Neo-Victorian: What is it and why are Meyer and some of her contemporary Mormon novelists Neo-Victorians?

I am backtracking here. I began this blog to discuss Victorian/Edwardian literature and immediately diverted to a sub-category of Neo-Victorianism. So some examples by way of explanation will be apposite, as well as looking at how Stephanie Meyer and some of her contemporaries qualify as Neo-Victorian writers, in my opinion. As well as being a best-selling author and celebrity Mormon Mom, Stephanie Meyer is the embodiment of the Neo-Victorian popular culture writer.

Firstly, what is a Neo-Victorianist and Neo-Victorianism? And why focus on the nineteenth-century in particular as the locus for cultural inspiration and ‘scaffolding’ on which to hang contemporary popular novels? The narratives that fit the definition fall into various categories but broadly match the following; they are:

‘those works which are consciously set in the Victorian period […], or which desire to re-write the historical narrative of that period by representing marginalised voices, new histories of sexuality, post-colonial viewpoints and other generally ‘different’ versions of the Victorian.’

Mark Llewellyn, (University of Liverpool) ‘What is Neo-Victorian Studies?’ http://www.neovictorianstudies.com/past_issues/Autumn2008/NVS%201-1%20M-Llewellyn.pdf

This definition has recently been expanded because of the continuing interest in the Victorian period and the ‘long’ nineteenth century in academic circles. The Neo-Victorian could be said to have arisen with Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), a post-colonial re-imagining of the parallel narrative to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. It tells of Antoinette, later known as ‘Bertha’ Rochester, and her childhood in the Caribbean where she is raised to be subjected to the sometimes dangerous whims of her family. This eventually involves her courtship and marriage to Edward Rochester, whose first-person narrative in the novel offers us another side to the story. Rhys offers a pointed examination of the experiences of the mixed race Antoinette and her position in colonial society as a woman and as an ‘other’. She is neither black nor white. And is she ‘mad’ or sane?

Following this post-colonial/feminist narrative version of the classic Victorian novel, came John Fowles’s postmodern The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). The reader is taken through a range of narrative possibilities, with the author self-consciously playing with the form and with the reader’s expectations of the form. Both Fowles and Rhys’s works exist because their nineteenth century precedents exist. The template was formed by authors of the previous century and that established the creative vision for the later novelists. The life, parallel narratives, afterlife and pre-existence of different characters and the relationship that readers have with the material allows later artists the liberty to experiment.

The expanded definitions of Neo-Victorianism and development of the study and criticism of Neo-Victorianism have gone hand in hand in recent years. Cora Kaplan’s recent book Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (2007, Columbia University Press) acknowledges the permanence of Jane Eyre at the centre of Neo-Victorianism and Victorian Studies as the novel that has gripped writers and critics for generations and offers such value for feminists, post-colonialists, gender and race studies, etc. She also recognises the phases of life writing in the past decade associated with nineteenth century figures; the ‘Biographilia’, similar to the types of fads and manias that overwhelmed Victorian publishing from time to time. She examines historical writing, looking at fictional and political histories and the industry of pleasure in writing and publishing for a mass readership. Her work takes in AS Byatt (Possession), Jane Campion’s  film ‘The Piano’, post-colonial and post-imperial writing, the work of Paula Rego illustrating Charlotte Brontë’s vision, David Lodge’s Nice Work and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

The fabric and detail of nineteenth century life and history and the Victorian period at its heart are shown to have informed and influenced so much culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Included in this matrix of invention and re-writing, relocation and resolution of different views and genres is the work of Stephanie Meyer as a contemporary popular novelist. She could be deemed to be Neo-Victorian because she is popular. She could be so because her work is sentimental. She could be so because her work is romantic and includes elements of the Gothic. All of the above would, I feel, qualify her as a Neo-Victorian writer. Simply because she shares much in common, as a publishing phenomenon in her own right and a celebrity author, with her nineteenth century counterparts, male and female: Charles Dickens, Mary Braddon, Marie Corelli, Sir Walter Scott.

She is popular, she is read by a wide spread of age groups, she is read by men and women (despite what some may admit to) but she also takes on specific nineteenth century and Victorian influences for her points of departure. Some she admits to and some she has absorbed from her reading. The Brontë sisters figure highly in there: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen, the ubiquitous Jane (who I shall come to in a later entry) is of course present, in the form of Edward Ferrars and Mr. Darcy (ALWAYS present in any brooding vampire). I think that Meyer has, in addition, taken inspiration from Jean Rhys and her alternative narratives in Wide Sargasso Sea. On Meyer’s website one can still access the narrative of Edward Cullen, Midnight Sun, in which we read his version of the story of the burgeoning love affair with Bella Swann found in Twilight. The thread of her influences interweave throughout the novels, coming to the foreground at one time or another depending upon the demands of the story. She shies away from admitting to too many Gothic influences, so surprisingly Bram Stoker is only mentioned in order for her to demonstrate how unlike Dracula and his minions her vampires are.

