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Neo-Victorian Novels.

Imitations of the Victorian novel have been popular for decades, thanks, at least in part, to the success of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) and A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990) and their subsequent movie versions. Removed from the present day by only 150 years or so, the Victorian era is alluring not because it is exotic but because there is so much we recognize in it: debates over science and religion, uncertainty over gender roles, the rise of technology, and the thrills and dangers of exploration and colonization. Nineteenth-century London, in all its grime and complexity, is a particularly common setting for Victorian pastiches. Often contemporary authors choose to make their historical fiction more realistic by adding the sexual scenes that authors like Charles Dickens, constrained by the mores of the time, could only hint at.

Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent (**** SELECTION Sept/Oct 2017), has discussed the appeal of the Victorian period in recent interviews. One of her goals was to move beyond the stereotype of Victorian women as "pulverized by corsets, always fainting, poisoned by arsenic, and waiting for their mutton chop-whiskered husbands to come home," she said at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2016. "I am very interested in ideas of universality--about what has outlasted customs and fashions, about what is human rather than a matter of where someone was born, or what they wore, or what they ate. I suppose this may account for why, when I write about the present, readers wonder if I am writing about the past; and when I write about the past, they often wonder if I am writing about the present," she explained in a June 2017 interview with Omnivoracious.

Below we've chosen some of our favorite neo-Victorian novels: full of war, adventure, madhouses, brothels, and mystery.

Master Georgie

By Beryl Bainbridge (1998)

* JAMES TAIT BLACK MEMORIAL PRIZE

Readers first meet George Hardy, a sexually ambiguous surgeon and amateur photographer, in 1840s Liverpool. This Booker-short-listed novel is structured in six chapters called "plates"--each named after a photographic plate taken in the course of that chapter. For instance, "A Veil Lifted" is taken after George and his assistant, Pompey Jones, perform a rudimentary eye surgery on an ape. Later chapters find George and some of his extended family in war-torn Crimea, where he offers his services as a doctor. Cycling through the perspectives of Pompey; George's adopted sister, Myrtle; and his brother-in-law, would-be geologist Dr. Potter, the book contrasts the march of history with the secrets of the heart.

Jamrach's Menagerie

By Carol Birch (2011)

* BOOKER PRIZE SHORT LIST

When young London scamp Jaffy Brown makes a lucky escape from the jaws of animal importer Mr. Jamrach's tiger, Jamrach offers him employment in his menagerie of exotic animals. Here Jaffy meets his best friend Tim and Tim's twin sister Ishbel. At age 15, Tim and Jaffy join an expedition to Indonesia to capture a "dragon" (a Komodo) as a curiosity for an animal collector. They succeed, but everything goes wrong on the return journey. A fierce storm wrecks the boat, leaving the men adrift in two lifeboats. Ranging from London's back alleys to the South Seas, this swashbuckling adventure story morphs into a dark portrait of humanity on the edge of survival.

Possession

A Romance

By A. S. Byatt (1990)

* BOOKER PRIZE

Literary scholars Dr. Maud Bailey and Roland Michell are studying a pair of Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte--characters whom Byatt loosely based on Robert Browning or Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Christina Rossetti, respectively. Michell has found letters that suggest the married Ash had an affair, and the century-old paper trail leads to LaMotte. Parallels continue to emerge between Ash and LaMotte's relationship in the nineteenth century and Bailey and Michell's in the 1980s. Byatt weaves in letters and poems, all written in a pitch-perfect imitation of Victorian style. The novel is not just an academic mystery but also an enchanting tour through the historical landscapes of Yorkshire and Brittany.

The Strangler Vine

A Blake and Avery Novel

By M. J. Carter (2014)

* CWA NEW BLOOD DAGGER SHORT LIST, 2014; EDGAR AWARD NOMINEE FOR BEST NOVEL, 2016

In 1837 Calcutta, two East India Company officers must track down Xavier Mountstuart, an elusive, disgraced author of poetry and Indian adventure stories. William Avery, who deplores the heat and seeming barbarity of Indian customs, longs for his English countryside home. He's tasked with bringing Jeremiah Blake, a jaded officer who seems to have gone native, back into service so they can together find Mountstuart, who happens to be Avery's favorite author. Along the way they learn about the "Thugs," highwaymen who are rumored to rob and kill foreign travelers. This is a rip-roaring novel in the vein of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. Sequels: The Infidel Stain (2015) and The Devil's Feast (2016).

