Affective Collection

Thankfully, my recent work on my prospectus has actually involved writing my prospectus (!!!), so I haven’t needed to work on this blog for a while. But in the middle of writing, I made a new connection, and now I have to think it through some more. So here I am!

My most recent argument is about collecting and epistemology. I think that collection is the epistemology of the sensation novel, since detective-figures learn through collecting. They don’t particularly learn through human interaction; Robert Audley tries to interview Luke Marks, and Luke only gets drunk, for example. Another great example of this dichotomy comes from the Undercliffs in Foul Play: Mr. Undercliff, the handwriting expert, deals with collections. Mrs. Undercliff deals with people, reading their heads and faces for signs of their inner states. Both contribute to the detection plot, but only Mr. Undercliff’s report makes it into the more formalized presentation of evidence at the end of the novel. So, in sensation novels, collections = knowledge.

But so many other divergent collections are flooding before my brain right now. For example, the little pouch that Magdalen Vanstone keeps around her neck–it contains excerpts from her father’s last letter, a lock of Frank’s hair, and something else that I can’t remember. Mrs. Lecount’s collection of reptiles reminds her fondly of her late husband. Mrs. Wragge’s collection of parcels from her shopping trip makes her feel safe and secure, and as odious as he is, I guess we could say the same about Noel Vanstone’s collection of rare curiosities from around the globe. In East Lynne, Lady Isabel turns herself into a walking collection of odd elements of clothing, for the purpose of being near her children. Robert Audley holds on to George Talboys’ trunk for sentimental reasons. And, he only goes about his detective quest out of love for his friend. The same goes for Helen Rolleston, who collects materials only to clear the name of the man she loves. And I suppose we could say the same for all the island collections that Hazel puts together. That’s quite a collection of evidence….

So, this is not just about detection anymore. The majority of collection that happens here is affective collection, which I think relates to the intensely bizarre, disturbing, and amazing souvenir culture of the Victorian period. These were people who wore hair bracelets, took mortuary photographs, and made jewelry out of their pets’ teeth. I’m already saying that the process of collection can drive you mad–I think that could apply to the more neutral epistemology argument, and also to the more loaded affective argument. So, maybe I’m looking at two different modes of collection here. There’s the affective neutrality of the “real” detective, later in the century, with Sherlock Holmes. But in the sensation tradition, collection is always emotionally loaded. These are not novels of crime-solving; these are novels of personal vendetta. One doesn’t collect only because s/he is looking for the truth; one collects also because s/he is in love, or because s/he has been cheated, or because she is a mother separated from her children. 

So, what does any of this have to do with the theater? Lots, I think. Affective collection is what links this tradition to melodrama, for one thing. The plays seem even more obsessed with the representation of altered states of mind (like madness) than the novels do. Choreographed madness in the public space of the theater makes for an awesome (if dense) discussion of affect vs. rationality, which maps nicely onto my separation of collection-modes into affective vs. epistemological. The rambling, baggy, unwieldy sensation novel is itself the type of collection it represents: a mish-mash of objects, characters, plots, and sensations that come together in a gloriously bizarre triple-decker format. But theatrical adaptations, because of their form, rise and fall more regularly. They are more structured, their collections pre-arranged for the audience to see from the outset. How the actors interact with props, costume, and scenery is part of the collection process. I might be veering a bit off-topic now, but I guess the main point is that the sensation novel is not a detective novel: it’s about affective collections, not just solving crime. But the theatrical adaptations move us toward the detective tradition–Dion Boucicault’s adaptation of Foul Play even adds a detective character. Madness is a bit more linear in the stage tradition, perhaps. There’s not as much flirting with madness onstage as there is in the novels; a character just goes mad and then dies right away. I’ll have to keep thinking about this, but at least this argument is making some (slow) progress.


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