Deviance in Neo-Victorian Culture: Canon, Transgression, Innovation (2018)

Apr 16, 2021 | Reviews

Deviance in Neo-Victorian Culture: Canon, Transgression, Innovation (2018) by Saverio Tomaiuolo

Catherine Quirk

Saverio Tomaiuolo’s Deviance in Neo-Victorian Culture: Canon, Transgression, Innovation is bookended by an imagined exchange between the nineteenth-century novelist Charles Dickens and the twenty-first-century artist Banksy. The text begins by considering Dickens’s response to visiting Dismaland, Banksy’s 2015 dystopian ‘bemusement park’, and comes full circle by closing with the artist’s response to the 1851 Great Exhibition. This exchange illuminates a key component of Deviance in Neo-Victorian Culture: as Tomaiuolo states in the final chapter, “the aim … of this study at large, has been to show the cultural and textual dialogue between the Victorians and ourselves” (216). The exploration of the past intrinsic to these neo-Victorian works, Deviance in Neo-Victorian Culture argues, in turn informs a consideration of our present moment. Tomaiuolo contends that the neo-Victorian works under discussion, by depicting such non-normative elements of the nineteenth-century world as are more conventionally associated with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, highlight the existence of these elements in the Victorian age. As such, the neo-Victorian works under analysis here both uncover ‘deviant’ elements of the Victorian past and, by doing so, comment on the present, focusing on what Tomaiuolo terms “the ‘pastness of the present’ (and the ‘presentness of the past’)” (18).

Over the course of five chapters, Deviance in Neo-Victorian Culture addresses a variety of forms: novels, graphic novels, film, TV series, and visual art. Each chapter is framed by a specific form of ‘deviance’: epistemic, bodily, social, sexual, and visual. The first chapter considers the dichotomy between dirt and cleanliness explored in a range of popular neo-Victorian novels. These novels “deconstruct traditional notions of bodily and moral purity (and impurity), implicitly interrogating persistent associations between dirt and poverty, and filth and female sexuality, which persist to this day” (29). In discussing the reversal of what are often considered traditional Victorian binaries of morality and immorality, respectability and criminality, and health and illness (see 29), the chapter addresses the existence of similar binaries in the twenty-first century.

The three chapters following extend this analysis through a series of case studies. Chapter Three analyses contemporary works that revisit the life, death, and legacy of Julia Pastrana, “billed during the Victorian age as ‘The Nondescript’, ‘The Bear Woman’, ‘The Ugliest Woman in the World’ and finally as ‘The Ape Woman’” (66). Throughout the chapter, Tomaiuolo draws attention to the ways twenty-first-century society similarly compartmentalises and narrativises bodily normativity and deviance. Chapter Four addresses Ian Edginton and Davide Fabbri’s 2010 graphic novel Victorian Undead: Sherlock Holmes vs Zombies!, arguing that the work connects modern fears of social unrest with Victorian xenophobic constructions of otherness. Here, Tomaiuolo details London’s centrality to all the works under consideration. The chapter begins with a lengthy tangent on psychogeography that owes much to texts such as Peter Ackroyd’s London: A Biography (2000), emphasising the connections to be made between the depiction of London in neo-Victorian works and the individual psychologies explored in these works. Chapter Five turns to the popular US/UK serial Penny Dreadful (2014-16) to consider “twenty-first century concerns related to […] the transgression of moral, physical, religious and cultural rules” (143). In the series’ adaptation of a variety of recognisable Victorian characters, the ‘monsters’ become both supernatural creatures and “a subtle metaphor for social discrimination” (144). The works addressed in these chapters, regardless of medium, use the ‘deviant’ to at once revise an outdated image of the Victorians and to call into question modern attitudes.

Tomaiuolo’s strongest chapter is the final one: as he notes, studies of visual art are rare in the field of neo-Victorian studies, which tends to focus on novels, films, and TV series (see 181). While the previous chapters trace an element of intertextuality, the literal blending of nineteenth- and twenty-first-century images in the works of Dan Hillier, Anthony Rhys, and Colin Batty considered here clearly illustrates the neo-Victorian dialogue of past and present. Tomaiuolo suggests early in the chapter that visual art is the best avenue through which to approach these connections, arguing that “like Victorians, through our images we express and give form to what we are, or to what we wish to be” (181). Tomaiuolo ends the chapter by emphasising that it has been a “necessarily selective, and far from comprehensive, investigation of neo-Victorian visual art” (215); I found myself hoping, as Tomaiuolo clearly does, that a full-length study of neo-Victorian visual art might appear in the near future.

Tomaiuolo’s insistence on parallel terms to characterise the ‘deviance’ addressed in each chapter gives rise to some questionable language. In particular, the continued use of the terms ‘bodily deviant’ and ‘sexually deviant’ might be reconsidered. I appreciate that the terms are provided in quotation marks each time, but they could have been thoroughly glossed early on to explain how the terms are being used and what assumptions they rely on. The first of these would benefit from consideration of the vast body of scholarship on disabled bodies in the nineteenth century. Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction (2004), for instance, similarly considers the implications of the large number of disabled bodies present in the texts of the period for our view of Victorian culture. More recently, Kylee-Anne Hingston’s Articulating Bodies (2019) addresses how the presentation of disability in many Victorian novels positions the disabled body as both ‘deviant’ and commonplace. In Chapter Five, the term ‘sexual deviance’ carries implications of the language of homophobic legislation and seems at odds with Penny Dreadful series creator John Logan’s aim to revisit historical and literary figures forced “to fight to assert their right to exist in a world that labels them as ‘sexually deviant’ (now as then)” (162). The term seems, inadvertently, to extend this historical and contemporary prejudicial assessment, rather than address it.

Throughout the study, Tomaiuolo repeatedly emphasises the connections being drawn between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries by references to historical texts that do similar work. By focusing on the shared attention to deviant forms in the two eras, Tomaiuolo’s neo-Victorian analysis is also implicitly a study of the Victorian. This split focus both supports the central theme of the text—the pastness of the present and the presentness of the past—and also expands the audience for the book itself. Victorianist and neo-Victorianist scholars alike will find innovative and insightful analyses in the dialogue Tomaiuolo creates between texts, and between centuries.