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Renaissances, Resurrections and Rewritings: A Neo-Victorian Poetics of Exhumation

Renaissances, résurrections, récritures : une poétique néo-victorienne de l’exhumation
Christian Gutleben


Dans Ever After (1992) de Graham Swift et dans Possession (1990) d’A. S. Byatt, les protagonistes contemporains trouvent une nouvelle vie dans l'exhumation de documents victoriens et, dans cette combinaison de renaissances contemporaines et victoriennes, on pourrait déceler l’hypothèse selon laquelle la renaissance du passé entraîne toujours déjà une renaissance du présent. L'objet de cet article est d'essayer de montrer que la détermination de ces romans ‘à prendre les restes squelettiques d’une seule vie et à leur insuffler leur ancienne actualité’ (Ever After 90), loin de se limiter à la sphère diégétique, s’étend aux principes poétiques mêmes de ces œuvres néo-victoriennes. En superposant, faisant alterner ou combinant les voix des morts et celles des vivants, en entrelaçant les vestiges du passé et les reconstructions du présent, en adaptant et diversifiant leurs modes discursifs en fonction des sources référentielles, et en brouillant le statut ontologique de leurs archives historiques, ces romans parviennent à réaliser une innovation romanesque. C’est donc la coïncidence entre le sens du préfixe néo- dans néo-victorianisme et le préfixe re- dans renaissance que cette présentation cherchera à mettre en évidence, soulignant les structures de continuités discontinues qui confèrent à ces romans une nouvelle vie et de nouvelles formes esthétiques emphatiquement distinctes de celles de leurs ancêtres victoriens. Les renaissances en jeu dans ces œuvres néo-victoriennes concernent alors à la fois une œuvre de témoignage et une œuvre de création, à la fois une exploration de l'histoire et un réenchantement du présent.

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  • 1 Following Genette’s neologism, certain critics also use the adjective ‘palimpsestuous’ (see Onega 2 (...)

1Apprehended etymologically as any kind of new birth or any phenomenon of the born again, the concept of renaissance seems to aptly apply to the various forms of contemporary cultural revivals, be they concerned with Roman, Viking or Medieval traditions. This paper is concerned with the specific reawakening of Victorian ghosts and ancestors in an attempt to establish a postmodernist poetics of exhumation, that is, the creative principle of a literature bent on resuscitating and recycling the past and blending it with present-day aesthetic and ideological considerations, the result being not a mere nostalgic repetition or psittacism but a hybrid combination displaying unexpected parallels and a productive dialogue across and about temporal barriers. Ever since Sally Shuttleworth’s seminal paper examining the reasons for the ‘proliferation of Victorian-centred novels in Britain in the 1990s’ (Shuttleworth 253), A.S. Byatt and Graham Swift have been yoked together as archetypal authors exploring the continuities and discontinuities, the fruitful links and the painful reiterations between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. We shall then use these two canonical novelists as case studies to interrogate the meaning, purpose and end result of today’s various forms of renaissance of the Victorian era. In order to argue for a reenchanted practice of exhumation, we shall first consider the phenomenon of neo-Victorianism as a literal and metaphorical unearthing of nineteenth-century literary treasures. Giving new life to seemingly dead voices, myths or historical actors, major or minor, does not stop at the Victorian period and it is neo-Victorian fiction’s more wide-ranging revivals, including the revival of the Renaissance, that will be explored in a second stage. We shall then endeavour to illustrate the truly creative nature of such rebirthing, insisting on the innovative structures and contrastive enunciations of the contemporary frames. Finally and most crucially, renaissance will be construed as a metafictional or metageneric concept self-consciously and self-reflexively pointing at neo-Victorianism in particular and postmodernism in general as aesthetic trends re-voicing and re-staging the pasts and amalgamating these resurrections with contemporary voices and stages to generate a layered, palimpsestic,1 many-tongued present.

The Correspondence Between Neo-Victorianism and Renaissance

  • 2 See his famous essay ‘The End of History?’ (1989) and his polemical work The End of History and the (...)

