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Neo-Characterization in the Neo-Victorian Novel



L’objectif de cette étude est d’initier une réflexion autour d’une poétique du personnage au second degré dans le cadre de fictions néo-victoriennes, afin de mettre au jour certains phénomènes de migration du personnel romanesque de l’hypotexte victorien vers des hypertextes contemporains. La narratologie, les théories de la réception, la psychanalyse, l’épistémologie de l’Histoire et les études gay et lesbiennes sont des outils critiques incontournables pour ce type d’approche. Ce parcours synthétique, nécessairement incomplet, permettra peut-être de mieux appréhender la centralité de la notion de personnage (le personnage réinventé, détourné, déconstruit) dans l’entreprise de ré-écriture néo-victorienne. Il sera montré en particulier que le néo personnage agit comme un déclencheur de mémoire textuelle, à mi-chemin entre le mimétique – en suscitant un effet de fidélité au modèle original – et le spectral, en occupant une position liminale entre vie et mort, présence et absence.

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1At a conference he gave in Mantua in 2000, Umberto Eco introduced the phrase “characters migrate” which was taken up as epigraph to the neo-Dickensian novel Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones in 2006. At the age of the global text the expression “characters migrate” sounds catchy, if not sexy, but the Italian semiotician wished to warn writers and critics against the allurements of interfering with characters’ destinies when one of the functions of literature, according to him, was to remind readers that unchangeable stories were there to teach them how to die.

2Fiction may be approached through the character’s angle as the English novelist Sebastian Faulks demonstrated very clearly by publishing an essay titled Faulks on Fiction, A Story of the Novel in 28 characters in 2011. Faulks starts by taking issue with schools of criticism which go too far, either because by focusing on structural linguistics they de-humanise fiction or, conversely, by prioritizing biography and history, they open the door to speculation and gossip: “Biographical criticism may have begun as a healthy reaction to extremes of New Criticism with its ‘closed systems’ and puritanical exclusion of facts; but it may now have reached its terminal stage (2011, 2).”

3The category of character is of course crucial to such a debate; between, on the one hand, hermetic, self-referential fiction and, on the other, character fallacy, i.e. the confusion between real life people and fictional constructs. Now Faulks himself with his novel Human Traces, published in 2006, contributed to a literary current making the notion of character the fulcrum of the creative process: the neo-Victorian novel.

4It may be wondered whether the neo-Victorian novel answers to the need to restore the character. Admittedly, the latter had somehow vacated the fictitious realm in the heyday of literary experimentalism – the French Nouveau Roman and its so-called era of suspicion (Nathalie Sarraute) or in English literature the ground-breaking, mind-boggling intellectual experimentalism of Christine Brooke-Rose in whose fictions bearing such titles as Thru or Textermination, characters do not so much migrate as they disintegrate through intertextual and interpretive overkill. In Brooke-Rose’s high-brow, self-reflexive narratives the commitment to underscoring the dialogic nature of discourse eclipses the contours of the novel, including characters, who end up as signs on the page to bring home the fact that, as Patricia Waugh put it: “all fiction is thus implicitly metafictional” (148. Original italics), and it could be added autotelic, i.e. having its own end in itself, not being under any obligation to mirror the world outside the text.

  • 1 Following the famous distinction between “flat” and “round ” characters propounded by E.M. Forster (...)

5The neo-Victorian novel could thus be construed as an attempt to reassert the primacy of characters not so much as metafictional – as mere pawns on an abstract, intellectual chess-board – as transfictional. The prefix trans encompasses a whole array of migratory practices, from the straightforward transcontextualising, to cover intertextual migrations from hypo- to hypertexts, to transmorphing (Jane Eyre’s beastly Bertha Mason into Jean Rhys’s Creole girl), transvoicing (ventriloquy), transcoding (ideological redefinition), transgendering and so forth. So in their recomposed state, neo-Victorian characters keep the standard features of traditional characterization, by being spared the process of ontological destruction perpetrated by such literary movements, as the American surfiction, the French Nouveau Roman, the “non-fiction novel”, the “New Narrative” and so on. One hypothesis could be that one of the criteria defining this rather loose constellation perfunctorily labelled as neo-Victorian would be an engagement with the notion of character. It could be added that it is rather the “round character”1 that is given pride of place in the neo-Victorian novel, even if the latter however shirks the Modernist immersion into arcane subjectivity. In this sense, Tom McCarthy’s recent novel C (2010), though it partly unfolds in the Victorian era, could afford an index of what the neo-Victorian is not. Indeed, McCarthy’s fiction bluntly dismisses psychology as the eponymous C is not so much a character in his own right as a receptacle registering the author’s overarching interest in communication (coded messages, wireless transmission, table rapping and so on). This concern with technology, undermining the character’s existential and psychological foundations, is reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction-writing.

6The aim of this study is to establish the centrality of character as crucial to the definition of the neo-Victorian novel, albeit without endorsing Fredric Jameson’s debunking of “nostalgia art or la mode retro” (Jameson qtd. in Lodge, 350). It entails propounding a poetics of characterization that is sufficiently wide ranging to accommodate the diversity of fictions falling under the neo-Victorian umbrella term. Demonstrating the specificity of this approach to characterization, this neo-characterization as it were, drawing from a whole set of previous (hypo)sources, calls for a mix of non-exclusive critical approaches.

  • 2 For a general introduction to the neo-Victorian Novel see “What’s Neo-Victorian Studies?”, Llewelly (...)
  • 3 For the full content of Henry James’s comment on Jane Morris see (...)

