O’Callaghan on Davies on Puppets, Gender and Ventriloquism

Passionate Puppets: Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction by Helen Davies, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.   ISBN: 978-0-2303-4366-5 (HB) £50.00/ $85.00

 Review by Claire O’Callaghan

Helen Davies’s original and engaging monograph, Passionate  in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction, is an important and timely contribution to the interrelated fields of Victorian and neo-Victorian studies.  Davies unpacks, with impressive detail, the ways in which the trope of ventriloquism provides an important means for understanding the relationship between Victorian and neo-Victorian literature.  It would be an understatement to suggest that this work offers a critical intervention in these conjoined fields; while existent scholarship has recognised that neo-Victorian fictions ‘speak’ to Victorian texts and contexts, such statements have all too often been made in a reductive and sweeping matter, negating the specificity, theorisation and implications of this inter-discursive dialectic.  Passionate Puppets takes up this mantle and offers a sustained analysis of ‘the ventriloquial metaphor’ (p.17) and its deployment in the gender.  Moreover, she connects her insights on voice and power with gender.  This work is – and will be – an important reference point for all future evaluations of the relationship between these literary genres as well as for critical interrogations of gender and ventriloquism more broadly.

Through a series of sustained close readings, Davies investigates the dynamics between voice and agency in order to evaluate whether neo-Victorian texts are re-voicing the Victorians via a predetermined ‘script’, or speaking for themselves.  Crucially, one aspect in which Davies provides a particularly important contribution to neo-Victorian studies is in her discussion of the legacy of the Victorians and the shadow through neo-Victorian writings are constituted.  For Davies, the value of contemporary novels set in the nineteenth century is that there are often ‘doing something with the Victorian era; critically engaging with nineteenth-century fiction, culture and society as opposed to just repeating or nostalgically harking back to a past era’ (p.2).  This point is important; by challenging the limiting ‘ventriloquist/dummy power dichotomy’ (p.20) inherent in the relationship between Victorianism and neo-Victorianism, it is possible to challenge the authority of Victorianism itself.  Recognising the agency of neo-Victorianism and illuminating the concerns at play in neo-Victorian texts creates capacity to appreciate and articulate how and in what ways these contemporary voices critique, expand, and/or develop Victorian ones.

While the ventriloquial metaphor has resonance across a broad range of themes and concerns in both genres of writing, Davies focuses her analysis through an interrogation of gendered subjectivity.  She notes that ‘it has become de rigueur to acknowledge that neo-Victorian fiction is preoccupied with issues of sexuality’, but nonetheless her reading of neo-Victorian texts seek to emphasise the relationship between gender and ventriloquism, an as yet unevaluated relationship In paralleling a plethora of iconic figures from Victorian fiction such as Trilby, Olive Chancellor, Svengali and Lord Henry Wotton with their modern ‘counterparts’ in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), Janice Galloway’s Clara (2003) and the first three works by Sarah Waters amongst others, Davies argues that the repetition of gendered scripts in these texts ‘subversively ‘talk back’ to visions of Victorian ventriloquism’ (p.8).  These re-citations create a fictional space in which the power inflected dynamics between ‘ventriloquist’ and ‘dummy’ can be re-evaluated.

Indeed, Davies astutely draws on Judith Butler’s conception of gendered performativity to undertake this premise.  Butler’s theory utilises notions of ‘repetition’ to reproduce naturalised and seemingly agentic constructions of gender norms.  Butler famously used the subversive trope of drag to express the re-citation of gendered scripts, pointing out that the parody of original sex and gender reveals the imitative nature of gender itself.  The implications of Butler’s theories are important for both deconstructing the power of seemingly ‘original’ and ‘copy’ modes of gender and also ‘original’ and ‘copy’ voices.  In her readings, Davies points out the relevance of Butlerian theory for understanding the apparent ‘dummies’ in neo-Victorian texts, showing how the ‘passivity and penetrability’ of the ventriloquised state is largely ‘manifest as a feminized condition’ (p.22).  Unsurprisingly, this contrasts with the ‘masculine potency and penetrative ability’ of the ventriloquist (p.37).  However, Davies resists viewing this dynamic in simplistic and/or binary terms by suggesting that the apparent ‘dummies’ in these texts often assert their disempowerment via  vocalisation, thus subverts their apparent voicelessness and dependency on the ‘ventriloquist’ in the first place.  For Davies, reading this through a gendered lens, then, expresses both Butlerian gender trouble and the power struggle for voice and agency.

Passionate Puppets is structured accessibly.  Beginning with an Introduction that contextualises the ‘the ventriloqual metaphor’ (p.17), existent understandings of the rerlationship between Victorian and neo-Victorian texts, and an assessment of ventriloquism and voice in neo-Victorian scholarship, Davies then moves to chapter one to provide a detailed assessment of Butlerian gender theory, attending to both its potential and limitations as a lens through which to explore neo-Victorian fiction.  What is important here is how Davies illuminates the pitfalls that applications of Butlerian theory often fall into.  She clearly defines the distinction between ‘performance’ and ‘performativity’ – delineation that many fail to recognise and fail to elucidate in their use of Butler.  This is one of the most important aspects of Davies’s text more broadly, because with the current vogue for neo-Victorian fiction, the equally current vogue for queer readings of these texts has – sadly – produced much scholarship where the fundamentals of Butler’s theory are misunderstood, or where queerness is reductively explored and/or the distinction between queer gender and queer sexuality is not identified, analysed or problematised.

