Agony Column Commentary



New Victoriana:
a Treatise
on Some Recently Published Tomes
Bearing the Style and
Pertaining to the Subject
of Tymes Victorian or
Tymes Remotely Resembling Those Tymes

The Agony Column for September the 3rd, 2004
Commentary by Mr Frederick John Kleffel
Established critic of eccentric literature

e've been through quite a bit together readers, have we not? Space Opera has strutted its stuff across this stage, and fantasy has fought final battles for a variety of objects -- swords, spells [1], damsels and domains. Mysteries have unfurled and been solved (pronounced solv-éd, not solv'd). Horrors have been unleashed and then put to rest, or not. Literary dramas have played out with significance to last the ages. The very Arts themselves have cried forth of wonders, terrors, and authors who release too few novels for the comfort of their dear, dear Readers.

Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.
Here we are, in the midst of the High Future, having left the iconic dates of 1984 and 2001 behind. We've walked upon the moon and found it dull enough to the tastes of our governments -- bent on conquest and capital -- that we've not returned. Satellites circle the earth so that our children can send text messages to one another in classrooms that were old when the first satellite was launched, bringing forth a reign of terror. If they could put a satellite in the sky, we told ourselves, then surely they could drop a nuclear bomb amidst our busy cities. We're still afraid of nuclear devices, but not those dropped from space. Why bother, when you can pack one in a suitcase? Our fears have evolved, but the objects of those fears remain the same.

In order to soothe our troubled minds in this unexpected High Future, we seek the solace of literature, fine writing that engages the mind in a fashion that has not changed since the invention of written literature itself. Having been through every troubled trope in the Dictionary, having invented new words and phrases to fill that dictionary, we're now seeking that sweet forgetfulness in the words and forms of ages long past.

A classic novel about Victorian times that is nonetheless not "New Victoriana".
When I speak of "New Victoriana", I want to be perfectly clear. I'm not simply speaking of those novels that treat the Victorian ages as their subject. Novels of this type have been around since the Victorian age. One should perforce mention Tim Powers 'The Anubis Gates', 'The Stress of Her Regard' and 'On Stranger Tides' as three high-points. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling collaborated on the "steampunk" genre-defining novel 'The Difference Engine', set in a Victorian London of steam-powered computers. Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist' and 'The Angel of Darkness' were compelling serial killer stories set in a beautifully detailed post-Victorian New York. Yes, each of these novels were compelling stories that created the foetid atmosphere of Victoriana. But even if the narrators -- some of them first-person -- were inhabitants of the Victorian ages, none of the novels were written in the precise cadences of Victorian-era fiction. These novels were about Victorian times, but they themselves were not New Victoriana.

For the purposes of this discourse, novels of the "New Victoriana" will be defined as those titles I point to. Well, that, and of course a general stipulation that novels in the "New Victorian" mode would be those that use the Victorian style of storytelling. If I've missed something obvious, please write to tell me, but be assured that it's included as well. One need not have all the tell-tale signs to get in the doors of the club. But the novels that do stand out from their brethren. They flaunt their slightly intrusive omniscient narrators. Their language trends towards affect. In fact, "trends" is perhaps too light a word. Their language is heavily affected, with curious and often arbitrary-seeming spelling. And yet, while the diction strays towards the antiquarian, it does not quite match the challenging nature of actual Victorian prose. It offers the semblance of Victorian prose, but not the substance.

Chapter titles are a plus. Footnotes will practically guarantee you a passing grade. Labyrinthine plots, huge casts of characters, often listed either before or after the novel itself are features that lend themselves to New Victoriana. A novel written in this mode will often feature the weird -- but not always. Remember that the Grand Master of Victorian Literature, one Charles Dickens, himself was a supernatural novelist. Indeed, his most famous work, one that has been revised into utter unrecognizability, that is, 'A Christmas Carol', is no less than a ghost story. It features, in fact no less than three ghosts. One feature of Mr. Dickens' work that New Victoriana loves to resurrect is his peculiar naming convention. These days, it is not only in a Dickens novel that one might encounter a Mr. Feebletoss, or a Missus Rumblebutter. Such creatures have been given life once again, their authors having lashed themselves to a steel pole in the moors in the midst of a literary lightning-storm. My readers will know that I'm fond of illustrated books. But New Victoriana requires illustrations of a certain kind, if you know what I mean and I think you do. And if not illustrations then maps are always welcome.