2When a Victorian poet evokes the ‘past voices and lives whose resuscitation in our own lives as warnings, as examples, as the life of the past persisting in us, is the business of every thinking man and woman’ (Byatt 1990, 104; original emphasis), he seems to provide a specular definition of Byatt’s own resurrectionist poetics in Possession. Similarly, when the twentieth-century protagonist of Ever After thus describes his endeavour to recapture his Victorian ancestor: ‘it is a prodigious, a presumptuous task: to take the skeletal remains of a single life and attempt to breathe into them their former actuality’ (Swift 90), his diegetic quest reflects en abyme Swift’s fictional recreation of a Victorian text and context. The concepts of resuscitation and bestowal of new life to sundry ‘skeletal remains’ at once imply the centrality of an art of exhumation and of a return to and of the past, which emphatically denies the suggestion of ‘the end of history’ repeatedly advanced by Francis Fukuyama2 and strikingly corresponds to the very tenets of neo-Victorianism. According to Émilie Walezak, in Possession, ‘the resurrection of the past’ is exemplified in three main motifs, namely ‘the Christian faith in resurrection, the spiritual belief in the return of the dead and Michelet’s secular metaphor of history as resurrection’ (Walezak 83). This metaphorical conception of historical resurrection has also, as we shall see, poetical implications since the return of the past includes the return of past literary models.

3In one of the earliest conceptions of the neo-Victorian movement, Hilary Schor associated the ‘uncanny life’ of the ‘Victorian past . . . in contemporary fiction’ with ‘ghostwriting,’ that is, with ‘speaking with the dead’ or with ‘the raising of the dead,’ an ‘image of resurrection which runs deep’ (Schor 237, 247). In a much more recent approach of neo-Victorian writers, Laura Savu argues that they ‘bestow new (textual) bodies as it “pleaseth” them upon the dead, “raised up” to relive their lives for us once more’ (Savu 162), Roberta Gefter Wondrich recalls neo-Victorianism’s ‘resurrectionist slant’ (Gefter Wondrich 119) and Emma Miller reformulates the idea that this type of contemporary literature ‘focuses on the resurrection of the dead’ in order to stipulate ‘that we co-exist with the dead and that they, their ideas and practises can and do become a reality again at any given moment’ (Miller 198, 199). The journal Neo-Victorian Studies provides similar definitions, notably in its inaugural issue in which Marie-Luise Kohlke binds neo-Victorianism with the ‘recurrent spiritualist trope that acts as both metaphor and analogy for our attempted dialogue with the dead’ (Kohlke 9), in which Andrew Williamson points out the metageneric importance of ‘the resurrecting motif of the séance’ (Williamson 110) and in which Kate Mitchell sees neo-Victorian fiction as an attempt ‘to cheat time, and allow access to the past, facilitating the resuscitation of the dead’ (Mitchell 82).

4Naturally, the concepts of resurrection, resuscitation and revival are manifestly figurative and what is at stake in these neo-Victorian works is the self-conscious, sometimes ironical and always problematic retrieval of a whole textual tradition with its ideological and aesthetic specificities. As Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn have demonstrated, the ‘texts themselves become shadows, spectres and written ghosts that never quite materialize into substantive presences but instead remain simulations of the “real”’ (Heilmann and Llewellyn 2010, 145). These spectres that keep recurring or are systematically reanimated constitute particularly suitable conceptual tools since they signify, like the return of the Victorian dead, a reality that is not real, the presence of an absence, the past in the present, an immaterial matter or insubstantial substance. Far from being restricted to a Gothic past, spectres have become dominant in our contemporary culture according to Derrida who defines this ‘unnameable element’ as ‘something, between something and someone, anyone or anything, some this, “this thing”, but this thing and not any other, this thing that looks at us, that concerns us, comes to defy semantics and ontology, psychoanalysis as much as philosophy’ (Derrida 6). Such spectral deconstruction of ontology, such ‘hauntology’ (Derrida 10 and passim), again coincides with neo-Victorianism’s aesthetic guidelines since, in its intersection with postmodernism, the revival of the nineteenth century illustrates Brian McHale’s central assumption that ‘the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological’ and that ‘postmodernist discourse is precisely the discourse that denies the possibility of ontological grounding’ (McHale 10, 27; original emphasis).

  • 3 The breathing metaphor appears also in Possession in an eerily similar fashion when Ash defines his (...)

