Gordon Bigelow
Rhodes College

Creative Commons 4.0 by Gordon Bigelow. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Renée Fox

The Ohio State University Press, 2023. 300 pages.

ISBN: 9780814215494

In a 1986 book, the great Irish critic Seamus Deane contended that Gaelic culture in Ireland “was well and truly dead by the end of the eighteenth century”. His point was that centuries of violent incursion and intensive settlement – involving the confiscation of land as well as the suppression of language and faith – had by this point altered patterns of Irish life so indelibly that efforts to mobilize a pre-colonial cultural unity always involved some form of deliberate reconstruction. The passage in full reads as follows: “The various forms of artificial respiration on Gaelic culture had no hope of ever reviving it as such. It was well and truly dead by the end of the eighteenth century. But as an idea or as an ideal, it continued to live” (28). With both the elegance and the brutal directness that were the hallmarks of his writing, Deane encapsulates a critical sensibility that would shape the development of a specifically Irish postcolonialism. The metaphor is searing, as it invites us to picture the Celtic revivalists of the Victorian and modernist generation – heroes of nationalist historiography and literary tradition – kneeling over the corpse of a colonized country, trying to inflate its cold lungs with their warm breath. In that figure Deane brings together several of the most decisive intellectual currents of the period. He draws on a certain left scepticism about the use and misuse of knowledge among elites, á la Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition (1983), as well as the corrosive analysis of origin stories developed in poststructuralist philosophy. These turn together with some of the theoretical legacies of the age of decolonization, in particular the heightened awareness of empire’s sweeping effects at the level of culture. One of Fanon’s core observations, for example, was that the idea of preserving a pure and authentic native culture was often deployed by settlers and their indigenous allies in defence of the colonial order (236-248). Insisting that the pre-colonial culture was alive, essentially unchanged and untouched by modernity, can work as a tool of political reaction, a way of denying the historicity of the colonized or the formerly enslaved.

These strands of thought merged in Deane’s writing into a particular kind of postcolonial perspective that would inspire many and exert considerable influence on the rise of Irish Studies as a modern academic field. It also gave considerable offense, irritating both national pietists, with its suggestion that their articles of faith were mobile and contingent, and unionists, who resented the implication that Gaelic culture had been killed off by English settlement, i.e., that anybody had colonized anybody else to begin with. But until I read Renée Fox’s wonderfully sensitive and provocative book, I never understood how many Irish and British thinkers in the nineteenth century conceived of the past in exactly this way: as a lifeless body that might be revived with the lively spirit of the present. Fox shows, across remarkably different genres and registers, how writers used “images of reanimated corpses to scrutinize how the Victorian historical imagination makes the past legible and useful in the present moment” (2). In Fox’s hands the figure of the reanimated corpse becomes remarkably resonant, echoing through Victorian debates on aesthetics and historiography, and forward to the undead obsessions of contemporary fan fiction and TV. Fox is a professor in the Literature program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she co-directs both the University’s Dickens Project – which sponsors major annual conferences and programs on British literature – and its new Center for Monster Studies. The intellectual range and omnivorous cultural sensibility suggested by these commitments is everywhere on display in this book. Written with verve and wry humour, it is as deeply invested in contemporary methodological debate as it is in Victorian poetics, as curious about the zombies that stalk the figurative landscapes of nineteenth-century prose as those that shambled across the movie screens of the 1970s.

Fox works at the start of the book to isolate and theorize the specific trope she traces, distinguishing it most importantly from the now-familiar topos of spectrality. When writers describe the past as a dead body to be reanimated, they are not imagining a past that lives on in some ghostly or spectral form.  These writers are inventing a “deliberately unhaunted gothic” whose significance, she argues, has been little understood (9). Instead of imagining a historical present that cannot shake off the influence or threat of some early trauma, some disturbing event that continues to live on, they evoke past worlds that are “well and truly dead” and then imagine what it would mean if they could be made to wake up and walk around in this changed landscape of the present. She makes a definitive case for the pervasiveness of the trope as she surveys some of the most influential of the period’s historical thinkers. Michelet, she reminds us, understood the job of the historian explicitly in these terms, arguing that the scholar’s purpose is to “exhume” the “too-forgotten dead” and give them “a second life” (cited in Fox 15). According to Froude, the measure of Carlyle’s success as a historian was that he “brings dead things and dead people actually back to life” (cited in Fox 33). Standish O’Grady, a crucial influence for Yeats and for the Celtic revival movement in general, modelled his own practice as a historian on that of Carlyle, whose “blazing” words, he said, had the power “almost to wake the dead” (cited in Fox 18).