"Let us imagine then, how Law might have waited upon Equity."
Let us then, get on along with our discourse and actually name a title or two in this heretofore-mysterious oeuvre. New Victorians like to reach back into the past -- but not too far into the past. I'm going to take a hint and go back only to 1989, when I encountered what to me is the Grandfather of New-Victoriana, Charles Palliser's wonderful tome 'The Quincunx'. Weighing in at a hefty 788 pages, 'The Quincunx' was Mr. Palliser's first novel, and it took him a mere twelve years to research and write. Fix that number in our minds readers; we're going to make use of it later in this essay. In the interim, know that 'The Quincunx' is the modern model of New Victoriana. If you seek the gentle pleasures of intrusive narrative, they are here. Witness this opening passage:

"It must have been late autumn of that year, and probably it was towards dusk for the sake of being less conspicuous. And yet a meeting between two professional gentlemen representing the chief branches of law should surely not need to be concealed.

Let us imagine then, how Law might have waited upon Equity."

Thus begins the epic tale of a young man cheated of his inheritance, forced into penury, launched into an adventure that will take him across all strata of London's society. Readers can see the affect, and note the ways I which the author has made that affect enjoyable to read and experience. The change in the reading experience by virtue of the mannered style of the prose is one of the primary pleasures of New Victoriana. For years, readers have been told that transparency is the key to great reading and writing. Writers have studiously written themselves completely out of their own narratives. The language is almost seen as an impediment.

But in New Victoriana, the comforting sensation of a storyteller not too far from the reader, a presence that wants to be known but not in the way is ever there. Palliser and all the authors in this mode play with the device, some suggesting that the reader will eventually meet the storyteller, others carefully hiding the narrator behind a partition from whence he shall never emerge. And be assured readers that narrator is a "he" no matter what the sex of the author may be.

But I was referring to the delights of Mr Palliser's work, and they are many. Mr Palliser meticulously creates the labyrinthine feel of the Victorian novel, with so many characters and families that the reader needs a scorecard. And like any good New Victorian novelist, Mr Palliser provides several scorecards. After the narrative pages, you will find a family tree that includes not only characters who are in the novel, but many who are not in the novel. You will find a curious sigil that symbolizes the relationships between four families. You will find an "Alphabetical List of Names" nearly four full pages long. And readers, you shall consult those family trees and that list of names numerous times. While I never thought of it when I was actually reading the novel, should I read it again, I might make a photographic copy of these lists so that I could refer to them while I was reading without flipping to the back.

And would I read it again? Why, yes I would. For the novel is immersive and involving in the best of senses. When you are reading this novel, you can count on the world of the novel replacing the tawdry world you will find yourself in once you close the covers. The language is so rich as to almost induce a drunken stupor, an intoxicating delight, without any of the deleterious effects that over-consumption of liquor bring about. Recalling all the mention of families and family trees, this novel makes a powerful statement about the very nature of families, that statement being, in the parlance of the current day, "Families are really, really complicated. And Dangerous." And in making that statement over the length of 788 pages, the novel backs up its thesis with every word. Mr Palliser himself is a delightful narrator, one whom the reader can count upon to provide a wonderful time. Yes, 'The Quincunx' will do quite well as the "Patient Zero" of New Victoriana.
...or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.
Hopping along the time line, the world of New Victoriana remains quiet until the year of our Lord 1995. Then, an enterprising Young Man in the world of scientifiction, or as it is known now "science fiction" managed to have a most peculiar novel published. Using the tropes of his genre, young Neal Stephenson decided that he would declare the mid-21st century as 'The Diamond Age'. In this tome, he tells the story of one young Nell, a member of the "thetes", the dirt-poor urchins of Mr Stephenson's future. Through a positively Victorian series of circumstances, she comes upon a machine that is called A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. From this she learns all manner of knowledge normally forbidden to one of such low birth. And with this knowledge she will encounter a destiny unfurled in a curious admixture of New Victorian devices and rather jarringly 21st century prose.

