Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen

June 17, 2010

Nothing out-gays the heritage film. From a perspective that simultaneously addresses Victorian and 20th-century issues and anxieties, Dianne Sadoff analyses the heritage film in its many iterations, from conservative horror mash-up to queer icon.

Although film scholars cannot agree on whether the heritage film constitutes a genre, Sadoff never attempts to define the term that is the focus of her book. Practically speaking, for Sadoff, the heritage film seems to consist of 20th-century adaptations of esteemed, canonical British novels that invoke heritage landmarks such as National Trust properties, including the tricked-out English country house.

This interdisciplinary study is nothing if not wide-ranging. As attentive to the historical situation of the source novel as it is to the historical situation of its cinematic adaptation, Victorian Vogue considers celluloid versions of 19th-century works by Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.

But instead of advancing chronologically, Sadoff goes back and forth between decades, often proceeding "by metaleptic temporality". Really? As the Bloomian trope in this sentence may suggest, the text is unnecessarily obfuscating. (Consider, for example, the "ectogenous body".) Cue the obligatory dense theoretical introduction, which constitutes what I refer to as academic waterboarding.

Sadoff clearly has her chops in literature, film and postmodern theory. Although she provides flashes of brilliance, she lends authority to what we might think of as overspecialised micro-disciplines. I mean, it's one thing to cite film studies or queer studies. But "fidelity studies"? Who knew?

After the introduction, the text opens up, as Sadoff substantiates her historically nuanced arguments with vivid, lively descriptions and interpretations of scenes. These are often accompanied by stills that are fun and helpful (if grainy).

Sadoff takes issue with scholars such as Andrew Higson and Cairns Craig, who attack British heritage films as conservative historical nostalgia that endorses social rank and privilege. Countering this assumption, she focuses on Jane Austen's novels, where anxiety about status relates to historical changes in class mobility and marriage. Their 20th-century celluloid incarnations feature fears of global, national and economic instability.

If these adaptations challenge the ostensible conservatism of heritage culture, gothic-horror films are another matter.

Here, 20th-century versions of canonical Victorian fiction assume heterosexuality is the norm and address anxieties about a physiological body threatened by technology. Such conservative adaptations contrast with films of homoerotic novels that queer the heritage genre. Appropriating sentimentalism and presenting the body as spectacle, film adaptations of such novels as The Bostonians and Maurice interrogate class-conscious, paternalistic ideology.

Complicating such intertextual play is the concept of "fidelity", which is never stable, but rather shifts to accommodate changes in cultural and political contexts. Sadoff wisely concludes that faithful adaptation, which was once fetishised, may be neither possible nor desirable.

Commodifying and appropriating 19th-century Englishness may particularly appeal to North American Anglophiles jonesing for a faux (and, it must be said, prissy) British heritage of our own. In the end, however, Sadoff points to an uneasy tension between preserving Victorian classics to promote cultural literacy and cheapening canonical literature through the easy accessibility of adaptation.

This predicament is especially important today, as we confront the fragility of preservation in the digital age. Film adaptations of 19th-century classics, which speak to the historical situations both of their source novels and of their own conditions of production, may indeed help preserve our cultural memory, providing us with "aesthetic tastefulness" and social capital. But in the end, whatever the context and whatever the queer spin, for the most part, the heritage film is safe and predictable. If you ask me, it tastes like chicken.

Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen

By Dianne F. Sadoff
University of Minnesota Press, 360pp, £46.50 and £15.50
ISBN 9780816660919 and 0926
Published 1 February 2010

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