I’ve often thought to myself that I like the world of Neo-Victoriana—not necessarily in itself, but because I like the enthusiasm such a trend implies for Victorian things. If someone really falls in love with The Eyre Affair, it’s not such a stretch to see them reading Jane Eyre next.
Yet the reader who falls in love with The Eyre Affair may never read Jane Eyre—or, even worse, may try to read Jane Eyre and hate it. The Neo-Victorianist and the Victorianist are not necessarily one and the same. Indeed, I would go so far as to brashly suggest that the very logic that governs Neo-Victoriana is in an important way antithetical to Victorians studies.
Neo-Victoriana—and I’m aware that I’m generalizing outrageously here for rhetorical effect—operates according to a logic of ahistoricism. This may seem contradictory: it is, after all, a movement very much tied to a specific historical period. But it is also, at its heart, a movement about temporal and spatial dislocation. It is about playing with the past from the perspective of the present; in some cases, it is about the reinvention of the present through a reappropriation of the past.
For all its seeming historicity, it strikes me as profoundly anti-historical.
Allow me to explain myself via a detour with Charles Dickens. Dickens hated having his photographic image taken: he found the experience of sitting for photographers uncomfortable, and he turned down at least one sitting, citing his unwillingness to multiply his photographic images. Yet multiply they did: he sat for at least 120 distinct photographic portraits. While we may wonder about the source of Dickens’s discomfort, as well as the seeming contradiction represented in his simultaneous disdain for photography on the one hand and the fact that he was the most photographed Victorian person beside Queen Victoria herself on the other, this recalcitrant abundance (loudly hating photographic portraits and yet sitting for so many) is nothing less than the logic of celebrity.
The fiction of the celebrity photograph is that it promises to “put one in the presence of fame” (Marsh 106). And at the heart of its logic lies its failure to live up to that promise. Alexis Easley writes that “Although celebrity culture was premised on reconstruction of the past, it was also focused on the ephemeral world of the day-to-day literary marketplace” (11). The discourse surrounding celebrity was “premised on what could be seen and known about popular authors” as well as “the mysterious and unknowable aspects of their lives and works” (12). A celebrity is someone you know about but about whom you want to know more—a person in some respects available to you but yet withheld.
Dickens’s celebrity is going strong today. Jay Clayton lists some of the uncountable, uncontainable, unknowable number of films, television episodes, songs, comics, fictions, nonfictions, web sites, stores, and other allusions to Dickens and his novels that are alive and well in our contemporary culture. An important subset of these proliferating allusions is the category featuring Dickens’s images. Photographic portraits played a vital role in establishing Dickens’s celebrity as an author and continue to play a role in sustaining that celebrity today. Photographic reproductions understandably adorn the covers of biographies of Dickens, but also objects such as coffee mugs, hats, and t-shirts. This Dickens, the Dickens of the coffee mug industry, is in one sense the “right” Dickens in spirit, a postmodern anachronism with just the right amount of “allusion, parody, irony, and hyperbole” to do Dickens—the man who “took pleasure in noting the spinoff products from his imagination”—-proud, as Clayton suggests (164, 4). In another sense—or perhaps it’s more just to say on the other side of this same sense, this endlessly reappropriated face of Dickens holds “No depth—-just surface” (102). These reappropriated photographic portraits are completely out of historical context. This is a different, completely ahistorical way of encountering a historical personage. Photography not only makes the image possible—-for they are photographs—-its logic of image reproduction also makes this proliferation possible.
Instead of a conscious or subconscious cultivation of celebrity, we might read Dickens’s reaction to his photographic recalcitrance a bit more generously. Was it, perhaps, an acknowledgment on some level of the anti-historical move of such photographic celebrity?
Neo-Victoriana is not all concerned with photography or celebrity. I think the comparison is apt, however: both Neo-Victoriana and Dickens’s celebrity image are definitionally dislocated. The “Neo” in Neo-Victoriana emphasizes its historical separation from the object of its fixation. I’m not convinced this is a bad thing, but I do think it is a worth notice. Readers and scholars have treated the Neo-Victorian seriously as a subject of analysis: 2007’s University of Exeter conference on Neo-Victorianism: The Politics and Aesthetics of Appropriation, for instance, indicates a willingness to engage with Neo-Victoriana critically.
Yet I believe at stake is a larger issue of our contemporary relationship to history. My students often seek connections between the Victorian texts I assign and contemporary events. Indeed, I teach them to look for these connections. In one sense, that’s what the study of literature is all about: why read something from long ago if it does not resonate? Yet there is something disquieting about this appropriation, to borrow from Exeter’s conference title. In making all history our history, we efface important differences.
Do we even know what it would mean to approach history without attempting to appropriate it in some way?
Clayton, Jay. Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.
Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2011.
Marsh, Joss. “The Rise of Celebrity Culture.” Charles Dickens in Context. Ed. Sally Ledger. NY: Cambridge UP, 2011. 98-108.