‘Neo-Victorian Villainy: Adaptation and Reinvention on Page, Stage and Screen’ Conference Report

By Benjamin Poore, University of York

The Neo-Victorian Villainy Symposium, a one-day event held on May 25, 2013 in the University of York’s recently-opened Theatre, Film and Television department building, aimed to facilitate cross-disciplinary discussion on the many ways in which modern and popular-culture representations of the villain draw on the narratives and characters of the Victorian period. With a recent issue of Modern Drama (Winter 2012) devoted to melodrama in its nineteenth-century and contemporary forms, and with the melodramatic villain evidently in rude health on the nation’s soap operas and in neo-Victorian dramas like The Paradise and Ripper Street, now seems like a good time to highlight the neo-Victorian dimensions of the villain, and the pleasures and anxieties that he – or she – is able to provoke. The original call for papers mentioned Count Dracula, Svengali, Edward Hyde, Moriarty, Dorian Gray and Ayesha as potential figures for investigation, but the papers presented at the symposium addressed a broader range of themes and histories than anticipated. The papers given on the day also demonstrated the range of texts becoming amenable to neo-Victorian critique. What follows will necessarily be a partial account from the symposium organiser, but one which aims, nevertheless, to provide a faithful outline of the topics under discussion.

Looking Back at the Victorians

This panel sought to bring together reassessments of the Victorians from different vantage points – from the mid-twentieth century, from theatre history, and from recent television adaptation. Jonathan Buckmaster (Royal Holloway) spoke on the BBC’s recent adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, broadcast in Dickens’s bicentennial year. Because Dickens left the novel unfinished, Dr Buckmaster argues, the solutions to the mystery found in adaptations will inevitably act as a yardstick of our feelings about the Victorians, and about Dickens himself. Marion Gibson (Exeter) identified the Victorian spirit medium, Nelly Lumsden, in the 1959 film of The Thirty-Nine Steps, as an exemplar of the emergence in mid-twentieth century British film of an oppositional counterculture, while Jim Davis (Warwick) urged neo-Victorianists to arm themselves with a reappraisal of the original Victorian melodrama villain, in all his performative complexity and variety, which ought to allow for more nuanced considerations of his neo-Victorian offspring.

Reinventing the Monstrous

Speakers on this panel included Will Nelson (Lancaster), whose ‘From the Grand Guignol to the Grindhouse and Beyond’ traced the roots of the modern horror movie back to late nineteenth-century Paris, and Chloe Buckley (Lancaster), who explored Chris Priestley’s  Young Adult novel Mister Creecher as not only a rewriting of Frankenstein but also as an Oliver Twist intertext. Vanessa Gerhards (Siegen) opened the panel with her paper ‘From Gothic Ghoul to Harmless Harbinger’, tracing the radical repositioning of those two Victorian fiction and stage staples, the vampire and the ghost, in twenty-first century culture.

Our first keynote speaker was Dr Guy Barefoot (Leicester), on  ‘Hollywood’s image of melodramatic villainy (just) after the Victorians’. His meticulously-researched paper presented extensive evidence of the afterlife of the Victorian villain –  in his trademark cape, top hat and moustache –  in movies, vaudeville and the comics, and of the way that a key phrase evoking melodramatic Victorian villainy – ‘and still the villain pursued her’ – recirculated  and resonated across the popular media.

Creative Practitioners Panel

Poster for Summerland The symposium was also fortunate to have secured permission from playwright Michael Punter (Darker Shores; Playing the Devil) to perform extracts from his dramatic account of the relationship between spirit medium Florence cook and eminent scientist William Crookes in the 1870s, Summerland. As perhaps the most widely discussed nineteenth-century case of claimed full-form spirit materialisation, it is surprising that Cook and Crookes’s story has not been adapted for the stage and screen more frequently. The performance – which memorably began with the audience being led into the darkened studio as a séance was about to begin – was directed by University of York alumna Naomi Lawrence. It featured outstanding performances by undergraduates and postgraduates in the department (see below).

The performance was followed by a discussion with Michael Punter and playwright Laura Turner (whose adaptation credits include Jane Eyre and The Hound of the Baskervilles) on approaches to staging and adapting the Victorians. In a paper written for the occasion  and read out in the session  by Ben Poore, novelist Ann Featherstone shared her creative process for inventing villains in her neo-Victorian novels The Newgatre Jig and Walking in Pimlico, and her characters were again vividly brought to life by students’ rehearsed readings.