The Baroque Cycle.
Yes readers, having made a rule or two, I've rather broken them almost immediately. But after all, isn't that what they're for? For slotting 'The Diamond Age' into this deluge of New Victoriana is something of a stretch to be sure. But it is nothing if not an informative stretch. And yes, Stephenson does mitigate his prose with very Victorian Chapter separations and headings, all the while keeping his atmosphere quite New Victorian as well. And yet, not only is novel about a Primer. The novel itself is a primer.

That's because -- jumping ahead, and breaking another rule, damn me to regions infernal -- Stephenson would once again return to the convoluted world of New Victoriana with his latest set of novels, three enormous tomes any one of which might choke a dray-horse, but all three of which might break either the horse's back or the reader's brain -- were it not so enchantingly written. Mr Stephenson wrote an entertaining novel of the present, 'Cryptonomicon', released in 1999. He then disappeared from the "New Fiction" shelves until last year, four forgivably long years given that the result is The Baroque Cycle. The three novels that comprise this enormous and complex tapestry -- 'Quicksilver', 'The Confusion' and the forthcoming 'The System of the World' (HarperCollins, October 1, 2004, $27.95) -- offer no less than the story of civilization itself, of technology, of the world as we know it. That story is perforce a complex conspiracy, an arcane archaeology, through which we find meet personages both historical and invented.

The very Baroque limited edition of Quicksilver.
Stephenson's brilliant mind has done nothing less than re-invent The World As We Know It in a series of novels that, while they eschew many of the principles of Victorian storytelling -- the intrusive narrator, the antiquarian spellings, the chapter titles the author himself made use of in 'The Diamond Age' -- firmly assert a Victorian style of historical romance so detailed one feels the need, the desire to re-read it even as one reads it the first time. And this desire to re-read is not born out of an inability to understand, but rather a desire to experience at a greater depth the pleasures provided by an author of positively astonishing talent. What's more, a smallish publisher that goes by the moniker "Hill House" have undertaken to publish lavishly baroque versions [2] of each volume of the Baroque Trilogy. Not only do you have the impetus to re-read in the text, these versions of the novel give you a real, physical nature to undertake a re-reading. The beauty of the books is such that you will no doubt want to confine yourself to your parlour and use your reading gloves. It is presumed, of course that you have both a parlour and reading gloves. If not, please take the opportunity to obtain them. A glance at their home page informs me that 'The Confusion' is now available in a limited edition.

An unfortunate cover for Mr.Barlough's fine first novel.
Readers are having their patience tried, I'm sure, eager to get to what they might perceive of as the "main course", that is the forthcoming novel that even as I write is being boxed and shipped in quantities not seen since a certain to this reader odious title squatted at the top of the bestseller list. But first it is incumbent upon me to mention work as fine as any work mentioned in this article, that of an antiquarian iconoclast named Mr. Jeffrey Barlough. I must say that I can hardly believe that it is only four years since Mr Barlough's first novel, 'Dark Sleeper' was released. Since then, we've seen only two others; 'The House in the High Wood' and this summer's 'Strange Cargo'. Readers, let me assure that Mr. Barlough's work deserves to be read by every one of you immediately. It is of the highest caliber, and moreover, utterly and perfectly in the New Victorian tradition. Few have used this tradition as effectively as Mr Barlough, and none have displayed the vivid and unexpected imagination displayed by Mr. Barlough in these novels.

