Volume XI, Number 2, Fall 2015

"Adaptive Maps of Critical Engagement" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:

Rewriting the Victorians: Modes of Literary Engagement with the 19th century.
Andrea Kirchknopf
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2013.
pp. 225.
ESSE Book Prize 2014.

Andrea Kirchknopf’s book surveys and theorizes a remarkable trend in literatures in English: a series of novels and literary biographies which critically engage with the Victorian Age and its narratives. These texts usually perform parodies or pastiches of their Victorian predecessors, a characteristic of postmodern novelistic discourse. By doing so, the book proposes a theoretical framework in which it becomes possible to see these rewritings from the 1960s to the present not as pieces of historiographical metafiction but rather as contemporary cultural products with a social potential. The book wishes to make up for a critical gap. In the criticism of ’post-Victorian’ novels analyses tend to focus on particular features of Victoriana, while this is a synthetizing monograph that surveys the dimensions of post-Victorian fiction and offers a critical apparatus for interpreting it as well.

Chapter 1 delineates the theoretical framework and presuppositions of the enterprise in detail. Among a plethora of terms like Victoriana, Victoriographies, retro- neo- or post-Victorian the term post-Victorian is presented as the most appropriate one to characterize this specific group of texts within the larger body of historical texts to which it belongs. The ’post’ prefix is due to intersections with postmodernist discourses and literary practices, and ’Victorian’ indicates that these pieces of historiographic metafiction actually rewrite Victorian texts. There are two more articulate reasons for the terminological choice. On the one hand, the prefix ‘post-’ signifies “that mainstream post-Victorian fiction ties in with the synthetizing tendencies of postmodernism, by fostering a co-existence of its paradoxes, as the intermingling of traditional and experimental uses of Victorian fiction in such rewritings proves” (11). On the other hand, at the contextual end of the spectrum, the reason for this terminology is to be able to integrate methods used by “post-Victorian scholars working in the area of cultural memory and trauma studies and juxtapose these works with postmodernist perceptions of history and ethics” (11). The aim of the post-Victorian enterprise, then, is to acknowledge the impossibility of attaining historical knowledge and drawing ethical consequences from it, and still insist on finding ways to access nineteenth-century events and narratives. The monograph accepts the understanding that the juxtaposition of Victorian and contemporary texts may lead to new ways of understanding history, offering alternative solutions to current sociopolitical issues (46). Research into rewriting, it is believed, gives hope to scholars that a lost social potential can be restored to the study of literature (46).

As part of the larger ideological framework of post-Victorian fiction, chapter 2 focuses on the study of the literary scene post-Victorian fiction enacts. The scene of literary production can be studied by looking at actors of the literary marketplace one by one, discussing relations among author, readers, and critics. A look into literary biographies indicates that in post-Victorian fiction one witnesses the reactivation of the author-reader relation – the author as celebrity —, a growing importance of book production – e.g. questions of covers ‒, and reception very much the way it happened in the Victorian literary scene. The focus on authority, authenticity, mystification and cult leads to the discussion of literary biographies. Five fictional Henry James adaptations representing the life of the Victorian author are surveyed (Emma Tennant’s Felony (2002), Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004), David Lodge’s Author, Author (2004), Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004), and Michiel Heyns’s The Typewriter’s Tale (2005)) to point out the issues of authorship, theft, ghostwriting, and criticism these novels problematize. The fictional biographies are read as examples of biofiction. Biofiction offers a joint interpretive site for fiction, theory, and criticism. The brisk paragraph by paragraph summaries of the novels as cultural products offer remarkably different insight into these rewritings than a gender oriented (Kovács 2007) or metafiction oriented reading.

As the next part of the larger ideological framework of post-Victorian fiction, chapter 3 analyzes the contemporary social and political contexts of post-Victorian fiction. The emphasis on history in post-Victorian novels foregrounds the issue of how contemporary Britain faces its colonial and imperial legacies, forging identities in the 1980s, 1990s, and the present. Post-Victorian fiction from the past 30 years aims at seeing how various narratives of identity have evolved in a climate of changing political rhetoric. As a case in point, a postcolonial reading of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988) is read beside cultural memory accounts of the significance of the Crystal Palace to indicate how the sense of imperial mission and national pride inspired by the Crystal Palace reverberate in heritage fiction. The cultural subtexts characterizing the 19th century Crystal Palace are shown and are paralleled to contemporary ones, for example, how the construction of the Millennium Dome functioned similarly in contemporary political rhetoric. As another group of examples, the author studies island fiction where dislocation and travel function as tools in the reconceptualization of postcolonial and post-imperial identities. Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge (1991), and Matthew Kneale’s The English Passengers (2000) reveal anxieties of loss of home and identity resulting from Britain’s insularity and isolation.

