“There is something wonderful about naming a species. To bring a thing that is wild, and rare, and hitherto unobserved under the net of human observation and human language…” – William Adamson, “Morpho Eugenia”

still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)
still from Angels and Insects (dir. Philip Haas, 1995)

In one of her first postings for the Floating Academy, Tara MacDonald discussed her experiences teaching Alasdair Gray’s neo-Victorian novel, Poor Things (1992), in an introductory-level literature class. This year I decided to teach Angels & Insects (published the same year as Gray’s) in an upper-year undergraduate class, bookending the term with Byatt’s pair of novellas. Our department’s program offers a couple of classes on the Victorian novel, and devotes another two to the study of poetry and prose from the period. In my experience, the latter courses require a much more careful hand in the selection and curation of materials. I felt Byatt’s novellas, composed as they are from fragments of Victorian texts and glimpses of historical perspectives, offered a creative example of the kind of collage we were undertaking as a class.

The first novella, “Morpho Eugenia,” introduces William Adamson, a Victorian naturalist who has returned to England having endured a lengthy expedition in the Amazon and a costly shipwreck in the Atlantic. Having lost most of his specimens, he is convinced to stay in his patron Harald Alabaster’s household as a kind of resident entomologist and immediately finds himself drawn to Alabaster’s daughter, Eugenia. Early in the text, Eugenia describes the creative project she’s undertaken with the use of William’s scientific materials: “I have made a beautiful display,” she tells him, “a kind of quilt, or embroidery almost—out of some of the earlier specimens you sent my father. I have pinned them out very carefully—they are exquisitely pretty—they give a little the effect of a scalloped cushion, only their colours are more subtle than any silks could be” (8). The passage is a fitting description of her novella itself, which artfully threads together an impressive number of Victorian texts into a glittering whole. Infusing historical research with dramatic narrative, Byatt’s work can give students the sense that the line between fiction and critique, and between writing and reading, is not so rigid and inflexible as we might think.

Seductive as this shimmering image might be, however, it ought also to serve as a warning to readers of neo-Victorian fiction. “Morpho Eugenia’s” insistent and unsettling analogy between insect and human society, delivered through her entomologist-narrator’s perspective, can illuminate the problems of perspective encountered by contemporary readers of Victorian culture. From the historical distance of our vantage point, these humans often look like ants. Their struggles, hang-ups and fears are commonly simplified and minimized. The novella’s stunning 1995 film adaptation exploited the pleasures to be taken in watching the Victorians. Borrowing many of the representational codes of the Merchant Ivory mode of historical film, Philip Haas’ costume drama presented English history as exotic spectacle, playing to our ethnographic desire to observe elaborate rituals and colorful displays from the perspective of fascinated outsider.

Reflecting on the epigraph quoted above, what happens when our students learn to name the Victorians as a species? How does “the net of human observation and human language” threaten to domesticate all that is “wild, and rare” about these people? As Tara noted in her reflection, and as anyone who teaches Victorian culture is likely to find, “sexually repressed” still functions as one of the most dismissive (if not entirely inaccurate) names we’ve given to the Victorians. Neo-Victorian novels typically bank on this modern preconception, peddling sex as their secret. Splicing together Wilkie Collins and Krafft-Ebing, they unspool tangles of plot through sexual concealment and repression, synchronizing narrative and sexual climax, and proffering exposure and confession as the answers to the story’s tensions. I must temper this critique of the genre, however, with the admission that my most well-received lectures tend to follow this structure as well, exploring and expressing alongside my students the things Victorians often would not or could not bring themselves to say.

This was my first experience teaching neo-Victorian literature, and I’m just now beginning to write a critical piece on Byatt’s second novella, “The Conjugial Angel.” Have you taught neo-Victorian literature in the context of a Victorian course? How has it reframed the way you and your students think about Victorian literature and culture?