7In a way the neo-Victorian novel2 started off with the re-introduction/re-invention of two emblematic feminine figures; two women characters whose memory has persisted as complex, enigmatic textual beings and not just as simply linguistic signs, singularly devoid of referential correspondence. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette née Cosway/Mason exceeds the frame of Thornfield Hall’s attic to become a full-fledged, emotionally responsive character and in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman Sarah Woodruff is related to both Christina Rossetti, a free spirit who passed for a Victorian spinster, and Jane Burden Morris. Precisely, Henry James wondered if Jane Morris might not provide a grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite pictures ever made or if the multiple canvases were not each attempting in their own different way to capture a single trait of a wondrous lady bound to stay elusive.3 This hesitation between a character encapsulating a whole range of features pertaining to an aesthetic current or, on the opposite, a character that stays as a model, original matrix, never ever fully grasped, despite the many efforts to reach out to him/her, affords two alternative modes of characterization that are worth remembering in the case of the neo-Victorian novel. It should also be borne in mind that the neo-Victorian novel, at its incipient stage, foregrounded two female characters, Antoinette Cosway, aka Bertha Mason and Sarah Woodruff, which is quite apposite granted that Victorian poets like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord Arthur Tennyson spoke about the Victorian era as a feminized age; the former in Aurora Leigh spoke of a “full veined, heaving, double-breasted Age” (V, l. 217) and the latter in his poem “Locksley Hall” implored the “wondrous Mother Age” (l. 108) to keep him from his emotions.

8The category of character is difficult to circumscribe, firstly because it is at the crossroads of different subjectivities: the author’s, the critics’ and the readers’, across time and from various contexts of reception. It occupies both the aesthetic pole (reader) and the artistic one (writer). Because it does not lend itself easily to an exclusively immanent, or text-oriented approach, the character is, to quote Jonathan Culler “the major aspect of the novel to which structuralism, has paid least attention and had been least successful in treating” (230). The semantic content of a character is not a stable, preexisting given that readers would need to recognize as with a linguistic signifier. It is a slowly-built, carefully assembled mental representation that may potentially differ according to readers. The neo-Victorian character might present specificities, as the neo-character – to coin a neologism – is predicated upon an experience of reading, or textual reception, which triggers a second degree creation. This would account for the artistic pole. However, the aesthetic one is equally decisive as there can be two modes of reading, one relating to the neo character without any previous knowledge; as sheer novelty, the other one implying a forewarned reader who may have a stock of knowledge about previous Victorian characters. This accumulated readerly experience may be confirmed, contradicted, or as is more often the case, displaced, or destabilized through a process of différance, in the Derridean acceptation of both temporal deferral and ontological variation.

9As a starting premise to this paper it must be remembered that the neo-character, whether it be neo-Elizabethan, neo-Georgian, neo-Edwardian or in the present case, neo-Victorian, is determined by two major factors. The necessary incompleteness of the previous text, or hypotext is one: there are always empty spaces left in any text allowing room for further creation, and a measure of determinism is the second element. Indeed, a neo character is invariably an avatar answerable to a previous model. Unlike Pip, who in the opening lines of Dickens’s Great Expectations is shown being born from the vast spatial emptiness of the Moors doubled with in an act of linguistic appropriation, a neo character has always some kind of legacy to own up to.

10For clarity’s sake, this study will be threefold. First, different types of intertextual migrations relevant to the neo Victorian novel will be investigated. Then, in a second part it will be argued that the neo Victorian novel often relies upon iconic figures, one exemplar will come in for close examination: Will Self’s Dorian Gray in Dorian: An Imitation. The term imitation implies a type of character migration that is worth looking into. In a third and last section it will be shown that neo characterization is the focal, or converging point of different critical responses, in the case of neo Victorianism post structuralism and deconstruction, gender and gay and lesbian studies, and haunting and spectrality.

1. A typology of intertextual character migrations in the neo Victorian novel

11“Characters migrate,” says Umberto Eco alluding to the reader’s reception of them, “certain characters leave the text that gave birth to them and migrate to a zone in the universe we find very difficult to delimit” (12) – at the most simple level, the neo Victorian should be envisioned in the context of the global text. Character migration may therefore be understood as spatial, geographical and intercontinental. Characters from the Victorian canon have elicited responses amongst readers from former British colonies if only because they were part of the culture imposed on the colonized by the colonizing power. Answering back to the Empire may thus be done by empowering minor, secondary characters from the Victorian novel to grant them the central position. This is what Peter Carey does by promoting Abel Magwitch to the rank of major, eponymous character as Jack Maggs. This change of fictional status is also a political statement as the newly born Maggs/Magwitch stands for the paradigmatic Australian ancestor. However, outright dismissal of the Victorian canon by writers from the colony or the post-colony is rarely the case. Often, novels steeped in Victorian culture are received as “culture text” (Davis), half way between folktale and myth, so that someone who has never read A Christmas Carol may spontaneously identify a Scrooge as a miser.

  • 4 On this specific aspect see Monica Latham, “Bringing Newness to the World: Lloyd Jones’s Pacific Ve (...)

12Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip, which belongs to the postcolonial corpus, deals with the phenomenon of literary acculturation, by showing how a group of children from the besieged island of Bougainville in the Pacific Ocean are gradually becoming acquainted with the characters of Great Expectations, under the guidance of their schoolmaster Mr Watts, aka Pop Eye. Character migration in this instance is dual, with the improvised teacher reading out to the children lines from the novel, and the children in their turn striving to establish parallels between this Other place, or visionary place, called London, and their own familiar surroundings. An interstitial mental space results from the confrontation between Dickens’s words and what the beleaguered children can gather from them.4 Hence their special concern for name changing – from Pip to Handel for example – because as Pop Eye explains it to Mathilda, the young heroine, a Victorian orphan’s condition may be best apprehended by children from third world countries through the contemporary figure of the emigrant: “Pip is an orphan. He is like an emigrant. He is in the process of migrating from one level of society to another. A change of name is as good as a change of clothes. It is to help him on his way.” (61) Such pedagogical approach favours nomad thought over sedentary frames of mind; by construing Pip as unfixed and in a state of becoming, Matilda is encouraged to become aware of her own fluctuating identity, as a black kid whose father has migrated to white Australia to support the family and as a future migrant herself destined to leave the impoverished island to do some research on Dickens in England later.