Meyer’s emphasis is upon the moral and spiritual message. Bella, the seeker human soul, finds Edward the divine embodiment of a Mormon messiah who ‘converts’ her and is united in eternal celestial marriage. In this she is also a Neo-Victorian. She provides a very clear allegory of apotheosis and renewal, guided by supernatural subject matter. She shares this approach with Dickens in A Christmas Carol and Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies. In particular the evangelism of the latter and his often controversial views for his day, whilst certainly not shared by her, positions Meyer quite closely to him. She has an outlook that might be at odds with the more conservative factions in her church, as Kingsley showed with his enthusiasm for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

So, Meyer, and some of her contemporary fellow Mormon novelists (Shannon Hale, Orson Scott Card) fall into the categories of moralistic, romantic and sentimental writing that revolve around redemptive experiences for the central characters. The directness of their position aligns them with Victorian novelists. When compared with the ambiguity, abstraction, viciousness, brittleness, distance, and coldness of many twentieth century heroes and heroines, theirs is a fiction of rebirth and reaffirmation of values and moral codes that are decidedly unfashionable and positively taboo in literary and critical circles. However, they approach their work and adapt Victorian fiction unashamedly and with complete conviction. Contrary to the marketing for the film adaptations of Meyer’s novels and the ‘Team Edward’ versus ‘Team Jacob’ publicity there is never any doubt for Bella in the novels as to whom she will choose as the love of her life. Her devotion to Edward is 100% from the moment she meets him. Her only issue with Jacob is how to let him down gently.

Before anyone gets up in arms about this appraisal, I am not comparing Meyer to other novelists in terms of the quality of her writing. But, I think that there is a ‘[re-writing] of the historical narrative’ in the way that Jane Eyre is adopted and adapted in Meyer’s novels, as it in by Rhys, and the twists and turns, choices and dilemmas that confront the characters find their parallels in that narrative and in the plot of Wuthering Heights. She delivers a narrative of marginalised voices; if you consider teenagers who look to redemptive morality as their form of youthful rebellion to be marginal figures, and I do. There is also a ‘post-colonial viewpoint’ when you consider the narrative of the LDS church as that of the Cullen vampires in the new world and their withdrawal from and opposition to the ancient cultish authority of the ‘Volturi’ vampire family of Italy, a symbol of the Roman church.

Meyer and some of her contemporary Mormon women novelists are also in the privileged position, and it is privileged, of not necessarily having to develop a career (able to be occupied and employed within their community) or needing to work for financial reasons. They are part of a tradition in which the husband works outside of the home as a provider to enable the wife to dedicate her time to motherhood. As recipients of a modern, perhaps liberal arts, education some of these Mormon wives have been able to seek artistic and commercial satisfaction via publications. One of the key factors for writers is the means of production; the opportunity to develop ideas and have time and space to grow in confidence and ability and make the right connection with agents and publishers. Unless they have a means of support from another source a writer has to go about this in a piecemeal fashion. Mrs. Meyer developed her outline, first chapters and final draft of her first novel in a matter of months. Yes, she was occupied with her young family, but once she was able to close the door and sit down at her computer there was no stopping her. She is a genteel lady of independent means with a supportive partner and precise framework in which grow into a mature, successful popular writer. With this social and personal context, at least, she could join the line-up of Jane Austen, Mary Braddon, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc…

Mormon lady novelists are strong contenders to be Neo-Victorians in the early twenty-first century. Far from being the ‘New Women’ that were seen coming to the fore in the early years of the twentieth century, they are, perhaps the ‘Old’ Women?

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About gabymalcolm

Visiting Research Fellow (Canterbury Christ Church University); Associate Editor (Books) PopMatters (www.popmatters.com); artist, writer, film-maker, independent scholar
This entry was posted in Neo-Victorian Studies. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Neo-Victorian: What is it and why are Meyer and some of her contemporary Mormon novelists Neo-Victorians?

  1. Pingback: Mr Darcy: Marketing the character, marking the heroic | a special mention

  2. alexandria900 says:

    While not a literary site anyone interested in further discussing Neo-Victorianism should check out the DoomFortress: http://doomfortress.net/

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