Sunday 19 April 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: Florence and Giles, John Harding (2010)

With so many great Victorian novels out there, many of them now largely neglected, what exactly is the point of neo-Victorian fiction? Put another way – what is drawing twenty-first century writers to the nineteenth century, when there is so much drama in contemporary life?

I’ve heard multiple explanations – from a sort of collective nostalgia, to a response to social inequality post-financial collapse. Yet a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to unpacking neo-Victorianism, and something I am keen to explore further in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, is the interest these writers so often show in giving narrative privileges – a forum for self-expression – to those characters, and those sections of society, which area so often barred from ‘speaking’ or even existing in writing which actually dates from this period.

What this creates is a fertile landscape for creative exploration. Characters in neo-Victorian writing can push the boundaries when it comes to examining the period’s social strictures – their sexualities can be more directly explored and delineated, they can give us a new appreciation of the workings of race and class relations, and they can exist outside the realm of conventional morality without, necessarily, being punished for it.

John Harding joins a rich tradition of giving voice to the other side in later reworkings of Victorian novels in his 2010 Florence and Giles. But rather than giving a voice to the madwoman in the attic, or retelling a classic tale from the perspective of a servant, the particular voice he gives narrative space to is the voice of a child – a child named Florence modelled on Flora in Henry James’s 1898 The Turn of the Screw.

This Gothic tale is self-conscious revisiting of James’s classic ghost story and for a full, critical look at its intertextuality, I recommend Sandra Dinter’s 2012 essay (available here). What I want to consider here, however, is how Harding draws attention to the radicalness of what he is doing – and what neo-Victorianism often does generally – in ‘giving voice’ to a previously excluded individual.

Florence is not only a child. She is a female child and, as such, she has been denied an education and been forbidden to read by her uncle. Flouting these restrictions, however, Florence not only educates herself, but narrates the entire novel. And Harding has her do so in her own unique idiolect, never letting his readers forget Florence’s identity as a literary outcast.

This idiolect is categorised by non-standard usage of English, particularly the use of words as alternative parts of speech from those as which they usually appear. Florence tells us she lives in Blithe, ‘a house uncomfortabled and shabbied by prudence’, her brother Giles it at one point ‘suspicioned’ by their governess (where we might expect ‘suspected’), and at one point the narrator tells us she ‘smugged’ herself, to express her satisfaction.

This takes some getting used to as a reader. It is jarring at first, before you come to accept Florence as a speaker. But Harding is clear from the outset that Florence’s peculiar voice is an asset – not a weakness. This is how the novel opens:

‘It is a curious story to tell, one not easily absorbed and understood, so it is fortunate I have the words for the task. If I say so myself, who probably shouldn’t, for a girl my age I am very well worded. Exceeding well worded, to speak plain. But because of the strict views of my uncle regarding the education of females, I have hidden my eloquence, under-a-bushelled it, and kept any but the simplest forms of expression bridewelled within my brain.’

There is a tension here, between Florence’s description of herself as excelling in expression, and our reactions to her unusual English - a tension which forces us to confront our own inherited assumptions around who has the right to write a literary text. Yet, in these first few lines, Florence also demonstrates her skill for conveying a lot of information, with extreme brevity. In four sentences what do we learn?

1. Florence is telling us her story
2. Florence is confident in regarding herself as a good communicator, despite the non-standard qualities of her writing
3. Florence has been told girls should be modest
4. Florence’s life is under the control of her uncle
5. Florence has been told girls should not be educated
6. Florence’s behaviour is duplicitous as regards her level of comprehension
7. Florence is capable of extreme repression and self-control

John Harding (1951-)
This is how, at the novel’s best, Harding uses Florence-isms – as a sort of shorthand. Thus, when she believes she is being watched by ghostly apparitions of her governess in the mansion’s mirrors, Florence describes herself as being ‘unmirrored’ whenever she is in a room without a looking glass. The brevity helps avoid repeated explanations and helps the reader feel like Florence’s co-conspirator.

Their use is less successful, however, when Harding uses them for repetition and emphasis, or piles them on top of each other, as if doubting their efficacy. For instance Florence describes herself as ‘fairytaled’ in one of the mansion’s towers, but supplements this by also describing herself as ‘Rapunzelled’. And occasionally there are sentences like this, where the unusual usage is all-pervasive and irritating, without aiding pace or adding anything: ‘It didn’t matter if it blizzarded, or galed or howled like the end of the world outside, he Blithed it every afternoon for the next couple of weeks’.

Florence does not offer us any concluding statements at the end of the story. It is enough for her that she and Giles are together, without the self-conscious nod to the novel’s literariness with which it starts. As from The Turning of the Screw, we come away unsettled and unsure about what we have heard, but here two, highly connected, things are certainly not in doubt. First Florence, despite her sex, youth, and dependence, is a powerful force, who has her own agency, and second, she can channel this power through writing. And the fact that she can do so, demonstrates the ‘point’ (or one point) of neo-Victorian writing.

Did you miss the first post in my Neo-Victorian Voices series on Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night? You can check it out here. And which contemporary writer or artist with an interest in the nineteenth century should I consider next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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