Reflection by Julia Fuller

I confess that the rich material culture history of Abigail Joseph’s Exquisite Materials came as a welcome escape from the fraught affective experience of life in our present moment. I felt myself transported from the pandemic-induced seclusion of a cramped Manhattan apartment into the capacious world of Victorian things. Dangerously pleasurable were my symptoms of the “fetishization of the archival,” which the “Manifesto of the V21 Collective” has diagnosed as “positivist historicism.” [1]

Joseph readily acknowledges these material seductions of the book, characterizing her approach as “a curatorial enterprise… that enjoys display,” and as “unabashedly invested in the details of the past” (22). Yet this is an archival study that takes seriously the V21 Collective’s critique of a positivist historicism that reveals little else critically. Using a methodology she terms “archival presentism,” Joseph shows “that such details—far from leading us toward a definitive map of the Victorian period… are perpetually twisting around, shooting backward, leaning forward” (22). What I want to take up here is the utility of her archival presentism for engaging the archive of Victorian material culture to center queer subjects, then extend the method beyond her scope to include racialized subjects in the conversation.

Archival presentism’s critical contribution is in the work of defamiliarizing us to references for human difference established in and through Victorian objects and social practices. The method draws less familiar ways of responding to the world from a Victorian material record that privileges dominant culture as the standard and limits us to perceiving queerness through scandal and deviance from a stable gender identity. By focusing on objects that circulated in the mainstream but were also receptive to the multiflorous affective resonances of a queer sensibility, Joseph wiggles this empirical history loose from dominant ideology and its normalizing regimes of sexual difference. Her first chapter on the relatively well-known trial of Ernest/Stella Bolton and Frederick/Fanny Park for cross-dressing and sodomy demonstrates this well. Attending to the material extravagance of the pair’s fashionably-equipped female wardrobe as detailed in court reports and news bulletins on the case, she shows us the queerness inhabiting the very same practices of femininity integral to the perception of sexual differentiation in the mainstream.

Joseph’s subsequent chapter on the newly-rediscovered subject Jane Furneaux shows the full potential of archival presentism to reveal temporal and epistemological oscillations in the formulation of identity. Over a decade after the Boulton/Park trial, the gender non-conforming Furneaux adopted the identity of a disgraced gentleman involved in the scandal, extracting details of his personal history from media coverage to sustain and fund an openly queer existence. Furneaux’s reconstitution of the stuff of male homosexual subculture into “the genetic material of her own self-invention” models a queer self-reproduction that was neither invisible nor persecuted in its fluidity, and attests to the generative potential in the material indeterminacy of queerness (84). A fruitful avenue for further exploration would be to consider how the ability to leverage the instability of gender and sexuality hinges upon race: Furneaux sustains her impersonation by forging official government correspondence, including letters from Queen Victoria herself; whiteness enables a queer, cross-dressing woman to credibly project herself at the epicenter of British imperial power.

Although Joseph doesn’t extend her critical practice of archival presentism to racialized subjects, I’d like to end by thinking about its potential for countering dominant versions of history in the context of intersectional forms of identity. The much-anticipated special journal issue on Undisciplining Victorian Studies, published in full in late October just as I was delving into Exquisite Materials, argues that the tendency to treat gender and sexuality as race-neutral has left our field “severely behind the times in understanding and highlighting the differential construction of femininity across race and space.” [2] My own work on sportswomen brings to mind a recent legal ruling impacting the South African runner Caster Semenya, whose gender non-conformity circulates in the mainstream, akin to Joseph’s historical subjects. In 2016, Semenya won Olympic gold; this past September—on the basis of invasive sex testing as violent, dehumanizing, and widely-discussed as the examinations for sexual deviance inflicted upon Bolton and Park—international courts upheld regulations that require her to medically suppress her testosterone levels in order to continue competing in women’s sports. Semenya’s body, queer, Black, and from the Global South, is held to different standards of femininity in order to be perceived as ‘authentically’ female. The presentism of a Victorian logic of biological determinism apparent in Semenya’s case demonstrates how the reassertion of nineteenth-century gender and sexual norms operates in naturalizing racial injustice even today. Hence, the points of instability around gender and sexuality revealed by Joseph’s archival presentism may be the exact places where Victorian studies ought to train historicist attention to challenge power maintained through racialized categories of difference.

[1] “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” V21: Victorian Studies for the Twenty-First Century

[2] Chatterjee, Ronjaunee, et al. “Introduction: Undisciplining Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies 62.3 (2020): 374.

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