A terrorizing but subtle novel told in a faultlessly Victorian prose style.
The three books comprise a sort of rough series in that they are all set in the same place. Since they are uniformly excellent, I'd recommend reading them in order. Moreover, the first two are available at a remarkable discount. In correspondence with one of my readers, who shall henceforth be known as Mr. Rowerbazzle, I was told that "the indispensable currently has his first two books on sale for three and two dollars respectively." I implore you make use of this information and immediately. The Western Lights[3] series is set in a world that is so uniquely conceived that readers will find themselves propping their jaws up regularly as they read. The city of Salthead and environs are fog-shrouded and age-haunted. Imagine the streets of Victorian London transported to the San Francisco Bay. The hills are populated by mastodons and sabre-toothed tigers. The mastodons are used as work-creatures, to haul wagons between the more distant points on this landscape. Clues within the narrative entertainingly suggest a world torn asunder at some point in the distant past by a meteor or comet strike. But what's left is a pocket of Victorian-era civilization in a world where the boundaries between reality and the surreally supernatural are far too porous.

A far nicer cover illustration graces this fine novel.
'Dark Sleeper' introduces Barlough's world and unto that world it introduces a supernatural menace that is terrifying and imaginative without any of the unpleasant violence or grue that often mars the so-called horror of today. But what 'Dark Sleeper' most importantly introduces is a unique fictional voice. Barlough makes use of every New Victoriana technique he can lay his hands on, and where none exist, he's able to invent them. The author is something of an antiquarian himself. He's not "on the Internet" and he confines himself to old-fashioned "mail', that delivered by humans instead of electrons. He edits journals of authentic antiquarian literature. He is not simply a denizen of our age who is interested in the aged work of yesterday. He lives and breathes this work and it shows in every enjoyable sentence he writes. His novels are textbooks of the New Victoriana. He offers character lists, chapter titles and characters named Mr. Nicholas Crabshawe, Mr. Ham Pickering and professor Titus Vespanius Tiggs. His narratives slowly and reassuringly crank up the weird, but his demons and deities are not coil-driven felines. They are fully fleshed yet fleshless creatures that enable Barlough to create incomparable chills amidst considerable charms. Few readers will forget the conclusion of 'The House in the High Wood'. I require a spot of warmth even on a bright sunny day simply recalling it. His newest novel, 'Strange Cargo' (Ace/Penguin Putnam, August 3, 2004, $14.95) finds one aptly named Frederick Cargo setting sail in search of an inheritance. One can guess that this will not be the boon Mr. Cargo hopes it to be.

What Barlough does best, however, and perhaps better than any other writer today, is to make use of the New Victoriana prose-style. His narrators are ever present and often, eventually introduce themselves. Their identity may offer a key to the story being told. But in any event, the voice is so delightful, the tales are so imaginative, that one simply cannot ask for a more entertaining or rewarding reading experience. And by virtue of Barlough's high style, one is forced to thank the New Victoriana school of literature for the pleasure one is afforded when reading these fine books.

A lavishly detailed and complex supernatural soap opera in perfect New Victoriana style.
All of which brings me to the latest and certainly one of the most notable additions to this fine school of literature. 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, September 8, 2004,[6] $28.95) offers nearly the full spectrum of New Victoriana flourishes in a compact 800 page book-brick. Readers are now adjured to recall my earlier mention of Mr. Palliser's epic twelve-year struggle to write and research 'The Quincunx', his first novel. Ms. Clarke underwent a similar battle to finish her novel, but in my humble estimation it was worth the wait -- though I certainly hope we won’t have to wait so long for another! I must confess that I entertained strong feelings of doubt as to the worthiness of this novel. The only term that is properly applicable is that ungainly word "hype", short for hyperbole. The hyperbole associated with Ms Clarke's novel made me severely uncomfortable. I was both doubtful and fearful that it would live up to the praise bestowed upon it. The first words I heard were from a well-known bookseller who repeated the since oft-used phrase "the adult [mumbly-mumble]". I'm not certain who coined that phrase. Certainly it was someone with commerce in their eyes and little in their brains. Whatever it might be, 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is certainly not that. I've not completed reading the novel, so I'm offering not a review but rather, a progress report.

