Challenging Cis-Heteronormativity in The Night Brother

by Emma Catan

Neo-Victorianism features contemporary twentieth- and twenty-first-century depictions of nineteenth-century settings, events, and characters. Specifically, literary and visual works utilise this historical environment (and often, real historical events) to reflect and address contemporary issues. Mark Llewellyn notes how neo-Victorian works often represent “marginalised voices, new histories of sexuality … and other generally ‘different’ versions of the Victorian” (165). While this enables the centring of marginalised identities within works, the oft-used third-person narrative diminishes the emancipatory effect. This paper illustrates how the British author and performer Rosie Garland disturbs this trend. In The Night Brother (2017), Garland actively centres marginalised identities through her use of first-person perspective which allows the protagonists to tell their own stories. Garland uses magic realism as a device to challenge gender essentialist views and contemporary discourses surrounding ‘normative’ appearance. As a literary genre, magic(al) realism includes fantastical events or elements within a narrative that otherwise maintains a ‘realistic’ setting (Baldick 129). The struggle of the protagonists Edie and Gnome can be read alongside contemporary Victorian and Edwardian gender discourses, while reflecting twenty-first century debates about gender identity and exclusion. I contend that Garland’s neo-Victorian fiction reflects and challenges twenty-first century views on cis-heteronormative bodies and identities.

Neo-Victorian scholarship has often discussed issues of authenticity and revision; Kate Mitchell asks, “what claims neo-Victorian novels make to history in general and the Victorian past in particular … what particular versions of the Victorian past do they invoke?” (3). Neo-Victorian works enable authors to raise the visibility of marginalised groups, such as black and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, ‘freaks’, and disabled characters. Despite this, works which might be considered ‘canonical’ have often been set in England, particularly in London; examples of this trend include works such as Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet (1998). Additionally, early critical works, such as Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn’s Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009 (2010) imply that neo-Victorian works “must in some respect be self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” (4). Heilmann and Llewellyn expand on this reasoning, considering that when deciding if a text is neo-Victorian, it requires a certain calibre of literary value (Neo-Victorianism 5). These initial ideas might be considered somewhat elitist and exclusionary, which is ironic within a genre that celebrates the marginalised, as ultimately the concept of a ‘canon’ reinforces the hegemonic restrictions it attempts to deconstruct. However, more recent scholarship has continued to expand the neo-Victorian definition, and Heilmann and Llewellyn themselves have acknowledged how Anglocentric discourses have influenced how we understand the past (“The Victorians now” 26). With more neo-Victorian works set outside of the UK and British Empire (such as Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (2014)), the genre and critical field continues to challenge the idea of what constitutes a neo-Victorian work, including whether a work needs to be set within specific places, or even strictly within the historical dates of Queen Victoria’s reign, to be included within the genre.

There are still boundaries to be challenged within neo-Victorianism, and Rosie Garland’s text presents an important case study for such challenges. Garland is a stage performer in addition to being a prolific writer of shorts, flash fiction and novels. Her body of work not only defies categorisation, but consistently identifies with marginalised identities. Garland’s first novel, The Palace of Curiosities (2013), notably features a first-person narrative style to tell the ‘freak’ protagonist Eve’s perspective. Lin Petterson observes that this tactic contrasts with “the objectifying and dehumanising practices that lie at the heart of the nineteenth-century ‘freak’ imagery” (188). Helen Davies’ works on neo-Victorian freaks also note how this perspective, seen as gazing at the characters, creates a power relationship which “designates the audience as ‘normal’ and the unusual body as ‘other’” (2). Freak narratives have been represented in neo-Victorian canonical works, such as Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), before. However, even Carter’s protagonist Fevvers’ story is filtered to the reader through a third-person narrative, which muffles her voice.

Garland’s novel instead challenges the common tactic of freak narratives privileging the viewer’s gaze which removes the agency of the ‘freak’ protagonists. It is this silencing effect which all her novels challenge through first-person narration in order to restore agency to non-normative characters. The Night Brother (2017) features two ‘siblings’, Edie and Gnome. Over the course of the novel, we learn that they share one body: Gnome is ‘the night brother’, taking over their body at night, while Edie ventures out in the daytime. Edie initially believes Gnome to be imaginary, yet she (and the reader) learns that her mother and grandmother also have male counterparts sharing their bodies.

The Night Brother reflects Garland’s interest in boundaries and categories, and how individuals cannot fit into the restrictive template of gender binaries. By showing the world through their eyes, we can see the tensions which occur when they attempt to abide by cis-heteronormative expectations. Edie and Gnome, two souls in one body, can be read as an extension of the freak – by this, I am referring to bodies which are perceived as ‘abnormal’ or ‘non-normative’, yet Garland’s depiction of these is an empowering reading of such figures, celebrating their diversity.  Non-normative identities are often the object of the gaze, as mentioned by Davies above. Therefore, by reading their experiences through a first-person narrative, we can observe how this authorial choice unpacks the power relation between the ‘freak’ and ‘normative’ reader. This also helps us to understand how The Night Brother unpacks normal/abnormal binaries. Davies observes how our understanding of the ‘freak’ is geographically and historically contingent and shows that it is not a fixed, essential, or universal concept (9). This enables us to consider how discourses surrounding bodily appearance, identity, and gender expression are constructed and maintained by societal institutions, and how these are challenged by non-cis-heteronormative identities such as transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals and communities.

