois liberal detachment.24 Rita Felski argues that historicism itself reads literary history as “a pile of neatly stacked boxes” rather than a “buzzing multiplicity of texts” and thus enacts the “functional equivalent of cultural relativism, quarantining difference, denying relatedness, and . . . evading the question of why past texts still matter and how they speak to us now.”25

The study of contemporary Victorianisms can learn from these trends. Thus far neo-Victorian study is largely dependent on the idea that Victorian literature is complicit with the middle-class liberal individualism of its historical moment. But this perspective does not explain the oppositional forces to be found in Victorian literature—for instance, works such as Frankenstein (1818), Wuthering Heights (1847), Aurora Leigh (1857), “Goblin Market” (1859), “Dover Beach” (1867), or Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), among others—nor does it account for the radical uses of mainstream Victorian literature by minoritized readers (for instance, the publication of Bleak House [1852–1853] in Frederick Douglass’s newspaper [1852–1853]). Certain literary forms (such as the novel and lyric poetry) are viewed as individuating: that is, as laying the groundwork for the liberal individual generally, or as symbolic of how great artists emerge specifically. But by pairing contemporary and Victorian literature with fresh eyes, one sees that their structuring condition is not the liberal individual, not a cohesive medium for individual development, but the opposite, liberalism’s collapsed fictions of autonomy, which, in Nathan Hensley and Phillip Steers’s words, give rise to “unbearably intimate systems of entanglement.”26 What if, in place of neo-Victorian, or even more encompassing isms such as Victorianism or strategic presentism, scholars think in terms that more explicitly bind authors, texts, and readers together across time as well as space? What might open up then? Such a change might allow readers to frame this body of literature in terms of networks, entanglement, intimacy, difference, and community; not as neo- or newly Victorian, but in some sense still or semper-Victorian, persistently affiliated, insistently in solidarity.

This interpretive difference would need to take greater account of the interface between readerly and textual bodies: a return, for instance, to studies and histories of reading, such as that of Leah Price. She notes that Victorians understood books to “engag[e] bodies as much as minds,” and compels recognition that any reading history is “centrally about ourselves. It asks how past readers have made meaning (and therefore, by extension, how others have read differently from us), but it also asks where the conditions of possibility for our own reading come from.”27 It is this kind of affective resonance that Felski says we must not fear. This epistemology might be called something as simple as rereading or as complex as literary subjecthood—that texts, authors, and readers become bound together across time as well as space. “Literary subjectivity” is often associated with, at best, an embarrassing lack of critical distance, and, at worst, a dangerous political and social myopia. But dilate more precisely on “subjectivity,” taking it not merely in the sense of “perceptible only to the individual,” “absorbed in one’s personal feelings,” but also consider it in the philosophical or metaphysical sense of “conscious being” and “relating to the thinking mind,” and in the geopolitical sense of being “under the influence of” or pledging “obedience or allegiance to” that it also means.28 Thinking in these terms, then, books can reach out across time and space to conscript the reader, or at least the radical potential of the reader, into its discursive strategies. Most unsettlingly of all, by calling attention to the books in their hands they remind readers of the books in their hands, the fabrication or mediation of the books, and the materiality of the hands holding them.

Primary Literature: Part II

Such an epistemological shift would open up a very different set of literatures for examination. Rather than an explicit return to or time travel between the Victorian and contemporary periods, these works may more obliquely or subtly embed specific Victorian source texts; affiliate with Victorian genres, plots, and characters; or be saturated in Victorian cultural history. In all cases, they engage explicitly Victorian questions of community, authority, self-possession, and the nature and purpose of artistic production.

Examples of such works include Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000), though others could present equally compelling case studies, and this is not a comprehensive or delimiting array. These novels are either postcolonial (written by first-generation citizens of or immigrants to the United Kingdom) or postimperial (written in the wake of 9/11), though if they are indeed still Victorian, they are not post anything. Without proffering a single crinoline or frock coat, these texts open up fissures into the Victorian—its modes of inquiry, its formal strategies, even its very plots and characters. They show that the Victorian has been there all along.

Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday begins and ends with interpretive reading in a post-9/11 world.29 It opens with neurosurgeon Henry Perowne observing from the window of his posh Fitzrovia home what he wrongly believes is a plane going down in flames. This original misprision reverberates through the novel. As Perowne navigates London on Saturday, February 15, 2003, the day of the protest against the incipient Iraq war, he suffers (but, more importantly, others suffer) the repercussions of his inability to ethically and empathetically read his cultural moment. The privilege that normally shields him fails when a car accident brings him into contact with the thuggish Baxter, who later returns to break into Perowne’s house. Armed with a knife, Baxter forces Perowne’s adult daughter Daisy to undress, which reveals to her family that she is pregnant. Discomfited by the sight of her pregnant body, and casting about for a violation to replace rape, Baxter demands that she read from her recently published book of poems. Daisy opens her book but instead recites from memory Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” once, and then, at Baxter’s insistence, again. Both Perowne and Baxter believe the poem to be Daisy’s own work, a misreading that the novel never entirely corrects. These antagonists, therefore, share a moment of misprision, both in the sense that their reading is profoundly mistaken and in that the moment of misreading is profound in its implications. Perowne is forced to see his own “padded privacy,” his “professional reduction” of social complexity. In fact, virtually all Perowne’s thoughts and actions are called into account and judgment, and readers must reread against a presumed authorial filiation with the narrator. What’s left in place of Perowne’s “surgical detachment” from others’ suffering is entanglement, causality, and the many ways in which he has violated the oath of primum non nocere—first do no harm.

Throughout the novel, Perowne repeatedly dismisses literature’s significance in a modern setting. He remains “unmoved” by the Victorian novels his daughter gives him to read, these “products of steady, workmanlike accumulation” (67), and concludes that “this notion of Daisy’s, that people can’t ‘live’ without stories, is simply not true” (67). This is ironic both in that he himself is a fictional character, and in that his awakening is brought about through Victorian literary intervention. “Dover Beach” is in many ways the ideal response to Perowne’s liberal individualism. Arnold is a poet historically figured as responding to constant change with detachment and isolation, but who for many early 21st-century scholars presents a ceaseless negotiation of the self in relationship to the world. Together with Perowne, readers too are forced to read “Dover Beach” anew: not as a cry of domestic retreat in the face of modern crisis, but as the painful recognition of a global community that extends far beyond one’s own temporal and spatial frame.

In Saturday, “Dover Beach” is literally and figuratively begun anew and repeated: it is both read and then reread, but it also affords a Victorian moment that is recaptured and apprehended as a modern moment. And these things are also true about “Dover Beach” as a poem. Like the surf he describes, the “Dover Beach” speaker begins, ceases, and begins again, cycling from personal to collective history. Between the “you” that listens to pebbles on the strand and the “I” that reads that sound as the withdrawal of faith is interspersed the “we” who share the “eternal note of sadness” in similitive reading with Sophocles in Antigone.30 Like Saturday, “Dover Beach” moves uneasily, tragically, between self and society, singularity and collectivity. If the poem’s structuring principle is one of eroding sonnets, the self-contained surety of iambic feet and lines crumble away from stanza to stanza like the cliffs of England. But so does the speaker’s national and temporal isolation. In the poem’s final epic simile, self and reading material converge. The “we” who stand on the “darkling plain” (35) become mingled with the players in Thucydides’ night battle in the History of the Peloponnesian War. Saturday ends on precisely this note of anguished community, of filiation with other consciousness. Like the “Dover Beach” speaker, Perowne cannot, it turns out, live without stories.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate-universe England of the 1990s, where clones are reared by “guardians” at a boarding-school-like institution called “Hailsham” (4) for future live organ donation.31 At one level, it is a horror story of biocommerce. At another, it is also a story of literary trafficking. In Never Let Me Go, the synchronic transfer of material bodies through cloning and transplanting literalizes and materializes the diachronic transfer of literary bodies, one into the other. Narrator Kathy H. and her “classmates” are speaking likenesses of the literature housed within, a kind of embodied ekphrasis. Indeed, the clones’ obsession with artistic production might be recognizable in another context as the familiar question of authorship: is art original or a copy? Does it produce anything new, or only basely circulate? Never Let Me Go holds the counterintuitive ideas that the clones are both ineradicably authentic and also a metaphor for the fascia of literary history.

