I argue that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004) utilises comedy as a corrective to the rampant materialism and aesthetic ugliness of the Thatcher years. In doing so, he follows in the footsteps of Henry James, whose 1897 novel The Spoils of Poynton is an evident model for Hollinghurst’s novel. Hollinghurst seems to take from James his deeply ironic perception of the lives of the upper classes, and his sense of aesthetic value as embedded in economics and politics. Although both novels end tragically, they also deploy comedy as a key element of their exposé of how the social order marginalises certain groups. The Line of Beauty satirises the upper classes for their disregard for the less fortunate and their blind devotion to Prime Minister Thatcher, while also mourning the loss of a generation of gay men to aids and the concomitant cultural impoverishment wrought by a decade of Thatcher.
Ken film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm (1911) arrived at the height of the fashion for British ‘heritage films’ which represented Victorian and Edwardian culture in ways that many critics associated with Thatcherite politics. Although Russell’s film is not usually included in the heritage film canon, I argue that it offers a camp inversion of the key features of the heritage film. In the process it also opens fresh ways of engaging the heritage of Victorian culture in a postmodern context, including questions of class and gender. The strongest neo-Victorian element in the film, however, is its engagement of the Victorian fear of feminine evil and the New Woman through the character of Lady Sylvia Marsh, the film’s villain. I argue that by spoofing the conventions of the heritage film to comment on the recuperation of elements of Victorian heritage in the present the film provides an example of neo-Victorian parody as a subversive cultural tool.
In The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), J.G. Farrell uses black humour to depict a fictional outpost’s steady decline during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In so doing, he ironically appropriates the conventions used in earlier British accounts of the Mutiny to critique the colonial ideologies and hierarchies that they traditionally buttressed. In order to understand how the novel undertakes this work, the essay begins by identifying how the text relishes in the social and narrative states of disorder that black humour produces. The essay further analyses how the text structures point of view in ways that metafictionally call attention to these states, in order to undermine the forms of narration and knowledge that characterise colonial discourse. The essay then turns to the novel’s depiction of animals and of dogs, in particular, to demonstrate how the text uses the interactions between canines and humans to mock the British colonial desire to bureaucratically organise, totalise, and control. Reading the novel’s dogs in this way reveals how The Siege of Krishnapur employs black humour as a neo-Victorian strategy that exposes the physical and epistemic violence intrinsic to British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent.
Matthew Kneale’s 1992 novel Sweet Thames demonstrates how neo-Victorian fiction lends itself to comic treatment. The narrator/protagonist, Joshua Jeavons, pursues two goals – obtaining public approval of his crank scheme to solve London’s sanitation problems and locating his estranged wife – with a manic zeal that, according to Henri Bergson’s theory of humour as stemming from mechanical action, qualifies him as an object of comedy. Yet while Jeavons’s obsessive behaviour may make him appear a laughable eccentric, it does not place the reader at an impassable distance. Instead, because it typifies (while exaggerating) tendencies in Victorian life and society, it gives the reader a sense of close contact with that bygone world. The narrative hinges on Jeavons’s process of self-emancipation from the conventional pieties that have imprisoned him, leading him to a radical transvaluation of his society’s values. He thus progressively sheds his initial identity as a comic anachronism. In this respect, Kneale’s novel resembles John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). However, owing especially to the idiosyncratic voice Kneale has contrived for his first-person narrator, his novel enables a more intimate, less condescending engagement with the Victorian past.
Victorian medicine’s attitudes towards hysteria and female eroticism were emblematic of how nineteenth-century patriarchy treated women. In contemporary neo-Victorian comedy, however, Victorian medical discourses and practices can even inspire a satiric web comic, such as Emi Gennis’s A History of Vibrators (2014), a Tony and Pulitzer nominated Broadway play, such as Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) (2010), or a light-hearted period comedy on masturbation, as in Hysteria (2011), directed by Tanya Wexler. Wexler’s film links the treatment of hysteria to the invention of the vibrator, illustrating both that the trope of patriarchal Victorian medicine has become conventional and that feminist critique has merged with popular entertainment. Positioning the texts on the postfeminist spectrum, we conclude that they differ with respect to the complexities of female empowerment they invoke and the degrees to which they cater to a consumerist female hedonism that eulogises consumption as the foremost path towards (female) identity formation.
In different albeit complementary ways, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984) and Rosie Garland’s The Palace of Curiosities (2013) employ reference to Victorian freaks (and processes of ‘enfreakment’) in order to treat issues that are still cogent nowadays, such as gender roles and female agency. These two novels focus on the lives of the winged ‘Cockney Venus’, Sophie Fevvers, and of Eve, the Lion-Faced Woman, through a typical neo-Victorian filter aiming at exploding the ideological and cultural frame of mind of the nineteenth century, as it were, from within. Through the use of literary strategies, such as parody and historiographic metafictional rewriting (since Eve’s story is partially modelled on Julia Pastrana, the ‘Ape Woman’), Carter and Garland turn Fevvers and Eve from emblems of non-normative bodies into active agents of their own destiny. In this respect, the presence of humour and carnivalesque laughter becomes the instrument through which these female freaks question patriarchal norms.
The relationship of transatlantic contemporary popular culture to the Victorian past continues to be uneasy, and sometimes surprisingly hostile, as evidenced by the amount of derisive laughter directed by the former at the latter. This is particularly true when it comes to Victorian material culture, and especially to Victorian dress. Fashion in general is associated primarily with women. Although it is now largely taboo for comedy to be openly misogynistic, ridiculing women is still acceptable, so long as it is couched in terms of laughter at the expense of fashion and dress. Throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, therefore, a wide range of works in a variety of media have continued to express a smug sense of superiority regarding Victorian life by laughing at Victorian women’s clothing and by presenting objects such as corsets as absurd and foolish, while ignoring the complex political meanings that these garments held for Victorian women themselves.