Edie is unaware of her situation with Gnome until she grows into puberty and reacts with horror when she first witnesses her transformation into her ‘brother’: “I shut my eyes but the lids are prised open. My neck twists and I am forced to stare at my naked body. My skin is rippling, like a pot when it comes close to the boil” (Garland, Night Brother 129). Here, Garland uses magic realism as a device to depict Edie and Gnome’s non-normative bodily experience. Garland’s mundane analogy is an interesting authorial choice in this scene, as the domestic metaphor describes an extraordinary occurrence. Evie’s transformation, therefore, provides a useful example of how magic realist elements (in the form of metamorphosis) can be incorporated within neo-Victorian settings, andenables Garland to unpack gender identity issues while rejecting body and gender essentialist discourses.

Edie eventually discovers how to prevent the metamorphosis; by pricking herself with a pin, the pain causes Gnome to withdraw: “So long as I keep a pin beside me at all times and engage in the prophylactic measure of piercing my thigh before permitting myself to sleep, all is well. The scars heal by morning, generally speaking” (Garland, Night Brother 176). Edie’s actions here are depicted as an act of self-harm: she causes herself physical damage to remain in control. Edie embarks on a five-year-long spell of imprisoning Gnome within their body by pricking herself when she senses her counterpart. This enables her to pursue employment and make friends, yet Edie cannot trust others with the secret of her strange existence. By repressing a part of herself (Gnome), Edie is also damaging a balance that the two require, and when she is unable to prevent Gnome from emerging, his reaction is one of vengeful fury.

As individual identities, Edie and Gnome problematise cis-normative gender roles. Edie is consistently presented as not appearing stereotypically feminine as she has broad features and is well-read. Her interest in education is scorned by her mother, who considers reading to “[cause] malfunction of the female organs” (Garland, Night Brother 105). This can be read alongside Victorian discourses surrounding female education, in which women were discouraged from pursuing academic studies due to the perceived risks to their health (Showalter and Showalter 86). We see these ideas reflected in the novel when Dr Zambuco diagnoses Edie as having a “propensity for education, an unhealthy madness for reading” (Garland, Night Brother 112). Edie’s perceived lack of acceptable feminine qualities mirrors that of women who sought education and voting rights during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, protesting discourses which argued that women were incapable of seeking greater autonomy (Liddington and Norris 68–69). Gnome also experiences struggles with his own identity. Seeking to be the man of the family, he often feels stifled by women: “Living in a house of women has dragged me down to their simpering level. I must toughen up if I’m going to make my way in this wide world” (Garland, Night Brother 56). However, he yearns to be treated with love, and seeks freedom to explore – a freedom his existence cannot allow. Notably, Garland uses italics to differentiate between the siblings’ perspectives in the texts; when Edie is in control, Gnome’s voice is italicised and vice versa. The novel begins in Edie’s narrative, so initially we follow her assumption that Gnome is imaginary, yet when Gnome’s narrative appears later, we realise that he is a real individual.

The siblings’ mother presents a conservative approach to cis-heteronormative behaviour, imposing her views on Edie. Edie’s initial struggle can be read through Raewyn Connell’s concept of socialisation, whereby adults convey gender roles to their children through positive and negative behavioural reinforcement, with the children internalising these and conveying them to others as they grow into adulthood (77). This process is critiqued in The Night Brother, as Edie’s internal struggle against the restrictions set by her mother ultimately damages herself and Gnome.

The Night Brother also explores how gender and sexual identities are policed – and challenged if considered non-conformant. Edie later attends a queer gathering which is raided by police. During their search, the officers view her non-conformant body, and are disbelieving that she is a woman (Garland, Night Brother 199). Edie’s non-conformance to Victorian concepts of cis-femininity demonstrates how The Night Brother focuses on how gender identities are often ambiguous, fluid, and rarely conformant to societal expectations. This relates well to Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998), in which they describe trans people’s experiences of being verbally or physically assaulted for accessing gender-specific bathrooms. Halberstam acknowledges that in certain spaces, this danger applies to any non-cis-heteronormative person: “Ambiguous gender, when and where it does appear, is inevitably transformed into deviance, thirdness, or a blurred version of either male or female” (20). Here, Halberstam is referring to the potential challenges non-gender-conforming individuals might face in a public bathroom, but in The Night Brother, Edie’s experience at the police raid demonstrates how neo-Victorian works can at the same time depict Victorian discourses surrounding femininity and reflect contemporary concerns around policing of gendered identities – and gendered spaces.

