I recently taught Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992) in an introductory-level English class. It is both a neo-Victorian novel and a postmodern rewriting of Frankenstein. There are many narrative strands, some of which refute one another, and it is a great example of what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction.” One of the narratives tells the story of Bella Baxter, a woman who is created by a love-deprived doctor named Godwin Baxter. Baxter finds a pregnant woman’s body after she has committed suicide by drowning and replaces her brain with that of her unborn fetus. She is now (creepily) the Victorian man’s dream: the body of a woman with the brain of a child.
Bella is unusually sexually free for a Victorian woman. Baxter, Bella’s creator and father-figure, gives her an excellent education and even teaches her how to use contraceptives. She has adventures in a Paris brothel, pretends to be hypnotized by Charcot, and has a lesbian affair with a woman in San Francisco. Gray uses Bella as a kind of mediator between Victorian and contemporary society as she is constantly baffled by Victorian social structures and morals, and pushes the boundaries of acceptability. Bella eventually learns the truth of her former self: before her rebirth as Bella Baxter, she was Victoria Blessington, an unhappy wife, married to a military man named General Blessington. Victoria is in many ways the opposite of Bella; she has sexual urges but agrees, at her doctor’s urging, to have a clitoridectomy. She commits suicide when she learns of her husband’s infidelity. Throughout the novel, Gray stresses the unhappiness that can result in a society that is overwhelmed by repression. Many students could read the novel and come away assuming that the Victorian period was a place of constant repression, anti-feminism, and poor education. Students often miss the fact that Gray exaggerates Victorian stereotypes and pokes fun, I think, at our contemporary views of the Victorian period.
The novel’s relationship to the Victorian period, and especially Victorian sexuality, is clearly vexed. Sarah Waters’s lesbian neo-Victorian novels, Tipping the Velvet (1998), Affinity (1999), and Fingersmith (2002), vary in their representations of Victorian sexual repression. In all, lesbian relationships are possible, but the invisibility of the lesbian certainly challenges utopian readings, especially in Affinity. One of my students asked whether we could read Gray’s Poor Things as a critique of our own era, and I think we certainly can. The Bella Baxter rebirth narrative, which takes up most of the novel, is followed by a letter from Bella/Victoria written to her grandchildren (the entire contents of which I won’t divulge since they are one of the more important twists in the novel). Writing in August 1, 1914, just days before Britain was to enter the war, she addresses her grandchildren: “I almost hope our military and capitalistic leaders DO declare war! If the working classes immediately halt it by peaceful means then the moral and practical control of the great industrial nations will have passed from the owners to the makers of what we need, and the world YOU live in, dear child of the future, will be a saner and happier place. Bless you” (276). These words are also addressed to the reader, who is implicitly asked to consider whether he or she lives in a saner and happier place than that described in the novel.
By their very nature, neo-Victorian texts question the relationship between the Victorian period and contemporary society. On the one hand, neo-Victorian texts may register our ascent from the Victorians, as the texts (simplistically) portray them as our repressive, ignorant or racist ancestors. More often, these texts articulate a tension about the apparent or supposed differences between these two periods. Gray’s and Waters’s novels might implicitly ask, then, how far we have really come. Despite his often harsh critiques of Victorian sexuality and the medical profession, Gray’s novel still gestures to Victorian optimism as genuine and appealing. A quotation of Gray’s is engraved in the wall of the Scottish Parliament Building: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” The novel seems to be arguing for a return to the political optimism and hope that we saw in the early days of the Victorian period, which are, in this case, oddly represented by a nymphomaniac woman with a child’s brain.
Gray, Alasdair. Poor Things. Chicago: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002.
Hutcheon, Linda. Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.