13Neo Victorianism partakes of the kind of intertextual decentering which may be found in Salman Rushdie’s fiction writing. At this stage, a distinction should be made between neo Victorianism as a general cultural phenomenon testifying to the persistence of Victorian culture in contemporary artistic production as a whole and the more targeted, self-advertised Neo Victorian fictions, claiming to draw exclusively from the Victorian novel through revisionary writings, Michael Cox, Wesley Stace or Michel Faber to quote but a few fall under the second category. Rushdie, though he far exceeds the neo-Victorian format, nonetheless returns to Victorian culture, to Dickens chiefly. He sets the Dickensian hypotext loose on the wide choppy ocean of transmigratory exchanges, which affect the category of character of course. In The Satanic Verses, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend is revived through a mind-boggling, embedding technique. In the second section of the seventh part entitled “The Angel Azrael” a film adaptation of Dickens’s novel is shot in the Shepperton studio in London, the contemporary Indian characters hobnob with actors playing the parts of the Veneerings, the Podsnaps, Boffin, Fascination Fledgby and Gaffer – an apt name in this cinematic context – Hexam. In Rushdie’s fiction different characters belonging to different plots bear the same name and they thus reverse the process whereby the single, eponymous Our Mutual Friend takes on different names in the course of the story: John Harmon, John Rokesmith, Julius Handford, or “The Man from Somewhere”. In either case identity is shown as fluid. In his collected essays Imaginary Homeland Rushdie contends that the liberty of the migrant, and by the same token, that of the reader, lies in the possibility of choosing their parents. Given that Dickens invented so many surrogate fathers in his fiction, the relationship between the two writers is obvious enough.

14The taxonomy devised by Gérard Genette to label all the nuances of transtextual exchanges may help investigate more closely the specificities of neo-Victorian characters. In this perspective the canonical Victorian novel becomes more something that should be considered as work in progress than as an architext (from the Greek άργό, i.e. what comes before; beginning; princeps). The contiguous relationships between the Victorian novel and its wide array of rewritings – prequels, coquels, sequels, spin-offs and so forth – allows for character’s migrations of a lesser amplitude. It conveys the idea that, somehow or other, the fictional character will break his or her shackles to author, as it were, its own plot. Such a Promethean act of literary rebellion is articulated by Peter Ackroyd’s Miss Havisham who, in English Music, provokingly declares

This will displease him [Dickens]. He wants to control everything. But this time I will not die. […] No more broken words. No more incomplete sentences, as if only he could finish them. I will be alive now until the end (77 Original emphasis).

15Indeed, the neo Victorian character denies the death verdict of the closed book, or any compulsory order of textual residence, through a process of migration that is an extension of fictitious life.

16Alongside with Jane Austen’s fictions, few Victorian novels have spawned so many novels as Charlotte Brontë’s, Emily Brontë’s and Charles Dickens’s. A writer like Emma Tennant has made a name for herself through this derivative literary practice, but many other writers from all walks of fictional creations, have on sundry occasions, yielded to the temptation. Clare Boylan, the late Irish author, is a good a case in point as she took up the challenge of completing the interrupted story of Emma Brown is what was then advertised as a co-authored book. In 1853, two years before her death, Charlotte Brontë set out to write a novel which was never finished, mostly as a result of her getting married. The manuscript entitled Emma consisting of two chapters stayed forever as a real enticement to complete the story of the riddling eponymous girl. Brontë indeed calls up a situation that is fraught with potential narrative developments. A girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, is deposited in a boarding school by an aristocrat-seeming gentleman who then vanishes into thin air, leaving the school’s fees unpaid. The girl is first pampered and doted upon by the ladies in charge of the private educational establishment till she is revealed to be a pauper. Like Jane Eyre, the girl is plain, and hints at a possible colonial past are dropped hither and thither: “‘You might just send Miss Matilda out to the plantations in Virginia’ […] ‘Matilda indeed, and Fitzgibbon (gibbon being an ape) A little imposter! […] I wonder what her real name is?’” (17) Likewise, some unusual concern for her skin colour is expressed when the girl is overwhelmed with emotions: “When thus addressed she began to shake and blanch” (18).

  • 5 For an in-depth study of Clare Boylan’s Emma Brown see Armelle Parey, “‘Will not the leaf be turned (...)

17Brontë’s uncompleted manuscript leaves not so much a budding character to be brought to fictional maturity as an empty shape to be filled. Why it has not been done before as with Dickens’s Drood and its ever ramifying droodiana is to be wondered. The undertaking is perilous however and Clare Boylan fleshed out Matilda Fitzgibbon, whose real identity was subsequently revealed as Emma Brown, by doing extensive research on the London underworld. So Matilda, instead of remaining a Brontëan creation, ends up being coloured by different Victorian touches: Henry Mayhew, Charles Dickens and possibly Arthur Morrison’s East End in A Child of the Jago are called to account to produce a highly sensational novel. At one point, Matilda now known as Emma, befriends a homeless waif named Jenny Drew, who carries dead babies in lieu of dolls and who sells dog faeces. This gruesome scene reads like a worsened version of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend with its dust heaps and its character of Jenny Wren (aka Fanny Cleaver), the crippled dolls’ dressmaker. So in her endeavour to complete Brontë’s unfinished manuscript Boylan may have laid bare some of the neo Victorian novel’s foibles: the surrender to the prurient and obnoxious at the expense of finally chiseled characterization and a propensity to set forth a plot-driven, sensational narrative to the detriment of introspective passages. What marked out Charlotte Brontë as unique is the strange power of subjective representation and the uncanny ability to delve into the common psyche. Boylan’s Emma Brown is a piece of standard neo-Victorian characterization, it levels out the Brontëan psychological niceties, notably the engagement with the religious question, to conjure up a cross-Victorian prototype serving as a trigger for a detection investigation of a reconstructed era.5

18Characters’ migration may be approached from the perspective of the ontological status in so far as ontology may apply to ink-on-paper fictitious creations. A scale could be propounded, ranging neo-Victorian characters from the most life-like historical personages to fictional crucibles mixing up features from a whole Victorian cast into a single neo-Victorian synthesis of a character. Real life Victorian people occasionally feature in neo-Victorian fictions. Charles Darwin for instance is fictionalized in Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness even if the novel throws into prominence his antagonist, Captain Robert Fitzroy in a travel narrative focused upon the Beagle expedition. In Roger McDonald’s Mr Darwin’s Shooter it is Syms Covington, Charles Darwin’s manservant and amanuensis who is given pride of place. So, in these fictions two lesser known, albeit authentic, Victorian people – Captain Fitzroy and Syms Covington – are rescued from oblivion through the painstaking labour of two historical novelists and they steal the limelight from Darwin for once.

