MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Ellen Stockstill, associate professor of English at Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Humanities, has published a new book on Victorian documentary novels that presented themselves as nonfiction works.
“Faking It: Victorian Documentary Novels” examines 19th century novels narrated through supposedly authentic documents such as letters, diaries and travel journals.
“These are novels, they’re fiction, but they are presented as if they’re nonfiction,” Stockstill said.
For example, the 1900 novel “An Englishwoman’s Love-letters” was originally thought to be authentic — and somewhat scandalous — letters from a woman who had died, but the book was later revealed to be fiction.
Stockstill said she was interested in why an author would choose to write in that manner, particularly because it’s very restricting. Writing a novel through letters from one character’s perspective can be more limiting than having an omniscient narrator, for example.
But any writing form constricts in some kind of way, Stockstill said, and she was most interested in how writers worked creatively within those constraints.
“Sometimes the constraint itself [and] the limitations are what makes the work of art work,” she said, adding that authors are still drawn to the documentary novel form today. “The best thing I discovered was just how vibrant this way of writing still is.”
Stockstill said she is inspired by authors who approach the writing form, knowing it will be difficult, and still create something beautiful — and she hopes readers are, too.
“I hope they come away with greater appreciation for these kinds of books,” she said. “One of the things I really want to show is the creativity of these writers, and I hope that’s inspiring.”
Stockstill’s research interests include Victorian literature, history and culture, as well as the history and form of the novel. She has published essays on the works of Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, HG Wells and Charles Dickens. Before joining Penn State Harrisburg, she was a Marion L. Brittan Fellow at Georgia Tech, and she earned her master of arts and doctorate from Georgia State University.