5Breathing new life into his distant Victorian ancestor,3 Bill Unwin produces then an ontologically indeterminate creature, a creature whose ambiguity is metafictionally acknowledged as a ‘hybrid being, part truth, part fiction’ (Swift 90). The mixed ontology of the protagonist’s textual reconstruction mirrors the haunted text conceived by Swift in particular and neo-Victorian writers in general, which deliberately blurs the distinctions between invention and documentation, diegesis and mimesis, poetry and historiography—and of course imitating and transforming. In Byatt’s novel, ontological destabilisation is achieved through a very elaborate intermingling of simulation and quotation. By placing a poetic epigraph by Browning just before another poetic epigraph by Ash, Byatt opens her narrative with an intentionally confusing juxtaposition of a historical and a fictional being. She then attributes fabricated words to actual writers such as Crabb Robinson, F.R. Leavis or Swinburne and also integrates quotations from existing authors such as Freud, Gosse, Wordsworth or Tennyson in the embedded texts of diegetic characters, the latter strategy being clearly aimed at showing that the real can be found in the false, that truth can be hidden in simulacra. In Possession, the undermining of ontological categories is then carried out by a mixture of very unlike textualities—poetry and forgery, archive and fiction, historiography and pastiche—, a mixture bespeaking the ever-expanding plasticity of the neo-Victorian novel.

6The concept of hauntology is also crucial because it destabilises smooth delimitations in terms of historiography, temporality and textuality. The resurrection of the Victorian subject means the advent of ‘a revenant, an apparition which returns and disrupts temporal linearity’ (Arias and Pulham xvi). Neither past nor present or both past and present, the spectral Victorian justifies the junction, combination and porosity between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, between realism and postmodernism. The revenant fulfils then the function of hyphenation not only in terms of thematics but also of aesthetics. What ought to be stressed finally about the implications of neo-Victorianism’s emphatic hauntology is the inevitable linguistic faltering or wavering inherent in a literature of exhumation straddling two ontologies and two temporalities. ‘Haunted writing,’ according to Christine Berthin, necessarily ‘throws light onto the jarring element within language in order to account for the excommunicated within communication’ (Berthin 39). The rehabilitation of the excommunicated word may well be a crucial idea explaining the boom of neo-Victorian fiction for it validates the return of all sorts of linguistic and narrative forms deemed obsolete or suspicious. To take the sole examples of Possession and Ever After, one may notice the restoration of the language of affects in the diaries, the restoration of the language of literary correspondence in the letters, and the restoration of the language of allegory in the intradiegetic tales and myths. These nineteenth-century narrative forms are mingled and conflated with the deconstructionist language conveying the contemporary characters’ heterogeneous subjectivity and with the elliptic, chaotic and eclectic thoughts of Ever After’s protagonist terrified in front of ‘the polymerization of the world’ (Swift 7), a patent illustration of the postmodern ‘orders of simulacra’ (Baudrillard 152). The excommunicated word is thus compounded with the up-dated word and this hybridisation represents the very essence of neo-Victorianism’s poetics.

The Pasts Never Die

7When Byatt inserts a poetic quote about Proserpina in the very last section of Possession, she wilfully creates a looping effect since the epigraph to the very first chapter bears on the same mythical figure. The circular pattern thus generated conveys the idea of recurrence and this all the more so since Proserpina incarnates the myth of rebirth, of cyclical regeneration. The concepts of restoration and renaissance might then be said to be squared, expressed as they are not only in the narrative structure of repetition but also in the framing importance of the myth of eternal resumption. As often in this novel peopled with scholars specialised in exegesis and interpretation, the signification of the myth of Proserpina is indicated in a sort of meta-hermeneutic fragment as ‘the myth of Resurrection’ (Byatt 1990, 4). Further significations of this myth are given in the course of the narrative and in other quotes from the (fictional) poem dedicated to it, notably the suggestion that the mythical context is one ‘where past and future mixed’ (Byatt 1990, 464). Such temporal mixture and cyclicity provide the model and the justification for the novel’s central precept: the regeneration of the nineteenth century in the twentieth century in which the contemporary academics strive to bring back to life the works of their Victorian forebears. Just as Proserpina stands for the celebration of natural rebirth, Possession is conceived so as to highlight the celebration of literary rebirth.