As 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' begins, it is 1806 in England and the titular Mr Norrell manages to trick the York Society of Magicians into turning over all their texts on theoretical magic. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that this is not exactly the England with which we are familiar. Nor is the form of storytelling with which we are exactly familiar, for Susanna Clarke shows from page one a determination to re-invent the Victorian tome for so-called "modern" readers. We are offered a novel with chapter titles and lovely, understated illustrations by Portia Rosenberg. One can quite comfortably imagine the illustrations accompanying a serial version of the novel run in 'The Strand' magazine, be it the original of the Victorian age or the current revival, done in equally fine style. I rather wish that Ms Clarke had seen fit to include endpaper maps for the unschooled-in-English geography American audience of whom I am a member. And I confess to some small surprise at the lack of a list of the dramatis personae. But neither of these is an issue once one plunges into the narrative. There, the reader will find a comfort unlike any available in the average modern novel. For all the size of the novel, the cast of characters is fairly short and easily remembered. The prose retains the mannered aspects of the best new Victorian fiction, but reads without effort. In fact, as I mentioned above, there's a comfort and a confidence here that makes the reading experience particularly enjoyable. It's also much easier to read than one might expect. The pages melt away without effort.

For those who were actually hoping for an "adult &tc &ct", prepare to be disappointed. The titular Mr Norrell is a very disagreeable sort, churlish, selfish and highly insecure. Once he decides to re-invigorate the "English tradition of magic", he moves to London, where he falls under the sway of two rather disreputable hangers-on, Mr Drawlight and Mr Lascelles. They convince him that he needs a powerful act of magic to start his career, advice he unwisely follows. For to do so, he's forced to ask the assistance of one of the residents of the world of Faerie, a certain "thistle-haired man", so-called because of the mass of whitish hair atop his head. This proves to be an unfortunate decision. It is, in fact, the beginning of an invasion.

Jonathan Strange does not show up until well in the narrative. He's a dissolute gentlemen looking for an occupation to interest him, and he hits upon magic. He proves to be rather good at it, and eventually manages to become the pupil of the reticent Mr Norrell. The two have quite different styles, and eventually they clash. But neither of them is the enemy.

"At the sight of Miss Wintertowne the gentleman with the thistle-down hair suddenly became very excited." An illustration by Portia Rosenberg.
While the veritable reams of press would have this novel as a sort-of battle of dueling magicians, I would describe it as an alternate history in which England has a nearly-lost technology of magic that must be brought to bear again to repel an invasion from a supernatural reality. Clarke's faeries and the world they inhabit are the real stars here. Yes, Ms Clarke has performed an amazing scholarly feat. She's certainly created a remarkably detailed alternate history of England, one in which an organized and detailed system of magic once ruled. She extends the reach of her New Victoriana by inserting scholarly and very Victorian footnotes throughout the text. Some of these footnotes might be publishable as stand-alone short stories. Her system of magic really does seem like a system, with a complex history of success, failure and documentation. One can imagine shelves of notebooks crammed with faux histories. Better still, one can imagine the histories themselves, since many are detailed in the footnotes and the narratives.

But as I said, the real stars here are Clarke's sinister faeries. She imbues them with the perfect balance of menace, malice and malevolence. Better still, the humans that surround them are utterly clueless as the nature or even existence of their enemies. The influence of the faeries makes itself felt in enchantingly surreal moments, when characters suspect they may be slipping into a dream state. For readers who like sly and intelligent antagonists who have both great power and great limitations, for readers who like understated menace, Clarke provides a cornucopia of literally enchanting reading.

While the prose does have the general feel and appearance of the best of New Victoriana, Clarke manages to somehow make it all read quite easily. There's a rather compulsive feel as one reads the novel, though the action is carried out over so many pages and in such detail that it can't properly be called a "page-turner" most importantly because lending it that appellation might suggest that the novel is vapid, and it most assuredly is not vapid. It's not profoundly meaningful either, and that's all for the best. 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' reads like dream, footnotes and all. For those who like to become lost within the pages of a very long book, this is an excellent novel.

Readers must take my word with an important precaution. The story is, in theory, building up to a nice climax. However, I'm about 220 pages from the final words. I don't think that it's possible that the novel could be this confidently written and end up nowhere, but stranger things have happened. But thus far -- and this is in fact only a progress report, not a final review -- 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is standing up as a fine piece of fiction and a sterling example of New Victoriana.