The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton (2013)

* BOOKER PRIZE

The Luminaries is both a rollicking mystery and an utterly convincing Victorian pastiche, echoing the style of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins. Set during New Zealand's gold rush, it begins with a prospector who stumbles into a clandestine conference. A dozen gentlemen--including two men from China and a Maori--have convened to discuss the peculiar events surrounding January 14, 1866: on that day a genial young miner disappeared; a prostitute succumbed to opium; and a hermit's corpse was discovered alongside a fortune in gold bars and an unsigned, half-burned will. Rich in astrological references and bearing an intriguingly cyclical structure, the novel simultaneously weaves an intricate plot and questions the very nature of narrative. (**** SELECTION Jan/Feb 2014)

Sophie and the Sibyl

A Victorian Romance

By Patricia Duncker (2015) Brothers Max and Wolfgang Duncker were George Eliot's real-life German publishers, but the coincidence of their last name matching the author's own makes them her clever stand-ins in this metafictional work. As the novel opens in 1872, Eliot is exploring Berlin while ushering her latest novel, Middlemarch, into German translation. Max, a young cad fond of casinos and brothels, has two tasks: ensuring Eliot's loyalty to their publishing house and securing Countess Sophie von Hahn's hand in marriage. Sophie is a spirited Victorian heroine reminiscent of Eliot's Gwendolen Harleth (from Daniel Deronda), while Duncker consistently refers to Eliot as "the Sibyl." These characters represent two poles of femininity in this atmospheric historical novel.

The Crimson Petal and the White

By Michel Faber (2002)

* JAMES TAIT BLACK MEMORIAL PRIZE NOMINEE Sugar is an intelligent, spicy prostitute in the care of a London brothel keeper. In 1875, perfume maker William Rackham becomes obsessed with 19-year-old Sugar, even though she is not conventionally beautiful, and offers to buy her freedom as his mistress. He first sets her up in her own lodgings, then makes her his young daughter's governess. Sugar, however, has her own plans. Meanwhile, Rackham's mentally ill wife, whom he married when she was little more than a child, pours out her thoughts in a diary Sugar reads for clues to the household's workings. Faber, a novelist and a scholar of the 19th century, shows his debt to Dickens and Balzac by infusing the Victorian novel with a 21st century sensibility, dirty parts and all. (**** May/June 2002)

The French Lieutenant's Woman

By John Fowles (1969)

Fowles's third novel set the trend for Victorian remakes. Thirty-something amateur naturalist Charles Smithson is engaged to Ernestina Freeman, a vapid tradesman's daughter. One day, while out walking at Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast, they spot a solitary woman out on the cliffs. The entranced Charles soon learns that she is Sarah Woodruff, an assertive governess and the deserted lover of a French naval lieutenant. As he investigates Sarah's mysterious past, he falls in love with her. Fowles explores Victorian gender stereotypes and invents various possible endings, making this novel a postmodern classic. A famous film adaptation from 1981 starred Meryl Streep in the titular role.

The World Before Us

By Aislinn Hunter (2015)

* ETHEL WILSON FICTION PRIZE

Archivist Jane Standen works at a small, failing London museum. She's haunted by Yorkshire landmarks she researched for her degree, including Whitmore Hospital, a lunatic asylum. Twenty years ago, she babysat for the five-year-old daughter of botanist William Eliot. Jane was in love with Eliot, but their relationship ended when his daughter disappeared at a Yorkshire grotto. When Jane runs into Eliot again, she is inspired to dig deeper into the history of the Whitmore Hospital in the 1870s. Around the poles of two girls' disappearances some 100 years apart, the novel, narrated in the first person plural by the Whitmore Hospital's ghosts, explores loss and the sometimes treacherous workings of memory.

English Passengers

By Matthew Kneale (2000)

* WHITBREAD BOOK AWARD; BOOKER PRIZE FINALIST

In 1857, Reverend Geoffrey Wilson sets out for the Australian island of Tasmania in search of the historical location of the Garden of Eden. His fellow passengers on this charter voyage from England aboard the Sincerity include a young botanist and Dr. Thomas Potter, who is at work on a biased theory of racial origins. None of them knows that Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley and his crew are rum smugglers from the Isle of Man who are hoping to outsmart British Customs. Moving back and forth between nearly two dozen different narrators--including an Aboriginal character, Peevay--the novel illuminates the clash of cultures involved in any colonization enterprise.