Subsequent chapters provide varied readings of Victorian fictions including Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886) and George du Maurier’s Trilby (1840) as the basis for subsequent readings of neo-Victorian re-workings.  What is particularly striking about Davies’s combination of canonical works of Victorian and neo-Victorian fictions is how she finds something new to say about each of them; the originality of the ventriloquial metaphor and the depth of Davies’s analysis provides rich and fruitful readings of these texts both in and of themselves as well as the of relationship between them.  Davies’s assessment of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is especially insightful.  Here, Davies takes the dubious ventriloquial influence of Lord Henry on Dorian and interrogates the instability of the ‘master vs.  puppet’ power relations at play.  Lord Henry’s reflection on the im/morality of influence – ‘There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr Gray.  All influence is immoral’ – is, in Davies’s view, destabilised.  Not only are Wotton’s words ironic given his interactions with the painter, Basil Hallward, but Davies shows how Lord Henry’s words are never clearly the source for Dorian’s downfall.  Instead, she shows how Dorian’s own awakening evokes the ventriloquial metaphor in his own  subconscious; Lord Henry’s words speak to Dorian, but Dorian speaks to himself.  This is an entirely suggestive and new way of reading Dorian’s descent into transgression.  If Lord Henry is not the master to Dorian’s puppet, then Dorian’s quest is rendered unpredictable and the moral quandaries he goes on to encounter are those of his own making.

Importantly, Davies also traces Wildean influences in neo-Victorian fiction, using Waters’s Tipping the Velvet and Affinity as texts that queer Wildean sexual politics.  In tracing Wilde’s influence via the female protagonists of Water’s novels, Davies shows how Waters resists Wilde’s misogyny and rejects conforming to heteronormative customs.  Moreover, Davies underlines in far greater detail what other scholars have characterised as Waters giving voice to lesbian desire.

In turning her attention to other neo-Victorian voices, Davies traces Svengali-like figures in Carter’s neo-Victorian masterpiece, Atwood’s murderous duo, and Galloway’s lesser-known heroine.  Here, Davies suggests that the reappraisal of ventriloquial imagery enables the authors to question the ‘scripts’ laid out for their female protagonists.  Moreover, these female authors silence the masculine power of ventriloquial master, thus questioning the complexity of these ‘dummy’ women and showing instead how they manipulate and subvert socio-cultural and gendered mores.

In a similar vein, Davies takes on the ventriloquial dialogue at play in A.  S.  Byatt’s award-winning Possession (1990), re-analysing the power dynamics of authorial and critical voices that lie at the heart of Byatt’s novel and interrogating  how this offers – perhaps inadvertently – a metatextual enactment of the dummy/ventriloquist relationship.

The richness of Davies’s book lies in both the depth of its assessment of ventriloquism as well as its coverage of Victorian and neo-Victorian texts, for in addition to those identified above, Davies also tackles a range of other texts.  If there is a criticism to be made, however, it is not with the text itself, but with the potential breadth of the ventriolquial metaphor, for it lends itself well to other critical contexts.  Both the Gothic with its use of doubling and the psychoanalysis provide examples of how ventriloquial imagery could move broaden this insightful trope; indeed, returning to Dorian, it seems to be that Davies has paved the way for new psychoanalytic insights into Dorian Gray’s subconscious that move away from its embodiment on the canvas and into Dorian’s mind.  I suspect that many of the tales of madness included in Davies’s monograph such as Waters’s Affinity and Atwood’s Alias Grace would also render useful insights into aspects of female mental health and the power dynamics between patients and Drs, questioning female resistance to the mastery of medical voice.  These are ideas that are for future work, so perhaps it is a truism that the value of the ventriloquial metaphor is, as Davies herself notes, there could never really be a last word (p.167).  Passionate Puppets: Gender and Ventriloquism in Victorian and Neo-Victorian Fiction is a weighty contribution to Victorian and neo-Victorian studies and the breadth of analysis within Davies’s monograph should make it essential reading for students and scholars of Victorianism and neo-Victorianism, voice and gender.

  • Dr Claire O’Callaghan completed her Ph.D.  at the University of Leicester where her thesis explored gender and sexual theory in relation to the novels of award-winning author, Sarah Waters.  Claire currently teaches part-time at Swansea University Brunel University.  She is currently co-editing a book collection on feminism in Waters’s novels and two collections on austerity.  She is a member of the Journal of Gender Studies editorial board, Treasurer for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (FWSA), and Acting Membership Officer for the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association (CWWA).  Her research interests centre on gender and sexuality in contemporary literature, and Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature and culture.  She is currently working on several research projects including the development of her first monograph proposal provisionally titled Queerly Feminist Neo-Victorian Fictions.

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