XU Lei is Professor of English at English Department of Nanjing University. Her research interests are contemporary British literature, the theory of the novel and women’s writings in English literature. Her recent publications include A Study of A. S. Byatt’s Fiction from the Perspective of the Body (2016), “Contemporary British Historical Novel and ‘Ventriloquism’” (2016), and “A. S. Byatt and the Rebirth of Contemporary British Realistic Fiction” (2016).
Negotiating with Omniscience: Victorian Realism Reconfigured in Neo-Victorian Novels
More than historical novels with a mere Victorian backdrop, the Neo-Victorian novel is registered as a self-conscious engagement with the act of “(re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” which often expresses itself in terms of a movement away from the frequently dehumanizing experimental novel “toward a new version of nineteenth-century realism”. Among a whole range of literary and cultural heritage of the Victorian fiction that contemporary writers often tap into, a narrative voice evocative of the Victorian third-person omniscient narrator rings a distinctive sound in negotiating the historical past into the present and conversely, transporting the present into the past. The much maligned omniscient narrator in the Victorian novel is found to be perfectly negotiable for contemporary purposes despite its theological associations and ideological baggage. Lying at the center of the negotiation is the paradox of a time-specific and genre-specific phenomenon which has been naturalized into the academic discourse on the Victorian novel, now identifying new resonances and significance in transmuted shapes. John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990), and Michel Faber’s Crimson Petal and the White (2002), though published decades apart, all hark back to the Victorian tradition of omniscience for narrative and discursive functions. Through constant negotiations with the past literary convention, belligerent or friendly, manipulative or respectful, neo-Victorian novels render the idea and practice of omniscience a new purchase on contemporary literary imagination and by extension, transfigure the Victorian literary realism for readers of the neo-Victorian fiction.