And Ishiguro is very clear about the source of this transplanted matter. Kathy H. reveals that her senior thesis “topic was Victorian novels,” and she confesses that she considers “going back and working on it [. . .]. But in the end [supposes she’s] not really serious about it” (pp. 115–116). Her statement is ironic, given that her entire narrative rereads the Victorian novel. Ishiguro’s experiment with speculative fiction pays homage to Victorian Gothic conventions but also navigates the terrain between Bildungsroman and female school story. Kathy H. is a narrator every bit as private and withholding of information as Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe, and small wonder: her “school” is a total institution in the tradition of Jane Eyre’s Lowood and Villette’s Pensionnat, its clones the haunted shades of Charlotte Brontë’s degraded surplus population of teachers and governesses. And like those Brontë characters, Ishiguro’s student clones produce artwork that is coopted by their institutional masters as an index to their souls. Plots and characters of other familiar 19th-century novels are grafted on throughout, as are particularly Victorian questions of community, authority, self-possession, and the nature and purpose of artistic production. Kathy remains an avid reader of Victorian novels; by evoking the form and substance of specific Victorian works, Ishiguro reads and rereads, like Kathy H., with an eye to apprehending anew the networks between texts. He draws upon other novels, such as Daniel Deronda (1876), Wuthering Heights, and Frankenstein, because their authors interpret the novel not as a cohesive medium for individual development but rather as a disruptive, heterogeneous form out of which subordinate bodies may resist their disintegration. Reading these novels through Ishiguro opens an alternate structuring condition of the novel form itself: not as liberalism, but as the failure of liberalism into messy and unruly affiliations.

The Hailsham students’ rewinding and sharing of media (70, 99, 103) throws into relief the extent to which the novel as a whole depends upon cycling and recycling, doubling back and replaying. Kathy’s narrative cycles through her life—like a wave, a tide, or a cassette ribbon—juxtaposing events, objects, and interpretations, grouping and dilating upon possessions, and identifying and practicing a language of assimilation. Kathy and the other students repeat and replay certain words and phrases—“proper” (60), “real” (122), “normal” (67), “doing a [laugh, smile, sigh, etc.]” (8)—again and again and again. Kathy returns to her memories of images, feelings, and events, rereading and reinterpreting them. Ironically, then, the very structure that shows Kathy making inroads into selfhood, into personhood, is also a synecdoche for literature itself and our reception of it. That is, literature makes global and temporal deposits—in a memory bank? A garbage heap? A gallery? Ishiguro’s metaphors are many—which are then returned to and drawn upon. The personal is writ large through Ishiguro’s waterlogged landscapes; the novel’s preoccupation with boats, coastlines, and drowning are ultimately resolved in its climactic scenes in Dover and Norfolk, sites pregnant with history, places of invasion, immigration, and emigration. Jane Bennett’s theory of vibrant matter, which argues that our affective responses are constituted in part when the building blocks of matter within us resonate with those same units of matter outside of us, illuminate Ishiguro’s movement from the cellular to the oceanic and back.32 In Never Let Me Go, books are deposits in bodies, things that flow between and within us; we are also the subjects of books, mapped by them, incorporated by and into them. Of all the “vibrant matter” that makes up humans, in other words, books may be second only to water.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth binds together human and literary bodies in ways that undo linear, progressivist notions of history. With an epigraph from E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread creating a hinge between Victorian and modern literature, White Teeth perceives a tangled view of history: “when you say of a thing that ‘nothing hangs on it,’ it sounds like blasphemy. There’s never any knowing—how am I to put it?—which of our actions, which of our idlenesses won’t have things hanging on it forever.”33 From this epigraph onward, Smith materializes, spatializes, and temporalizes the novel to “hang on” a Victorian framework.