8In addition to the epigraph relating to Proserpina, the opening of Possession deals with the possible sources of the Victorian treatment of the myth focusing in particular on Vico’s main historical work, Principi di Scienza Nuova. And since, in this treatise, Vico develops his hypothesis of the cyclical nature of history, the principle of ‘corsi e recorsi,’ the ideas of recurrence, of eternal return and hence of the negation of disappearance appear reinforced and underlined as the programmatic paradigms of the novel. When, through the embedded figure of the writer, the novel stresses the belief that ‘[t]he Historian and the Man of Science alike may be said to traffic with the dead,’ mentioning Cuvier and Michelet in addition to Lyell and Vico as thinkers who ‘have heard the bloodless cries of the vanished and given them voices’ (Byatt 1990, 104), the revival of the dead becomes not only a timeless, iterative attempt but a scientific necessity. Strategically, the reference to Milton’s phoenix in the female poet’s testimonial letter transforms a poetic quote into a specular formula: rising from one’s ashes emerges as the poet’s privilege, the seventeenth-century as well as the Victorian poet, both ‘vigorous most / When most unactive deemed’ thanks to their ‘ages of lives’ (Byatt 1990, 502–503). The plural form ‘lives’ is of course crucial to emphasise the novel’s creed in the possibility of resumption or the prerogative of resurrection and to signal the timelessness of such literary prodigies. Synthetically then, Byatt takes great pains to provide mythological, scientific and poetic evidence demonstrating the importance of reviving the dead, the usefulness and fruitfulness of ceaselessly giving new life to things and people, to works and writers apparently vanished.

9In Ever After also the reader is presented with various scientific references validating the imperative to resurrect the dead starting with the recurrent presence of Lyell (also patent in Possession) who understood ‘that mysterious paradox by which the study of dead stones offered the clue to Life itself’ (Swift 93) and including Mary Anning, the finder of fossils, who ‘resurrected’ a rare ichthyosaur ‘into the amazed consciousness of another race of animals’ (Swift 144). To give weight to the paramount importance of giving back life to the past and the allegedly disappeared Swift uses the extended metaphor of acting since the protagonist’s wife ‘was an actress, wasn’t she? It was her job: to represent life to people’ (Swift 120). Representation as the resurrection of historical or literary characters again can be perceived as a self-reflexive concept applicable to Swift’s novel and to neo-Victorian fiction as a whole. It is, however, poetry itself which, in Ever After, appears as the prodigy that has always indispensably to be revived, that has always vitally to be risen from its ashes. It is poetry which is presented as a paradigmatic ‘redeeming balm’ thanks to which ‘life is reconciled with death’ (Swift 71); it is poetry which, for the protagonist’s putative Elizabethan ancestor, for his Victorian forebear and for himself, ‘strikes our hearts at such a magic angle’ (Swift 234). As the subject of poetry and as the specular metaphor for poetry itself, the phoenix is then the unifying device of both novels, a device implying rebirths in the plural and the redemptive return of the pasts in the plural. And since Shakespeare, the ‘charismatic Renaissance’ figure (Swift 5), looms large in both novels, in addition to Milton in Possession and Sir Walter Raleigh in Ever After, it becomes manifest that these neo-Victorian novels celebrate not only the revival of Victorian motifs but also the renaissance of Renaissance. What characterises these novels, typical as they are of today’s Zeitgeist, is then, as Andreas Huyssen rightly observes, the ‘desire the pull all the various pasts into the present’ (Huyssen 15). In this syncretic restoration of traditions from various pasts can be seen neo-Victorianism’s main intersection with postmodernism.

Re-naissance and Poetic re-construction

  • 4 Palingenesis, it may also be recalled, constitutes Michelet’s historical method of investigation an (...)
  • 5 The same idea is expressed in another paper in which Bernard defines ventriloquism as ‘une présence (...)

