Kym Brindle on Kohlke and Gutleben on Neo-Victorian Trauma

Review by Kym Brindle

Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben (eds.), Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth-Century Suffering (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2010), 412 pages.

Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing After-Witness to Nineteenth-Century Suffering is the first edition of a proposed six volume series of works that will examine revisions of the long nineteenth century in contemporary culture. It is also the first work to specifically contextualise neo-Victorian fiction in conjunction with the burgeoning critical field of trauma discourse. Organised thematically into three parts, this authoritative collection of essays investigates the long reach of past traumatic events from a contemporary perspective, as neo-Victorian writers ‘bear witness’ (4) to historical traumas. Exploring the ideological processes of commemoration and forgetting, this study connects today’s state of ‘trauma saturation’ (9) to a preceding state of affairs in the nineteenth century when conflicts were mediated as a form of vicarious spectatorship. The editors consequently take care to acknowledge that fiction writers stand in a complex relationship to the ethical problems surrounding any representation of trauma. Neo-Victorian writers, they propose, negotiate a primary tension between the unwelcome and unedifying silence that results from rejection of trauma and the potential for exploitative sensationalising by creatively imagining specific experiences rather than appropriating actual witness narratives. Neo-Victorianism thus productively fills the lacunae of history with imagined voices for a project validated as ‘creation rather than theft’ (18). In this way, writers make crucial connections between the Victorians and our own time and draw inescapable parallels between the past and the modern world to encourage a culture of empathy.

The first part of this book addresses crises of faith, identity, and sexuality. Christian Gutleben and Julian Wolfreys begin by exploring the ethical drive of postmodern trauma, positing that contemporary writers turn to the nineteenth century in order to escape a postmodern sense of crisis and loss. Their analysis suggests that reconstructions of history provide relief from a present ‘catastrophic’ (63) age of anxiety. Connecting trauma studies to an ethical concern for ‘others’ (Caruth), they propose that neo-Victorianism rehabilitates ethics in combination with aesthetics as a form of postmodernism revisited. Georges Letissier then considers ethics alongside Darwinism in the second essay of this section. He analyses a range of contemporary novels that ‘show a blatant concern with Darwinism’ (95) and theorises that Darwinian issues first raised in the nineteenth century resonate as a ‘very present legacy’ (96) within paradoxes of Darwinism evident in the neo-Victorian novel. Questions of Darwinism are also confronted by Catherine Pesso-Miquel in the next chapter. Examining John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)and Graham Swift’s Ever After (1992), Pesso-Miquel focuses on empathy and debates tropes of falling – figures and images – by drawing on Cathy Caruth’s complex arguments for this topic. This section of the book concludes with Mark Llewellyn’s nuanced investigation of incest as a significant trope of trauma in neo-Victorianism that he suggests is perhaps still the ‘final taboo’ (135). Discussing the unambiguous presence of incest in A. S. Byatt’s ‘Morpho Eugenia’ (1992) and The Children’s Book (2009), Llewellyn further identifies the trope as a possible ‘traumatic interpretation’ (158) of Sarah Waters’s popular neo-Victorian novel, Affinity (1999). Analysing ways in which revisionist narratives anticipate and reflect contemporary family breakdown, the chapter concludes with thought provoking speculation on the possibilities for intellectual incest in neo-Victorianism arising from writers desire to ‘see ourselves in the Victorians and the Victorians in us’ (158).

The second part of the collection turns towards representations of crises of truth and memory beginning with Dianne F. Sadoff’s essay on Dickens and neo-Victorian revisions of his work. Acknowledging Dickens’s well-known formative personal trauma in relation to his fiction, Sadoff looks at intersections between Great Expectations (1860-61) and two neo-Victorian novels, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997)and Lloyd Jones’s Mr Pip (2007) and proposes that revisionist texts immerse readers in scenes of trauma that uncannily act out the return of the Victorian repressed, which must be ‘re-experienced’ across generations (188). Vanessa Guignery next looks at photography and the politics of war in relation to Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie (1988). Identifying the Crimean War as the subject of little debate in comparison to the centrality of WW1 in trauma discourse, Guignery connects the publication time of Bainbridge’s text with the contemporary conflicts of the Falkland crisis and Iran-Iraq war. Her analysis suggests that the past can be manipulated to bury and silence past traumas, as information and images are ‘instrumentalised and commodified’ (215). Kohlke and Celia Wallhead then focus on the neo-Victorian section of David Mitchell’s multiple time-shift novel Cloud Atlas (2004). What is particularly interesting and relevant here to questions of neo-Victorianism as a postmodern project is their suggestion that narrative fragmentation in this textis symptomatic and illustrative of trauma itself. Echoing an idea raised in Part 1 by Pesso-Miquel, Kohlke and Wallhead argue that temporal displacement and shifting points of view illustrate the repetitive recycling of traumatic events and also represent memory and the inability to forget. Ideas of cultural memory are then taken up by Kate Mitchell, who concludes this section with an examination of frontier conflict in Kate Grenville’s controversial The Secret River (2005), which is analysed as a narrative return to the trauma of Aboriginal dispossession.

Part three, entitled ‘Contesting Colonialism: Crises of Nationhood, Empire and Afterimages’, begins with Ann Heilmann’s examination of Nualo O’Faolain’s My Dream of You (2001). Heilmann interestingly borrows Toni Morrison’s term ‘rememory’ to consider the novel as one woman’s reconciliation with the ghosts of the past, which play out repeated ‘fractured love stories’ (289) against a backdrop of famine that results in traumatic reverberations through time. This is followed by Elisabeth Wesseling’s essay, which looks at Robert Edric’s The Book of the Heathen (2000) as a neo-Victorian critique of orientalism and exoticism that breaks down the ‘moral ideal of Christian manliness’ (311) and also promotes the debunking of assumptions that the present day is a more civilised and enlightened age. Proposing the postcolonial as essential to postmodernism, Elodie Rousselot next considers Canada and Jane Urquhart’s The Whirlpool (1986), arguing that a return to moments of trauma in the colonisation process are necessary within the text in order to illustrate a process of separation between mother country and colony. In the final essay, Kohlke moves to consider the Indian Mutiny as one of Britain’s ‘greatest crises’ (370) and a trope of fascination for neo-Victorian writers. Identifying a sub-genre of ‘neo-Victorian Mutiny fiction’ (371), Kohlke explores the ethical dilemmasand tensions faced when attempting to represent the unspeakable horrors of the conflict.

This collection of essays makes a valuable contribution to an expanding body of scholarship on neo-Victorianism. What is exciting about the book is that it succeeds in breaking new critical ground by way of theme and primary material discussed. It provides timely address to questions of ethics raised by neo-Victorianism’s appropriation of the past together with innovative analyses of texts that may yet have received little critical discussion in relation to the field. The book also participates in current trauma debates and discourses and, indeed, the book’s impressive grounding in trauma theory assumes some familiarity with such debates, particularly the work of Caruth, which is widely referenced in the book. This first volume of an expanding series proves a stimulating and significant study for neo-Victorianism, bringing together a range of dynamic arguments in detailed analyses that productively encapsulate the intersection between trauma studies and the developing critical field of neo-Victorianism. It is an impressive introduction to a series that will be essential reading for any student and researcher of the genre.

  • Kym Brindle is an Associate Lecturer at Edge Hill University. She has published essays on neo-Victorianism and is presently working on a monograph entitled, Epistolary Encounters in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Diaries and Letters, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.

[Posted on 01.x.2012]

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