It appears to be a rule that in reworkings of classic Victorian fiction, the villainy must always be heightened until it reaches levels of depravity unimagined by the original novelist. Blackmail is insufficient; bank fraud is nowhere near bad enough; run-of-the-mill persecution is far too dull. If the original had hints of Victorian sexual impropriety, then the revision must feature not sex out of wedlock (far too boring), but instead sadistic violations, sex murders, child prostitution rings, and incest; if the original had a death or two, the revision needs Jack the Ripper on the loose. (Because everything's better with Jack, apparently.) Again and again, such revisions position themselves as somehow "revelatory": finally, the deep dank depths of Victorian England, those depths which Dickens or Collins or Eliot would have told you about--if only they could! And so (again and again), we revisit slums, prostitution, unspeakably violent murders, oppression, child abuse, and aristocratic dining habits. Marie-Louise Kohlke dubs this "sexsation," an approach that relies, in part, on "our own more supposedly aware sexual context."1 In his snarky review of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), Roger Ebert pokes fun at the mindset involved: "I didn't want to be the only member of my generation unaware of the terrible events of 1634, a year that will live in infamy. Like everyone who's committed, I found it my duty to bear witness against the moral outrages of, if not my time, then at least somebody's time. You can't just sit around." Making things Bloodier and Gorier does not, as it happens, constitute any sort of critique; if anything, it frequently qualifies as an evasion.
This outburst of frustration was occasioned by Lynn Shepherd's The Solitary House (2012), which is primarily a mashup of Bleak House and The Woman in White, but also features special guest appearances by various real people (e.g., Henry Mayhew) and plots or characters from other novels (e.g., Sgt. Cuff from The Moonstone, a chunk of Oliver Twist). Or, to put it differently, although The Solitary House takes place at the same time as Bleak House and The Woman in White, features overlapping characters and narrative strategies, and sometimes borrows language directly from the source texts, its plot is a funhouse mirror of what is "really" going on over there in Dickens' and Collins' universes. (To make matters more complicated, Dickens actually exists, right alongside his characters.) This approach is, in and of itself, a rather interesting idea, although the result is a bit of a mess: we never spend enough time with any of the intersecting plot strands, and even POV characters like Hester (the Esther stand-in) feel insufficiently cooked. Nor is it really possible to figure out the murder mystery (was Jack absolutely necessary?). Some things are executed with subtlety, like Shepherd's repeated hints that her protagonist, disgraced detective Charles Maddox, may be bisexual without being able to articulate, let alone recognize, his own desires. Thus, his good looks sometimes attracts "trouble that is not always or exclusively of the female variety" (21), and he is aroused by a young African servant's breasts "flat as a boy's" (91). Many other things, though, are not.
It is not clear, for example, what is gained by giving Tulkinghorn a bizarre secret underground chamber of antiquities that seems to be a refugee from Dan Simmons' Drood. Or by having him cover up the sex crimes of various upper-class "gentlemen," not least by siccing Teenage Jack on inconvenient witnesses. (Have I mentioned that my world would not have ended if this novel had omitted Jack the Ripper? I did? Let me just mention it again, then.) Or by turning him into a pretty appalling sexual pervert himself? Nothing here illuminates Dickens' Tulkinghorn in any way, or adds to his original fear factor. Tulkinghorn, always "watchful behind a blind" (ch. 27), does not need Jack the Ripper in order to destroy people. And if, as John O. Jordan suggests, Tulkinghorn may well be "a sadist who takes erotic pleasure in punishing women and keeping them under his control," the sadistic pleasure resides in non-consummation.2 That is, the peculiar pleasure Tulkinghorn gets from Lady Dedlock derives from keeping her on tenter-hooks when it comes to revealing her secret to Sir Leicester. More to the point, Tulkinghorn's particular brand of evil resists the usual avenues of appeal because it cannot be separated out from the novel's other representations of legal murk and muck; it is, to twist some D&D terminology, lawful evil. Tulkinghorn is not "other"--he's written right into the system. By contrast, the kind of eroticism that The Solitary House ascribes to Tulkinghorn makes him into a very twenty-first century sort of monster, the pervert who is not-us. His sexual abusiveness is so melodramatic (neo-Victorian novelists are perhaps running out of convenient options) that not only does it not indict Victorian sexual double standards or patriarchy, it doesn't indict the twenty-first century varieties, either.
The most astonishing thing about the novel, though, is its attempt to redress Bleak House's treatment of missionary and philanthropic work in Africa. Shepherd begins well enough by parodying the rhetoric of imperialist scientific exploration, and, more importantly, by remembering that Africans were in England, not "over there." But the novel goes on to exoticize, eroticize, and silence its African character, a young woman known as Molly because her real name is "[s]omething long and fiddlesome in her own language" (61). The language, the African country, and the name all remain hidden. What we see is what Charles sees: "the delicacy of these features, the gleam of this perfect skin" (61). Although Charles wonders about her experiences and subjectivity (85), Molly never becomes a POV character, but remains subject to his desiring gaze. Initially, the narrative fixes her in space. When both we and Charles first encounter her, her "eyes [are] down, her hands motionless" (61), like the "specimens" which Charles regularly views and collects (61); later, when he accidentally walks in on her bathing, the image is "as perfect, and as motionless, as a Vermeer" (91); after she catches a horrified glimpse of an African mask in Charles' collection, Charles "leav[es] Molly standing exactly where she was, surrounded by the ruins of his uneaten breakfast" (151). Silent, frozen, and frequently stonefaced, Molly is an exquisitely beautiful object. Although the narrative gestures toward equalizing the relationship, as when Charles too is left momentarily "unmoving" (151) when he realizes what the mask might mean, Molly's eventual assertions of what looks like agency remain problematic. When she responds to his sexual overtures, does she do so because she returns his desire, as the narrative implies, or because he is her employer? (Notably, when she leaves his bed, it is always because she has her chores to do.) And when Charles overhears her singing, in a "low cadenced humming" (205) that is nevertheless still nonverbal, is she expressing joy, keeping herself company, or something entirely else? (The moment seems to hark back to two very different poems, Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" and Barrett Browning's "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point.") Eventually, Charles half-heartedly apologizes to her after his severed finger appears in her market basket (oops), but even so, "the task that presses most on his mind is upstairs, and she's only serving to keep him from it" (283)--at which point Molly disappears from the narrative as anything other than a name. In the meantime, we have the revelations about Tulkinghorn's concealed secrets, which include the usual neo-Victorian sexual suspects.
In other words, the "sexsationalism" surrounding Tulkinghorn sits oddly next to the narrative's remarkably casual treatment of how Charles exploits Molly, whose youth, class, and race all render her exceptionally vulnerable. There are all the novel's monsters, brutalizing the young white girls, and then there is Charles, who is apparently...the new and improved version of a sexual opportunist? That Charles becomes enraged when Teen Jack threatens Molly is, no doubt, intended to be a sign in his favor, a promise of emotional sincerity (look, he has real feelings for his servant!), but one can't help noticing that the novel concludes with plenty of sympathy for Charles and erasure for Molly. She is stereotypically inscrutable, and we are not invited (nor is Charles) to reflect at any length on what this might mean. The narrative puts her aside as easily as Charles does, in favor of titillating tales from Tulkinghorn's crypt.
1 Marie-Louise Kohlke, "The Neo-Victorian Sexsation: Literary Excursions into the Nineteenth Century Erotic," Probing the Problematics: Sex and Sexuality, ed. Marie-Louise Kohlke and Luisa Orza (Interdisciplinary.net, 2008), 5.
2 John O. Jordan, Supposing Bleak House (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 59.