Neo-Victorian Dirt and Decomposition


  • Nicola Kirkby (King’s College London)



In neo-Victorian writing, which blurs boundaries between the past and present, dirt is extremely mobile. Through close analysis of dirt-evoking encounters in Michel Faber’s works The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), and The Apple (2006); Adam Roberts’s novel Swiftly (2004); and Iain Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), this article explores the link dirt provides between Victorian sensory experience and modern imaginings of the period. Unclean matter does more than simply add authenticating grime to literary recreations of the Victorian past. Commencing with bodily dirt, this article reveals unresolved ethical ambiguities raised in these four provocative works. These works humanise neo-Victorian characters but depict bodily processes in graphic, exposing detail. Non-bodily dirt, meanwhile, has remarkable freedom to move in these texts but becomes implicated in the universal movement of all material towards a state of entropy. Neo-Victorian fiction bridges past and present experience without downplaying material differences that distinguish Victorian life from our own. This article examines how neo-Victorian fiction self-consciously employ dirt as a means of articulating problems raised by creatively engaging with a past age, while also shedding light on how fictionalisation might help us understand Victorian dirt.