As Smith’s title indicates, bodies and embodiment are integral to the novel, and never more so than when those bodies invoke past literatures. In one crucial scene, Anglo-Jamaican high school student Irie Jones attempts an affective, racialized reading of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets—could the Dark Lady be black, she wonders? Her dim English teacher shuts her down by telling her, “never read what is old with a modern ear” (Smith 227). The novel itself exuberantly rejects this injunction, however, as this moment ripples out from its center. Even as Irie’s attempts to read the Dark Lady sonnets against the global African slave trade and concomitant emergence of blackness as a racial construct fall on her teacher’s deaf ears, her reading resonates in the novel through 19th-century literary histories that situate her characters in a more recent imperial context. Smith’s multiplot structure pays homage to the Victorian triple-decker; her alternate cartographies of London owe a debt to Charles Dickens, Arthur Morrison, and George Gissing; her omniscient narrator rejects interiority in favor of displacing internal conditions onto external bodies, features, and objects; she experiments with explicitly Victorian forms and conventions—the Bildungsroman, epistolarity, the uncanny—and she echoes the Victorians’ mobilizing of scientific themes and discourse into uneasy millennial prophecy. Smith herself has called the novel “the literary equivalent of a hyperactive ginger-haired tap-dancing ten-year-old.” This rather Dickensian analogy, which compares her multiethnic tour de force to the body of an irritating, frenetic, and explicitly white child, suggests both her awareness of and discomfort with Victorian allegiances.

Specifically, White Teeth is interested in cartographic, architectural, and transit histories. She shares this preoccupation with certain Victorian novels, among them Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837), Gissing’s The Nether World (1891), and Morrison’s Child of the Jago (1896). These novels afford precise transit through the city in order to convey to readers a variety of “subaltern” cartographies, that is, the immigration into, movement through, mapping onto, and experience of London by those other than white bourgeois bodies and consciousnesses. Their early pages are given to specific placement in London, such as with Gissing’s Nether World, which opens with Michael Snowden entering Clerkenwell; Oliver Twist, in which the Artful Dodger brings Oliver from Islington down into Saffron Hill; and Morrison’s Child of the Jago, which maps the horrors of the fictional Old Jago onto the actual map of Old Nichol Street. These passages focus on spatial specificity, on ground orientation of foot traveler and reader alike, and on the situatedness of fictional bodies in the real streets of working-class London. These London authors engage maps and inroads to conceptualize how personal and family histories intersect with broader historical cycles. White Teeth begins, similarly, with Archie Jones’s failed suicide attempt in Cricklewood Broadway (1). Archie’s averted death sets him wandering the streets of North London and into the arms of Jamaican immigrant Clara Bowden, and this initiates one of several multiethnic and multigenerational plotlines of White Teeth through the birth of their daughter Irie Jones.

Where Victorian authors witness the intranational migration of the poor from the countryside into the city, Smith charts the international immigration from former British colonies into England. All of these novels begin within about ten miles of each other in North London’s historically working-class districts. In some ways, then, White Teeth takes up where, for example, Oliver Twist leaves off, imagining spaces such as Shoreditch and Islington as the sites of a century’s worth of influx. (As Smith’s narrator observes, “this has been the century of strangers, brown, yellow and white. This has been the century of the great immigrant experiment” [271].) In these novels, maps are palimpsests, where, in various ways, the fictional is grafted onto the real, and the old is superimposed with the new. Smith, for her part, figures both the map of London and movement through it as history repeating itself. White Teeth’s roads lead the reader to a variety of institutional spaces: school, pub, and exhibition hall; hotspots in which bourgeois, working-class, and immigrant bodies mingle and clash, and where modern and Victorian histories overlap, too.

