A discussion of Neo-Victorianism in literary studies and as a new genre in contemporary performance – Kathryn Shaw

Kathryn Shaw studied Drama and Classical Literature and Civilization at the University of Birmingham, and is currently following a masters programme at KU Leuven university in Belgium. She is writing her thesis on Brussels’ Toone marionette theatre, and has an interest in popular performance.



Emilie Autumn, credit: fanpop.com


A discussion of Neo-Victorianism in literary studies and as a new genre in contemporary performance

Neo-Victorianism is notoriously difficult to define, partly due to the diversity of strands of the genre, and partly due to the unavoidable contemporary subjectivity of those discussing it, since its initial popularity in the 1990s.[1] However, it is generally accepted that Neo-Victorianism practises intermediality, and connects fantasy and science-fiction genres with an appropriated Victorian element.[2] Neo-Victorianism prominently utilises familiar icons from the Victorian era, causing speculation about the overall purpose of the genre; is it purely aesthetic, or does it reflect deep-rooted modern political and social anxieties through appropriating Victorian themes and images? Further confusion ensues from the ambiguous attitudes Neo-Victorianism expresses towards the Victorian era. It is unclear whether the genre regards the Victorian era with admiration or disdain, and whether it attempts to mimic or alter memories of history. Kohlke summarises that Neo-Victorianism strives at ‘”othering” Victorian life, society, and subjectivity’, whilst also highlighting their similarities in modern day.[3]

Three areas of scholarly debate help to clarify the blurred lines of Neo-Victorian aims. These dictate that appropriated Neo-Victorianism practices, with regard to the Victorian era are: pastiche: ‘to copy the style of’; kitsch: ‘a condensation symbol’ that comforts, but is considered “bad taste”; or parody: ‘the imitation and repetition, derisive or otherwise, of another’s words’.[4] This essay examines three diverse sub-genres of Neo-Victorianism: the ghost story, discussing The Woman in Black by Stephen Mallatratt; Emilie Autumn’s immersive Asylum Experience; and Steampunk, studying the League of S.T.E.A.M. (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management) and Professor Elemental.[5] This essay argues that although Neo-Victorianism is highly aesthetic, it emphasises the modern relevance of Victorian socio-political discussions. Therefore, I consider topics debated in the Victorian past to discover how, and to what end, they are appropriated.

The above studies can exist within Derrida’s theory of Hauntology, which discusses the haunting of modern day by a spectre; being ‘neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive’.[6] Zembylas states that ‘all societies are engaged in some sort of mourning for past traumas’, making hauntology incredibly transferable, thus lending itself to being considered in relation to Neo-Victorianism.[7] Kohlke believes unresolved ‘cultural trauma’ exists from the Victorian era, due to the global turmoil in the 20th century.[8] Neo-Victorianism reflects (through vivid allusions or icons) modern anxieties about mental health, the treatment of women, colonialism, and machinery; issues that are arguably unresolved since the Victorian era.

This essay examines three possible outcomes of haunting: as an exorcism, learning opportunity, and memorial.[9] I focus on authorship, immersive performance style, and fashion, to discover which (if any) outcomes are intended through the varying styles of representing the Victorian era. Ultimately, I reveal the underlying connection between the sub-genres of Neo-Victorianism, through examining the ways in which the Victorian era haunts the present.

Firstly, the ambiguity of Neo-Victorian media’s authorship is haunting, as demonstrated in The Woman in Black. The play itself explores haunting themes; the most obvious is the ghost of Jennet. Despite her ghostly status, Jennet’s omnipresence dictates the play’s narrative, and she maintains control over the audience’s terrified reactions. Jennet is conceivably reclaiming authorship of her story from Arthur Kipps, the male narrator. At the end of the play, Kipps’ desire ‘to exorcise’ has been undermined by the ghost’s presence in the theatre (‘a young woman?’), ‘reigniting the curse that accompanies her appearances’.[10] Jennet expresses an opposing want to continue to haunt, to memorialise her suffering. Whilst Kipps appears to be recovering throughout the play, Jennet’s anguish is unceasing. This torment stems from her status as a Victorian “Fallen Woman” (‘any woman who had indulged in sex outside the legal and moral bonds of marriage’), and the consequential forced separation from her child.[11] Jennet is denied an opportunity of motherhood and her role as a woman metaphorically disintegrates, symbolised by the wasting disease she visibly suffers from.[12] Jennet’s spectral qualities in life and death suggest that merely telling her story fails to eliminate the trauma society inflicted on the Fallen Woman.

