Neo-Victorian fiction returns to settler colonisation: Jessica Hewenn, Unsettling: Settler Colonial Environments in Neo-Victorian Fiction, PhD Dissertation, the Australian National University, 2018


Abstract: In the introduction to the first issue of Neo-Victorian Studies, Marie-Luise Kohlke specifically emphasised neo-Victorian texts concerning ecological trauma, and called for an examination of how such texts represent “the commodification and destruction of the natural world and its biodiversity, and the resulting alienation of humankind from its environment” (2008, 8). Neo-Victorian fiction concerned with colonialism and its environmental impact is abundant, with three of the ten Costa Book Awards since the turn of the new millennium granted to novels taking this as their subject. Yet to date scholarship has largely foregone examination of environmental concerns. Neo-Victorian scholarship that has explored the representation of natural history has done so by focalising through the religion/science dichotomy, examining texts that are concerned with the crisis-of-faith provoked by Darwinian theories of natural selection. This has missed what I argue is the significance of many of the post-millennial British novels set in the colonies: that they are staged not at the frontiers of the expanding empire, or at the forefront of the intellectual disruption caused by Darwin’s theories, but in the literal and figurative settlements that follow. By reimaging the process of settling, particularly the way in which settlers assume a form of indigeneity to the new landscape and reshape their identity through it, these novels grapple with the ongoing issues of identity in a world of dislocation, both literal and metaphorical, from the natural world. This thesis takes up Kohlke’s original call for engagement with colonialism’s environmental impact as is represented in neo-Victorian texts. Drawing on settler colonial theory in order to redress the occlusion of the specific and ongoing politics of settler colonies in existing debates, I argue that post-millennial British neo-Victorian fiction is returning to sites of settler colonisation to question the settlement narrative, often disrupting it by forestalling the possibility of remaining unsettled. Examining Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers (2000), Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves (2006), Jem Poster’s Rifling Paradise (2006), Nicholas Drayson’s Love and the Platypus (2007), Jeremy Page’s The Collector of Lost Things (2013) and Rebecca Hunt’s Everland (2014), this thesis explores texts set in Australia and Canada, and extends to the polar regions as the limit of Victorian settlement, in which the landscapes are simultaneously beyond human encapsulation and profoundly susceptible to human impact. Taken together, these analyses demonstrate that settler colonial neo-Victorian novels incorporate and disrupt the process of identification with the colonial natural world, and in doing so present settler colonial ecological identity as unresolved. Moreover, I argue that it is by reading these texts with a focus on their representations and interrogations of the natural world that their ambivalence about belonging becomes evident, and that this unsettled effect is a reflection of postmillennial concerns about ecological awareness. In their witness-bearing to the trauma of settlement and their questioning of what it means to belong to an environment, these texts are willing to face the possibility of permanent unsettlement.

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