Sunday 5 April 2015

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox (2006)

In the first instalment of my series on Neo-Victorianism (contemporary art, literature and style inspired by the nineteenth century), I’ll be looking at Michael Cox’s 2006 The Meaning of Night – one of the most acclaimed novels of this genre.

Cox’s novel is the lengthy, first person confession of one Edward Glyver – a mysterious, highly intellectual murderer seeking revenge on the nemesis who will wrongly come into his inheritance (a poet with the wonderful name Phoebus Gaunt).

The usual elements of nineteenth-century sensation are here – lost identity, secret documents, shady lawyers, and a beautiful and dangerous femme fatale. And these are blended skilfully with features you could only find in a neo-Victorian novel – greater sexual explicitness, vulgar (if archaic) language and a textual set up which posits this novel as a recently discovered manuscript, edited and annotated by a twenty-first-century Cambridge don.

The novel
Cox’s novel is a gripping read, which won much (well-deserved) acclaim at its publication (you can read a representative review from the New York Times here). Yet what the novel navigates is a series of traps for the writer of this kind of pastiche fiction and it does so to varying degrees of success. Below I look at three of these ‘problems’, and review Cox’s handling of them. In doing so, I quote real readers’ reviews from various websites, taking their criticisms not as the misguided opinions of those who don’t write for the New York Times, but as revelatory of the problem areas in constructing such a novel.

The Narrator Problem:
First person nineteenth-century writing is often much more digestible for a modern reader. It is a narrative style suited to faster moving plots (that’s why it was favoured by writers like Wilkie Collins) and, what’s more, it cuts out many of the aspects of Victorian writing that twenty-first-century readers find least appealing – including long paragraphs of description and, often moral, commentary from an omniscient narrator.

First person writing from the period is also easier to reproduce or parody (trust me, I’ve tried) than these strong authorial third person voices. And a combination of these reasons must have led Cox to decide on a first person voice throughout his novel.

In some ways this works. Glyver is an engaging and fascinating creation from the opening line (‘After killing the red-headed man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper’) and we are kept guessing about him, even as plot points become apparent, retaining the novel’s sense of mystery.

However, the limited perspective occasionally runs Cox into difficulties. Faced with information and scenes which we must be privy to, even if Glyver is not, Cox uses several techniques. There are inserted shorter sections of first person prose from other writers (including Lady Tansor and Gaunt himself) but these always come with the caveat that they must some how have come into Glyver’s possession (with varying degrees of plausibility). And there are passages which use the conceit of Glyver’s imagination – his thoughts adding colour to what would otherwise be factual intelligence. This means you have scene openings like this:

‘I sometimes like to imagine Dr Daunt, for whom I have always had a sincere regard, coming into his study of a morning – say a bright August morning in the year 1830’

Followed by repeated reminders of a scene’s ‘fictionality’ like this:

‘Observe him now, on this imagined morning’


‘Whether Dr Daunt was definitely anxious when he approached his patron, I cannot say; but he would have certainly been curious to know why he had been called up to the house so urgently on a Thursday afternoon.’

There is an argument to be made that this adds to the sense of play between fact and fiction in the novel (something I return to below), but a more negative effect is that we learn little about what should be an interesting cast of supporting characters, blocked out as we are from their emotional lives.

Glyver bears the full weight of carrying the novel – and for readers who reject the narrator there is little consolation. That’s why you end up with reviews like this:

‘I read the entire book thinking what a massive, unforgivable arsehole the main character was…How are we supposed to care about him unearthing the past and root for him in his pursuit to right the wrongs done to him, when he's a MURDEROUS TOOL?!’ Rae, Goodreads

‘Can't go on, after 200 pages, I'm done. I don't like the main character enough to finish.’ Slang, Amazon

Michael Cox (1948-2009)

The Authenticity Problem:
Cox faces a problem which dogs all writers of historical fiction – his desire to convey period can come off as fact-dropping, with his peppering of street names, restaurants and other details of London life coming across at times like a catalogue of his research.

Hence reviews like this:

‘In his attempts to dazzle us with the authenticity and breadth of his knowledge (something that the aforementioned real Victorian authors never had to bother with, after all), Cox has sacrificed pace, tension and focus; everything, in fact, that would make his plot (a good one, by the way), crackle and jump off the page.’ David Cady, Amazon

Cox’s name-checking sits in direct opposition to the novel’s pretence of being an authentic rediscovered manuscript. Cox plays with the truthfulness or otherwise of Glyver’s tale but he his set up means he cannot play with the fun inherent in being a modern writer writing a Victorian novel. The intertextual play isn’t in fact with nineteenth-century texts (despite their obvious influence), but instead with earlier words which ‘Glyver’ enjoys (the Sermons of John Donne, Felltham’s Resolves). This feels like a missed opportunity, sacrificed at the altar of the novel’s ‘authenticity’.

The Woman Problem:
Much critical effort has been expended over the past half century in reviewing the position of women in nineteenth-century texts. So much so in fact that it seems impossible to revisit the Victorian novel without taking a stance on this issue.

Yet here Cox is strangely colourless. His female characters are stereotypes – street whores, courtesans with golden hearts, sexually voracious servants, duplicitous aristocrats – and, initially I thought this was a self-conscious choice. But the reversal of expectations – Glyver’s and readers’ - never came. The narrator was freed from some of the shackles of nineteenth-century texts but the women he wrote about never were.

One reviewer writes:

‘As far as his love interest, Miss Carteret, goes, I could see that she was going to ruin him from a mile away. Why was that such a plot twist? It was so painfully obvious.’ Karyl, Goodreads

Attune to the types which pervade in Victorian texts, readers of neo-Victorianism expect something more and something new – that’s what makes these novels worth writing. And in this discrete area, I’d argue that Cox failed to deliver.

Cox’s novel is a wonderful achievement and an enjoyable read and it would take many more blog posts to list all writers could learn from its construction. But there are watch outs for the aspiring neo-Victorianist or historical fiction writer.

Don’t fashion yourself binding narrative constraints, fall in love with your own research or ignore the preoccupations of your modern audience. Even with an otherwise well-considered novel, you will run yourself into difficulties.

What should I write about next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? If you know of a modern writer or artist who’s revisiting the nineteenth century in new and exciting ways, let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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