Readers who are interested in obtaining this tome will have to wait until September 8 to get the hardcover version being released in America and September 20 to get the hardcover version being released in the UK. I know of more than a few readers who will demand both. Ms Clarke is about to launch a tour of the American territories[4] that will enable readers to obtain her signature on the the first editions being shipped even as I write this. Should circumstances prove this to be the enormous success that the publishers are anticipating, those first editions will be worth quite a bit more than their cover price. In addition, much has been made in the News section of this venerated E-zine about the limited edition,[5] which I suspect my readers managed to buy out almost single-handedly. What this adds up to is a bevy of books that readers will be loathe to take to the tacqueria to read during lunch. A reader who wrote me --let us call her MAD -- suggested that those of us who would like to preserve our editions may obtain the trade paperback from Canada. In her wisdom, she suggested we search via a certain unnamed Canadian vendor via this key: 0747574111. I will leave it to the more diligent readers here to determine what use to make of this information. I merely suggest that having more than one copy of this book will prevent at least one copy from being stained with hurled-about foodstuffs.

Your first look anywhere at the cover of Michael Chabon's latest novel, a fine example, I suspect, of new Victoriana.
No less a literary giant than Michael Chabon will soon be offering his own contribution the New Victoriana oeuvre, the compact and intriguingly titled 'The Final Solution: A Novel of Detection'. Originally published in the Paris Review, where it won a prize, this novella (at least in it's original incarnation) offers up a new adventure for the un-killable Sherlock Holmes that includes just a dash of the fantastic. Chabon is certainly one of our most distinguished literary authors and seems bound and determined to offer a contribution to the world of genre fiction as well. On his website, he describes this book thusly:

"My novella, "The Final Solution," which first appeared last year in The Paris Review, will be published on December 1 by Fourth Estate (HarperCollins). This will be a special, small-format hardcover, with a stunning cover and six interior illustrations by Jay Ryan."

Chabon is a man endeared of the throwback. He forcibly mutated a respectable literary quarterly, 'McSweeney's Quarterly Concern' into 'McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales', sending shockwaves of abreaction throughout the genre fiction establishments. The resulting editorial hemming and hawing was provided an enjoyable spectacle. He averred the power of "plotted fiction". He's demonstrated throughout his career his ability to give genre fiction a literary infusion that actually makes the final result a better reading experience. I'm confident his experiment in New Victoriana will be -- in fact, already was -- successful. Having missed the Paris Review Summer 2003 Issue, I'll eagerly await this ornamented hardcover version.

In the interim, I will continue my journey towards the end of the tale of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', wringing every bit of enjoyment I can from every word the author has written. From this smattering of books both old and new, it's clear that New Victoriana will continue to thrive, and indeed, become widely known and respected throughout the literary landscape. One hopes that those who enjoy the obvious and easy-to-find works will take the trouble to seek out their lesser-known counterparts. I shall await that curious future, which shall, at least in literary terms, resemble more and more the past from whence it emerged.

Footnotes &tc. to the article

[1]: One wonders if spell-check is available for spells of the magical variety. [Return.]

[2]: Cf My News article of the Eighth of June, 2004, "HarperCollins, Wm Morrow, Hill House and Neal Stephenson for the Unlimited Budget" and a Column of Commentary on the Twelfth of July, 2004: "Why Do We Buy?" in which I examine at length the limited edition of QuickSilverand other items of interest. [Return.]

[3]: Cf My News article of the Nineteenth of July, 2004, "Western Lights and 'Strange Cargo': Welcome Back to Jeffrey E. Barlough". [Return.]

[4] This being a hyperlink to a list of UK and US appearances by author Susanna Clarke at bookstores selling the item in question. [Return.]

[5]Cf my News Articles of the Ninth of August, 2004, "Limited Strange", the Twelfth of August, 2004, "No More Strangeness", and the Seventeenth of August, 2004, "More Strange: 80, wait 79, no, wait make that 78 copies of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Limited Edition". [Return.]

[6] In the time-honored tradition of releasing books earlier than the stated release date, I am reliably informed by RG that the tome is now available, shrink-wrapt as if it were a video game. [Return.]