Left to right: Nick Armfield, Helen Farquharson, Eliza Shea and Lucy Theobald in the first séance scene from Michael Punter’s Summerland.

Eckart Voigts (Braunschweig) then presented the second keynote, on Nell Leyshon and her first-person tale of murder The Colour of Milk, which has been widely compared with Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Via a live Skype link with the author in the department’s Holbeck Cinema, Professor Voigts was able to interview Leyshon, and she was able to take questions from the floor. One of the questions that arose from this session, and from the afternoon papers, was whether neo-Victorian women are ever depicted as straightforwardly villainous, or whether this quality is attributed only to men in neo-Victorian fiction and adaptations.

The Pull of the Past: Victorian Villains Abroad

The aim of this panel was to facilitate discussion of villainy and the neo-Victorian in international contexts, from the aftermath of Empire, to the Cold War and across the Atlantic. Toby Manning (Open University) presented an examination of the villains of John Le Carré’s Cold War espionage novels (which, he argued, were indicative of a conservative and nostalgic worldview not dissimilar to Ian Fleming’s), while Rob Dean’s paper provided a further perspective, introducing us to some  nineteenth-century imperial melodramas and asking to what extent these conventions have been recycled, rejected, or reinvented in modern films which depict soldiers from the west engaging with a native forces in locations such as Somalia (Black Hawk Down, 2001) and Iraq (The Hurt Locker, 2008). Taking the notion of Victorian Empire-building in a very different direction, Marty Zeller-Jacques (Queen Margaret) considered Scott Snyder’s work on various Batman comic book series, which have recreated Gotham City as a neo-Victorian space, shaped throughout its (newly reimagined) history by sinister masonic societies and steampunk supervillains.

Neo-Victorian Women Going Rogue

This cheekily-titled panel (calling to mind, for some at least, the mental image of Sarah Palin in crinoline) brought together papers which focused on neo-Victorian examples of women behaving villainously. Charlotte K. Bartle (Hull) presented a discussion of Amalie Skram’s 1895 novels Professor Hieronimus and Paa St.Jørgen through the lens of canonical neo-Victorian works like Fingersmith and The Crimson Petal and the White. Sarah Artt (Edinburgh Napier) interrogated the representation of the character Rose in the BBC drama series Ripper Street, which offers the viewer conflicting but ultimately conservative images of the neo-Victorian prostitute. And Antonija Primorac (Split) investigated the recent prominence of Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes adaptations, where Dr Primorac argued that the neo-Victorian representation of Adler, while foregrounding her sexuality,  ultimately resolves the ambiguities of her character along more melodramatic and conservative lines.

Richard Hand’s keynote presentation, titled ‘The embodied evil of the world’: Joseph Conrad, Adaptation and Neo-Victorian Villainy, focused on Conrad as adaptor of his own works, in later life, across a range of media. In examining the full spectrum of Conrad’s stage and screen villains, from melodramatic scoundrels to genuinely haunting visions of ‘embodied evil’, Professor Hand also explored how the Conradian phrases ‘heart of darkness’ and ‘the horror, the horror’ have detached from their source and taken on a transmedia life of their own,  to be deployed to imply unfathomable evil. This point served as an important reminder of the way that journalism, particularly the popular press since Victorian times, has played a key role in selecting, defining and pursuing those it deems irredeemably wicked.

The symposium has led to a Call for Papers for an edited collection titled   Neo-Victorian Villains, planned for publication in 2015 (#NVVillains). Special thanks go to the panel chairs for kindly donating their time and expertise: Professor Andrew Higson, Dr Christopher Hogg, Simon van der Borgh  and Lisa C. Robertson. Thanks, also, to Emily Miller for coordinating student support for the event with such professionalism.

Benjamin Poore is Lecturer in Theatre in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, University of York. His research interests are based primarily in neo-Victorianism and adaptation studies. His monograph, Heritage, Nostalgia and Modern British Theatre: Staging the Victorians (Palgrave, 2012) explored the nation’s preoccupation with its Victorian past, with a particular focus on plays about the Victorians that followed in the wake of the ending of theatre censorship in 1968. In 2013 he organised the ‘Neo-Victorian Villainy’ symposium (University of York) and co-organised, with Kelly Jones, the 2008 symposium at the University of Lincoln, ‘Attend the Tale: New Contexts for Sweeney Todd’. This led to a special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies, co-edited with Dr Jones. He tweets at @DrBenPoore.

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