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Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, eds., Neo-Victorian Biofiction. Reimagining Nineteenth-Century Historical Subjects

Leiden, Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2020, 393 p.
Georges Letissier
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Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, eds., Neo-Victorian Biofiction. Reimagining Nineteenth-Century Historical Subjects, Leiden, Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2020, 393 p.

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1This is the sixth and ultimate volume of the Neo-Victorian Series, edited by Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben who have by now covered all the diverse facets of the neo-Victorian literary and cultural movement. Through their tireless, regular publications over the past few years they have staked out the main critical claims of neo-Victorianism while underscoring its relevance to many contemporary issues—in such varied fields as aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, sociology, history and visual studies, to quote but a few. Ending a series dedicated to neo-Victorianism on a study of biofiction is a felicitous choice because there are close resemblances between the two: an engagement with history (or the hermeneutics of history), a constant tension between factual truth and imaginary revision and the emergence of ‘post-truth’, without forgetting the centrality of ethics and its declensions—unethics and post ethics. All these issues are indeed common to both neo-Victorianism and biofiction.

2The copious introduction does not merely sum up the argument of the twelve extremely dense and thoroughly informed chapters of this very rich collection. It constitutes in itself a self-contained survey of biofiction, a complex notion partaking of life writing and in close proximity and tension with biography. Kohlke and Gutleben trace back the different stages before biofiction came into its own, from the ‘biographilia’ of the Victorians to the Modernist moment which saw the publication of diverse forms of bio-writing with notably Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. The canonical format of hagiographic biography was then exploded not only by transgressing genre boundaries but also by opting for iconoclastic approaches.

3The subtle nuances and inflections of meaning proposed by critics to identify different forms of biofiction are meticulously inventoried even if, as is aptly recalled, it should be borne in mind that, essentially ‘biofiction […] occupies a sliding scale between referentiality and fictionality, between realism and fantasy’ (10)—a remark which, incidentally, applies to neo-Victorianism too. The authors even go as far as to claim that ‘as a cultural phenomenon, biofiction could be regarded as one of the earliest or even the earliest of neo-Victorian genres’ (29). This is a cogent remark considering that the term biofiction was coined by Alain Buisine (who is cited) in 1991 while Peter Ackroyd had only recently authored The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde back in 1983, probably not aware of venturing into what was to become a sui generis category.

4Thanks to their expertise, Kohlhe and Gutleben convincingly tease out structural and thematic affinities between biofiction and neo-Victorianism, notably mediumship, spectrality and the seminal notion of the trace; celebrity culture (posthumous reputations lauded or ruined); biofiction as contributing to the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is common to both neo-Victorianism and postmodernism and, finally, the Januslike aspect shared by the two, simultaneously looking back on the past to make sense of the present, with, perhaps, a view to building up a meaningful future. In this respect, this ultimate volume may be read as a compendium of the previous ones (46).