10In the novelistic sphere, resurrecting the dead, be they famous writers or average historical witnesses, amounts to a phenomenon of revoicing, of re-imagining not only the diegetic characters’ lives but also their voices. Such linguistic restoration, which Walezak calls ‘writing through palingenesis’ (Walezak 82), clearly converges with the concept of ventriloquism, which is so central to Possession and which has given birth to such intense critical debate.4 As ‘writing . . . supposedly condemned to be haunted, to shadow the past and to try to appropriate it,’ ventriloquism has been criticised for ‘[f]ailing to forge a new language out of the voices of the past’ and the ventriloquist is then doomed to ‘disembody himself, lingering on thus as the empty echo of a once authentic voice which he however needs in order to flaunt his own emptiness’ (Bernard 2003, 13, 16, 17).5 However, as Catherine Bernard pertinently reminds us, ‘ventriloquism may yield itself to a different, altogether more optimistic interpretation’ (Bernard 2003, 17). Indeed, the practice of revoicing implies a personal interpretation, an idiosyncratic intonation, an original recontextualisation in addition to the process of linguistic retrieval. Ventriloquism, revoicing, reviving past idioms always add up to repetition and difference, quotation and adaptation, borrowing and transforming. According to Harold Bloom, this two-fold and two-staged process represents the very principle of poetic creation. The poets cannot not acknowledge their illustrious predecessors just as they cannot not try to refashion them and consequently ‘their voice comes alive, paradoxically never by mere imitation, but in the agonistic misprision performed upon powerful forerunners by only the most gifted of their successors’ (Bloom 24). By ventriloquising Browning, Christina Rossetti or Emily Dickinson and by simultaneously showing the double-voicedness of Browning or Milton themselves, Byatt provides a subtle illustration of and reflection upon the very essence of literary production, Milton reenchanting the Bible, Browning reenchanting Virgil, Byatt reenchanting Victorian poetry. Manifestly then, it is not neo-Victorian fiction’s prerogative to resort to ventriloquism and if literature is by essence double-voiced or ventriloquial, the accusation of linguistic barrenness or poetic failure cannot be convincing as a general or generic feature.

  • 6 Similar types of palinodes appear in Possession, possibly with the same purpose; see, for example, (...)
  • 7 See, for example, Kaplan 92–93.
  • 8 For additional arguments in favour of Byatt’s original voice, as opposed to her supposedly derivate (...)
  • 9 U. C. Knoepflmacher defines heterosis as ‘the energy or vitality produced by cross-breeding’ and sh (...)

11Even considering that ventriloquism might mean ‘speech in a dead language’ (Jameson 17), which it is not in Byatt’s case because the diary of a Victorian homoerotic painter or the adulterous correspondence between two nineteenth-century canonical writers do not have any fixed or existing model, the discursive strategies in both Possession and Ever After are not limited to imitated speech or linguistic mimicry. In Swift’s novel, the prose of the disillusioned twentieth-century protagonist is so replete with elliptical and unfinished sentences, i.e., with parataxis and aposiopesis, that his logic of brevity and possibly of uncertainty necessarily clashes with his Victorian ancestor’s arborescent hypotaxis and grammatical orthodoxy. His palinodic writing juxtaposing antithetical clauses or sentences, ‘It’s not the end of the world. It is the end of the world’; ‘It’s not the end of the world. It is. Life goes on. It doesn’t’; ‘Of course. Of course not’; ‘Nothing is meant to be. Everything is meant to be’ (Swift 120, 249, 254, 259), stands out as the postmodernist expression of epistemological aporia.6 And his countless interrogative clauses further testify to his tentative, groping, hesitant prose, simultaneously narrative and questioning, transitive and (self-)reflexive, his contemporary flippant and plastic prose unmistakably distinctive from the chronological and earnest Victorian diaries. In Possession, the updating of linguistic codes is mainly achieved through the poststructuralist bent of the scholars’ self-interrogations: ‘Narcissism, the unstable self, the fractured ego . . ., who am I? A matrix for a susurration of texts and codes?’; ‘Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems. . . . He had been trained to see his idea of his “self” as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network” (Byatt 1990, 251, 424). The sexual and technical metaphors in these fragments may well verge on self-parody, but such contemporary codes are nevertheless efficient in providing an adequate language to convey postmodernism’s ontological crisis. What must also be stressed is the intricate way in which this deconstructionist language, like Swift’s ontological self-referential prose, is conflated and interbred with the Victorian expressions of religious crisis or cultural debates. And if the comparison between nineteenth-century poets and twentieth-century scholars, between creation and interpretation, has often been read as a nostalgic tribute paid to nineteenth-century creativity or a conservative criticism of today’s second-hand culture,7 it must not be forgotten that the complex, polymodal and pluri-generic, transhistorical and intertextual structure generating such an interrelation is the sheer product of a postmodernist principle of kaleidoscopic collage, which Byatt herself calls ‘laminations’: ‘it is a form that is made partly by cutting up, breaking up, rearranging things that already exist. . . . the flotsam and jetsam of the brain’s tick and tock’ (Byatt 1997, 384).8 If the neo-Victorian literal rebirths become metaphorical renaissances, if the revival of the past bypasses the ‘danger of sterile iteration’ (Letissier 2), it is then mainly because the construction of these resurrectionist novels relies on the idea of interbreeding, a structural principle which favours hybridity and heterosis,9 that is, the generation of new sub-species, a structural principle which corresponds to the contemporary celebration of bastardy, a structural principle which converts repetition or recuperation into creation or regeneration.

