What is The Neo-Victorian Novel?

I wrote this article a while back after doing some research, I kept coming across references to the Neo-Victorian Novel, but no definitions or explanations of what in the world it is, so as always when I come across a mystery, I researched the crap out of it! So here is a digital trail of where this question took me across the internet and of course my ultimate conclusions.

I decided to include two sections here: 
Non-academic and academic because non-academic sources have definitions that to differ from academic. 

Why not give only academic definitions? 
1. Terms can sometimes mean one thing in one circle and another in a different circle. 2. The break away from academic definitions may provide insight into how the general reader might think of the Neo-Victorian novel. 3. If you are researching this online, then you might come across the same sources and by dividing them this way, you might be able to evaluate them more efficiently.

Non-Academic Definitions
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  • Author Charles Palliser says in The Guardian, "There has been a vogue in the last 25 years for the “neo-Victorian novel” (horrible term, but hard to think of a better one) which is not just a historical novel but an attempt to recreate the mindset and conventions of that period."
  • If you are writing a paper or doing any kind of professional or academic research, I don't think Wikipedia is an acceptable resource, but it can be useful when you need a direction. The Neo-Victorian page on Wikipedia doesn't define the Neo-Victorian Novel but defines Neo-Victorian as a fad involving people putting modern spins on the Victorian aesthetic. For example, a Victorian telephone with no wires and push buttons instead of the traditional spin-dialer would be a Neo-Victorian telephone. Interesting indeed. I think a lot of Steampunk stuff and books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith might fall into this category.
  • Neo-Victorian Group on Goodreads defines itself as a group of people who like to read novels written in modern times that are set in the Victorian period; however, going through some of their pages, a pattern begins to appear regarding a desire for mystery novels, romance, and some thrillers. This seems to be a throwback to The Little Professor’s definition … that is at least at first but later new findings suggest this Goodreads page may have started based off of a different viewpoint.
  • The Little Professor’s Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels is a satirical list of rules for writing a clich├ęd Victorian novel. I am including this not because I agree with the assertions but because it is something that pops up when you search for Neo-Victorian and it sheds light on what some think of as being the Neo-Victorian novel, even if their views do not fit with the actual definition. Note: Don't freak out if you are writing a novel right now that does any of the things the author calls cliche. It's one person's opinion, and it doesn't necessarily mesh with the opinions of readers who enjoy books that include some much of what is listed.  

A Quick Definition of Postmodernism

The above resources refer to the word postmodern a lot and the next resources do it even more … so a quick definition:

photo credit: Wallie-The-Frog via photopin cc
... as quick as I can get it ... sigh. Postmodern is a word that is thrown around a lot, especially in college, and it always tends to be defined in really difficult terms wherever you find it defined. Even PBS has a difficult time defining it without getting all academic on us. But basically postmodern is a way of thinking that modern people have - Victorians did not have post-modern thought. They were of the “modernist” thought time period.

Postmodernism’s primary principal seems to be that everything is relative - which is the simplest definition I can boil it down to, but it is a bit more complex than that. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary does a better job of defining each of its uses because it’s also used to describe things that are modern sometimes, so in the following examples that use the word postmodern, who knows if they are just saying it’s a modern novel or if they are calling upon the complex definition of postmodern and going with Merriam-Webster's definition 2a (movements in reaction to modernism often calling upon older forms or traditions such as in architecture or literature) or definition 2b (radical reappraisal of modern movements, culture, identify, etc.).

Back to the Neo-Victorian Novel and What Academics Say

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  • The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel by Dana Shiller is an academic paper that goes into detail regarding the theories of Fredric Jameson who thinks the modern (postmodern) approach to historical fiction further distances our society from what actually happened. This is a very academic paper, so put on your smart spectacles. At the very bottom of page two we get the author's argument: "...neo-Victorian fiction addresses many of Jameson's concerns by presenting a historicity that is indeed concerned with recuperating the substance of bygone eras and not merely their styles." Historicity means accuracy so this is saying that the neo-Victorian novel is so authentic that it attempts to bring back more than just the style of the period but the essence or substance of it.
The author uses A.S. Byratt's Possession and Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton as examples of neo-Victorian novels. Both take place partly in the nineteenth century and explore how "present circumstances shape historical narrative."

I'd like to point out that the cover of Possession is the same picture used as the cover of the Goodreads group for Neo-Victorian novels. The pattern continues! 

Possession is a story of two scholars researching two Victorian poets, a story of mystery and romance.

According to Dana Shiller's definition, a Neo-Victorian novel is a novel about modern people looking back onto the past of the Victorian times.

  • Jacqueline Banerjee, Associate Editor of The Victorian Web has a wonderfully researched article that goes over multiple academic definitions, which is why I included it in the academic section. The definitions include those of Louisa Hadley and Kora Kaplan. There are many different definitions one could take from this article, including that the Neo-Victorian novel is one that involves both a contemporary and historical timeline, but this article goes much more in-depth, adding the "theory-friendly feminist Victorianist[s]" definition and others. The main ideas I gleaned from the article are that Neo-Victorian novels may be those that blend history and fiction so well that it is difficult to determine the "blurred borders," and that the authors of Neo-Victorian novels are consciously adding a modern reflection or revisionist tone to the period, say for example by highlighting bigotry or overlaying a modern mindset on a historical character.     
  • Oxford Bibliographies has a fantastic definition and explanation of Neo-Victorian divided into two categories, that of the Neo-Victorian novel and that of the academic study of the Neo-Victorian novel. It even discusses the origins of Neo-Victorian in the 1960s or p, which is enlightening when considering the subject.

Further Reading
You can also find more academic papers like Shiller’s by just searching Neo-Victorian and academic on Google. A bunch come up. I kept finding a lot of academic information on the Neo-Victorian Novel, but piecing together a general academic viewpoints from various random papers on the subject isn’t going to happen, so I decided to go to the place academics get information out into the world and no - it's not online. Academics go old school with ... what are those things called again, oh right books.
photo credit: Klara Kim via photopin cc
  • Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative by Louisa Hadley. The book description is actually an argument for the definition that Neo-Victorian Novels are dedicated to historical specificity. The fact that the book description is an argument for the definition might mean that the definition of the Neo-Victorian Novel is not agreed upon among academics yet. It may still be a topic of debate in the academic world of literature.
  • History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction by Kate Mitchell. The book description says it examines rewritings of the Victorian period by such authors as A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, Gail Jones, and Graham Swift. This seems to be going back to the definition we found in the English 623 webpage regarding writers who give a new spin to stories from Victorian times. Another clue that this is a still a topic of debate.
  • Also check out the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. According to the home page: " This journal’s enterprise is temporally double, staging an encounter between the Victorian and neo-Victorian, between the two periods’ aesthetic productions and material works, their discourses, ideologies, and socio-political contexts. It explores themes of modernity, alterity, and evolution through time and place in an ever more globalised and interconnected world."

What Do You Think?
Got any research to add? 
Which definition fits in your opinion?

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