In April, I attended a seminar on Neo-Victorian Literature at King’s College London. The event allowed for a lively, informative discussion regarding the current state of neo-Victorian writing and scholarship. One of the main questions asked was, is there something distinct about neo-Victorian literature, as opposed to historical fiction more generally? I’m inclined to consider neo-Victorian fiction as a sub-category of historical fiction. That said, I think there are perhaps two categories of neo-Victorian fiction: those that are “straight-forward,” popular historical fiction and those that are examples of what Linda Hutcheon calls historiographic metafiction, historical fictions that reference and question the very possibility of writing history and recording lives. It is the latter that we typically teach in academia, and which includes novels such as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, and Lloyd Jones’ Mr. Pip.
Near the end of the discussion, one of the organizers introduced a unique neo-Victorian experiment in writing and revising history, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, a text by British artist Tom Phillips. Phillips began the project in the 1960s: he took W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document and drew, painted, and collaged over the original text, producing a new story over the old one. The experiment was first published in 1970, and the text on the title page reads: “the following sing I a book. A book of art of mind art. That which he hid reveal I.” This final sentiment, that Phillips is setting out to reveal what Mallock did not or could not, is of course a highly problematic one. I have only skimmed the book (you can also view images online here), but my impression is that Phillips is being very playful with the notion of such neo-Victorian “detective” work. Further, he has also published 3 revised versions of his original text, which alter what is revealed, hidden, and related. This constant revision seems an apt metaphor for our relationship to the Victorians and history more generally: it references our need to constantly revise what seems important and worth remembering, and, even if unintentionally, what is also worth forgetting or obscuring. I wonder, though, how the book reads on its own: is the story itself intriguing and worth reading?