Postmodernism and Neo-Victorianism as Meta-renaissances

12Neo-Victorian fiction, such as it is illustrated by Byatt’s and Swift’s novels, cannot be restricted to the imitation of dead voices or the reproduction of bygone codes not only because of its labour of recontextualisation and restructuration but also because of its flaunted degree of artistic self-awareness and self-reflexiveness. In self-reflexiveness appears the notion of reflexiveness and indeed what is noteworthy in neo-Victorianism and postmodernism is the inclusion of analysis in the midst of diegesis, of exegesis in the midst of mimesis. Starting with the interpretation and the ramifications of the myth of Proserpina, Possession develops an astonishing number and variety of self-reflexive analyses about the cultural material borrowed or illustrated in its own textual practices. The legend of Melusine is another case in point generating as it does the novel’s longest poetic creation as well as numerous, necessarily self-referential, interpretations about its origins, meanings and aftereffects. An initial presentation of the paradigmatic legend occurs in the mouth of a deconstructionist character who carries on his semiotic gloss of Melusine as figure of ‘the limen and the liminal’ (Byatt 1990, 138) several chapters later. The second version appears in the guise of an extract from a published monograph on the author of the poem and the third reading of the same text is effectuated by a Victorian housewife pointing out ‘its virtues so far removed . . . from those expected by the weaker sex’ (Byatt 1990, 121). There is also a contemporary feminist explanation identifying the poem as a sexual manifesto but the most extensive form of metatextual commentary can be found in the correspondence between the two Victorian poets. This epistolary chapter relates the genesis of the fairy poem, a remarkable case of intradiegetic, self-referential, genetic auto-criticism, just as it reveals how the ideas of one poet can be found in the text of the other and how certain ideas are borrowed from other canonical poets, yet another form of textual resurrection. The embedded poem, that is, the novel’s very textual component, is thus presented, analysed, dissected from various perspectives and in various epochs and in order to grasp the complexity and sophistication of Byatt’s metacritical apparatus one has to add that this form of specular hermeneutics affects other embedded poems so much so that Possession appears as much fictional as metafictional, as much narrative as exegetic. Similarly, in Ever After, the contemporary enunciator’s narrative revelations are constantly interrupted by and interspersed with hermeneutic comments or questions about the embedded Victorian documents. Quite typically, when, after having quoted the diary of his Victorian ancestor, the contemporary narrator observes, ‘Let’s read between the lines. Let’s be brutal and modern and take apart these precious Notebooks’ (Swift 211), he forsakes his narrative function and becomes a textual critic, a diegetic hermeneut, an embedded double of the reader. Just as the Victorian poems are presented as original texts in Possession, just so the nineteenth-century diary appears as an archival document in Ever After and the contemporary academics produce a series of interpretations which become ipso facto self-informing since they affect parts of the works in which they appear. Crucially, these interpretations also shed new light on the nature, ideas or feelings of their authors and the whole system of metatextuality comes then also close to a strategy of characterisation thus blending and blurring text and metatext, diegesis and self-interpretation, fiction and non-fiction. As Andrea Kirchknopf argues, neo-Victorianism tends to associate ‘representations of life and writing, literary reception and reactions to literary reception, increasingly collapsing the boundaries between text and critique in the process’ (Kirchknopf 73).

