That Inevitable Victorian Thing

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

Book - 2017
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In a near-future Toronto where the British Empire never fell, Helena, August, and Margaret are caught off-guard by the discovery of a love so intense they are willing to change the course of the monarchy to keep it.
Publisher: New York, NY : Dutton Books, [2017]
Copyright Date: ©2017
ISBN: 9781101994979
1101994975
9781101994566
Branch Call Number: TEEN JOH
Teen fiction J PBK
Characteristics: 326 pages

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asgellar
Nov 05, 2018

E.K. Johnston took on a challenge with her novel “That Inevitable Victorian Thing”, and while her attempts were admirable, the execution was at best failed and at worst offensive. The book attempts to explore a British Royal Empire that chose diverse matches instead of intermarriage, creating a future where England’s rule spreads throughout the modern world. The matches of young women and men at coming of age are guided by the designs of a genetic Computer—considered both divine and scientific. The Computer is at best a hazy concept. Its power is dubious and the reader can never center themselves with the concept. Yet the lack of explanation of the computer is not the central problem. Instead it’s the wayward manner in which the author attempts to cash in on somewhat offensive manners of supposed ‘diversity’.
The book has a claim of a ‘diverse’ empire wherein the world had slavery in the past, but one that ‘wasn’t as bad’ as the actual slavery of the British Empire. The assuaging of this matter sets an uneasy precedence—anytime slavery is downplayed, especially in the service of a ‘better’ world, we enter dangerous territory. I rooted for Johnston to pull this off, but instead we got the typical ‘rich white people’ book with the white replaced by tinted versions. The culture of the piece was homogenous, and never explored the possibilities of the setting—instead simplifying the piece and avoiding diversity in the characters beyond basic description. There is no complexity or examination in the piece beyond the initial set-up, and this smacks of white perspective and false empathy. Ultimately the piece is still about white privilege, it’s just painted in different colors.
The book is pushed as a LGBTQ book, but I feel the messaging is outdated and dangerous. In the piece, Helena Marcus finds herself to be intersex, but has always lived as a woman in a modern-Victorian society. While it’s stated that the world is matriarchal, men still seem to be the central rulers in all things business, while women are largely peripheral or obsessed with dresses and debutante events. This digs into the ability for women to be freestanding. As the ‘lesbian’ romance progresses in an online chatroom between Helena (as Henry) and Margaret—who happens to be the crown princess—it feels more like a terrible re-envisioning of Cyrano de Bergerac wherein Cyrano has a vagina rather than an ugly visage. When the secret is revealed there is no complexity yet again—a short upset and then they pile into physicality without emotional content. Their love is based on sweet kisses rather than genuine dialogue and human interaction. In the meantime, Helena continues to pursue a relationship with August—her original intended male fiancé. A bisexual intersex character could be fascinating as Jeffrey Eugenides showed us with “Middlesex”, but Johnston lacks the skill and insight to pull this off. Instead she shifts to a pat ending where August will play the ‘beard’ to the relationship between Margaret and Helena, Helena will continue her relationship with August, and the girls will be satisfied to remain closeted as Margaret rules the kingdom. In no way could a relationship so precarious lead to the happily ever after ‘God Save the Queen” she closes with. The fact that Helena has no issue with closeting herself for a lifetime where she is disenfranchised to a lady in waiting is obscene. The fact that August and Margaret are happy to share Helena is uncomfortably unexplored. It’s a story that may have swum in the early 90’s, but in our enlightened LBGTQ era, it is instead lazy and incompetent and highly offensive. As a lesbian, I cannot comprehend why we would create lifetime closeting as a viable venue for young readers to consider—how dangerous and foolish as we know closeting doesn’t work toward a happy life. I hope Johnston was just ignorant and sloppy with this piece and not intending to create such a callous and foolhardy premise and execution.

s
samcmar
Oct 19, 2017

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is an interesting read. It focuses on the idea that colonialism didn't have it's chance to manifest in North America and Europe, and the idea that groups of people regardless of race or religion can live in harmony. While that concept is somewhat very unrealistic, the idealism behind it is quite wonderful in my opinion. I would love to live in a world where racism doesn't exist, where people respect one another. Again, it's not perfect given racism isn't entirely abolished in the story and class issues still exist, but you get a sense of hopefulness from the cast of characters that they want a better world.

I do want to stress that I think a lot of the Canadian content and Ontario pride in this story may go over the heads of non-Canadian readers, as Canada has some impressive rep in this story. As someone who lives in Ontario, I loved reading the maps and Johnston's discussions of the province within the story, and it was fun to see name droppings for people, places and things that are indicative of Ontario. I recognize this is something not everyone is able to appreciate, but I enjoyed it a lot.

This Inevitable Victorian Thing is wonderfully diverse and I loved how well marginalized people are handled. I think Johnston put a lot of care into the world-building and characters, making the world feel like it could be believable. Margaret, Helena, and August are all characters who, despite their flaws, want to change the world for the better, and I appreciated their hopefulness throughout the narrative.

Personally, I loved That Inevitable Victorian Thing. Yes, it is a slow burn, and perhaps a bit too ideal, but I found myself loving the world and the characters. I loved the larger theme of hope, connection and respect that existed throughout the narrative, and the romance in the story is pretty darn darling all things considered. I think there are aspects that will be difficult for some reads to appreciate, but if you've enjoyed Johnston's works in the past, I don't think you'll be disappointed by this book.

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