Furthermore, Jones contends that the playwright haunts the performances of his work: ‘authorial agency is exploited, seemingly expelled, but ultimately returns to haunt the performances’.[13] The play’s power surpasses that of its playwright, who figuratively commits suicide in writing, and then only exists through his work as a spectre. Moreover, authors increasingly provide more detailed stage directions; The Woman in Black is no exception.[14] This results in a lack of input from the author in rehearsals. Therefore, Jones suggests that the recent revival of ghost plays coincides with the declining importance of the author. Contradictory to this analysis, Shakespeare’s work has always haunted other plays. Sword supposes that the apparition of Hamlet’s father is a ‘symbol of Shakespeare’s own capacity to haunt and admonish his literary descendants’.[15] Kipps initially refuses to perform a section of Hamlet, which the professional actor encourages ‘for the purpose of the performance’.[16] For the actor, Hamlet has the ultimate dramatisation of an apparition, implying that it will always haunt ghost plays.

Emilie Autumn’s immersive, intermedial tour Asylum Experience (which uses extracts from her novel, songs, violin pieces, and theatrical scenes) similarly presents instances where the author haunts. Autumn’s song Opheliac also features Hamlet: ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt thou the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt that I love’.[17] Autumn felt that her own life was foretold through Ophelia: ‘I realised my life is mirroring this story […] do I have any control over my own life, […] or am I just meant to follow this path?’[18] Voigts highlights that Ophelia was the archetypal character for the Victorian insane female.[19] However, he argues that by singing about Ophelia, Autumn frees the tragic female character from the haunting constraints of male authorship, and reclaims control over her own life.[20

Autumn’s Neo-Victorian novel (The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls) explores dual authorship. Labelled an autobiography, the novel actually cuts between Victorian and modern mental asylums, narrated by Emilie, or her Victorian alter-ego, Emily.[21] By dividing the novel this way, Autumn emphasises the symmetry between past and present mental asylums: ‘there’s very little difference from asylums for ladies in 1841 and the ones for us now’.[22] The present is haunted by elements of the Victorian past, which she hopes can educate modern society. Whilst Autumn was in a mental asylum, she was only allowed a red crayon to write with. This reminds the reader that female mental health issues in the Victorian period were recorded predominantly by men: ‘certain documents were allowed to survive only because they belonged to those who held positions of power in a dominant hegemony’.[23] Wozniak criticises Pinero’s play from the Victorian era, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray for its portrayal of female hysteria from a male perspective.[24] Therefore, not only does Autumn reclaim authorship of Ophelia, she also dissolves mental illness stigma through eradicating male haunting of the subject.

This is similar to how steampunks strive to reclaim “authorship” of machinery, through creating their own mechanical objects (see figure 1). Onion explains that this process attempts at disintegrating modern class divisions between the majority and those with specialised knowledge of machinery, achieved through expensive education. She states that ‘not having this expertise leaves a person at the mercy of a bureaucratic apparatus’.[25] As Auslander explains: ‘it is far easier to acquire the cultural capital […] if one possesses considerable economic capital than if one does not’.[26] Steampunks reduce the divide between those with economic capital and those without, by didactically and directly providing a means for cultural capital. Therefore, Steampunk haunts for pedagogical purposes; the Victorian era’s mechanical simplicity is idealised and sought after. However, this memory of the Victorian era is selective in its forgetting of the similarly oppressive class struggles. For instance, in Walker’s The Factory Lad, the workers are made redundant by the introduction of specialised machinery.[27] By evoking the Victorian period through their D.I.Y style, Steampunks suggest that the unattainability of creating machinery is traumatic.



Figure 1: Steampunk Magazine, Steampunk Magazine vol. 5 (New Babbage, 2009), p. 48.

