Haunting in Neo-Victorian Fiction

Posted by Matt Foley on December 22, 2009 in Blog tagged with
Rosario Arias and Patricia Pulham (Eds.) Haunting and Spectrality in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Possessing the Past. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian, 2010).
It is clear that neo-Victorian fiction deserves a sub-genre of its own in terms of the popular imagination – purveyors of its work like Sarah Waters and Peter Ackroyd certainly sell. Academic study is now trying to understand what is at stake in modern writers’ rendering of the Victorian past.  On one hand, as the subtitle to this essay collection edited by Arias and Pulham suggests, it could be a matter of the imagination of the present possessing the past and projecting modern anxieties and concerns onto a skewed version of ‘real’ history. On the other, there could be a more reciprocal relationship between the modern and the Victorian where these imaginings elucidate the past, inform the present and are even suggestive of a future. Specifically, this collection is concerned with how notions of haunting and spectrality manifest themselves in neo-Victorian fiction and their relationship with historiographic metafiction.
As a reader I approach this collection with very little previous knowledge of neo-Victorian fiction but with a firm interest in the trope of haunting and the ways in which spectrality manifests itself in fiction. The introductory chapter to Haunting and Spectrality in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Possessing the Past, which puts forward a theoretical framework to understand the nature of haunting, suggests a reciprocal and triangular approach to theorising haunting. It highlights Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Abraham and Torok’s notion of the transgenerational phantom put forward in The Shell and Kernel, and Freud’s paper on ‘The Uncanny’ as being strong theoretical foundations. While Derrida and Abraham and Torok are somewhat at odds in how they treat the ghost, Derrida demands a speaking to ghosts whereas Abraham and Torok actively partake in the exorcising of the phantom, Freud does provide an influential point of overlap between the two approaches through the uncanny. Thus, this framework is certainly one that is potentially elucidating.  The problem is that this is an essay collection and so, quite naturally, each contributor comes at their chosen texts from a different angle – not always from the aforementioned theoretical perspective.
The first essay by Francis O’Gorman is partly concerned with how the evocation of the angel in Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers can be read as a challenge to Freudian thought and, in turn, destabilises the theoretical framework put forward in the introductory chapter. Indeed, O’Gorman’s essay, ‘Sally Vickers, Venice, and The Victorians’, begins by suggesting that reading texts specifically in terms of “haunting” and “spectirality” is flawed:
Are ‘haunting’ and ‘spectrality’ the best figures, indeed, for describing the presence of the past of any sort? They are useful tropes – but they come at a cost. To go straight to their problems: ghosts are, for the most part, passive. They appear, but who knows by what mechanism? (p.4)
This is a reading of ghosts that is also somewhat at odds with Derrida’s understanding, particularly of the spectral and apparitional, as he argues that they work and promote an activity, not passivity, with the subject or percipient. Immediately it is clear that the difficulty of speaking of haunting, and the problem of controlling the numerous significations the terms has, can promote radically different understandings of the ghost even within the same essay collection.
The second essay, entitled ‘Spectrality, S(p)ecularity, and Textuality: Or Some Reflections in the Glass’ by Mark Llewellyn, is one of the strongest of the collection. It considers how modern literary Victorian academics Isobel Armstrong and Julian Wolfreys (whose influence is felt throughout the collection) consider glass and spectral motifs. It then goes on to produce related readings of novels by John Harwood, Charles Palliser, Jem Poster and Sarah Waters. Llewellyn’s language and approach is informed by Derrida and psychoanalysis and he argues effectively that in the texts he considers there is “a continual play being enacted… on the idea of the spectral and reflection as imagination and thought as well as image and presence” (p.35). Also, these texts “present an uneasy sense of the Victorians looking forward to us just as much as we look back towards them, and indicate, however fleetingly, the potential substantiveness of those spectres in the glass” (p.42). By focusing specifically on spectrality’s relationship with specularity Llewllyn untangles at least some of the difficulties of talking about haunting.
In the next section, Agineszka Golda-Derejczyk and Esther Saxey go on to investigate the interplay between the spectral and femininity. Golda-Derejczyk provides a Kristevan reading of Michele Roberts’ In The Red Kitchen arguing that, “spiritualism is employed fruitfully by Roberts to (re)construct the history of women as governed by the cyclical and monumental modalities of time – eternity and repetition, respectively – posited by Julia Kristeva in her 1979 essay ‘Women’s Time’.”  The spectral is not distinguished thoroughly enough from spiritualism – not an easy task by any means – but there is a focus here on ghostly narrative voices that fits with the general concern of ‘haunting texts’ that pervades throughout the collection. Indeed, Saxey’s following reading of Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, a retelling and reimagining of Jekyll and Hyde, is perhaps the clearest interrogation of uncanny literary influence available here.  In complementing this reading Saxey also approaches Atwood’s Alias Grace to show how the novel “uses the supernatural to recreate the inherent complexity of nineteenth century class and sexuality, its internal contradictions and double binds” (p.78).
