‘We named her, and so she will be till the end of the chapter’: authenticity and the feminine voice in postmodernist neo-Victorianism

Rosalind Crocker

Abstract


This article explores the ways in which postmodernist neo-Victorian novels present women who subvert societal norms, arguing that their treatment is symptomatic of a wider conflict in neo-historicism between authorial appeal and historical ‘authenticity’. In John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), and Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998), the feminine neo-Victorian voice disrupts a master discourse of history which privileges masculine, heteronormative narratives. The inherent exchange between past and present in neo-Victorianism necessarily responds to contemporary issues pertinent to a modern readership by establishing thematic and formal connections between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

 

All three novels place a consideration of authenticity and artifice at the centre of their narratives, with Nights at the Circus and Tipping the Velvet particularly emphasising the performativity of both authorship and the narrative self-invention of women, challenging notions of ‘authenticity’ and considering self-referentially how this manifests within the neo-Victorian project.  The French Lieutenant’s Woman similarly critiques normative narrative structures by both rejecting and fulfilling literary expectations of Victorian fiction, complexly articulating a postmodern tendency towards pastiche whilst retaining a sense of replicative historicity.

 

The act of ‘talking back’ to the nineteenth century can be seen to disrupt dominant historical and social narratives by permitting non-hegemonic perspectives and exposing the impossibility of neo-Victorianism as pure replication. The interweaving of contemporary feminist discourse in these texts serves to critique enduring attitudes towards women and challenge the idea that the onset of modernity necessarily instigated sexual progressiveness. Thus, the voices of subversive female characters may be heard and history itself presented as a product of manipulable invention.


Keywords


neo-Victorian; postmodern; femininity; authenticity; narrative

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