When did the Victorian era end? How did the Bloomsbury Group perceive the Victorians? Why do we get subversively nostalgic for Victorian times? What are Victorian values? How are Victorians reimagined by contemporary cinema and fiction? We may look for answers to these and other questions in Simon Joyce’s study, The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror, which provides a thought-provoking discussion about the changing perceptions of the Victorians during the twentieth century.

Simon Joyce is not, of course, the first to reassess various and abundant legacies of the Victorian era in the twentieth century. The recent decade has seen a proliferation of studies that show how Modernism and Postmodernism rewrite the Victorian inheritance, e.g. Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know about Them and Why We’re Wrong (2001), John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff’s (eds.) Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century (2000) and Jay Clayton’s Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century (2003). Joyce’s study seems to be a polemical sequel to these books.

In the Acknowledgments the author announces that the book is “less a survey than a sampling of related topics, each of which hopefully contributes to a coherent argument” (ix). The principal topics in this book are the Bloomsbury view of the Victorian era, conservative Modernism, heritage culture, Victorian values in the Thatcher era, the neo-Dickensian novel and postcolonial Victorians. Joyce’s engagingly polemical study tracks the varying perceptions of the Victorian era by both Modernist and Postmodernist culture. It also shows why Victorians still matter to us today, by focusing on various modern and postmodern discourses of Victorian legacies.

In the Introduction the author asserts that “we never really encounter ’the Victorians’ themselves but instead a mediated image like the one we get when we glance into our rearview mirrors while driving”. (4) The rearview mirror metaphor gives a handy clue to the author’s central argument that our received notions of the Victorian era, derived from various retrospections, often oscillate between unfavourable stereotypes propounded by some members of the Bloomsbury Group on the one hand and those popularised by contemporary apologists of Victorian values. The subsequent six chapters and epilogue, containing copious quotes from both primary and secondary sources, inquire into the representations of the Victorian inheritance in various modern and postmodern discourses.

Chapter One “On or About 1901. The Bloomsbury Group Looks Back” deals with the famous Bloomsbury critique of Victorianism. The author analyses the writings of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey to show that the Group did not have a coherent view of the Victorian era, although all the writers in question rejected Victorian constraints. Joyce claims convincingly that the members of the Bloomsbury Group had quite ambivalent attitudes towards the Victorian past.

While the Bloomsbury Group is commonly held to have spear-headed an early-twentieth-century revolt against the Victorians, the relationship of its key figures to the previous century is a complex and often contradictory one. [17]

The prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group seemed to act ambivalently as anti-Victorian rebels with varying levels of dissent from and affiliation to the Victorian inheritance. Joyce quotes from S. P. Rosenbaum’s study, Victorian Blomsbury: The Early History of the Bloomsbury Group that

on the one hand, Bloomsbury “reacted strongly against the Victorian family as a means of social organisation”, and on the other, “Bloomsbury was born and bred Victorian. The rational and visionary significance of the Group’s writing has its origins in Victorian family, school and university experience.” [17]

The Bloomsberries, as they were often called, were both modern and late Victorian in their lifestyles and discourse. In her famous polemical essay, “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” (1924), which is an emphatic call for modern fiction, Virginia Woolf remarked that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” What was pivotal about the year 1910? Woolf made a clear distinction between the “Edwardian” and “Georgian” writers. The “Edwardians”, who represented the old aesthetics included H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy, whereas ”Georgians,” who in Woolf’s view included E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, represented the new aesthetics. Virginia Woolf held in low esteem the social novels by the Edwardians, who were “diminished Victorians”, whereas she praised the Georgians.

It was probably Lytton Strachey’s iconoclastic book, Eminent Victorians (1918), that sparked anti-Victorian attitudes in the 1920s. Strachey published a bestselling biographical account of four Victorian icons: Thomas Arnold, an educator and historian; Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing; General Gordon, a military hero; and Cardinal Manning, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England. Strachey’s biased descriptions of the eminent Victorians exerted a lasting influence on the subsequent perceptions of the Victorian era. However, drawing on U. C. Knoepflmacher’s opinion, Joyce suggests that “the text now reads as a more positive assessment of the past than it first seemed.” (32) Concluding, Joyce asserts:

At the very least, Strachey’s view of the Victorian period as necessarily and definitely self-divided highlights the inadequacy of the larger Bloomsbury oxthodoxy, which preferred to define the past as one-dimensional and the present as marked by complex ambiguities. [40]

Chapter Two, entitled “The Politics of Nostalgia. Conservative Modernism, Victorian Kitsch, and the English Country House”, focuses on what Patrick Wright has called “Deep England”, an idealised view of England. In contrast to progressive modernism, represented by Virginia Woolf, conservative modernism looked to the past and tradition.

While hesitant to argue for a full-fledged Victorian revival, except in such limited areas as fashion and furnishing, it sought to redefine the complex dialectic between heritage and the modern, and in the process began to rethink the characteristics by which we identify the nineteenth century . . . [42-43]

Joyce reads E. M. Forster’s Howards End as an alternative to Bloomsbury progressivism. The novel merges traditional conservative values with modern liberal ethos. Forster preserves the Victorian belief in the individual although he is far from supporting the laissez-faire economy. As Forster identified himself with social liberalism, he was probably closer to interventionist economic policy advocated by John Maynard Keynes, an active member of the Bloomsbury Group. Yet, he revived the old country house as a repository of “true” England. In spite of being Modernists, E. M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh perpetuated some Victorian ideas in their prose and were antagonistic to modernist experimentations. Their fictions, particularly Howards End and Brideshead Revisited articulated an ambivalent fascination with Victorian England.