A particular quality of Neo-Victorianism is its immersive form (‘practices that evoke a different historical time from the present’), which manifests itself largely in its intermediality, extending to hypermediacy.[28] Radcliffe defines hypermediacy as that which ‘presents everything simultaneously, employing a multiplicity of different medias and technologies’.[29] The Woman in Black is similarly immersive due to its intermediality (the franchise currently has two novels, and two films), but also in the hypermediacy of the play’s production elements.[30] Firstly, its setting in an abandoned theatre fully immerses the audience in the action.[31] Secondly, The Woman in Black arguably provides a discourse on the development of special effects in the Victorian era. Gauze and basic lighting enhance the haunting of the costumed actor playing Jennet. This is comparable with the Victorian phantasmagoria technique, which ‘reflects live actors onto the stage’ using mirrors and gauzes.[32] However, Jennet is purposely elusive, as much of the play is performed in low light or darkness. The performance ultimately relies on a fear of the unknown, a theme which Sword analyses as: ‘reflect[ing] a more general shift in spiritualist practice from the Victorian public’s fascination with […] “phantasmagoria” […] to a twentieth-century focus on […] otherworldly communication’.[33] Therefore, the Victorian hypermediacy haunts today’s immersive Neo-Victorian experiences through allowing audiences the same balance of special effects and imagination as was used in Victorian ghost plays.

Autumn’s Asylum Experience is contrastingly aesthetically extravagant and corresponds with White’s depiction of immersive as ‘performances which use installations and expansive environments, which have mobile audiences, and which invite audience participation’.[34] Autumn uses props in her performances to achieve hypermediacy, and she describes her concert tours as “Dinner Theatre”.[35] In actuality, Autumn throws food at a mock tea party. The stagnant Victorian teatime ritual was first parodied in Robertson’s Caste, reflective of contemporary disdainful opinions.[36] Autumn similarly subverts the iconicity (‘a relationship between a sign and its object […] in which the form of the sign recapitulates the object in some way’) by associating tea with rebellion.[37]

Moreover, contemporary steampunk hip hop artist Professor Elemental raps about tea in his live act, Cup of Brown Joy.[38] His typically British tea obsession creates caffeine-induced madness: ‘my hands are a bit shaky from caffeine’.[39] Elemental (and consequently Autumn’s immersive theatre) can be examined with regards to post-colonialism: ‘post-colonial drama resists imperialism’.[40] Tea leaves were imported to Britain succeeding colonisation. Thus, the noble serenity of Victorians drinking tea juxtaposed the means by which they obtained it. By manically drinking excess exotic tea, Elemental symbolises British Empire greed. Therefore, tea haunts through the guilt it induces in the British for having forcefully appropriated a foreign product as their own.

Autumn’s display of her Asylum Experience as a Victorian freakshow of the clinically insane also expresses haunting. These freakshows contained people with ‘major, minor and sometimes fabricated physical, mental and behavioural differences’.[41] By conveying this immersive form, Autumn criticises the voyeuristic tendencies of modern media consumers, who are fascinated by the mentally ill (e.g. Charles Manson, Ed Gein). Autumn subverts the negative attention she receives due to her bipolar disorder by harnessing it to enhance her creativity: ‘take all the shit you’ve been told in your life and make it work for you’.[42]

Autumn perplexingly also maintains that she ought to be feared. This is apparent in her violence against men, and carnivalesque performance style described as ‘any act of expressive behaviour which inverts, contradicts, abrogates, […] presents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values and norms’.[43] Carnival was established to control the “popular” classes by giving them a regulated period to inflict chaos; a strategy similarly practised in Victorian mental asylums (Powick Lunatic Asylum held classical music balls for its patients).[44] Autumn’s music features themes from Pachabel’s Canon, and Greensleeves, which become progressively maniacal, reflecting the Victorian patients’ preference of the polka, over the waltz. Therefore, elements of Autumn’s immersive Asylum Experience conform to expectations of her bipolar, revealing how haunting mental health stigmas are difficult to erase.