5The twelve chapters are harmoniously distributed according to generic entries, ‘Truths and Post-Truths’ Part 1, ‘Forms of Otherness and (Re-)Othering’ Part 2 and ‘After-Lives of Fame and Infamy Part 3. The first chapter of Part 1 addresses the impossibility of arriving at any firmly-established truth concerning the relationship between Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and his pre-pubescent muse Alice Liddell. There is a passing allusion to the whole spectrum of conjectures at the time, from platonic passion to downright paedophilia. The fact that precious testimonies relating to a rift between Carroll and the Liddells have been altered or bowdlerised has proven a windfall for writers who have subsequently filled in the lacunae in the archives through their literary invention. Charlotte Boyce takes the examples of Katie Roiphe’s Still She Haunts Me (2001) and Gaynor Arnold’s After Such Kindness (2002) to investigate the admixture of facts and invention in ‘biofiction’s creative recuperative agenda’ (59). Interestingly, the identity of the desiring author-figure is shown as unstable and that of the desired girl as protean (living person, photograph, fiction character, theatrical character and so on). A parallel is established between Carroll’s repeated attempts to capture the ‘elusive spirit of Alice in fiction and photography’ (60), which are never fulfilled, and the reader’s own efforts to obtain a revelation as to the exact nature of the Carroll-Alice relationship, which remains unattainable. Precisely, the biofictional process rests on this very impossibility exacerbating desire, a mix of libido sentiendi and libido sciendi. Failing to deliver any hermeneutic certainty or truth, these Carrollian biofictions arouse the reader’s ‘desire for desire’ (74) and ‘the dynamics of textual undecidability represents a source of readerly pleasure’ (75). Matthew Crofts’s contribution focuses on the productive tension between historical veracity and fabrication in biofiction. By taking the example of George MacDonald Fraser’s novel Flashman (1969), Crofts selects a maverick, fictitious character, the eponymous Harry Flashman, to reflect, or distort, actual, historical subjects from the Victorian era: Abraham Lincoln, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan and the Rani of Jhansi. The gist of the argument consists in showing that through the ‘pseudo-memoir mode’ (81) which amounts to an ‘imposture of veracity’ (81), MacDonald Fraser manages to challenge common representations of the Victorian past. Flashman, who parodically embodies all the ideals championed in the Victorian era, also denounces the risks of assessing this historical period solely on the basis of these ideals. In her analysis of neo-Victorian biofictions of writer/artist figures, Roberta Gefter Wondrich introduces the notion of Post-Authenticity, which she borrows from the epigraph to Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night (2006). According to Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn the Post-Authentic permits a renewed perspective on what has become known as the neo-Victorian. Indeed, prefixes like neo or retro – the phrase retro-Victorian has also been used – tend to emphasise derivativeness or nostalgia when what is seminal lies in the treatment of the past referent – the Victorian literary or cultural past in the present case. Post-authenticity is premised on the observation that the past, for example the lived, embodied past of a subject, cannot by definition be retrieved but persists nonetheless through the practice of literature that grants it a new lease of posthumous existence, as it were. Therefore, the persistence of the original (Charles Dickens, Henry James, Lord Tennyson, George Eliot or Conan Doyle, to quote but the most popular authors) serves as an anchorage point allowing for a productive dialogue with the present. Post-authenticity is thus an empiric concept accounting for the popularity of keeping genuine author figures in neo-Victorian biofictions. Indeed, their interest resides in the irreducible ‘écart from the[ir] unattainable, unknowable original’ (112). Gefter Wondrich uses Julian Barnes’s Arthur & George to show the way in which an authentic miscarriage of justice is reassessed and somehow righted through the proxy of fiction. To some extent, this ethical commitment of biofictional literature countervails postmodernism’s moral relativism. George Eliot has recently become the subject of biofictions. Laura Savu Walker contrasts two modes of celebrity life-writing, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014) which is a literary autobiography of the contemporary author determined by her decisive encounter with, and long-abiding passion for, the Victorian novelist and Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl (2015) in which the novelist and essayist blames the author she has always admired for failing to grant her fiction heroines the freedom and agency that she vindicated for herself in real life. In her conclusion, Savu rightly points out that notwithstanding their differing approaches to their Victorian literary icon, Mead and Duncker do not curtail Eliot’s aura but situates it, not within the writer herself, as an intrinsic quality, but rather in the interrelationship with the others that both her own personal engagement and her work elicit. Incidentally, this is perfectly consonant with Eliot’s own ethical commitment, through her ideal of ‘sympathy’ which she drew from German philosophy (Strauss and Feuerbach).

6‘Forms of Otherness and (Re-) Othering’, the book’s second section, fittingly opens with a chapter on the treatment of Joseph Merrick, aka ‘the Elephant Man’, in three children’s books, through the lens of disability studies. Helen Davies demonstrates how Frederick Drimmer’s and Tim Vicary’s novels, published respectively in 1985 and 1989, both as The Elephant Man, by using ableist language re-marginalises Merrick’s voice and in so doing depart from the neo-Victorian revisionist agenda. Michael Howell and Peter Ford’s The Elephant Man (1983), on the other hand, by voicing Merrick and allowing the reader to enter his mind, ‘reimagine the freak show as a forum for companionship and agency for Merrick’ (170). Yet, they also, to some extent, normalise the ‘monster’ and imply that it is through his mental capacity that Merrick is accepted, and not owing to a change of societal attitudes towards what qualifies as normalcy. This subtle negotiation between ethical/unethical perspectives on bodily difference is further extended to the definition of neo-Victorianism as Davies aptly recalls Kohlke and Gutleben’s remark that the ‘Victorians [are] acting as our “distorted freak show/funhouse mirror images”’ (172). Through her analysis of Ann Harries’s Manly Pursuits (1999), Jeanne Ellis gathers together two iconic Victorian figures Cecil John Rhodes, the staunch imperialist and Oscar Wilde, the homosexual dandy, by showcasing sex as ‘the locus classicus of the neo-Victorian project’ (195). By inventing a fictional auto/biographer, Francis Wills (the name being a metonymic portmanteau of Rhodes and Wilde), who is a vivisectionist, Ellis subtly develops a metabiographical reflection on biography as dismemberment, taking her cue from Hermione Lee’s Body Parts (2008). In her contribution Stacey L. Kikendall turns her attention to the Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody Emerson series, relating the adventures of real Victorian women travellers. Derrida’s concept of différance is used as referring to both trace and supplement (212) to go beyond the assumption of a single, original presence. Indeed, Kikendall establishes ‘the (un)knowability of the long dead Victorian women travellers’ (211) and argues that Peters’s series should not be considered only as mere popular entertainment as it proceeds to ‘Othering’ the historical subject through rewriting, overwriting and palimpsestic figuration. Catherine Lanone returns to the thriving field of John Franklin biofictions through an unwonted angle. By selecting Richard Flanagan’s novel Wanting (2008), she does not come back on the (in)famous 1845 Arctic expedition but on a less known episode, Franklin’s governorship of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) and the Franklins’ adoption of an Aboriginal girl, named Mathinna. As the widowed Lady Franklin pleaded with Charles Dickens to take up the defence of her late husband’s reputation after his disappearance in the Arctic North, followed by accusations of cannibalism, Wanting may be read as joining together two celebrity biofictions and, more significantly, enlarging them to a global scale. A parallel is established between dysfunctional families and the colonial mother-country failing her colonial subjects. Dickens deserts his wife Catherine Hogarth after her many pregnancies and the Franklins leave Mathinna in a limbo between two cultures when they decide to go back to England. Moreover, the motif of the lost or forsaken child resonates with the human scandal of the Stolen Generations when ‘countless mixed-blood children [were] forcibly taken from their families between 1905 and 1969’ (255), providing one more illustration of the neo-Victorian ‘presentist’ stance (François Hartog).