13The high degree of self-reflexiveness in these novels is not only meta-critical it is also meta-generic. When Bill Unwin confesses, ‘I am not in the business of strict historiography’ (Swift 90), his generic comment becomes of course a definitional mise en abyme for the whole novel. Trying to retrace the life of a historical character without being an historian, using ‘facts infused with a good deal of theory, not to say imagination’ (Swift 90), Unwin and Swift commit themselves to a genre that has come to be known as biofiction, that is, the ‘novelisation of biography’ (Kaplan 65). As the term indicates, there is here an ontological hybridity, not to say contradiction, in the association of real life and imagined facts, reality and fiction. And so, not content with exploring the paradox of giving new life to the present by resurrecting the past, neo-Victorian fiction, like its nineteenth-century forebear and like the poetry it revives, develops at great length the paradox of finding the truth in imagination. Trying to account as faithfully as possible for the life of his forebear, the diegetic life-writer, mirror image of the extradiegetic life-writer, reveals his modus operandi: ‘You have to picture the scene. You have to reconstruct the moment, as patient palaeontologists reconstruct the anatomies of extinct beasts’ (Swift 185). The analogy between the biofictionalist and the palaeontologist seems far-reaching for both resort to a combination of evidence and hypotheses, and both reach new theories or new narratives by delving into dead substance. The paradox of ‘original remakes’ (Huyssen 15) is then also highlighted in the novel’s metageneric dimension.

  • 10 Albert Campion is of course the private detective in the detective novels by Margaret Allingham.
  • 11 This high degree of metafiction manifestly corresponds to Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn’s now can (...)

14As far as Possession is concerned, the metatextual indications of genre are even more ostentatious and numerous. Because the main contemporary characters are all scholars and because their intellectual and opportunistic conflicts, their academic and sexual relations constitute the main themes, the first generic category signalled by the novel is the campus novel, and this all the more so since the ‘small world’ of these characters is explicitly mentioned (Byatt 1990, 114), the connection with David Lodge’s illustrious campus novel being further encouraged by the choice of the subtitle. The detective novel is also self-consciously designated when one of the characters leading the investigations about the Victorian poets’ secrets remarks, ‘Literary critics make natural detectives’ or when another character, at the moment of discovery of the secret, confides: ‘I’ve always wanted to be Albert Campion, myself’ (Byatt 1990, 237, 483).10 Similar arguments could be provided about Possession as a novel of ideas, or a Gothic novel—or, rather, a mock-Gothic novel—, but the most consistent generic model is undoubtedly romance, which is heralded in the very first epigraph as an ‘attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us’ (Byatt 1990, n.p.). Romance is then duly signposted in both the contemporary strand of the narrative (‘Romance was one of the systems that controlled him’) and in the Victorian fragments when the poetess admits to having resorted to ‘a lie more appropriate to a Romance than to my previous life’ (Byatt 1990, 425, 500)—the capitalisation of Romance further linking the contemporary and the Victorian narratives. What is striking then in Byatt’s novel as in Swift’s novel is the constant double strategy of unfolding a narrative and supplying its own interpretation, of producing a text and its own exegesis at the same time. The metafictional part of these novels’ textual diptychs generates a systematic production of a parallel gloss or textual appendage thus creating an augmented text which represents these resurrectionist novels’ supplement of soul. Clearly then, in its elaborate use of a self-reflexive and auto-referential double-text,11 neo-Victorian fiction amounts to a form of meta-renaissance, a literature of revival expanded by its own specular interpretation.