19However the migrations from the Victorian context to the contemporary one may occasionally be intricate to the point of entailing a confusion of ontological levels. In Jane Urquhart’s Changing Heaven, there is a poetic treatment of Wuthering Heights’ liminal spaces and an attempt to translate into a postmodern fiction the call for the infinite that Emily Brontë’s novel first conjures up. Emily Brontë appears as a specter haunting the Yorkshire moors who befriends Arianna Ether a deceased balloonist. In her ghostly self, Brontë speaks at length about Catherine, the character turned into a phantom that she once invented. The genesis of the Brontëan myth is evoked through pages dedicated to the games the Brontë children used to play in the isolation of Haworth parsonage, games which were to serve as sketches for the characters to be fully fleshed out in the fictions to come:

‘ My house,’ said Emily, ‘began in the grate of our parlour […] We children shared a single fused mind for hours everyday […] I wanted a house with a fire inside and a storm outside […] I started with the idea of flame. Then, suddenly, the flame became a person – two, in fact, two flames lapping at each other but never joining to become a single flame though they shared the same stone hearth and were a party to the same storms. (108-109)

20Urquhart’s novel is imbued with the spectrality permeating Wuthering Heights and dreams up a real novelist turned into an intradiegetic ghost who shows how flitting sparks materialize into characters destined to outlive whole generations even as intangible presences haunting the reader’s imagination.

21Many neo-Victorian fictions however invent characters that are hybrid constructs made up of historical characteristics filtered from a clearly identifiable contemporary mindset. To paraphrase Marie Luise Kohlke they could be labelled as faux Victorian characters. Sugar in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a typical neo-Victorian fiction conflating different time periods. She is reminiscent of the image of the prostitute in Victorian literature, for example of Nancy in Oliver Twist, as her destiny too is decided upon by the vicious circle in which she is trapped from the moment of her birth. But she also recalls Augusta Davies Webster’s poem “A Castaway” as she is employed by one Mrs Castaway who doubles as her mother and the Madame of the brothel. In her womanly dramatic monologue, Webster grants a fallen woman articulate thoughts, whose sincerity cannot be framed within the format of a conventional diary. Sugar also pens her own great novel to bear witness to the plight of women like her, by eschewing the pre-written script of Mayhew’s journalism or romantic claptrap. Faber’s Sugar also partakes of the new modern age of cynicism as she knows how to push herself up in the world: “Never mind: her income is liquid, so she’s never hard up for long” (25). Besides, the queer slant adopted by the narrator: “Sugar: the queasy surprise of seeing what appears to be a tall, gaunt boy wreathed from neck to ankle in women’s clothes; then […] the realisation that this boy is female” (26) added to the character’s no-nonsense attitude toward sexual matters bring the finishing postmodern touch to this epitome of the Victorian whore.

2. “Imitation” as character migration

22The neo-Victorian novel has already generated its own iconic characters, which are both famous and popular and immediately identifiable. Miss Havisham is likely to be an all-time favourite, followed closely by Heathcliff as it is invariably the odd, tormented figures that attract people’s attention. Will Self’s Dorian introduces another literary idol, which is worth considering by taking on board the novel’s whole title: Dorian: an Imitation. On the face of it, an imitation would be the crudest, most simple form of character migration, merely implying the process of copying out and transferring, Self’s Dorian being no more no less than Oscar Wilde’s copycat. Such a technique of replication ties in neatly with the commodification of culture which, among other things, the novel documents. In New York, Dorian wearing a biker jacket, a white T-shirt, a pair of jeans and a peaked cap is indistinguishable from his many clones in the context of Andy Warhol’s factory and his famous silk-screen painting “the multiple sets the standard for the artefact” (114). Thus Self’s Dorian could be conceived of as partaking in the Benjaminesque category of reproductive technology, which “removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, it substitutes for its unique incidence a multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever the person apprehends it is in, it actualizes what is reproduced” (17). So, whilst Eco’s migration posits the existence of an originary text from which characters are produced before they set out for a zone of the universe that is difficult to delimit, Self’s neo-Victorian novel calls up the illusion that the narrative potentialities afforded by Wilde’s allegorical novel are multiplied in an age when technological breakthroughs and changes in cultural habits and social mores enlarge the spectrum of the source text. Migration may therefore not be suited to describe what Will Self himself has called “transplantation” (100) and the nomadic analogy should be replaced by a medical one with Dorian as the “true [transtextual] retrovirus” (108).

  • 6 For the Mœbius band, see “From The Picture of Dorian Gray to Dorian an Imitation: Rending, Mending (...)

23Through his appropriation of Dorian, Will Self precludes any simple relationship to a pre-existing original model. For instance the two Dorians, though separated by one whole century, are shown reading the same book which is only hinted at in Wilde’s novel and explicitly mentioned in Self’s. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the young man is so wrapped up in his reading of the yellow book that Henry Wotton has offered him that his identification with des Esseintes is total. The lines of the fiction and those of the fiction within the fiction are closely interlaced: “The hero of the wonderful novel that had so influenced his life had himself known this curious fancy” (108), so that Wilde’s Dorian is already Des Esseintes’s imitation. In Self’s An Imitation, Dorian also reads Against Nature, Huysmans’s novel, in the Penguin Classics edition with the portrait of the Comte of Montesquiou on the cover (55-56). Actually, the French count has been identified as the real life model for Des Esseintes whom Wilde’s Dorian reads himself into, but he same historical personage is also Count Mazaret in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas (1901) and, in likelihood, he is the model for Proust’s Baron de Charlus in Remembrance of Things Past. So, instead of having one character migrating from a sourcetext to its rewritten, updated version, the reader is confronted to a constellation of characters, both real and fictional, so that the chronological gap naturally granting precedence and authenticity to the forerunner over the latecomer is erased as the two Dorians, the old and the new, are similarly related to their common putative models and decadent lookalikes. In a way, both the hypotext and the hypertext are reading against nature, or against the grain, to quote another translation of Huysmans’s text into English, as they short-circuit the expected arrow line connection between the original character and its late avatar. What replaces the ante versus post paradigm – the fin de siècle dandy as opposed to his postmodern reincarnation – is the Mœbius band, as one Dorian is liable to revert into the other, and conversely, through the capacity of constantly re-inventing themselves which is shared by both Dorians.6 In Wilde’s novel it is achieved through play-acting: “Perhaps one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part” (127) whereas Self lays emphasis on mimicry: “Dorian is a social chameleon” (107), “the chameleon is the most significant of modern types” (39). In this fictitious universe in which copying is paramount, the very idea of origin is lost or, if present at all, reduced to gross, ribald parody when the foundation finds itself assimilated to the most trivial fundament: “Old Father Rim, the primordial sodomite” (DI 93). This may be Will Self’s uninhibited way of suggesting that “All art is […] surface” as Oscar Wilde once put it more nicely. This is not to mean however that Self’s rewrite playfully escapes the tragic determinism of Wilde’s Picture.