In the Victorian Bildungsroman, mapping and navigation metafictionally reiterate a protagonist’s movement through time and space, community and nation. Like these novels, White Teeth comes to signify both the distancing gaze upon white teeth in a dark face and also the all-consuming appetite of white colonial and postcolonial global practice. Within the story arc, immigrant teeth are knocked out, chipped, replaced, worked on or over so often that orthodontia comes to symbolize colonization itself, as well as the layered identity of postcolonial peoples. But if the novel of development is a different kind of map, one that navigates an individual body through a sociocultural landscape, then Smith also joins and extends those Victorian novels that do not assimilate, that redraw the contours of generic maps to include subaltern voices and bodies, and in so doing open the borders of Victorian novels to temporal transmigration.

To reread Victorian literature through the contemporary is to enter a transtemporal community of those bound together across time as well as space by the books they read. In these novels, characters become subject to, and subjects of, the books they read. Willingly or not, they pledge allegiance, not to the realm, regime, or nation that marginalizes or destroys them (or, if they are white men, endorses and validates them), but to the transtemporal bindings of literature. As Rebecca Walkowitz has said, “translation and global circulation create many books out of single texts, transforming old traditions and inaugurating new ones.”34 Wai Chee Dimock has called this way of seeing “diachronic historicism,” where “the text [is] a temporal continuum, thick with receding and incipient nuances.”35 These novels suggest that literature produces its own diaspora, a network of linkages interleaved with other scatterings. Think of this temporal entanglement as forming a community, one not necessarily harmonious or heterogeneous, identifying difference as much as similarity, but nevertheless central to any kind of human belonging that matters.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Boem-Schnitker, Nadine, and Suzanne Gruss, eds. Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations. London: Routledge, 2014.
  • Clark Hillard, Molly. “When Desert Armies Stand Ready to Fight”: Re-Reading McEwan’s Saturday and Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Partial Answers 6, no. 1 (2008): 181–206.
  • Clark Hillard, Molly. “Never Let Me Go: Cloning and Transplanting Victorian Literature.” Journal of Narrative Theory 49, no. 1 (2019): 109–134.
  • Clark Hillard, Molly. “Terrible Iterations: Reading Tess Without Consent.” Victorian Literature and Culture 48, no. 2 (2020): 421–433.
  • Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Dentith, Simon. Nineteenth-Century Literature Then and Now: Reading with Hindsight. London: Routledge, 2014.
  • Felski, Rita. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (2011): 573–591.
  • Goodlad, Lauren. The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Ho, Elizabeth. Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.
  • Joyce, Simon. The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.
  • Kaplan, Cora. Victoriana: Histories, Fiction, Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Kohlke, Mary-Louise, ed. “Introduction: Speculations in and on the Neo-Victorian Encounter.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1, no. 1 (2008): 1–18.
  • Kucich, John, and Dianne F. Sadoff, eds. Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Llewellyn, Mark, and Ann Heilmann, eds. Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009. London: Palgrave, 2010.


  • 1. As a Regency figure, Austen belongs to both the long 18th century and the long 19th century, rather than to the Victorian period per se. But just as Austen is sometimes claimed by Victorian critics, so too is she often wrapped into neo-Victorian studies. Some, however, maintain that Austenism is its own cultural and economic force and is merely adjacent to contemporary Victorianism.

  • 2. For many critics, the rise of the term neo-Victorian to describe the contemporary Victorianist novel in the late 20th century reinforces the links between neo-Victorianism and postmodernism. However, as Jessica Cox notes in the Oxford Bibliography entry “Neo-Victorianism”: Works predating Rhys’s novel include Robert Graves’s The Real David Copperfield (1933), Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater (1935), Michael Sadleir’s Fanny by Gaslight (1944), and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953), while stage and film adaptations of Victorian literature have an even longer history.

  • 3. This article treats only those works that remake the British, rather than the “commonwealth” or global, 19th century. To expand the investigation would be to include such works as Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), Bernie Su’s The March Family Letters (2014–2015), and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018).

  • 4. Mark Llewellyn and Ann Heilmann, eds., Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999–2009 (London: Palgrave, 2010); Elizabeth Ho, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2012); and Nadine Boem-Schnitker and Suzanne Gruss, eds., Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture: Immersions and Revisitations (London: Routledge, 2014).

