Virtual Lecture


February 16, 2009 - 11:00 am
Foreign Language Technology Center
385 Alex Manoogian Hall, MI 48202-3610

Dr. Marie-Luise Kohlke, English, Swansea University
Neo-Victorianism as Postmodern Phenomenon: Re-Imagined Historical Violence, Narrative Traumatology and the Ethics of Cultural Memory

Dr Marie-Luise (Mel) Kohlke is a contemporary literature specialist, based at Swansea University, Wales, UK, whose research focuses on the neo-Victorian novel and trauma literature, exploring the intersection of the historical imagination and cultural discourses on violence, gender, and sexuality. She is the General and Founding Editor of the peer-reviewed, inter-disciplinary Neo-Victorian Studies e-Journal, the inaugural issue of which was launched in October 2008, and joint series editor of a new series on neo-Victorianism by Rodopi, with the first volume planned for early 2010.

Other current projects include the development of the Neo-Victorian Bibliography On-Line, the first comprehensive overview of neo-Victorian literature with an associated searchable database, due to launch shortly, and the setting up of a Neo-Victorian Network to promote international collaboration in this field of critical enquiry. Mel is co-editor, with Luisa Orza, of the critical collection Negotiating Sexual Idioms: Image, Text, Performance (Rodopi 2008), and her articles on historical fiction and trauma writing have appeared in The Feminist Review and Women: A Cultural Review.


The exponential proliferation of neo-Victorian literature within the last three decades has produced a postmodern excess of contesting meanings about the resurrected nineteenth century. Set in whole or part within the period or exploring its abiding cultural and ideological legacies in the present, the neo-Victorian novel has crystallized as a distinct subgenre of historical fiction and an alternative popular form of historiography. With its prevalent focus on re-enacting the period's traumas of inter- and intra-cultural violence, neo-Victorian literature raises discomfiting questions with regards to current cultural imperatives of memory-work and commemorative practices.

What is the purpose of such ethical gestures vis-à-vis a past that has not only moved beyond living memory but also beyond possibilities of literal intervention or restitution? How does the neo-Victorian phenomenon engage with and problematize concepts of trauma theory, which tends to focus primarily on twenty- and twenty-first-century cataclysms?

Paradoxically, the nineteenth century is reconfigured as both harbinger and retrospectively projected reflection of the so-called trauma culture we inhabit. Touching on issues of memory, witness, testimony, address, and empathy, and the potential risks of appropriated suffering and misrepresentation of our nineteenth-century 'Others', this talk traces the complicated investments of the present in the continuous reworking of the past.

As well as other neo-Victorian novels, I will consider Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (2000) as a paradigmatic text, engaging in what might be called a narrative traumatology: the fictional identification, treatment, and redress of serious historical injury and injustice. To what extent does this implicitly ethical project enable productive workings-through, contributing to historical understanding? Or might it as easily effect a different kind of postmodern exhaustion in unrepresentability and silence?