24Umberto Eco is dismissive of the kind of ludic overkill indulged in by those who tamper with the classics’ well-known plots: “on the internet you can find programs that let you write stories as a group, joining in narratives whose denouement one can change at infinitum” (13). According to the Italian semiotician what could pass for creative freedom breaks one fundamental rule of story-telling: “the function of unchangeable stories is precisely this: against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. […] We need their severe, repressive lesson […] Stories that are ‘already made’ also teach us how to die” (13-4). Despite his updating of the novel’s action, Self does not alleviate the haunting sense of destiny which The Picture conveys. To a certain extent, the changes are largely cosmetic ones: the canvas is replaced by a video installation, Wildean aestheticism is given a blatantly postmodern turn underscoring artistic self-reflexivity and the undercurrent of homoeroticism and opium addiction pervading the fin-de-siècle tale explodes into camp extravaganza, drug abuse and “conga line[s] of fucking buggery” (DI 53).

25Admittedly, Self relies extensively on self-referentiality which allows him to extend Dorian’s narcissism to the act of writing itself. This leads to constant metafictional play as when the eventuality of murdering a character is equated with the act of deleting him from the text: “to murder him [Baz] would have all the actuality of rubbing him out a bad fictional characterization” (186). Likewise, self-conscious ekphrasis plays up the commitment to artistic creation that prevails in Wilde’s original text by offering a variation on the Murder Considered as “One of the Fine Arts motif”: ‘Paint me a picture on a taut, tan skin canvas, using only the brightest and wateriest of colours. Make it a Hockney” (DI 186). Typically, the hypotext’s plot which is given a new lease on life in the hypertext is flippantly labelled as a conceit of conceptual art: “All my debauchery is now inscribed on my cathode features while these ones… remain pristine […] sounds like some of the conceptual works these young artists at Goldsmiths’ have been working on” (190). The most obvious of these self-referential ploys occurs in the epilogue when, through a metaleptic leap, it is disclosed that the novel written in the third person is in fact Henry Wotton’s own unpublished autofiction, recording his failure to come to terms with his homosexuality: “Henry Wotton hated being Henry Wotton – that was the key to his book; and he, Dorian Gray, had been made the proxy for this monumental self-hatred” (263, original emphasis). In Wotton’s secret expiatory narrative, which the reader so far has been taking for the first level of fiction, the post-modern Dorian has been used as a proxy, which is exactly the part which is played by the painting in Wilde’s novel. The character of Dorian has not so much migrated as it has been manipulated in a punitive manner as the scapegoat of a self-torturing homosexual, releasing through confessional writings: “a twisted involution of homosexual self-hatred” (265). In a way, all the cards were already there in the hypotext but they have been shuffled differently in the hypertext.

26Notwithstanding the halo of unreality permeating Self’s novel in which the action is often filtered through the consciousness of drug-addicted characters, the imitation that is depicted is not immune from the tragic determinism of the original. The script of Oscar Wilde’s tale recalls itself through the infringement of the real, in the Lacanian acceptation, in Self’s novel, i.e. as what persists or comes back from beyond or outside both the imaginary and the symbolic orders, and imposes itself as the ultimate, ineradicable limit point at which all words cease. It is precisely at this ultimate moment that two Dorians fuse together thus abolishing whatever infinitesimal rift might have persisted between the imitation and the imitated.

27In Wilde’s fiction, what is dispelled in the coda is the travesty of eternal youth yet, significantly, the very moment of the ugly metamorphosis cannot be put into words. An ellipsis is suddenly introduced through a spatial shift: “He [Dorian] seized the thing [knife], and stabbed the picture with it. There was a cry heard, and a crash […] Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked at the great house” (159). It is only once the process of disfigurement and uglification has completed its course that words can be reintroduced: “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome […] of visage” (159). In Self’s fiction the moment of the confrontation with the real is a delicate affair too, but it is treated as a double-barreled movement. First, what readers have been following up until the epilogue is revealed to have been Wotton’s fiction within Self’s own fiction. And secondly, in the last few lines the new Dorian realises that he cannot escape the fate which the previous Dorian had run away from unscathed. Sybil Vane’s brother had pledged to murder the man who had driven his sister to death. In Self’s novel Sibyl has become Hermann, a black junkie whom Dorian has fallen for and also driven to suicide, but this time the victim is avenged by one Ginger, his mate and drug dealer:

Standing in the piss-filled runnel of the urinal […] Dorian […] by now was also coming to terms with the fact that the beautiful new tie Ginger had just given him with his knife was a warm, sticky, fluid thing, and hardly likely to remain fashionable for very long at all. (278)

28During the sixteen-year-span common to both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dorian an Imitation, the young dandy’s image has transmuted from Cathode Narcissus, a video installation, to a digital virus as a result of being pirated for television advertisements and pop videos (DI 271).

  • 7 See Michael Davies, “Mind and Matter in The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Victorian Literature and Cultu (...)