  • 5. John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff, eds., Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000); Jay Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Cora Kaplan, Victoriana: Histories, Fiction, Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Simon Joyce, The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007); Simon Dentith, Nineteenth-Century Literature Then and Now: Reading with Hindsight (London: Routledge, 2014); and Lauren Goodlad, The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic: Realism, Sovereignty, and Transnational Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • 6. Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace, 7.

  • 7. Clayton, Charles Dickens in Cyberspace, 8.

  • 8. Ho, Neo-Victorianism and the Memory of Empire.

  • 9. Elaine Hadley, “On a Darkling Plain: The Fantasy of Liberal Agency,” Forum on Liberalism, Victorian Studies 48, no. 1 (2005): 92–102.

  • 10. Goodlad, The Victorian Geopolitical Aesthetic.

  • 11. John Fowles, “Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” in The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, ed. Malcolm Bradbury (London: Fontana, 1990), 136–150, at 138.

  • 12. Kucich and Sadoff, Victorian Afterlife; xxvi; and Andrea Kirchknopf, “(Re)workings of Nineteenth-Century Fiction: Definitions, Terminology, Contexts,” Neo-Victorian Studies 1, no. 1 (2008): 53–80, at 74.

  • 13. Joyce, The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror, 4.

  • 14. Mark Llewellyn, “What Is Neo-Victorian Studies?” Neo-Victorian Studies 1, no. 1 (2008): 164–185, at 168.

  • 15. Susan Zieger, “Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture [Review],” Victorian Studies 59, no. 1 (2016): 131–134.

  • 16. Mary-Louise Kohlke, “Speculations in and on the Neo-Victorian Encounter,” Neo-Victorian Studies 1, no. 1 (2008): 1–18, at 9; and Llewellyn, “What Is Neo-Victorian Studies?” 168.

  • 17. Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), and Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

  • 18. Anna Kornbluh and Benjamin Morgan, “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.”

  • 19. Amanda Anderson, “Victorian Studies and the Two Modernities,” Victorian Studies 47, no. 2 (2005): 195–203; Joseph Bristow, “Why ‘Victorian’? A Period and Its Problems,” Literature Compass 1, no. 4 (2004): 1–16; Margot Finn, “When Was the Nineteenth Century Where? Whither Victorian Studies?” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 2 (2006): 1–6; Kate Flint, “Why ‘Victorian’? Response,” Victorian Studies 47, no. 2 (2005): 230–239, at 238, 231; and Martin Hewitt, “Why the Notion of Victorian Britain Does Make Sense,” Victorian Studies 48, no. 3 (2006): 395–438.

  • 20. Flint, “Why Victorian?” 238.

  • 21. Nathan Hensley, Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Nasser Mufti, Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2017); and Megan Ward, Seeming Human, Artificial Intelligence and Victorian Realist Character (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2018).

  • 22. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  • 23. Elaine Auyoung, When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

  • 24. Kandice Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), xi.

  • 25. Rita Felski, “Context Stinks!” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (2011): 573–591, at 577.

  • 26. Nathan K. Hensley and Philip Steer, eds., Ecological Form: System and Aesthetics in the Age of Empire (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 7.

  • 27. Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 5.

  • 28. “Subjectivity,” Oxford English Dictionary Online (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • 29. Ian McEwan, Saturday (New York: Johnathan Cape, 2005).

  • 30. Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams et al., 7th ed., Vol. 2 (New York: Norton, 2000), 1492–1493; 14.

  • 31. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (New York: Vintage, 2005), 5.

  • 32. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Duke University Press, 2010).

  • 33. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (New York: Vintage, 2000), 2.

  • 34. Rebecca Walkowitz, “Unimaginable Largeness: Kazuo Ishiguro, Translation, and the New World Literature,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 40, no. 3 (2007): 216–239, at 226.

  • 35. Wai Chi Dimock, “A Theory of Resonance,” PMLA 112, no. 5 (1997): 1060–1071, at 1061.