Chapter 4 presents a case study of how aspects of the literary scene and questions of identity construction interact in the intertextuality of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and its two adaptations, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and D. M. Thomas’s Charlotte (2000). As far as the literary scene is concerned, concepts of originality, authenticity, and plagiarism surface in the adaptations and in their criticism as well. Rhys voices her anxieties of capitalizing on Brontë’s text, while Thomas’s receptions represent accusations of plagiarism. As far as identity constructions are concerned, questions of self and home are central in all three texts. Jane’s successful identity quest in Jane Eyre is debatable, Antoinette’s interculturation process in Wide Sargasso Sea is a failure, and Miranda suffers from an identity crisis, projecting her two fictional selves into a double narrative in Charlotte.

Chapter 5 surveys how Victorian source texts are written into adaptive maps and how contemporary rewritings of 19th century fiction embrace the sequelization and serialization of novelistic texts. The popular Victorian novel sequel meant a series of plots by the same author, with the same characters, sometimes even the same setting, more or less in chronological order. In today’s novel sequel the timeline is distorted, a fragmentation of the narrative occurs by telling from several perspectives. This disrupts the chronology and concepts of originality and authorship, too, and has a subversive potential. The term ’adaptive chain’ is not adequate to incorporate disruptive relationships between adaptations and their source texts; therefore a new term is introduced, the adaptive map. Two examples are offered for studying the workings of the adaptive map: another reworking of Jane Eyre, Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair (2001) and the case of Dickensiana, various refashionings of Dickens’s life and work. Firstly, Fforde’s novel uses Jane Eyre as the first plot of a literary detective series, so it is also one sequel in the adaptive map. The reworking shows theoretical awareness of issues related to authorship, adaptation, originality, and it also concerns itself with postcolonial, postimperial and (post)feminist identities. The plot is centered on the fate of literary texts in both the phase of their reception and production. The book changes its status from a silent cultural memento to one that actively engages in influencing present day events by utilizing its potential as a present day historical narrative. Secondly, refashionings of Dickens’s life and work demonstrate how diversified adaptations can be through two rewritings of Great Expectations, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997), Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip (2006). Dickens represents the Victorian era in cultural memory, so there is an ongoing critical engagement with his work. The two postcolonial refashionings of Great Expectations combine the concept of the author with British colonial and imperial legacies, and provide literary and cultural responses to the process of exporting and re-importing Dickens.

The book and the project it maps out represent a very learned, very ambitious and also challenging enterprise for its general academic audience. The topic is broad, the body of texts is ever growing, the theoretical field is just emerging, all of which makes discussion urgent. The study uses about thirty primary texts as points of reference, more than one would expect in a monograph, and a wide array of multidisciplinary methodologies are applied as well (postcolonial criticism, feminism, cultural studies, cultural memory studies, trauma studies, media studies), again more than usually expected. The overarching aim of the book is to offer a multidisciplinary theoretical framework for the study of post-Victorian fiction to a general academic audience, so there is a lot at stake. Apart from the scope and ambition of the book, another major challenge posed by this project is the metacritical potential of the enterprise. The general framework offered challenges not only scholars of post-Victorian literature in particular but pursuers of literary study in general when the social potential of literary activity is problematized. Critical activity is conceptualized as a space of creative activity (note the abundance of new terms) in itself, and conversely, post-Victorian literature is pushed towards criticism in that these texts are shown to be self-reflexive and critically conscious rewritings prone to functioning as literary critical sources. Rewriting as such becomes inherently theoretical. (Kirchknopf’s title is a rewriting, too, another Rewriting the Victorians was edited by Linda M. Shires in 1992.) So theory is eclectic and somewhat makeshift but functional in this book. It is a bit like the practice of biofiction shown in chapter 2, where fiction, theory and criticism coexist at one interpretive site.

It is possible to rearticulate the cultural work this book does from the perspective of literary historiography. In his book on the post-war English novel (1945-75) and its critical discourses, Tamás Bényei highlights as one central theme of the era the need to redefine English identity after the fall of the British Empire. This theme becomes visible in English literary production by the 1970s only; according to Bényei, the reason for the invisibility is that until the 70s the English tradition of the novel was critically supposed to be a unified narrative with an interest in moral life (12). When that critical myth fell, English literature died and literatures in English were born – with questions and multiple answers about models of subjectivity, the status of language, the legacy and criticism of modernism. As far as narratives of the history of the English novel are concerned, post-Victorian fiction from 1960s represents the rewriting of ‘the English novel’ tradition; it is one of the contemporary areas of a multiplicity of traditions in literatures in English. So the conceptual space post-Victorian fiction represents is one area in which that multiplicity is played out, and a book on post-Victorian fiction is an account of the rewriting of the (myth of the) English tradition of the novel.

Works Cited

  • Bényei, Tamás. Az ártatlan ország. [The Innocent Nation.] Debrecen: DUP, 2009.
  • Kovács, Ágnes Zsófia. “Recanonizing Henry James: Colm Tóibín’s The Master” AMERICANA 2(2007): 2.
  • Shires M., Linda. ed. Rewriting the Victorians: Theory, History, and the Politics of Gender. London: Routledge, 2012(1992).