Neo-Victorianism: Traces and Touches in Sarah Perry and A.S. Byatt

Material Traces and Tactility in Neo-Victorian Literature and Culture

Rosario Arias, 6 February 2017, CEIR Seminar Series

scaled-0x200_arias_rosarioLeaving the warm shores of Malaga, Spain, and braving the wind and rain of Cardiff in February, Rosario Arias presented the first paper of 2017 for the Centre of Editorial and Intertextual Research. Drawing on her research for an upcoming book project, Arias focused her discussion on neo-Victorian literature and culture in relation to tactility and material traces.

Beginning by acknowledging the pervasiveness of haunting in neo-Victorian fiction and culture, Arias goes on to suggest that, in recent years, this emphasis on the presence of the spectral past has shifted to include a conceptualisation of the actual textual and material remains of the past. As she explains, the Victorians are at once ghostly and tangible in contemporary culture, both their philosophical and physical, or material, legacies retaining a strong affective presence in modern Britain. It is the material legacies of the Victorians that Arias focuses on in this paper, considering the overflow of the past into the present through materiality in contemporary literature. Employing critical approaches such as thing theory, affective materiality and phenomenology, her research is concerned with literary texts that emphasise the sensual interplay between contemporary Britain and Victorian culture.

Referencing a lack of criticism relating to affective materiality of Victorian culture in the present day, Arias calls for a move from the spectral to the tangible, arguing that Victorian traces cannot escape physicality. The first part of her paper focuses on this notion of the trace, an elusive concept which she claims is crucial in understanding the interplay between past and present. Theorised in relation to historical discourse, it is grounded in the belief that the past is only known to be real, to have existed, because it has left a mark on the present—a trace. Significant for its intertemporality, or polytemporality, the trace encapsulates past, present and future, reactivating the past, and the historian’s drive to analyse it, as well as containing the seed for future explorations. Arias argues that there is a current inadequacy of critical frameworks to account for the proliferation of contemporary historical novels, which seek to remember, represent and restore the past. Her contention is that the trace constitutes a useful critical tool to explore the past in these texts, interacting with thing theory and affective materiality to fill this critical gap.

Equally significant to Arias’s discussion is the interdisciplinary field of sensory studies. She goes on to explain the relevance of the senses in experiencing the past and to highlight the neo-Victorian preoccupation with tactility. Like many of the texts she explores, Arias’s discussion privileges the sense of touch, considering the visible remains of the Victorian past in today’s literature and culture. Exploring the connections between tactility, embodiment and disembodiment, her research examines the sensuous interplay between past and present in neo-Victorianism. In particular, this paper focused on two neo-Victorian novels—Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016) and A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (2009)—with an argument that proposes the significance of tactility over all other senses in these texts.

Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent is set in 1890s London and, Arias argues, is primarily interested in the material side of the trace. Avoiding any spoilers, the text demonstrates an obsession with objects and collecting, with things which bear the traces of time. As Arias suggests, tactility is a privileged sense in the novel, articulating a relationship between subjects and their engagement with the world. Returning to the field of sensory studies, Arias claims that sight has traditionally been ranked highest of all the senses, this sensory privilege evident in the conventional format of museums. In The Essex Serpent, this hierarchy is undermined as touch is revealed to bridge the gap between past and present, between self and other, with skin acting as a site of possibilities between connections and disconnections.

Childrens BookIn Byatt’s The Children’s Book, tactility between objects and people occupies a central position in the narrative. Exploring the cultural phenomenon in the nineteenth century of collecting and exhibiting (which saw the birth of the modern museum), the text is primarily concerned with objects and the preservation of the past. Arias argues that it is Byatt’s focus on object/human interactions that motivates and animates the story. Again subverting traditional hierarchies of the senses, objects are experienced multisensorially in the text, and all senses are intertwined. Arias quotes Byatt herself, who claims to invent characters with the whole of her body, not privileging the eye or sight in the construction of her fiction. As Arias argues, this approach underlines the importance of embodiment and subjectivity in the novel, the constant interweaving between the self and the world. She goes on to suggest that Byatt uses objects in museums as conduits of the past and the dead, which bridge the gap between subject and object through bodily connections with the world.

Arias ends by affirming the potential of these novels to explore the affective and material traces of the nineteenth century. She argues that a consideration of how such traces interrupt the present and facilitate the re-emergence of the Victorian past in contemporary culture can offer a dynamic, interrelated model between past and present, which, in turn, can have an important influence on the future.

— Harriet Gordon

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