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.
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.
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...