15To conclude, it seems crucial to emphasise the semantic and aesthetic convergence of the prefixes linking postmodernism, neo-Victorianism and renaissance. In each case, it is not simply retrieval or repetition which are implied but the ideas of going’ (‘post-’) and of renewing or remoulding (‘neo-’ and ‘re-’). Resurrecting the past, the dead or the forgotten, does not mean necrophilic exhumation or nostalgic imitation for neo-Victorian fiction, on the contrary it gives birth to the principle of poetic revoicing, creative recontextualisation and updated, hybrid restructuration. Such thematic and literary revivals have major ethical and ideological consequences for one of the main purposes of neo-Victorianism and postmodernism is ‘to problematise the pastness of the past and the deadness of the dead’ (Kohlke and Gutleben 38), just as they entail fundamental aesthetic issues raising the problem of creating newness out of oldness, life out of death. One of neo-Victorianism’s solutions to achieve innovation is to commingle nineteenth-century and twentieth-century themes, languages and discursive modes so as to engender both mixture and comparison, both hybridity and symmetry. Another solution resides in the conception of an ontologically double text associating, juxtaposing or superimposing narrative fiction and textual criticism, addressive telling and self-reflexive analysing, a chronicling activity and a hermeneutic activity. The importance of such metafictional hermeneutics underscores the specular inclusion of the reader and neo-Victorianism celebrates then also the renaissance of active reading. As Linda Hutcheon has noted about the implications of metafictional practices: ‘To read is to act; to act is both to interpret and to create anew—to be revolutionary, perhaps in political as well as in literary terms (Hutcheon 161).

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Arias, Rosario and Patricia Pulham, ‘Introduction,’ Haunting and Spectrality in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Possessing the Past, eds. Rosario Arias and Patricia Pulham, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, xi–xxvi.

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1 Following Genette’s neologism, certain critics also use the adjective ‘palimpsestuous’ (see Onega 2022).

2 See his famous essay ‘The End of History?’ (1989) and his polemical work The End of History and the Last Man (1992).

3 The breathing metaphor appears also in Possession in an eerily similar fashion when Ash defines his poetic creation as a quest ‘to bestow Life . . . as Elisha did—who lay on the dead body—and breathed life into it’ (Byatt 1990, 168; emphasis added).

4 Palingenesis, it may also be recalled, constitutes Michelet’s historical method of investigation and Michelet looms large in Possession as an epigone of Vico and a source of inspiration for the recycing not only of ideas but also of concrete objects as historical witnesses and transitions (as Walezak also observes).

5 The same idea is expressed in another paper in which Bernard defines ventriloquism as ‘une présence à jamais absente dont elle ne serait qu’un pâle fantôme métaphorique’ and the ventriloquist as a writer condemned to ‘une série de renoncements dans lesquels s’abîme l’ancienne mystique de l’écriture comme lieu du nouveau’ (Bernard 2005).

6 Similar types of palinodes appear in Possession, possibly with the same purpose; see, for example, ‘and yet I Must Not—and yet I must’; ‘The place is there/Is what we name it, and is not’; ‘Nothing in what he had written had changed and everything had changed’; ‘She wants you to know and not to know’ (Byatt 1990, 186, 465, 468, 485).

7 See, for example, Kaplan 92–93.

8 For additional arguments in favour of Byatt’s original voice, as opposed to her supposedly derivate language, see Helen Mundler’s monograph and in particular her conclusion (Mundler 361–366).

9 U. C. Knoepflmacher defines heterosis as ‘the energy or vitality produced by cross-breeding’ and she specifies that this concept is also associated with ‘hybridic vigor’ (Knoepflmacher 752).

10 Albert Campion is of course the private detective in the detective novels by Margaret Allingham.

11 This high degree of metafiction manifestly corresponds to Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn’s now canonical definition of neo-Victorian fiction as a form of literature which ‘must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians.’ They further stress the ‘high degree in the self-analytic drive’ and ‘the metafictional mode’ which they deem inseparable from neo-Victorianism (Heilmann and Llewellyn 4, 5; original emphasis).

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Christian Gutleben, « Renaissances, Resurrections and Rewritings: A Neo-Victorian Poetics of Exhumation »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 04 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Christian Gutleben

Christian Gutleben is Professor of English literature at the University of Nice (Université Côte d’Azur) where he has been director of the scholarly journal Cycnos from 2008 to 2020. His main fields of research are postmodernism in general and neo-Victorianism in particular. He is Series Co-Editor of Brill/Rodopi’s Neo-Victorian Series and has already published six volumes in this Series, a synthetic Neo-Victorian Handbook being planned for 2022.

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