Being a similarly immersive sub-genre of Neo-Victorianism, Steampunk conforms to the didactic purpose of escapism to ‘create a world, tell a story, entertain, and teach lessons’.[45] League of S.T.E.A.M. performances instruct audience members in involving themselves in Steampunk fantasy. They use make-shift weapons to kill zombies, which accords with escapism’s aim to replace the banal with the uncanny. Uncanny is used to describe something both familiar and unfamiliar ‘that ought to have remained […] secret and hidden but has come to light’.[46] Similar to carnivalesque theory, Steampunk’s uncanny ‘emphasizes the positivity of the grotesque bodily element’[47] For example, the typical steampunk accessory of a mechanical arm of gold metal cogs creates a half-human, half-robot, whose aesthetic derives from a Victorian song about a man with a prosthetic arm that becomes an uncontrollable danger to those around him, rendering it impossible for him to function in society: ‘And wanders now just like a sprite’.[48] Neo-Victorian kitsch of this image opposes an underlying fear that ‘technological interactions tend to spiral out of control’.[49] Onion asserts that ‘A social movement based around an aesthetic seems particularly vulnerable to imitation and misinterpretation’, justifying how the steam arm’s iconicity may not have translated.[50]

The Victorian era inspired gothic style is evident in Mallatratt’s play. Gothicism is a sub-culture, romanticising physical and social isolation, and expresses a ‘desire for eternal life, technological agency, irrational all-consuming love, the unknown lands of the unconscious’.[51] The stark stage in Mallatratt’s the Woman in Black evinces isolation, and Jennet pastiches the uncanny gothic style; she is in black, with a gaunt, pale face. Gothic fashion is thought to typically revive itself during societal upheaval ‘as a reaction to cultural change’, where youths avoid tainting the future by haunting their gothic limbo with the past.[52]

Finally, a unifying icon in Neo-Victorianism is the corset. Used in the Victorian era to identify ‘women with sexuality’.[53] Subverting this, modern day Neo-Burlesque uses the corset to liberate from exploitation: ‘usurping masculine property rights through her striptease’.[54] The past uses of the corset haunt the body image of women today.

A fascinating aesthetic exists in all sub-categories of Neo-Victorianism. However, its diversity suggests further significance to Neo-Victorianism’s popularity. This essay discussed variations of Neo-Victorian haunting, revealing that the genre presents itself as a spectre of the Victorian era by appropriating themes and icons. The ambiguity of Neo-Victorian authorship, immersive “escapism” techniques, and fashion all incorporate haunting Victorian themes, to either exorcise, memorialise, or educate for contemporary audiences. Therefore, Neo-Victorianism is united through its sub-categories’ ability to haunt the present with the Victorian era.



[1] Michelle J. Smith, ‘Neo-Victorianism: An Introduction’, in Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, 18.3 (2013), 1.

[2] Smith, p. 3.

[3] Marie-Luise Kohlke, ‘Introduction: Speculations in and on the Neo-Victorian Encounter’, in Neo-Victorian Studies, 1.1 (2008), 3.

[4] ‘Pastiche’ in <http://www.oed.com&gt; [accessed: 12 April 2015]; Catherine A. Lugg, Kitsch: From Education to Public Policy (New York, London: Taylor and Francis Group, 1999), p. 4; Simon Dentith, Parody (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 2.

[5] Stephen Mallatratt, The Woman in Black (London: Samuel French, 1989);

Emilie Autumn, Emilie Autumn’s Asylum Experience (2014) <http://vanswarpedtour.com/emilie-autumn&gt; [accessed 13 April 2015]; League of Steam (2015) <http://leagueofsteam.com/#landingpage&gt; [accessed 20 April 2015]; Professor Elemental (2015) <http://www.professorelemental.com/home&gt; [accessed 20 April 2015].

[6] Colin Davis, ‘Hauntology, spectres and phantoms’, in French Studies, 59 (2005), 373.

[7] Michalinos Zembylas, ‘Pedagogies of Hauntology in History Education: Learning to Live with the Ghosts of Disappeared Victims of War and Dictatorship’, in Educational Theory, 63 (2013), 73.

[8] Kohlke, p. 9.

[9] Davis, p. 379.

[10] Mallatratt, p. 6; Mallatratt p. 51; Kelly Jones, ‘Authorised Absence: Theatrical representations of authorship in three contemporary ghost plays’, in Studies in Theatre and Performance, 32 (2012), 170.

[11]  Sos Eltis, ‘The Fallen Woman on Stage’, in Kerry Powell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Victorian and Edwardian Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 223.

[12] Mallatratt, p. 51.

[13] Jones, p. 165.

[14] Mallatratt, pp. 56-62.

[15] Helen Sword, ‘Modernist Hauntology: James Joyce, Hester Dowden, and Shakespeare’s Ghost’, in Texas Studies, 41 (1999), 197.