The siblings’ struggle is compared to their grandparents and parents’ experiences in the form of their mother and grandmother. Their mother strictly controls her counterpart Arthur, while their grandmother has a balanced existence with her male identity. Neither Edie nor Gnome are aware of the family tradition, until their grandparents confess to Edie. Their grandparents reveal that they co-exist as a sort of dyad, rather than splitting their time, and use pluralistic pronouns: “I am me. We. Us. Both. Neither. All” (Garland, Night Brother 355). The family ‘curse’ is one that the grandparents joyfully live with, in stark contrast to their children (and grandchildren), thereby positively portraying non-cis-normative gender identities.  Davies contends that in neo-Victorian representations, the ‘freak’ character is not always oppressed or portrayed negatively (6). Garland reflects this attitude in The Night Brother through Edie and Gnome’s eventual resolution and particularly through their grandparents’ portrayal. They offer the possibility of finding an equilibrium in their identity by rejecting binary, cis-normative gender definitions in existing as their grandparents do. This is especially relevant to consider alongside the current context of using specific pronouns within daily life and how we thus self-police our identities according to societal norms. The Night Brother features several instances in which Edie either self-polices herself – through her pin pricking – or identities are policed; notably, the raid on the queer gathering, and, later, an attack on a suffrage meeting that Edie attends (Garland, Night Brother 306–307). We can read the Police’s actions through Louis Althusser’s concept of the “repressive state apparatus”, which imposes social control via violence, and the ideological state apparatuses of the education system, legal systems, and medical discourses which combine to perpetuate the ideological position of the dominant party (96). The Police here largely represents the “repressive” state apparatus, but we also see instances of how the plurality of ideological state apparatuses operate (Garland, Night Brother 306–307). Dr Zambuco’s arguments are illustrative of how nineteenth-century medical professionals, as a form of ideological state apparatus, ensured the continued oppression of female agency and rights (Garland, Night Brother 112).

Edie and Gnome therefore face a struggle against their own internalised repression and societal forces which seek to reinforce cis-normative gender roles. It is only when discovering their family history that they reconcile and are able to live like their grandparents. Their reunion as a dyad – neither female nor male – illustrates how cis- normativity, whether it be bodily or in gender constructs, is not a fixed, essential, or universal concept for Garland.

Garland’s stance reflects established theories of gender identity being a socially constructed, unfixed phenomenon (West and Zimmerman 125), as Edie, Gnome, and their mother all, at least initially, strive to adhere to cis-normative roles. Judith Butler argues that gender is a repetitive performance, used as a survival strategy to avoid censure: “Discrete genders are part of what ‘humanizes’ individuals within contemporary culture; indeed, those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (522). Edie’s mother exemplifies this approach, and her strict parenting embeds gender essentialist concepts within her children, partly contributing to their dilemma. Throughout their experiences, Garland unpacks essentialist notions about fixed gender roles, revealing the slippages that can occur within individual gender identities.

By setting the novel in Manchester, Garland not only challenges the London-centric focus of the genre but uses a city which had a radical history of societal structures in nineteenth-century England. As a centre for emerging suffrage movements and social reformists, Manchester provides an ideal space for genderqueer identities like Edie and Gnome. Garland’s decision to set the novel in her adopted home city is therefore a fitting one, as Manchester’s history provides a useful space to explore issues affecting different types of identity.

To date, relatively little critical attention has been given to Garland’s work, yet she herself notes that there is need for further works on identities, boundaries and how authors (and their readership) challenge these boundaries, as contemporary society and culture has a habit of downplaying their value for ‘normal’ readership (Garland, Lecture at Northumbria University, 2020). This is useful not only for neo-Victorian literature, but for the wider field of contemporary literature today. As we acknowledge the increasing visibility of black and ethnic minority voices through movements, such as Black Lives Matter, continue debates surrounding trans rights, gender identities, and challenge fixed binaries, The Night Brother is an important example of a work which actively centres non-cis-normative identities positively and challenges cis-heteronormative discourses which surround us today.


Emma Catan, “Challenging Cis-Heteronormativity in The Night Brother,”  Alluvium, Vol.9, No.4 (2021): n.pag. Web 6 September 2021.   DOI:

Contributor Attribution

Emma Catan (she/they) is a third year (part time) PhD candidate at Northumbria University. Their thesis explores cross-dressing and transgression in the neo-Victorian city; analysing works by authors such as Sarah Waters, Peter Ackroyd, Rosie Garland, Laura Lam, Sara Collins, and Rod Duncan. Their research interests include gender, sexuality, class, and policing spaces in literature and popular culture. Their literary interests include contemporary literature, Victorian, neo-Victorian, steampunk and speculative fiction, crime fiction, and fantasy literature.

Twitter: @academicmeeple

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