Neo-Victorian fiction: Sarah Waters and Victorian narratives from the shadows of Victorian society

August 31, 2021 0 By Fleur

After reading Affinity, I wanted to dive into the genre of neo-Victorianism and more of Sarah Waters’ writing. Novels like Affinity and Fingersmith belong to the genre of neo-Victorianism. This can be defined as modern reworkings of Victorian society in adaptations, novels, or other forms of media. What makes something neo-Victorian is that it engages with the Victorian age often with a sense of nostalgia or a more modern element. Sarah Waters, Valerie Martin, and Michel Faber are all examples of neo-Victorian writers. Sarah Waters’ novels are perhaps the most well-known and focus on lgbtq+ characters within the Victorian period often with plot twists and often in the well-known form of a three-decker novel.

What is neo-Victorian fiction exactly?

As said, neo-Victorian fiction engages with the Victorian period with a sense of nostalgia or while adding to the Victorian period. In Sarah Waters’ case, she often focuses on lgbtq+ characters, previously not often discussed in relation to the Victorian age. A good example of another neo-Victorian novel is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. The novel, often considered the first real neo-Victorian novel, responds to Jane Eyre forming a prequel to the Brontë novel. This example, then, also proves how difficult it is to define neo-Victorian fiction as not all novels engage with the Victorian period in the same way. Aside from neo-Victorian fiction, neo-Victorianism also encompasses adaptations of (neo-)Victorian novels.

Who is Sarah Waters?

Sarah Waters is a Welsh novelist, mostly known for her neo-Victorian novels. She started out as an academic, before getting the idea to write a novel and starting directly after her thesis (Goodreads). As said, her novels often have an lgbtq+ element, and her novels often carry the label of lesbian novels. Some of her later novels also take place in other periods than the Victorian period.

Sarah Waters has written six novels and I will give a brief description of all.

Tipping the Velvet (1998)

This novel tells a coming-of-age story about a young woman named Nan who falls in love with a male impersonator, follows her to London, and finds various ways to support herself as she journeys through the city. (Wikipedia)

Affinity (1999)

One of the two books by Sarah Waters I have already read. It’s a gothic narrative about Margaret Prior who starts visiting the women at Millbank prison. There she meets spiritualist Selina Dawes and finds herself getting more and more interested in this prisoner.

Fingersmith (2002)

Sue Trinder has been raised in Mrs. Sucksby’s household, a family of thieves – fingersmiths. One day, Gentleman walks in with a plan that involves Sue, to rob Maud Lilly of her inheritance. Sue, however, sympathizes with Maud and she finds herself in situations she had not bargained for. This novel is the first novel I read by Waters, and after reading it I knew I wanted to read more novels like this.

The Night Watch (2006)

A story of four Londoners during the war, whose lives and secrets connect in startling ways. This novel is not set in the Victorian period, but not less interesting. The four main characters all have their own qualities to them which, I think, could make this a great read. 

The Little Stranger (2009)

This novel is not part of Waters’ well-known lesbian novels. Instead, this novel contains gothic elements in a postwar setting. A physician is called to Hundreds Hall, home to the Ayres family. The question is if there is something more sinister haunting this family? This novel is another example of well-written historical fiction, with supernatural elements added to it.

The Paying Guests (2014)

Waters’ last novel, The Paying Guests, tells the story of Mrs. Wray and Frances are now obliged to take in lodgers and Lilian and Leonard Barber whose arrival shakes up the house. Frances’s life will never be the same. Again, this narrative is set a little later than the Victorian period, but in the aftermath of the First World War, this period is still a very turbulent one. The novel’s premise looks interesting and it’s definitely on my to-be-read list!

I hope you feel that you know a little more about neo-Victorian fiction as well as Sarah Waters’ novels specifically. This genre is a great genre if you love period dramas, but need something a little more modern, so to say. While copying the Victorian writing style, these novels contain more events and often focus on interesting characters. Let me know what you think of neo-Victorian fiction!