Signs for Lost Children

By Sarah Moss (2015)

* WELLCOME BOOK PRIZE SHORT LIST

Alethea ("Ally") Moberley was among the first female doctors to qualify in London, driven by a desperate wish to please her demanding mother. In this sequel to Bodies of Light (2014), Ally marries lighthouse builder Tom Cavendish and, weeks later, he travels to Japan for work for six months. Meanwhile, Ally--now Doctor Moberley-Cavendish--volunteers at a mental asylum in Cornwall, where she is troubled by the inhumane treatment of her patients. Moss exquisitely juxtaposes England and Japan in the 1880s and comments on mental illness, the place of women, and the difficulty of navigating a marriage, whether the partners are thousands of miles apart or in the same room.

The Last Dickens

By Matthew Pearl (2009)

When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he left behind an unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In this fictionalization of the book's fate, Dickens's American publisher, James Osgood, is baffled by a series of mysterious deaths--including that of his faithful clerk, who was due to receive Dickens's latest installment of Edwin Drood. With his beautiful young bookkeeper, Rebecca Sand, Osgood travels from Boston to London to investigate and try to maintain the book's integrity, as well as his own profits. The action then pans to the opium wars in India, and then back to the novelist's final American tour in 1867--events filled, throughout, with danger, duplicity, and intrigue. (*** July/Aug 2009)

The Whirlpool

By Jane Urquhart (1986)

* FRANCE'S PRIX DU MEILLEUR LIVRE ETRANGER (UNDER THE TITLE NIAGARA)

Set near Niagara Falls in 1889, the Canadian novelist's first book considers four characters who are stuck in the past and obsessed with watery death. Maud Grady, the local undertaker's widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who have tried, unsuccessfully, to swim the falls. Major David McDougal fixates on the War of 1812, while his wife, Fleda, camps out in a tent while reading Victorian poetry, especially the poems of Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that will seemingly never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her. In both the prologue and epilogue, Browning himself, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley's death by drowning.

Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters (2002)

* CWA ELLIS PETERS HISTORICAL DAGGER AWARD; ORANGE PRIZE AND BOOKER PRIZE SHORT LISTS

Sue Trinder, an orphan who lives by her wits, is sent by her guardian, Mrs. Sucksby, to act as a lady's maid in the country home of heiress Maud Lilly. While there, she's tasked with convincing Maud to marry Richard Rvers ("Gentleman"), a con man who plans to commit her to an asylum and take her fortune. However, Sue and Maud gradually become friends--and then fall in love. But all is not as it seems in this household, and the eventual act of betrayal is not the one readers have been set up to expect. A shift in narrators thickens the plot. Waters's literary thriller owes much to Wilkie Collins's crime fiction.

Further Reading

OSCAR WILDE AND A DEATH OF NO IMPORTANCE | GYLES BRANDRETH (2007)

MR. DARWIN'S GARDENER | KRISTINA CARLSON [(2013; TRANSLATED FROM THE FINNISH)

THE SEALED LETTER | EMMA DONOGHUE (2008)

SANCTUARY | ROBERT EDRIC (2014)

THE QUICKENING MAZE | ADAM FOULDS (2009)

THE SOMNAMBULIST | ESSIE FOX (2011)

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS | ELIZABETH GILBERT (**** Jan/Feb 2014)

DEATH AND MR. PICKWICK | STEPHEN JARVIS (2015)

CONSTABLE & TOOP | GARETH P. JONES (2012)

THE NORTH WATER (2016) | IAN MCGUIRE (**** July/Aug 2016)

THE COLLECTOR OF LOST THINGS | JEREMY PAGE (2013)

THE QUINCUNX | CHARLES PALLISER (1989; SUE KAUFMAN PRIZE FOR FIRST FICTION)

THE ESSEX SERPENT | SARAH PERRY (**** SELECTION Sept/Oct 2017)

RIFLING PARADISE | JEM POSTER (2006)

BY GASLIGHT | STEVEN PRICE (**** Jan/Feb 2017)

THE JOURNAL OF DORA DAMAGE | BELINDA STARLING (2006)

TENNYSON'S GIFT | LYNNE TRUSS (1997)

TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG | CONNIE WILLIS (1998; *HUGO AWARD, LOCUS AWARD)

BY REBECCA FOSTER
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Author:Foster, Rebecca
Publication:Bookmarks
Article Type:Recommended readings
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2018
Words:2211
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