Cora Kaplan, Victoriana: Histories, Fictions, Criticism (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) pp. 178, ISBN 9780231142175
In Victoriana Cora Kaplan reflects on our ongoing obsession with the Victorian period, from the proliferation of film adaptations of Victorian fiction to contemporary pastiches of Victorian novels. In her entertaining introduction to the book, Kaplan outlines her own personal engagement with Victoriana, considering ‘the pleasures and dangers evoked by imitation or reference to the narrative forms, individual histories and systems of belief of nineteenth-century Britain' (6). Subsequent chapters discuss twentieth-century critical responses to Jane Eyre ; the recent popularity of Victorian literary biography; the current vogue for historical novels (inflected with a postmodern self-reflexivity) based on the Victorian period; and Jane Campion's extraordinary ‘crafting of a new kind of “global” Victoriana' in her 1993 film, The Piano (10).
Kaplan's chapter, ‘Heroines, Hysteria and History: Jane Eyre and her Critics', argues that Brontë's novel functions as ‘a Western cultural monument' (15) towards which Western women (feminist critics in particular) have often had ambivalent and complex emotional responses. The anarchic visual interpretations of Jane Eyre by the artist Paula Rego are usefully discussed in this context. The chapter on literary biography reflects on a number of recent biographies of Victorian writers, but its main focus is the strong interest shown in the early 2000s in Henry James, in novels such as Colm Tòibìn's The Master , David Lodge's Author, Author and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty . Among the historical fiction considered in Chapter 3 are the Victorian-based novels of A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. The chapter, ‘Retuning The Piano ' considers the extensive range of nineteenth-century literary sources informing Campion's gothic, melodramatic and passionate film.
Victoriana is of considerable significance to scholars working in the field of Victorian Studies. Kaplan throws into sharp perspective the evolving afterlives of Victorian texts, offering a detailed and witty account of why we can't leave the Victorian period to rest in peace, but must rework it, reinterpret it, and be entertained by new versions of its narratives. Kaplan argues that we need to account for, and raise awareness of, the racism, colonialism, sexism and class inequalities which darken this period and continue to cast a shadow on our own. I found Kaplan's book to be an engaging study of the overlaps between my two main scholarly interests: Victorian literature and culture and today's apparently endless adaptations of Victorian literature and culture. Every chapter was a delight to read, not only because of Kaplan's very readable style, but also because her impressive erudition is evident throughout.
Deborah Wynne, University of Chester
More details of this book are available at the Edinburgh University Press website.