29Like many neo-Victorian fictions Dorian An Imitation engages with sciences, medicine in the present case, which is quite relevant as Wilde’s novella also testifies to a concern with scientific disciplines such as evolutionary theory, physiology and neuroanatomy which in the late Victorian context sought to re-conceptualise the self on a broadly material basis.7 In both cases this interest in science converges on Dorian who does not so much migrate from The Picture to The Imitation as he ramifies and solidifies after a long incubation period. Indeed concerning Wilde’s fable what may arrest the reader’s attention is the perplexing connection between the chemical atoms on the canvas and the atoms making up the substance of Dorian’s mind:

“Was there some subtle affinity between the chemical atoms, that shaped themselves into form and colour on the canvas, and the soul that was within him?” (PDG 77) […] “might not things external to ourselves vibrate in unison with our moods and passions, atom calling to atom in secret love of strange affinity?” (PDG 84)

30At the fin de siècle, the possibility that the distinction between mind and matter, the organic and the inorganic, could be blurred, elicited “a vertiginous sense that human evolutionary kinship [might] extend beyond even the lowest and simplest forms of life, all the way down to inanimate objects”. As the atoms of the painting suggest, the self is “myriad” (Davies 557) which preempts the possibility of locating any selfhood in the body. Self radicalizes what Wilde’s text implies by insisting on the encroaching physical and physiological materiality which becomes the definition of the self. At one point a character wonders if humans “are […] all simply skin suits stuffed with meat” (DI 104) and later a rape is shown as the only inscription bearing witness to a body’s tangibility “her spaced out vacancy was overwritten with the most earthy of violations” (DI 105).

31Confronted to the epiphanic revelation of the sheer multiplicity and plurality of the self— “To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature” (107)—Wilde’s Dorian reflects on the presence of some “strange poisonous germ creep[ing] from body to body till it had reached his own” (107) and he even contemplates the possibility of “flesh […] tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead” (107). Such vagaries are but the matrix of Will Self’s rewrite which once again does not so much present a character migrating from one text to another, as one exposed to the tangible physicality of what had remained in Wilde’s text merely at the intangible level of hypotheses. Indeed Self’s Dorian details the symptoms – including kaposi’s sarcoma – of what in The Picture had been no more than mere conjectures about an unspecified germ. With a typically Victorian flair for onomastics Self plays on the paronomasia between Dorian and durian to underscore the contiguous link between the gay icon and the HIV cell:

Dorian, this is durian; durian this is dorian. You’ll find you have quite a lot in common – both of you are delicacies, both of you taste quite exquisite. However, you durian have your pricks on the outside, whereas for Dorian here it’s quite the reverse. (DI 178)

  • 8 “Self Analysis”, Will Self. Interview with Robert McCrum. The Observer, 29th September 2002. http:/ (...)

32Barring the trite pun on prick, the durian, an ill-smelling tasty fruit, whose overdose may occasionally result in death, has also an odd prickly shape that is reminiscent of the AIDS virus. So before meeting with his nemesis at the hands of Ginger his murderer, Dorian is the retrovirus contaminating his partners “the AIDS Mary, the malevolent and intentional transmitter of the virus” (112) who is never infected himself. At this stage, the very notion of imitation is endowed with another semantic inflection as not only does the character of Dorian change in order to fit in tightly with his environment: — “Dorian can be whatever you want it to be” – a punk or a parvenu, a dodgy geezer or a doting courtier, a witty fop or a City yuppie (108) —but he is also the carrier of the HIV retrovirus. As a matter of fact, the specificity of the retrovirus lies in reverse transcriptase, the capacity to reverse transcribe the viral RNA into DNA to contaminate healthy host cells which, once infected, disseminate the lethal poison around them. This pattern of contamination may of course be analogically applied to the relationship between the hypotext and the hypertext since as Will Self stated it himself: “The Picture of Dorian Gray is the prophecy and Dorian the fulfilment.”8 Dorian’s capacity to contaminate without being harmed in any way is also a transposition of the allegorical relationship between the aging canvas and its unchanging model. Taking up the reverse transcriptase enzyme metaphorically, which is incidentally a possibility afforded by Will Self himself who speaks of “fictive enzymes” (212), it may be wondered whether the disease – be it syphilis that is touched upon in The Picture or the overpresent AIDS pandemics – is not the enzyme necessary for literary creation. Self’s work would be the result of a literary retrovirus which has subtly injected a contemporary epidemics into a late Victorian decadent fiction, replicated it, and transcoded it to make it relevant to one of the major preoccupations of the dawning twenty first century. Dorian/durian is the agency of the ongoing replication.

3. Neo characters as critical proxies

33Neo Victorian characters cannot be fully considered without referring to the input of criticism which comes into shaping them. In a way, they are in a lot of cases predicated upon areas of critical studies such as post-structuralism and deconstruction, queer and LGBT studies and haunting and spectrality. This does not entail as a matter of principle that each and every neo-Victorian fiction is high-brow or intellectually demanding – some would probably contend that the exact opposite is actually the case – but as they belong to second degree literature, there is invariably a form of literary self-consciousness about their creative process that is fed on theory. Hence neo characterization in the neo Victorian novel escapes any straightforward mimetism to produce hybrid personages blending reality effect and some critical commitment.

