Ryan Barnett and Serena Trowbridge (eds), Acts of Memory: The Victorians and Beyond

Ryan Barnett and Serena Trowbridge (eds), Acts of Memory: The Victorians and Beyond (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 169pp. £34.99 pb. ISBN 978-1-4438-2567-2.

As Ryan Barnett and Serena Trowbridge point out in their introduction to Acts of Memory: The Victorians and Beyond, the discourse of memory permeates the literature of the Victorian period. Memory does not merely serve as a subject matter for Victorian literature, however: the connection is a more complex one. For the Victorians, the exploration of what memory is was not limited to philosophical and psychological texts but was equally pursued in literary texts. Indeed, as the editors argue with Sally Shuttleworth, the distinction between literature and psychology in the nineteenth century is largely anachronistic, since psychology is only beginning to emerge as a specialized scientific discourse. Instead, literary, philosophical and psychological texts form an arena in which the cultural meanings of phenomena like memory are negotiated. This observation provides the common ground for the nine essays collected in Acts of Memory, which address questions raised by the perception of a ‘thread of memory running through nineteenth-century literature’ (7) from a variety of perspectives:

How do we remember the Victorians now? How did they reconstruct the past – both the distant past, in a historical sense, and their own pasts? How do memories affect identity, and position in society? Is memory a physiological concept, a spiritual phenomenon, or both? (7)

The very first chapter in the collection, Anna Jörngården’s discussion of the writings of Swedish author Ole Hansson (1860-1890) fulfills the promise made in the title of the collection by covering an author ‘beyond the Victorians’. Arguing with Kierkegaard and Ricoeur, the essay examines the connection between repetition and memory in Hansson’s oeuvre. His narratives of dislocation and return mirror the author’s own experience, as he went into voluntary exile in 1889. One of Hansson’s narrators, travelling through Germany, describes an identity crisis triggered by his experience: ‘I do not recognize myself; I can find no connection between myself, at this moment sitting here in the train compartment and all these other selves whom I remember from before’ (29). Hansson’s narrative is remarkable not only because it explores the link between spatial travel and recollection, but also because the sense of fragmentation and crisis conveyed would not feel out of place in a literary text written a hundred years after its initial publication in 1896.

Alexandra Lewis offers a reading of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which is placed into the context of an emergent discourse of psychic trauma in British literature during the nineteenth century, while Vivian Kao discusses Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as well as Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s 1987 film adaptation from a Lacanian perspective. The poetry of George Eliot is the topic of Gregory Tate’s essay. Memory is a central topic in Eliot’s poetry and presented as ‘an activity of the metaphysical soul that guarantees the integrity of personal identity by binding the present self to past selves’ (74). Tate discusses the connections between Victorian theories of mind and memory, such as formulated by Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes, and her ‘poetic psychology’. For Eliot, the essay points out, memory is both the ‘foundation of a cohesive spiritual identity’ and ‘a dynamic process that reveals the fissures within individual psychology’ (81). As with Jörngården's reading of Hansson, Tate’s reading of Eliot is stimulating because it shows that conceptions like the fragmentation of identity and the interplay between the coherent and incoherent, which one might readily associate with (post)modernism, have their foundations in the Victorian era.

Antonio Sanna examines Victorian ghost stories, amongst others Henry James’s ‘Sir Edmund Orme’, Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Captain of the “Pole Star”’, and ‘The Ebony Frame’ by Edith Nesbit. Pointing out how criticism has focused on the figure of the ghost as a metaphor for forgotten, hidden or suppressed memory, and that the motif of ghost-seeing can often be read as a ‘traumatic revival of memory’ (86), Sanna argues that this is in a way a reductionist view: in many Victorian ghost stories the ghost does not trigger memories of traumatic events that have been hidden but enables the remembrance of a happy and joyful past.

The next four essays share a thematic focus in that they specifically examine female perspectives and voices on memory, or the role of women in Victorian culture. Małgorzata Milczarek’s essay discusses Vita Sackville West’s novel All Passion Spent,first published in 1931. The novel’s central character, Lady Slane, is 88 years old and links the England of the 1930s with Victorian England. Against this background, the novel not only engages with questions of how the individual perception of reality and memory is influenced by the passage of time, but also how the memory of the Victorian era informs the society of the 1930s and ‘women’s gradual escape from social constraints at the end of the nineteenth century’ (107). John Morton’s essay – examining Virginia Woolf’s engagement with the biographies of Tennyson and other Victorian poets – is another essay that primarily discusses questions of memory of the Victorians, rather than memory in the Victorian period.

With Anne Anderson’s essay the focus returns to the Victorians themselves. Anderson examines reflection and recollection as motifs in Pre-Raphaelite and Aestheticist painting, specifically James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White No.2: The Little White Girl. Anderson points out how Whistler avoids the trope of depicting two separate women as binary opposites which informs Victorian culture; instead he ‘portrays the stereotypically divided nature of womanhood within a single identity; a ghostly, split subjectivity in which past memories are housed’ (133). Georgina O’Brien Hill discusses Florence Marryat’s short story ‘The Box with the Iron Clamps’ and places it within the context of the author’s and Victorian society’s interest in spiritualism. Using the conceptual connection between memory, mourning and melancholia formulated by Freud as a starting point, O’Brien Hill explores aspects of gender in Victorian mourning rituals and sexual mores, showing how Marryat’s short story draws attention ‘to the sexual injustices that women experienced, employing popular sensational and gothic modes in order to do so’ (148).

Roger Ebbatson’s ‘Afterword’ to the collection mirrors the introduction in the sense that he once again sketches the Victorian preoccupation with memory in broad strokes, highlighting the Victorian discussion of organic memory on the one hand, and the question whether ‘female memory might be both more personally inflected and more problematic’ (153) on the other.

The conception of Acts of Memory opens the discussion of memory and the Victorians both temporally and spatially, offering new perspectives and insights on both well-known and lesser-known authors. This openness is not without its problems, however. If the individual essays demonstrate that memory in the Victorian period and beyond is not a monolithic topic but offers a wealth of research avenues, the collection as a whole creates the impression that many questions are left unanswered. In particular, the consideration of national contexts beyond Victorian England and genres and media beyond the literary text feels underdeveloped. At just over 160 pages no collection of essays would be up to that task, however. As it stands, the strength of Acts of Memory lies in the desire it evokes to re-engage with the Victorians from a new perspective.

Folkert Degenring, University of Kassel, Germany