OK, so the nights are drawing in and, if you’re anything like me, you’re beginning to think about curling up some place warm and reading a good book or ten to get you through the winter. So this seemed like the perfect moment to put together a list of great Neo-Victorian reads.
Now if you skim through any neo-Victorian reading list, there’s no getting away from the big names – the A.S. Byatts, the John Fowleses. They’re great reads – they basically invented the genre – but I have to confess that whenever I’m called upon to read or teach them, it is always with a slight feeling of ‘Oh God, no, I haven’t the strength’. With due deference done, then, to the godfathers of the genre, I’m going to present what I’m calling my ‘reading for pleasure’ list:
- Flashman (1969-2005) by George Macdonald Fraser
Where to even begin with Flashman? If you’ve read Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, you’ll be familiar with the boorish, drunken bully who was expelled from Rugby School. The Flashman novels are presented as papers found ‘during the sale of household furniture’ many decades after the death of the most gloriously rakish, morally reprehensible and unrepentant cad you’ll ever come across in Neo-Victorian fiction. These novels are entertaining to the max, with plenty of bodice ripping and duelling, but they carry it off with such self-awareness and affection for the history and literature of the nineteenth century that they manage to blend together everything you could want in a wintertime read. Male or female, if you don’t end this series just a little bit in love with Harry Flashman, I may challenge you to a duel myself.
- Fingersmith (2002) by Sarah Waters
Like Byatt and Fowles, Sarah Waters appears on just about every list of neo-Victorian novels you’ll ever come across. But there’s no getting around the fact that Fingersmith is sheer narrative genius. You won’t see the twist coming, and, once it hits you, you start to get a sense of what it must have been like to read that chilling scene from Wilkie Collins, where Count Fosco usurps Marion Halcombe’s narrative, the first time round.
- The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber
OK, so I promised a list of light ‘reading-for-pleasure’ novels. I should probably confess now, then, that at 864 pages, this novel is not light. It is also written in second person which, once you get used to it, creates the fantastic illusion of free reign to wander in a Victorian world that, Faber never fails to remind us, is entirely foreign to the modern reader although, with our taste for nineteenth-century novels and adaptations, we might think we know it well. What I love best about this novel has been pretty neatly summed up by Katheryn Hughes in her review, when she writes that:
Michel Faber has produced the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely. All the familiar tropes of high-Victorian fiction are here – the mad wife, the cut-above prostitute, the almost-artist, the opaque governess – but they are presented to us by a narrator with the mind and mouth of the 21st century. Where once the Victorian novel was lace-like with decorous gaps and tactful silences, now it is packed hard with crude fact and dirty detail.
Here’s a novel that doesn’t get half as much attention as it deserves. Like so much of Alasdair Gray’s work, Poor Things is gleefully and gloriously mad. Pretty much every page makes some clever nod to Victorian literature, only to playfully upend your expectations. The novel tells the story of Bella, a beautiful woman with the mind of a child and a fierce erotomania, who may or may not be the product of a Frankenstein-style brain transplant by her guardian, the mysterious Godwin Baxter. Even that description does little justice to the sheer bonkersness of this novel, or to how cleverly it interweaves references to Victorian literature, culture, and gender politics. And if that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, there’s also a character called Mr. Spankybot. I kid thee not.
- The Historian (2005) by Elizabeth Kostova
This novel is perhaps the least strictly ‘neo-Victorian’ of my neo-Victorian top ten. Technically, this is a reworking of the mythology of Dracula rather than Bram Stoker’s novel per se. For a 500 page novel with two complex parallel storylines, The Historian has an incredibly light touch, to the point where you almost feel like you are piecing the story together alongside the narrator, who is travelling across Eastern Europe in search of her missing father. If it helps, I can also promise you that the vampires in this novel are not sexy, do not sparkle and are not weighed down by half a pound of hair gel.
- The Diamond Age (1995) by Neal Stephenson
This one is a fascinatingly difficult novel to categorise. It’s a post-cyberpunk, sci-fi strangefest with a big Dickensian plot. Like Bleak House, it’s a plot which tries to embrace the whole of society – a society which deliberately embraces the morals and customs (and clothing!) of the high Victorian age, but which has also cracked the art of producing pretty much anything you could wish for using nanotechnology.
For sheer creepy factor, this slim little book takes the cake. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is the diary of the maid of Dr Jekyll. In fact, I often feel that Valerie Martin missed a trick by not letting us figure out the identity of the ‘Master’ more gradually. All the same, this novel is a masterclass in suspense. OK, there are points where I wished a little more would happen, but then I think that is a sadly inevitable frustration with any retelling (or indeed original telling) of the Jekyll and Hyde story – no matter who you are, you probably already know the twist, and that makes it difficult to sustain momentum. Still, this is a great novel to read on a winter’s evening, maybe with the lights on, though.
- The Prestige (1995) by Christopher Priest
I think most of us come to this novel by way of the 2006 film starring Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, so I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the novel itself. Certainly the film brings a warmth and humanity to the characters that the book doesn’t explore in the same way, but the it doesn’t capture the narrative brilliance of the novel, with its nested narratives which all loop back on one another, as well as its sometimes chillingly clever use of multiple perspectives. This is the story of the lifelong feud of two rival magicians in the 1890s, Borden and Angiers, and the destructive consequences for their families, even generations later. In case anyone out there still hasn’t seen the film, I won’t say much more than that lest I spoil something for you, but I recommend you give this one a read.
- Dodger (2012) by Terry Pratchett.
If you’re looking for a real fun read on a cold winter night then this is the book for you. I read Pratchett’s tale of the nineteen-year-old street urchin, Dodger, on a particularly dark and rainy November evening. Fitting really, since this book has such a fascination with the sewers and grime of mid-Victorian London. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember the intricacies of the plot, but the real fun of this novel comes with the easter eggs, which are hidden in the form of real-life characters and include Dickens (inevitably), Henry Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli and Angela Burdett-Coutts. It’s also refreshing to read a neo-Victorian text which doesn’t devote pages on end to descriptions of life in Victorian brothels, which, we can all admit, has been just a tad overdone.
This novel was a really brave stab at an aspect of the nineteenth century which so rarely gets revisited: the law. So much of neo-Victorian fiction takes its cues from Dickens and that Dickensian style of constructing plots and characters, so this book is refreshing in its use of what I think can accurately be called its Collinsian style. The vast majority of Wilkie Collins’s plots revolve around particular points of law, and examine questions of people’s identity (particularly women’s identity) in the eyes of the law, and The Sealed Letter engages with those debates head on. Donoghue includes epigrams at the start of each chapter which are often quotes from Victorian jurisprudence. I know this annoyed some reviewers, but I thought it worked marvellously as a way of laying out in black and white the legal quandaries facing the central characters. In terms of plot, this novel revolves around the notorious Codrington divorce case of 1864. Donoghue manages to just about avoid some of the worn-out tropes of historical fiction about women (I swear if I hear one more character in a BBC adaptation utter the words “You are my PROPERTY!” to his beleaguered Mrs….”) by blurring the lines of moral culpability. By the end, you really don’t know who to sympathise with, and the characters that modern audiences have been trained to side with, by virtue, for instance, of their Suffragism, are made just as reprehensible as the rest. Really intriguing stuff.
Have I missed any of your favourites? Let me know in the comments or via Twitter @VictorianMasc