7The third section, ‘After-Lives of Fame and Infamy’ not only tackles a major aspect of biofiction, between hagiography and demythologisation, but also considers other forms of artistic expressions: photography and music. Admittedly, part of the appeal of biofiction probably stems from the lacunae and unfilled gaps of history which open spaces of invention for writers. By focusing on Richard Francis Burton, ‘the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist’, according to Edward Said, Sylvia Mieszkowski both illustrates the fact that ‘“[n]eo-Victorianism has become the new Orientalism” (Kohlke, 2008, 67)’ (268) and, correlatively, that the Victorian era as depicted in neo-Victorian revisionist rewrites can be construed as the ‘temporal Other.’ To conduct her demonstration Mieszkowski tropes the cinematic technique of cross-lighting to make it metaphorically relevant to literary analysis. Whilst in photography ‘cross-lighting is a technique used to achieve dramatic visual effects’ (265), in neo-Victorian literary analysis it is utilised to assess the effects of the shadows cast by the different versions of Burton auto/biographies (both the polymath’s own personal writings and his wife’s own testimonies of her husband’s destiny) on biofictions. Two significantly different ‘After Burton’ fictions come in for analysis: Ilya Troyanov’s The Collector of Worlds (2009, originally published in German as Der Weltensammler, 2006) and Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack (2010). The former erases Burton’s voice to allow colonial subalterns to take over the narration of Burton’s life, the latter is a steampunk fiction set in the uchronian Albertian age (after the untimely demise of Queen Victoria). Sonia Villegas-López’s chapter studies Michèle Roberts’s The Mistressclass (2003), a biofiction presenting the parallel lives of three contemporary London writers side by side with Charlotte Brontë’s correspondence with Constantin Héger, the Brussels professor she is alleged to have fallen in love with. Villegas-López analyses Roberts’s novel as ‘memory text’, in Annette Kuhn’s acceptation. The revisionist fiction grants the historical Brontë the spaces for personal expression which were denied her in real life by the two patriarchal figures towering above her, her beloved Belgian master who abruptly put an end to their correspondence and the man she married shortly before her death, who censored her letters. Lucy Smith opens another direction by analysing two biofictions inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron, the pioneering photographer, known (and in her time lambasted) for her blurred style. At this stage of the book biofictions are confronted to visual material archive which must be transformed into language. Liliane Louvel’s analysis of the ‘pictorial third’ designating the ‘transposition, trans-action, and negotiation’ (323) between image and text is seminal to study both Helen Humphreys’s Afterimage (2001) and David Rocklin’s The Luminist (2011). Smith refers to what she calls an ‘archival imagination’ (325) to speak about the interaction between fictionality and the materiality of the real artworks that continue to exist in the present, in this case the photographs by Cameron, chief among those the ones illustrating the chapter. In the last resort, it is ‘the evocation of Cameron’s visual material traces’ (350) which triggers the production of biofictions rather than ‘neo-Victorian invention, and textual sources’ (350), so that the two works studied are not so much portraits of the artist as a depiction of the artistic process. In collective memory the Lizzie Borden murder case is remembered through the (in)famous rhyme: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father forty-one’. In the last contribution to this long, captivating volume, Marc Napolitano proposes a musical take on the double real-life murders by selecting Agnes de Mille’s ballet Fall River Legend (1948), Jack Beeson and Kenward Elmslie’s opera Lizzie Borden: A Family Portrait in Three Acts (1965) and Hewitt, Cheslik- Demeyer and Maner’s rock musical/concept album Lizzie (2013). Napolitano documents each of the three works in turn by foregrounding technical observations; the absence of words and the choreography in the ballet afford a visual rendering of the trauma-inspired crime and brutal punishment, the operatic score lends itself to Lizzie’s Oedipal fixation on her father and the ‘rebellious nature of rock music’ (368) is a perfect conduit for queer and feminist politics.

8This last volume of the Neo-Victorian Series is undoubtedly an invaluable contribution to a major field of literary and cultural research in the anglophone world. Not only do Kohlke and Gutleben provide a very thorough investigation of the complex taxonomy of life writing and its many connections with disciplines such as history, memory study, semiotics and visual studies but they have selected a team of scholars who each contributes her/his specific domain of expertise to widen and further the scope of a topic that is so intimately attuned to neo-Victorianism.

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Georges Letissier, « Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, eds., Neo-Victorian Biofiction. Reimagining Nineteenth-Century Historical Subjects »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 24 octobre 2021, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Georges Letissier

Université de Nantes

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