Neo-Victorianism on Screen: Postfeminism and Contemporary Adaptations of Victorian Women (2018)

Apr 16, 2021 | Reviews

Neo-Victorianism on Screen: Postfeminism and Contemporary Adaptations of Victorian Women (2018) by Antonija Primorac

Katrina Healey

In Neo-Victorianism on Screen, Antonija Primorac asks her readers to consider the proliferation of neo-Victorian film and television adaptations in the context of modern postfeminism. Adaptations, especially those produced to satisfy the demands of a popular audience, frame their literary and social antecedents with modern sensibilities and concerns, and so the abundance of Victorian and Victorian-era-inspired ladies on screen, in variously corseted and un-corseted states, should naturally draw the critical attention of any scholar interested in the haunting nineteenth century.

Primorac begins her treatise with a discussion of the current state of both filmic neo-Victorian studies and postfeminist media culture. She points out that, as a field of interest, neo-Victorian studies have not adequately or comprehensively addressed the unique interaction between modern schools of thought and both adaptations of Victorian narratives and appropriations of Victoriana. Neo-Victorian criticism, she tells us, tends to treat screen adaptations as secondary to a primary text, even though screen adaptations could uniquely complicate the landscape of neo-Victorian criticism. Of central concern in such neo-Victorian adaptations is the Victorian heroine, who Primorac describes as “the pivotal image through which contemporary ideas about the period are dramatically tested” (4). These figures, especially those dramatized in the ‘neo-Victorian boom’ of the 1990s, coincide and connect with Rosalind Gill’s postfeminist sensibility, “offer[ing] the fulfilment of postfeminism’s impossible goals” (7). Here, Primorac sets her intention to study not only the relationships between adaptations and their source texts but also the interactions between the demands of consumers and the priorities of the film and the entertainment industry.

The second chapter begins Primorac’s postfeminist analysis in earnest by examining representations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most infamous female: Irene Adler. She identifies the overt heterosexuality of representations of Sherlock Holmes as a unifying characteristic of the most recent and popular screen adaptations of this character: the performances of Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), Johnny Lee Miller (Elementary), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock). Primorac pivots to the juxtaposition of typically prudish Victorian sensibilities with Adler’s “titillating” and “sexualized body,” which is “reflective of the postfeminist sensibility and neo-conservative trends present in mainstream, big budget TV and film adaptations and appropriations of nineteenth-century classics” (29). The relationship between Holmes and Adler makes her a uniquely positioned Victorian heroine: Primorac reminds us that she not only gets the better of Holmes, but she is “also the woman to redefine Holmes’s dismissive view of the whole sex” (33). As multifaceted as Doyle’s Adler is, in her subsequent fictional lives she is depicted as a skilled femme fatale, who uses her sexuality as the most effective weapon in her well-stocked arsenal, in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 and 2011 adaptations, as well as the 2012 episode of Sherlock, “A Scandal in Belgravia”. Primorac points out that the “‘sexsation’ of the screen adaptation performs the superficial liberation of the Victorian text . . . but it comes nowhere close to acknowledging the agency and autonomy of the adapted Victorian heroine or allowing her a happy ending on her own terms” (45).

In her third chapter, “Re-Presenting the Past: Gender, Colonial Space, and Cultural Nostalgia in Neo-Victorianism on Screen,” Primorac positions neo-Victorian screen adaptations as a matter of alternative heritage, citing Phil Powrie’s description of the term as “a genre [which] ‘deflects us away from linear time to cyclical time, forcing us to focus on the production of memory as fiction rather than presenting memory as ‘real’, as perfected spectacle, as nothing more than a (re)collection of fragments’” (79). Primorac argues that imperialist criticism in neo-Victorian screen adaptations tends to sacrifice fully realized female characters even as they are made central to the plot of the narrative.

Chapter four draws connections between the Victorian trope of the caged woman, as exemplified in Aurora Leigh, and that most tortuous and odious staple of the neo-Victorian period drama: the corset. The corseted woman, Primorac argues, “becomes an accepted visual shorthand for the notion of the literally and metaphorically repressed Victorian woman” which draws more from “contemporary Victoriana” as defined by Cora Kaplan than from any direct source (98). Despite the corset’s complicated and not necessarily repressive history, its presence and narrative centrality reflect modern understandings of the Victorian woman as repressed and yet simultaneously sexualized.

The final neo-Victorian subject is Victoria herself. Primorac analyzes four specific modern adaptations of the iconic queen: the 1997 Mrs. Brown, Victoria & Albert from 2001, The Young Victoria released in 2009, and ITV’s 2016 Victoria. Most of these adaptations present Victoria as a young queen and wife, focusing on the romantic aspects of her narrative more so than her role as a monarch. Primorac points out that “[t]hese depictions in more or less subtle fashion underline the traditional, heteronormative gender roles to which Victoria and Albert will naturally be restored once Victoria becomes pregnant” (178). Especially in the 2016 Victoria, the monarch “is depicted as the ideal postfeminist subject: she is a young, sexy, vibrant heroine who relishes her freedom and agency but not for too long: she chooses to give them up for the sake of marriage and motherhood because she longs to be ‘an ordinary woman’” (182).

Neo-Victorianism on Screen is a thoroughly researched and well-argued treatise on the role of the Victorian heroine in modern film. Primorac does the important work of critically analyzing a ubiquitous archetype in neo-Victorian adaptation and asking her readers to re-frame their understanding of it. On the whole, I found Primorac’s text to be thought-provoking, engaging, thoroughly considered, and well-written. However, while I found Primorac’s reading of the many lives of Irene Adler compelling, I found myself wondering if the overcompensating, sexualized Victorian heroine fully represents the “fulfilment of postfeminism’s impossible goals” indicated in the opening chapter (7). The Victorian heroine is a multivalent archetype, of which the ‘love object’ is only one facet. Primorac’s discussion of the tension in representations of Queen Victoria approaches these additional roles, such as those of mother, moral compass, and keeper of the home fires. These roles are, I think, still central to the issue of feminism, even postfeminism. What Primorac’s elegantly structured argument proves, besides the ways in which our modern interpretations of the Victorian heroine are not as radically feminist as we would like to think they are, is that neo-Victorianism on screen is still an under-investigated avenue of research.