34A first generation of neo Victorian fictions by Peter Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt, David Lodge or Graham Swift was by and large an extension of the campus novel. Concerning characters this complicates matters somewhat because it begs the question of who exactly qualifies as neo Victorian character: is it the scholar devoting all his life and attention to his Victorian forebears like James Blackadder who in Byatt’s Possession is so obsessed with the works of the fictitious poet Randolph Henry Ash “that all his thoughts would have been another man’s thoughts, all his work another man’s work” (29), or is it Ash, a poet re-imagined by a contemporary novelist and scholar from the vantage point of the late 20th century drawing upon her extensive university training. To quote André Brink, these novels display “book-worlds” in which characters are inky and papery, occasionally dry perhaps too and as a result: “the names of the characters are themselves indicators of literariness” (293). In Ackroyd’s The Great Fire of London the deconstructionist stance is palpable with a film-maker shooting an adaptation of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, a researcher writing a study on Dickens’s London who becomes obsessed by the site of what used to be the Marshalsea and a whole network of communicating voices, both mundane through a switchboard operator and occult when Little Dorrit’s own faint, pleading voice makes itself heard. In this novel, the characters are mere pawns in a literary game playing at reversing the Dickensian value system when the eponymous Little Dorrit’s double in the contemporary revisionist version is one Little Arthur, a child-molesting dwarf. Swift’s Ever After, for its part, may be seen as a successful attempt to turn a wordy, literary reading experience into an existential communion between a contemporary scholar and his Victorian ancestor. The moment of closest empathy between the late twentieth narrator in the throes of an identity crisis and the Victorian land surveyor forced to acknowledge the truth of Darwin’s theory culminates with the sight of an ichthyosaur on a beach of Lyme Regis, inducing an inward cataclysm sweeping down both characters in tandem. The physical, sensuous proximity between the Victorian character and the contemporary one is achieved thanks to the contact with the manuscript: “When I open their pages [the notebooks], I open, I touch the pages that he once touched. I occupy, as it were, his phantom skin” (46). This concern for what amounts to physiological aesthetics, taking on board body responses, such as tactile sensations, is actually conducive to a renewed perception of the character’s self, exploding the contours of the literary personage to reach out towards a putative, ancestral, spectral doppelgänger.

35The reflection on gender and queer theories has been a major field of criticism over the past thirty years, it has significantly influenced the neo Victorian novel. According to Heilmann and Llewellyn “Victorian sexuality and the way we re-imagine it, its contradictions, excesses, dissimilarities from or correspondences with our diversity of experience holds an irresistible appeal for the neo-Victorian imagination” (107). In a sense, it is perfectly legitimate that this issue should be raised in the wake of Victorianism remembered, among other things, for having set out clearly defined gender norms. Coventry Patmore’s The Angel of the House and John Ruskin’s chapter “Lilies: Of Queens’ Gardens” in Sesames and Lilies are the most often cited sources. It should nevertheless be pointed out that any reduction to binary oppositions between Victorian masculinity and femininity would not do justice to gender alternatives that were already conceived of at that time, as with Edward Carpenter’s uranians in The Intermediate Sex. This being said, neo-Victorianism has undoubtedly benefited from the input from both post-structural philosophy: Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous and Michel Foucault and queer theory with Judith Butler. This link between academia and fiction-writing is perceptible with a novelist like Sarah Waters who before publishing her lesbian trio (Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith) had written a Ph.D. on gay and lesbian historical fiction. The influence of this approach on neo characterization is wide ranging and to limit the scope two novels featuring cross-dressing and intersexed characters could be selected: Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry and Wesley Stace’s Misfortune. The former is based on an authentic nineteenth century military surgeon, who on his death in 1865 drew public attention when newspapers ran stories that he had in fact been a woman. The latter is a fictitious invention by a novelist and musician who refers to Freddy Mercury’s exaggeration of drag in the “I want to be free” video clip. Each of these two novels have of course already engaged the critics’ attention and the best that could be done briefly is to highlight the ways in which both Barry and Rose in their respective texts open up directions to think of characters along different lines.

  • 9 Jana Funke, “Obscurity and Gender Resistance in Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry”, European J (...)

36These characters both find themselves at the hub of sometimes conflicting discourses and remain as fundamentally riddling both to the others and to themselves. Michel Foucault showed how science and medicine had put sexuality at the forefront by the end of the nineteenth century by classifying practices and forcing confession, he had also documented hermaphroditism by editing Herculine Barbin’s memoirs, which in their turn were to inspire Jeffrey Eugenides to write his novel Middlesex. With both Barry and Rose any essentialist bond between biological sex and gender identification is of course as simplistic and arbitrary. I fact, the matter is even more complex. Stace suggests that Lord Rose, aka Miss Fortune, is caught up in a web of contradictory ideologies. Rose’s Victorian family when the time has come for the intersex character to inherit insist on the prospective heir adopting a masculine outward appearance as a definitive marker of true “gender”. The reader knows from the outset that Rose is a male child whom his father doted on like the darling beloved sister he had lost. Besides, the character himself ―or maybe herself― dreaded the masculine gender that s/he would have to embrace sooner or later. Her own representation of her identity was clearly leaning towards femininity; hence the womanly persona which is crucial to her mental build-up. To complicate matters further, Rose’s mother, Anonyma is a Platonist who entertains an idealized vision of the fusion of the sexes, in keeping with the Symposium’s primitive androgyne. She labours under the illusion that combining male sexuality with female socialization will result in the inception of the perfect human being, combining the best of both sexes and genders, failing to realize that such an experiment will render Rose unable to cope in the world outside the sheltered haven of the family estate. Duncker’s James Miranda Barry is even more challenging in its reflection. It refuses to answer the tantalising question of whether Barry is a man, a woman or a hermaphrodite to concentrate on the reader’s reason for sustaining such a curiosity throughout the novel. It also resists any shallow idealization of Barry as a romantic figure of emancipation challenging head-on the constraints of heteronormativity in a patriarchal society. In the last resort, it intimates that the text’s resistance resides in its irretrievable obscurity and obfuscation, in the fact that it does not out the eponymous protagonist who is ultimately consigned to time’s oblivion. The sexual ambiguity: “a chrysalis of ambiguity” (194) is all that is allowed to be passed on across time. In Jana Funke’s felicitous words, “the novel is less about recovering Barry’s story and more about the possibility of losing him to the past” (226) (she explains why for convenience sake she choose the “he” pronoun throughout her article without wishing to tone down any of the complexity of her argument).9

  • 10 Hilary M. Schor, “Sorting, Morphing, and Mourning. A.S. Byatt’s Ghostwrites Victorian Fiction”, Vic (...)