[16] Mallatratt, p. 6.

[17] Emilie Autumn, Opheliac (2005) < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IpJkCti8IL0&gt; [accessed 13 April 2015]; William Shakespeare, Hamlet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), II. 2. 115-118.

[18] Mark Holmes, Emilie Autumn Interview (2010) < http://www.metal-discovery.com/Interviews/emilieautumn_interview_2010_pt1.htm&gt; [accessed 10 March 2015].

[19] Eckart Voigts, ‘”Victoriana’s Secret”: Emilie Autumn’s Burlesque Performances of Subcultural Neo-Victorianism’, in Neo-Victorian Studies, 6.2 (2013), 25.

[20] Voigts, p. 26.

[21] Emilie Autumn, The Asylum Emporium (2014) <http://www.asylumemporium.com/collections/books/products/asylumbook#.VT-t4G0844M&gt; [accessed 20 March 2015].

[22] Holmes, 2010.

[23] Scott Magelssen, Living History Museums: undoing history through performance (Plymouth, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2007), p. xvii.

[24] Arthur Wing Pinero, The Second Mrs Tanqueray (London: Oberon Books Ltd., 2012); Heather Anne Wozniak, ‘The Play with a Past: Arthur Wing Pinero’s New Drama’, in Victorian Literature and Culture, 37 (2009), 398.

[25] Rebecca Onion, ‘Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice’, in Neo-Victorian Studies, 1.1 (2008), 150.

[26] Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 71.

[27] John Walker, The Factory Lad (London: Samuel French, 1832), p. 4.

[28] Magelssen, p. xxi.

[29] Caroline Radcliffe, ‘Remediation and Immediacy in the Theatre of Sensation’, in Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 36 (2009), 40.

[30] Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (London: Vintage, 1983); Martyn Waites, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death (London: Arrow Books, 2013); The Woman in Black, dir. by James Watkins (Momentum Pictures, 2012); The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, dir. by Tom Harper (Relativity Media, 2014).

[31] Mallatratt, p. 1.

[32] Radcliffe, p. 44.

[33] Sword, p. 184.

[34] Gareth White, ‘On Immersive Theatre’, in Theatre Research International, 37 (2012), 221.

[35] Mark Holmes, Emilie Autumn Interview (2012) < http://www.metal-discovery.com/Interviews/emilieautumn_interview_2012_pt1.htm&gt; [accessed 10 March 2015].

[36] Thomas William Robertson, Caste (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 142-143.

[37] Bruce Mannheim, ‘Iconicity’, in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 9 (1999), 107; Holmes, 2012.

[38] Professor Elemental, Cup of Brown Joy (2008) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eELH0ivexKA&gt; [accessed 13 March 2015].

[39] Elemental, 2008.

[40] Helen Gilbert, Joanne Tompkins, Post-Colonial Drama: Theory, practice, politics (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 1.

[41] Mikita and David Brottman, ‘Return of the Freakshow: Carnival (De)Formations in Contemporary Culture’, in Studies in Popular Culture, 18 (1996), 89.

[42] Holmes, 2010.

[43] Babcock, (1978: p. 14), in Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The politics and poetics of transgression (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 17.

[44] Anonymous, ‘Elgar’s Life and Career’, in The Musical Times, 75 (1934), 314-318; Anonymous, ‘Instruction at Lunatic Asylums’, in Provincial Medical Journal and Retrospect of the Medical Sciences, 4 (1842), 157-158.

[45] Magelssen, p. xii.

[46] Robert Spadoni, Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre (London: University of California Press, 2007), p. 6.

[47] Stallybrass, White, p. 9.

[48] Kirstie Blair, ‘”The Steam Arm”: Proto-Steampunk Themes in a Victorian Popular Song’, in Neo-Victorian Studies, 3.1 (2010), 204-205.

[49] Blair, p. 197.

[50] Onion, p. 155.

[51] Isabella van Elferen, ‘East German Goth and the Spectres of Marx’, in Popular Music, 30 (2011), 93; Van Elferen, p. 95.

[52] Van Elferen, p. 99.

[53] Claire Nally, ‘Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque and the performance of gender’, in Textual Practice, 23 (2009), 649.

[54] Nally, p. 649

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