Ghosts often play upon uncertainties in the visual field but in the fifth essay of the collection, ‘Olfactory Ghosts: Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White’, it is the sense of smell that is interrogated as it is staged in Faber’s novel. Silvana Collela takes this approach as smell is intrinsically linked to memory but somewhat repressed in the false consciousness of the postmodern. Collela posits that, “Faber addresses a contemporary readership immersed in an atmosphere of olfactory ‘silence’ (Corbin, 2005, p.39). The ‘culture of the image of the simulacrum’, a constitutive feature of the postmodern (Jameson 1991, p.6), is remarkably odourless. If the ‘image fixation’ of our cultural template coincides with the ‘disappearance of the historical referent’ (Jameson, 1991, p.25), does the odour fixation of Faber’s narrative cut through the nostalgic patina of pseudo-historicism?” (p.87). Putting aside the problems of Jameson’s original argument this is certainly an interesting stance. However, there is one issue to be ironed out here. The decayed, putrid odours that Collela highlights as they are rendered in Faber’s novel seem more in line with Kristevan abjection. Problematically, something which is abjected ceases to haunt and, indeed, in the process of abjection there is no time to be haunted. Once more the problem of haunting comes to disrupt an otherwise intriguing and persuasive reading.
Continuing the use of postmodern theory Ann Heilmann discusses the influence of The Turn of the Screw on manifestations of Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreal’ in Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly’, A. N. Wilson’s campus novel A Jealous Ghost, Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Alejandro Amenabar’s film The Others. This is certainly an interesting read for anyone interested in Henry James and, as Heilmann argues, “For all their differences, the texts discussed… are all structured around six categories in crisis or transformation at the turn of the century: social architecture, the family, the question of (narrative) authority, femininity, sexuality and identity” (p.129). Implicit here is the link between moments of crises and the proliferation of the spectral.
The closing section of the collection contains two essays concerned with ghosts of urbanity. It therefore nicely anticipates some of the ideas that will be considered at the Urban Gothic: Haunted Cities, Spectral Traces conference at Liverpool John Moores University this coming April. Rosario Arias’ ‘Haunted Places, Haunted Spaces: The Spectral Return of Victorian London in Neo-Victorian Fiction’ focuses on how textual traces of Victorian renderings of the Thames, the mid-nineteenth-century sanitary movement, and a haunted London manifest themselves in the neo-Victorian fiction of Matthew Kneale’s Sweet Thames and Clare Clark’s The Great Stink. Arias does her theoretical groundwork in the opening pages and, as editor and having co-authored the introduction to the essay collection, it is clear that she views Freud, Derrida and Abraham and Torok as the key theorists for considering haunting. In her readings of the novels she concludes that ‘Victorian London, permanently in motion as a living organism, functions as a ‘phantom’ in neo-Victorianism in that it reclaims secrets to be unveiled and disclosed, transmitted silently in ‘transgenerational haunting’. Neo-Victorianism, seen in this light, aims to disclose the unspeakable secrets that have been kept hidden in a crypt” (pp.154-155). This expanding of Abraham and Torok’s ‘phantom’ and ‘crypt of incorporation’ from the individual subject to the social certainly has potential to explain haunting in terms of microcosms of repression but could be more closely tied to the Lacanian symbolic order – perhaps where theories of social and generational haunting will take us in the future. Continuing, though, the focus upon haunted urban spaces, the final essay of the collection by Patricia Pulham reads Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno as histriographic metafiction that employs the Golem myth to undermine their central rendering of Jack the Ripper narratives. Both novels are labyrinthine in their structuring and rendering of space, with a particular concern for Jewish myth, so that “the violent ‘events’ which rupture time hint at the holocaust to come, but the present distorts the past, and no solution or, indeed absolution is possible” (p.177). The ghost, it seems, cannot be exorcised.
The majority of work that has gone into the collection is careful, considered and produces insightful readings. The ways in which examples of neo-Victorian fiction work to disrupt the false consciousness of postmodernism is prominent and arguments related to this are convincing. The very notion of haunting, however, and the difficulty of speaking about it in exacting terms, so as to add clarity to the concept and reduce its numerous significations, does destabilise some of the readings. In general, it feels as if theories of haunting need to be clarified further but there are moments here that provide solid groundwork. In its primary function as an interrogation of neo-Victorian fiction the collection succeeds.
References cited in quotes
Corbin, A (2005). Storia sociale degli odori. Milan: Mondadori.
Jameson, F (1991). Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso.
Kristeva, J (1993). ‘Women’s Time’. In R. R. Warhol (Ed.), Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism (pp.443-63). New Brunswick and NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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