Chapter Three discusses the heritage cinema which developed nostalgic and romanticised representations of the English national past. Joyce argues that there is “a clear disconnect between the texts of Forster and Waugh as they were published and received in the first half of the twentieth century and the response to their visual adaptations in its closing decades” (77). The film adaptations, imbued with the popular nostalgia of the past, seem to emphasise pastoral historic places, such as Brideshead and Howards End, and bygone material wealth rather than the social content of the novels. However, as Joyce demonstrates,

A small group of period films has resisted the attraction of heritage aesthetics, offering instead a metacritical viewpoint on the relationship between form and content in the heritage genre. [102]

These films include, according to the author, Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) based on John Fowles’s famous neo-Victorian novel, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and Sandra Goldbacher’s The Governess (1997).

In Chapter Four Simon Joyce moves from literature and film to politics in order to reassess the so-called Victorian values in the modern context of neo-conservatism and the welfare state. According to Raphael Samuel, Margaret Thatcher stumbled on the phrase “Victorian values” almost “by accident” when she first used it in a 1983 television interview. (114) The author refers to Gertrude Himmelfarb, “whose work — most notably The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Values to Modern Values (1994) and One Nation Two Cultures (1999) — has helped to translate what remained a largely underdeveloped slogan of Thatcherism into a full- blown reinterpretation of the nineteenth century.” (113) However, as Joyce concludes:

As I have tried to argue, Britain in the nineteenth century was not only necessarily a complex phenomenon, and thus ill-suited to reductive formulae and summary, but also created the theoretical and practical conditions for the besieged modern state. Representing it as only the repository of positive moral values, or as the simple obverse and antidote to a perceived modern immorality, is to oversimplify history and to contradict much of the eyewitness testimony of the Victorians themselves. [138]

Chapter Five is dedicated to what Joyce calls the “neo-Dickensian novel”. The Victorian novel has produced many offsprings in the twentiethth and early twenty-first centuries. They are generally called neo-Victorian novels, and the neo-Dickensian novel might be its prominent subgenre. The neo-Dickensian novel goes far beyond the nostalgia of the past. Dickens is an important source for novelists who reimagine the Victorian era, like John Palliser’s bestseller The Quincunx, but also for novelists who are engaged in an intertextual debate about the state of the nation. It refracts some of the issues raised but not answered by Victorian writers. Dickens exerted a significant influence on writers, such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.

With Rushdie or Zadie Smith, a recognizable stylistic inheritance from Dickens in terms of characterization, plot, narrative persona, and sheer scale is overlaid onto a postcolonial politics that seeks to foreground the repressed connections between Britain and its imperial possessions, and to rewrite the canonical British novel so as to acknowledge its submerged colonial subtexts. [141-42]

Joyce argues provocatively that “the Dickensian template for fiction is similarly one to which modern novelists have been drawn even as they recognize its shortcomings.” (142)

The book closes with an epilogue on Victorian postcolonial legacies. The author asks whether it is possible to find a residual Victorianism in postcolonial states. The answer to the question is affirmative. Former British colonies have assimilated a great number of the Victorian ideas and artefacts. The author points out that “the United States has emerged from the Cold War as the unchallenged global superpower with a military, commercial, and cultural hegemony that recalls Victorian Britain’s” (167). Many postcolonial states have been unable “to break free from the legacies of Victorian imperialism” (169). Joyce refers to Simon Gikandi, who coined the term ’colonial Victorianism’ “to designate this kind of ’self-willed identification’ with the metropolitan-imperial center, especially as it continually highlights and reinscribes the distance between colonial theories and practices” (171).

Simon Joyce has excitingly disrupted and complicated stereotypical notions of the Victorian era by showing that it was full of complexities and contradictions. In his deeply researched book he proposes a revision and revaluation of Modernist and Postmodernist perceptions of the ambivalent Victorian era. He has demonstrated convincingly that both the Modernist and postmodernist cultural artifacts, including literature and film in particular, are heavily emplotted by the Victorian past. The illuminating “rearmirror view” metaphor used in the title of the book suggests that we often build a distorted knowledge about the Victorian era on account of

a continuing insistence on seeing the Victorians in terms that were established by self-defined modernists in their first moment of recoil. Doing so also commits us to a perpetuation of modernism’s sense of itself as a negation of the past, an attitude that has already helped generate more than a century of denigrations and revivalist reversals. Each of these has tended to recycle the same clichés and characteristics; as if seen only through a rearview mirror of history, the Victorians have thus remained in a fixed relationship to the present, incapable either of being brought closer to us or fading into the distance. [174]

The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror by Simon Joyce makes a significant contribution to the study of the changing perceptions of the Victorian era. It reaffirms that the Victorians are still with us, but the way we perceive them depends to some extent on a set of received preconceptions or adopted ideologies. Although Joyce’s arguments are not always novel (some of them have been advanced in earlier studies), they are well documented, persuasive, and convincing. The book is a refreshing reading for scholars and students of British literary and cultural history who are keen to reassess Modernist and Postmodernist perceptions of Victorian legacies.

Reference

Joyce, Simon. The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.


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Last modified 29 May 2010