I just read, with some horror, of a quotation attributed to me on an on-line quotation-churning site. The problem is, the words belong to Wilkie Collins (from The Woman in White). Throughout Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For there are occasional nods and winks to Victorian fiction (to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, to George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, to Charles Reade, for example). These intertextual paraphrases and hints serve a number of purposes. Most importantly, they provide a narrative link to the rich tradition of Victorian novels, which Dakota, set in the mid-19th century, hopes to evoke. This is one way in which literary historical fiction can acknowledge both its literariness and its fictionality (in that it recognizes that it is working within a network of texts that precede it). It is an acknowledgment of influence.
When I use the phrase, “working within a network of texts that precede it,” I am talking about intertextuality. Intertextuality foregrounds the notion that all literary production takes place in the presence of other texts. Julia Kristeva said that “any text is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.” Although Kristeva’s work is far more theoretical and complicated than I am suggesting here, applied to a literary work we might say that the work is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts, and to the structures of language itself.
My first book, Teaching the Postmodern: Fiction and Theory, was a study of how postmodern fiction and poststructuralist theory were in many ways covering the same ground, albeit in very different narrative form. Although my second novel, Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, reads as realist fiction in the Victorian vein, it also reflects, on a deeper level, my postmodern sensibilities, which are inscribed within the novel most obviously through paraphrase and allusion.
The paragraph with the paraphrase, by the way, comes at the end of Dakota‘s “Pre-Amble”:
I am Frances Louise Houghton Bingham, daughter-in-law of John Bingham, wife of his son, Percy, friend of Percy’s sister, Anna, and I mean for this to be my story. It, too, is a story of what a woman’s patience can endure, as well as of what a woman’s resolution can achieve. As to whether that refers in this case to one woman or two, you will have to make up your own mind.
And so, Reader, to Frances, alone in the bedoom she shares with her husband in his father’s home in St. Paul, Minnestoa. It is January of 1874. There is a photograph in her hand.
Now, you, lucky reader, should go right to Collins’ The Woman in White for a great read!