Some Assembly Required

As my director has said, my prospectus is currently several strands of observations that are not really tied together into a cohesive argument yet. I love it when my life imitates the novels I’m reading…. Currently, in No Name, Mrs. Lecount has a physical description of Magdalen and a piece of her alpaca dress, and she’s desperately trying to put these pieces together to establish her identity, much like I’m desperately trying to put No Name into a larger argument worthy of a dissertation project. 

So, my discovery today is that perhaps, in my last few posts focused on props and “material objects” (whatever that means), I was missing the forest for the trees. What Mrs. Lecount will do is put her pieces of circumstantial evidence together to create an argument, just like Robert Audley does, just like Helen Rolleston and Mr. Undercliff do, just like Archibald and Barbara Carlyle do, and just like all sensational detectives do. It’s never just about how a single object functions in the text–it’s about how all the pieces come together to establish identity, and in most cases, guilt. 

I think I could argue that what we see in sensational detectives is the uber-Victorian collector-impulse. Like many other collectors in Victorian novels, detectives collect artifacts that have some sort of meaning beyond their simple physical use or appearance. This could open up comparisons to novelistic hoarders like Mr. Krook in Bleak House, or even Ms. Havisham in Great Expectations. In fact, perhaps these comparisons explain why novelistic detectives are often depicted as potentially on the brink of madness (cf. Robert Audley, Mrs. Lecount, and Sherlock Holmes). There’s something about picking up something mundane, looking at it critically, and seeing beyond its boring ubiquity that just sets people on edge. These detectives see something in the everyday that nobody else sees–much like Realist novelists. So, this much I can say of ALL the sensation novels I’ve read: the sensation novel, as a genre, foregrounds the process of collection. Individual novels treat this process very differently, which could make for good chapter distinctions: some see a public/private divide in this process of collection, others see it as semi-insane, others see it as an appropriate engagement for men, but not women, etc.

The theatrical adaptations, on the other hand, operate as a venue for the display of these collections, much like a museum (another great Victorian topos). My study of props and set design will show that the pictorial nature of the theater interacts with the same process of collection depicted in sensation novels. Mundane articles of daily life suddenly take on new meaning when they are put on stage, and if putting cups and saucers on stage makes audiences do a double take, then they are acting like detectives. Heidi Holder makes it sound like Victorian audiences were mesmerized by the mundane objects on stage, and if that’s true, then the stage directions alone offer a wealth of material to analyze. Theatrical adaptations literally “stage” collections, as museums do, so that audiences can interact with them visually–and while I can draw lots of connections between this process and the processes of collection in sensation novels, stage adaptations offer a completely new way of seeing the part-to-whole relation that detective plots hinge upon. 

Specifically, what I’m saying is that the temporal medium of the novel is adept at depicting a collection process through time, while the spatial medium of the theater (much like the museum) excels at arranging a finished product that elicits a particular reaction without telling the audience where to look. In other words, you have to submit yourself to the temporal process of reading a novel and putting together the detection plot one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter at a time. As Benjamin says in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the theater cannot guide your eye. It can simply give you the picture–but you decide where to look (at the map on the wall, at the actors arguing in the corner, at the dog barking in the other corner, etc.). Perhaps this is why the detection plots get a bit watered down in the theater, and the melodramatic aspects of the novels get emphasized–because the audience is perfectly capable of being detectives themselves. They can see the evidence for themselves, they can put it together, and they are controlled less by the adapter than by the set designer. 

This (still implicit) argument is important not just for the historical connections I could make to the nineteenth century (the Great Exhibition, museum culture, colonial collection and commodity exchange, etc.), but also because it provides a lineage for the much-debated “special effect” in contemporary cinema. The by-now-cliched argument– “do contemporary filmmakers rely too much on special effects?”–has its roots on the nineteenth-century stage. And theatrical adaptations of sensation novels could show us the connection between capital-R Realism and the “special effect.” (This claim would, of course, require me to research some definitions of Victorian Realism, but I can do that if this line of argument ends up working). 

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