10 thoughts on “Insects & Undergrads: Neo-Victorian Novels in the Classroom

  1. I have not previously taught any neo-Victorian fiction in the context of a Victorian course and I so appreciate how you nicely lay out your approach here. I’m convinced of the value of teaching this kind of work but concerned about how to fit it into my Victorian courses, where I already feel such tight time limitations over the course of a term.

    We have two Victorian courses — a “Mid-Victorian Literature” and a “Late-Victorian Literature” — that each take place over a twelve week term. I give about half of each course (6 weeks) to non-fiction prose and poetry and then half (the other 6 weeks) to novels, which means I can only fit about three novels in the term (at two weeks per novel, which is standard in my department). So, in my “Mid-Victorian literature” course, teaching Byatt would necessitate ejecting either Emily Bronte, Dickens or Eliot. Byatt is really up against some tough competition there!

    Gregory, Tara, and others who have taught new-Victorian fiction — what kinds of tradeoffs did you make in order to teach some neo-Victorian fiction in your Victorian courses? Were those trade-offs worth it, do you think? Alternatively, are the Victorian courses at in your departments structured in such a way that you don’t end up needing to make the kind of tradeoffs I outline above? (That is, I’m interested, Gregory, in whether dividing the Victorian courses by genre instead of chronology perhaps allows space for neo-Victorian fiction?)

  2. This is the inescapable, practical question, isn’t it, Jen? What do you cut to make room for Byatt? In a mixed-form course, I’d have an awfully difficult time justifying the presence of a neo-Victorian novel at the expense of a Victorian one. There are limits to what students can read and process in a term, and the sheer length of most “essential” Victorian novel tests those limits in a very basic way.

    Attending (almost) exclusively to poetry and prose for four months has its challenges (especially considering the fact that I’ve never experienced, let alone taught, a Victorian course organized this way), but it certainly allowed for more breathing room in structuring the term’s readings. There is a lightness to discussing poetry that appeals to the critical butterfly, flitting from poem to poem in the course of an hour. Of course, you try to select a body of poems that speak to one another, so that each resonates throughout the course of the term. The echoes heard in later poems help you to assert the weight and enduring significance of these collected fragments.

    The novellas seemed another way to provide a sense of that weight, giving students dramatic illustrations of the social life of Victorian poetry and prose. I’m not sure these novellas accomplish much as simulations of Victorian novels, so I suspect I’ll always find it more valuable to teach Jane Eyre or The Woman in White, for instance, than a hyperreal version of either text. In a poetry and prose course, however, my students liked seeing characters pick up and use the texts we’d been discussing ourselves. Each of Byatt’s novellas dramatize the social processing of literature – how Victorians made use of these texts to make sense of their world and each other, and each invites us to reflect on these processes ourselves. In the second novella especially, Byatt imagines some of the ways that poetry (Tennyson’s in particular) formed the shared language and emotional vocabulary of the Victorians.

    A couple of my students, while they enjoyed the plot, were not impressed to see these familiar texts under glass. They felt Byatt had failed as a collector in approaching poetry as a lepidopterist might, mounting dead specimens of Tennyson inside her text. Others felt she’d accomplished just the opposite: Tennyson was no longer pinned to the page – his poem was suddenly mobile and fluttering about in the thought and speech of all who read him.

  3. Thanks for this interesting post. I am wondering if neo-Victorian fiction would translate well to a freshman writing seminar, where page counts are even tighter because much classroom time needs to be devoted to the practice of writing itself. This might offer an alternate way into the period. Gregory, do you think that neo-Victorian novellas would be easy and engaging enough to read and teach at a lower level? Byatt is denser than my usual picks–which are more along the lines of Ishiguro and Angela Carter. I feel like steam punk would be the way to go for first years, but don’t think I have the chops to do graphic novels. Any suggestions?