If a romantic and conservative historiography sought rather straightforwardly to bring a dead past back to life, the literary artists Fox considers prove much more sensitive to the dangers and complexities involved when we seek to wake the dead. She begins with Shelley’s Frankenstein, showing importantly how different the imagination of this book is from the “necromantic” aspirations of these historians. She points out the way that – little noticed in previous criticism – Shelley’s text avoids any discussion of the historical bodies that were used in the making of the creature. Frankenstein, she proposes, is thus not about the reanimation of previously dead things but about the principle of animation itself, a meditation on the process of creation and its aesthetic and formal implications. Writing on Dickens, Fox finds the reanimation topos working to produce a related but more specific reflection on literary form. From early on, Dickens was criticized for making characters that seemed artificial, like cardboard cutouts or puppets, without the animating spark of real life. Lewes compared them to the dead frogs of Luigi Galvani’s well known 1786 experiments, whose limbs were made to twitch and wiggle by electric current. “Their actions”, Lewes wrote, “want the distinctive peculiarity of organic action, that of fluctuating spontaneity […] they are as uniform and calculable as the movements of a machine” (cited in Fox 99). But for Fox, this aesthetic of cultivated artificiality is part of an “immanent critique” of the naïve realism that perspectives like Lewes’s take for granted (100). In her reading, Dickens’s books “reimagine the signifying power of language as a ghastly act of imagination” (82). The book moves then to the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, in a chapter focused primarily on The Ring and the Book. The emphasis is again on the range of aesthetic and formal concerns invoked in the poems’ self-conscious determination to invoke the voices and images of the dead.

Fox concludes with chapters on Irish literature in the early period of the Celtic revival, focusing on works by Yeats and Stoker. With Yeats she concentrates on the early work, which she holds up as an underappreciated “bridge between Victorian Studies and Irish Studies” (139). Working with his early folklore collections, as well as with the long narrative poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin”, she places these texts into dialogue with a series of British poems about museums, showing how both look at the business of assembling and reassembling the fragments of a past age into modern exhibits. But where Keats, D. G. Rossetti, and Hardy reflect anxiously on the imperial violence of collecting – think of the Parthenon sculptures propped up in the British Museum – Yeats is ambivalent. For Fox, his work considers the collection as a potentially valuable “site for the synthesis of a national sense of self”, even as it delivers a “warning […] against the immersive lure of Celticism” (139, 176). Writing on Stoker’s mummy novel, The Jewel of Seven Stars, Fox provides a compelling account of the Egyptian nationalist movement that grew before and after Gladstone’s Suez Canal annexation in 1882, and she shows how Irish nationalists saw the fates of the two countries as comparable. In this context, Stoker’s bizarre plot about an English collector seeking to reanimate the mummified remains of a five-thousand-year-old Egyptian queen reads as a reflection on Ireland’s complex colonial status.

Fox’s conclusion takes two different and equally revelatory turns. It looks first at recent horror-genre driven rewrites of nineteenth-century British fiction – books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) or Jane Slayer (2019), and their film and TV and YouTube afterlives. Our own time, she shows, is also taken up with the question of the deadness or liveliness of the past, as these fan-fiction outgrowths continue to collect, curate, and revive its artifacts. And, trenchantly, she pushes the formal questions running through earlier chapters with analysis of the postcritical turn of the 2010s, a movement caught up in its own drive to see how (as Rita Felski declares) “words from the past may spring back to life, acquiring fresh vigor and vitality” (cited in Fox 219). If we should think of Carlyle as “the George Romero of the 1840s”, as Fox suggests in an earlier quip (32), we might think also of the postcritical scholar as the modern Michelet. Fox’s book shows us how every age seems to be subject to its own revivalist impulses, struggling with how, and whether, and why we conceive of historical consciousness as necromancy.

Works Cited

Deane, Seamus (1986). A Short History of Irish Literature. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Erwin, Sherri Browning (2010). Jane Slayre. New York: Gallery.

Fanon, Frantz (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press

Grahame-Smith, Seth (2009). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books.