37In recent neo-Victorian fiction the figure of the ghost or the spectrality of the Victorian past, has been underlined. Of course, the Victorian age was felt as being a transitory period even in its own time, an era deeply committed to reviving many pasts: classical, medieval and renaissance. This propensity to look back was evidence of the uncertainties facing the future. At a time when religious foundations were shaken by science, notably Darwinism, the loss of faith was somehow compensated for by turning to the spiritual world of ghosts, séances, table-rapping and other devices. The occult indeed pervades Victorian literature through revenants, doubles and an overall sense of the uncanny informing the way characters could be imagined. Precisely, haunting and spectrality have since that time been conceptualised along the lines of deconstructionist philosophy with Derrida’s substituting hauntology for ontology, and psychoanalysis with Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s phantom, concealed in the wounded past of individuals, or “transgenerational haunting: [t]he phantom which returns to haunt bears witness to the existence of the dead buried with the other” (Abraham and Torok 175. Original emphasis). Some neo Victorian novelists call up the illusion of resurrecting and entering into a private exchange with the Dead through a poetics which Hilary M. Schor, referring to A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects called ghostwriting, meaning both “borrowings” (“writing like…”) and “speaking with the dead, not so much as writers but as moldering bodies, and decaying forms” (237).10 In the final resort the influence of Thierry Michelet’s romantic historiography on A.S. Byatt, and subsequently on other neo Victorian writers is plain enough. The ghostly and the spectral have shaped the neo-Victorian fiction in different manners and exerted a decisive influence on characterization, and the way readers respond to characters, narrator and implied author.


38In his conference paper Umberto Eco warned writers and readers against the fallacious practice of interfering with characters’ fictitious destinies as a supposed way of escaping two forms of oppression: submission to a predetermined plot first, and the social division between those who write and those who read in the second place. Granted, it is possible to think up any twisted versions of the best-known storylines, to have “Little Red Riding Hood go[ing] in the woods and meet[ing] Pinocchio or, better still, “a major help named Vladimir J. Propp.” (15) This is precisely the very thing which Jasper Fforde does in his fictions, in The Eyre Affair for example, which is peripheral to the neo-Victorian novel. Miss Havisham as a literary cop argues with Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen over professional prerogatives. However such ludic intrusions in well-made plots, which may occasionally shed some light on their hypotexts, are in no way representative of neo characterization in the neo-Victorian novel. The latter functions as a memory trigger for a synthetized reading experience, hovering between the mimetic – through the replication of a form of historical faithfulness – and the spectral, by being poised between life and death, presence and absence. As an interface between the present and the past the neo-character is caught up in a temporal chiasmus; either as a contemporary figure imbued with a sense of irretrievable loss, or as a recreation of the past actuating long forgotten or putative creatures. In both cases he testifies to temporal disjoining.

39The neo-Victorian neo-character suggests an uncanny impression of déjà vu while embodying and articulating current topical issues, from the deep concern with the disappearance of the sense of history in the postmodern age to ethical questions raised in today’s world. In this respect, the neo Victorian character is seldom merely an escapist creation dodging what Eco calls the “inexorable laws of life […] lessons about fate and death.” At a time when the tangibility of death is removed from daily experience, the neo Victorian character, through his “threshold presence” (Possession 181) may be a reminder that the possession of the past may follow many unexpected, and circuitous, paths.

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1 Following the famous distinction between “flat” and “round ” characters propounded by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927), Mariner Books, 1956, pp. 43-7.

2 For a general introduction to the neo-Victorian Novel see “What’s Neo-Victorian Studies?”, Llewellyn Neo-Victorian Studies 1/1 (Autumn 2008) Web as well as Heilmann and Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism. The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

3 For the full content of Henry James’s comment on Jane Morris see (consulted April 24th 2014)

4 On this specific aspect see Monica Latham, “Bringing Newness to the World: Lloyd Jones’s Pacific Version of Great Expectations”, Dickens Quarterly. Vol. 28. March 2011. 22-40.

5 For an in-depth study of Clare Boylan’s Emma Brown see Armelle Parey, “‘Will not the leaf be turned some day, and the story be told?’: Emma Brown (2003) de Clare Boylan et Charlotte Brontë, pastiche néo-victorien”, in L’inachevé ou l’ère des possibles dans la littérature Anglophone. Récits ouverts et incomplets. François Gallix, Armelle Parey, Isabelle Roblin (dirs.), Caen : Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2014, 123-39.

6 For the Mœbius band, see “From The Picture of Dorian Gray to Dorian an Imitation: Rending, Mending and Ending”, Annie Ramel and Josiane Paccaud-Huguet, in Rewriting/Reprising in Literature. The Paradoxes of Intertextuality, Claude Maisonnat, Annie Ramel, Josiane Paccaud-Huguet. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009, 112-126.

7 See Michael Davies, “Mind and Matter in The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Victorian Literature and Culture (2013), 41, 547-560.

8 “Self Analysis”, Will Self. Interview with Robert McCrum. The Observer, 29th September 2002. (Consulted April 24th 2014.)

9 Jana Funke, “Obscurity and Gender Resistance in Patricia Duncker’s James Miranda Barry”, European Journal of English Studies. Vol. 16, Issue 3, 2012, 215-226.

10 Hilary M. Schor, “Sorting, Morphing, and Mourning. A.S. Byatt’s Ghostwrites Victorian Fiction”, Victorian Afterlife. Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century. John Kucich and Diane Sadoff (eds), 2000, 234-51.

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Georges LETISSIER, « Neo-Characterization in the Neo-Victorian Novel », E-rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4834

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University of Nantes
Georges Letissier is professor of English Literature at Nantes University, France. He has published articles both in French and English, in France and abroad (Aracne, Palgrave Macmillan, Rodopi, Routledge, Dickens Quarterly) on Victorian literature (C. Dickens, G. Eliot, W. Morris, C. Rossetti) and on contemporary British fiction (P. Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt, A. Gray, A. Hollinghurst, L. Norfolk, I McEwan, G. Swift, S. Waters, J. Winterson). He has published a monograph on Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Éditions du Temps, 2005). He has edited a volume entitled Rewriting, Reprising: Plural Intertextualities, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, (December 2009) and co-edited with Michel Prum a book on Darwin’s legacy in European cultures (l’Harmattan 2010). He has worked extensively on Dickens and After Dickens recently whilst keeping a keen interest in the most recent developments in contemporary British fiction-writing.

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