  4. By the way, I wonder if it would have been more flattering to title this post “Angels and Undergraduates” rather than “Insects”! 🙂

  5. Ha! I think you have a point there, Karen. The insect popped in there because I was thinking primarily of the first novella, though Byatt’s ampersands always suggest analogies. I can honestly say that most of my students fall squarely in the angel category. (Only late May and I’m already getting wistful!)

    It’s true that Byatt is likely a taste students won’t have acquired by their first year. Both novellas within Angels & Insects are very talky and, aside from a few electrifying scenes, don’t offer many of a novel’s expected pleasures. Upper-year students who have a background in Victorian literature are likely to find these densely allusive texts more easily navigable and engaging.

    I teach Ishiguro in my 1st-year seminar course (BritLit 1800-present), and my students absolutely love him. We open with Frankenstein, and close with Never Let Me Go.

    I guess that Ishiguro’s novel is post-Victorian rather than ‘Neo-.’ Understanding Victorian culture and literature isn’t a prerequisite to enjoying Never Let Me Go, though Frankenstein and Jane Eyre (which we also read mid-term) do radically expand what we can do with the novel.

    It’s sometimes difficult to imagine where neo-Victorian novels might fit in an English undergraduate degree, where so many courses are typically organized along historical lines, that seem to subtly encode common-sense assumptions about historical (and literary) progression. I feel justified in teaching Jane Eyre in my survey because it is a “representative” Victorian text. What (and when and who) does Angels & Insects represent?

  6. Oh, and I’ve not found the opportunity to teach steam-punk anywhere. I briefly considered excerpting some of The Difference Engine once but, for most students, I think that text would be less rewarding than just reading “The Signal Man” or another Victorian machine-text. Has anyone taught Moore/O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?

    1. Hmmmm, I thought first year might be too early for Neo-Victorian… I’m planning on doing Never Let Me Go next Spring, and your class gives me an idea that it might go well with Frankenstein in a course on disability and biomedical ethics in literature, though I may stick with contemporary work… I hear first years respond very well to Frankenstein as well though, so I’m tempted!

    2. I haven’t taught League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but in my 200-level Literary Theory course, where I allowed students to choose to write their final papers on any text of their choosing, one of my students wrote a terrific paper on the book working with its engagements with the Victorian. I think it could be a really rewarding book to teach. But, as you say, Gregory, where would one teach it? Perhaps in a graphic novels survey but otherwise, “what (and when and who) does [LoEG] represent?”

  7. Perhaps the problem here is actually our reliance on the idea of what it means to “teach” a text. There’s plenty of room for neo-Victorian and steampunk in a traditional Victorian literature course — just don’t “teach” such texts. Instead, mention them constantly, make students aware of their existence, show them selections in class from LoEG, ask them to consider the implications, read them passages, allow them to examine neo-Vict stuff in their essays, create a short assignment in which they are required to compare/contrast a short Victorian text with a neo-Victorian text that they choose on their own, let them discover neo-Victorian texts on their own and in their own time. In short, we don’t need to “teach” all texts discussed in a class if we emphasize elements of inquiry-based learning.

  8. You’re right, Daniel. It’s a relief (for both me and my students) to remember that not every little text and idea I want to work through in class has to be assigned reading. For instance, lit. theory is typically an essential component of my literature classes, but I rarely make it essential reading. I find students receive theory much more enthusiastically when I break the ice by presenting key concepts in class, rather than having them first trudge through the text solo, in a fog of confusion. I don’t want one (group discussion) to replace the other (first-hand reading), but I think students are more likely to turn confidently to the text if we first sketch out the concepts, the context, and the stakes together.

    I’m teaching a genre film course this Fall, and the plan is to make a fairly exhaustive pack of essays, ¾ of which will be assigned readings, and ¼ of which will be reference material for class discussion. That way, students who want to get the background on lecture material have it ready at hand. They may only be “responsible” for the film and a single critical text, but they can see the assigned work is just the tip of the iceberg.

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