This paper examines the narrative and aesthetic strategies of John Fowles and Graham Swift as they deal with the theme of post-Darwinian anxiety and loss of faith, Darwinism being used both in its literal meaning and as a metaphor for social evolution. The contention is that Swift’s literary treatment allows for the creation of a trauma narrative conducive to reader empathy and identification, while Fowles precludes any possibility of empathy through the use of postmodernist distancing and frame-breaking. Other neo-Victorian novelists are evoked for purposes of comparison, notably A.S. Byatt, Liz Jensen, and A.N. Wilson, whose novels are characterised by a mainly ludic and comic tone. The essay analyses the specific effects created by the insertion of rare moments of sombre sobriety devoted to the telling of trauma within ironic and/or parodic neo-Victorian works.
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005) enacts a narrative return to the violent trauma of Aboriginal dispossession and destruction upon which Australia is founded, situating its reader complexly, as both witness to and complicit in the events it retells. Her use of fiction to represent this trauma made Grenville the focus of heated public debate about the role of fiction in representing the past, a debate that repeatedly cast her project as historically dubious. However, rather than approaching the novel as a corrupted form of history’s reconstruction of past events, it seems more useful to situate this text as an act of memory in the present, which shapes both past and future. Even as it represents the past, Grenville’s novel addresses a present both deeply divided and in danger of forgetting its history. It uses the affective power of fiction to reinscribe and reactivate Aboriginal Australian history in the contemporary historical imaginary.
Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben
Increasingly, the nineteenth century has become a significant locus of investigations into historical trauma, in terms of the retrospective analysis of actual catastrophic events and their long term after-effects, as well as their fictional re-experience and belated ‘working through’ in literature. The neo-Victorian phenomenon both reflects and contributes to crucial developments in trauma discourse and cultural memory, both at national and global levels, constructing competing versions of the past that continue to inform the present. Crucially, the neo-Victorian also problematises the politicisation and appropriation of trauma and resulting ethical dilemmas vis-à-vis the suffering other, especially relating to the notion of trauma’s unrepresentability and the figurative language used to convey the central paradox of the unspeakable.
Traumatic experience is often related to a sense of belatedness, only graspable through geographical and temporal distance, as in the case of the self-exiled Irish narrator of Nuala O’Faolain’s My Dream of You (2001), who returns to her native country to research a nineteenth-century House of Lords divorce case for a planned novel. In her mourning for her closest friend, the protagonist Kathleen’s investigations become an attempted working-through of her own traumas as well as of her cultural heritage: the final years of the Great Hunger, the setting of the affair which led to the historical 1856 Talbot case for ‘criminal conversation’ brought by an Anglo-Irish landlord against his wife and their Irish coachman. Confronting character and readers alike with the unwieldiness and instability of legal and documentary evidence, the novel problematises conceptualisations of authenticity, appropriation, textuality, and genre (autobiography, historiography, neo-Victorianism, the postmodern text), dramatising the conjunction of eros and thanatos, femininity and famishment.