Dickensian Resonances in the Contemporary English Novel

By Chialant, Maria Teresa | Dickens Quarterly, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Dickensian Resonances in the Contemporary English Novel


Chialant, Maria Teresa, Dickens Quarterly


Victoriana

The commanding presence of Dickens in contemporary English and Anglophone fiction, together with other Victorian authors, is now an acknowledged fact . So, a good question to begin with could be: why this interest in the Victorian Age and literature, and in Dickens in particular? Let me suggest a few answers as an introduction to my topic.

Attention to the Victorian Age developed steadily throughout the twentieth century, passing through various phases until it reached a tipping point in the 1950s when a serious revaluation began, initiated in the United States (1) and then in England as Victorian studies took their place in the university curriculum. It is against this cultural background that the phenomenon of nostalgia for, and critique of, Victorian history and literature situates itself, and that the politics of "Victoriana" emerges.

Cora Kaplan deals with this phenomenon in the introduction to her book Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (2007). She begins by mentioning Brian Moore's comic novel The Great Victorian Collection (1975), whose protagonist, a Canadian assistant professor of British history researching Victorian things, dreams that he is walking through an exhibit of Victorian objects reproducing those on display in the Great Exhibition of 1851. Kaplan defines this novel as "a meditation on the modern obsession with things Victorian" (1), "a surreal metacommentary on the impossible desire to possess the Victorian past" (88), to "own" it through its remains: "the physical and written forms that are its material history" (1).

It is well known that, since the late 1960s, starting with Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), a considerable number of historical novels (also film and television adaptations) have appeared which feature the Victorian period and adopt narrative conventions inscribed within the more general postmodern modality of revisiting the past in the form of sequels, parodies and pastiches. Concerning this, John Kucich and Diane SadofF remark that, in spite of the abundant critical material on postmodernism, and of studies touching on postmodern returns to Victorian texts, "there has been very little scholarly work that has attempted to historicise postmodern rewritings of Victorian culture." Kucich and Sadoff address this gap with the intention of beginning "a discussion of postmodernism's privileging of the Victorian as its historical 'other'" (x-xi). A variety of factors account for this resurgence of interest, they assert, including the emergence of cultural studies, new historicism, interest in narrative that evokes nostalgia for nineteenth-century aesthetic forms, "the rise of women into positions of cultural authority as both producers and consumers," and the related discourses of gender and postcolonial theory. All of them combined, they conclude, constitute a network of overdeterminations that privileges the Victorian period as the site of historical emergence through which postmodernism attempts to think its own cultural identity (xxv-vi). (2)

This phenomenon has been variously interpreted. Robin Gilmour, for example, refers to the publishing industry with its links to the expansion of British higher education and the study of Victorian literature and history, which has led to the growth of the paperback market in Victorian fiction. Interest in nineteenth-century novels, he suggests, reflects "certain powerful narrative simplicities" such as the pleasure of the plot, Romance and romantic love (198). To which I would add the appeal of characterization, the presence of an (often) opinionated omniscient narrator, and various ingredients, including sex, a point made by Cora Kaplan (86).

But the literary phenomenon of neo-Victorianism, I suggest, is also connected to opportunities the period offers today's novelists. Gilmour usefully characterizes these as follows: the historical novel written from a modern perspective (J. …

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