Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Maniac in the Cellar: The Sensation Novel and Victorian Theories of Fiction

This is a great chapter, and I think I can put it into an interesting conversation with other books like The Melodramatic Imagination, by Peter Brooks, and Elaine Hadley’s book on the melodramatic mode. Essentially, this chapter distinguishes between sensation fiction and its antecedent genres (stage melodrama, romance, and the Gothic) and between sensation fiction and other contemporary genres, like realism and idealism.

The first point that interested me was that the sensation craze happened at a time when prose fiction had become more serious: “It is no wonder that the sensation vogue appeared all the more formidable at a time when prose fiction could no longer be disregarded, when it had finally established its right to be taken seriously” (Hughes 39). This immediately sets it apart from it immediate predecessors, since the 18th century and the Romantic period–on a very general level–still privileged poetry above prose. This was no longer true in the age of Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope. So right from the beginning, sensation fiction offended because of its ostensible “trashiness.” However, Hughes also points out that this period of sensation was “certainly a time for minor novelists to flourish, and a rare opportunity for authentically popular fiction to make its influence felt in the higher reaches of major literature” (68). I think this is a nice distinguishing factor of this particular decade, and this is one of the things that I think is wonderful about this period.

At this point, I’d like to work through some of the distinctions I see Hughes making in this chapter, between stage melodrama, sensation, and realism–since I’m not sure how I feel about these distinctions yet. The first thing that became increasingly apparent as I got further into this chapter is that Hughes draws very thick lines between sensation and other genres. In Hughes’s account, the universe of the sensation novel is strongly opposed to the universe of a realist novel, and vice versa. But are they really this distinct? I’m interested to see what Hadley will say to this, or what Brooks has to say. Just from glancing over these two other books, I feel like Hadley would be uncomfortable with demarcating a genre so specifically, since she seems to see melodrama as a “mode” rather than a genre. And Brooks seems to see melodrama as the foundation for modernism, just as Hughes sees sensation as the foundation for naturalism–so I don’t know if he would portray sensation’s antecedents as quite as distinct from sensation as Hughes does. So… let me work through some of the broad terms that Hughes employs:

Stage Melodrama:

  • the heroine is the “moral and emotional center of traditional melodrama. It might be said that her sole function on the nineteenth-century stage is to defend her honor against the violence or blandishments of the villain: the core of the dramatic action lies in the conflict between them” (44).
  • characters’ dominant feature is “a self-righteous sense of personal wholeness” (60).

Romance (vs. Sensation Fiction):

  • The Temple Bar: “When before did it ever enter the head of the writer of romance to find a field for the exercise of his more awful powers just at his own door or round the corner? With a due sense of the fitness of things, rather did he travel far afield, and seek, in remote and somewhat obscure  regions, for a reasonable arena wherein to make men and women act outrageously. Outrageous their actions did not seem, happening in places where personal experience had not gone before, and set the boundaries of the probably and the improbable” (qtd. in Hughes 55).
  • “A ‘novel without a hero,’ using Victorian terminology, is hardly paradoxical; character and circumstance belong to the same vision of reality–a reality that is limited but not utterly meaningless. What the Victorian critics find hard to accept, in the case of the sensation novel, is romance without a hero” (62).

Sensation Fiction:

  • The sensational heroine begins to represent “a moral ambivalence rather than a moral certainty. Although the reader is still expected to feel for her, if anything even more intensely, she is no longer invulnerable, but likely to emerge as weak, foolish, impetuous, or vengeful” (44).
  • The heroine of the sensation novel is a participant in crime, blackmail, intrigue, etc, as well as a victim.
  • judged by the mimetic standard of Realism, sensation is often critiqued as “unnatural,” “artificial,” “false,” “grotesque,” etc.
  • “Reade and Collins, in particular, profess to challenge the realists on their own ground and to surpass them according to their own standards. What, after all, could be more ‘real’ than literal fact? When the sensationalists begin to brandish their documentation and their expert testimony, it is time for the critics, perforce, to clarify their concept of verisimilitude” (50).
  • “It is sensationalism, however, that disrupts this comfortable outlook: in mingling elements of both realism and idealism, the sensation novelists create something that belongs to neither. In fact, it is this mixture itself, this disregard of fundamental categories of art, that becomes the focus of the aesthetic objections to the sensation novel” (52).
  • “The sensation novel, however rude in execution, at least recognizes heightening, exaggeration, and foreshortening as legitimate narrative techniques; it scorns the realist values of apparent artlessness and unobtrusive manipulation of effect” (53).
  • “The methodical, predictable ‘reality’ of the Victorian consciousness breaks down under the new order of the sensation novel, with its unsettling distortions and juxtapositions of material that is all too recognizably drawn from the context of modern urban experience” (53).
  • Characters are the victims of circumstances, overwhelmed by plot: this paves the way for naturalism.
  • “When the sensation novelists undertake to restore the exceptional to human life–the terrible, the mysterious, the intense–they find it impossible to do so in terms of character. Instead they rely on external circumstance, which must be stupendous enough in itself to elevate the most commonplace of dramatis personae, to ignite aspects of their being that would otherwise remain dormant. In the sensation novel, character does not resist plot or create it, but is plunged headlong into its turbulent depths. Heroes and villains alike are at the mercy of accident, of external caprice” (57).
  • “Because they are ruled by circumstance, the characters in a sensation novel tend to be weak, vacillating, and inconsistent; they lack wholeness; they lack an integrating central core” (58).
  • “In order to provide some justification for the erratic behavior of their murderers, bigamists, and adulteresses, the sensation novelists are driven to exploit the irrational elements of the psyche” (58).
  • “Evil or antisocial action is no longer the direct result and expression of evil character, as in conventional melodrama, but derives from combinations of circumstances, weakness, insanity, impulse, ‘sensation’ at its most basic” (58).
  • The sensational universe: “Not only are its workings beyond individual control, as in the realist novel, they are equivocal and arbitrary. There are the same limits on human will and significance, but no limit at all on events, as long as they proceed by extremes. Events dwarf character without making any larger sense in themselves; the patterns may be intricate and astonishing, but they offer no clue to the fundamental pattern or meaning of existence” (63).
  • “Destiny, however piously invoked, has no moral content in the sensation novel. […] In the world of the sensation novel, where accident has been canonized in the place of system, anything can happen, while the characters have no chance of learning the rules, whether to play along with them or simply to comprehend” (63).
  • “The ‘plotting’ novelists, in their revolt against realism, assert the primacy of accident […] And they use it not only as a means of harrowing their readers’ nerves but also as a measure of a certain kind of experience that the realists prefer to overlook” (65).
  • sensation novel as absurd: it “begins to combine the absurdity of childish exaggeration with the less familiar absurdity of disorientation, the nonhero’s loss of moorings in a universe where he does not belong. Because it is in touch with the deepest, subconscious anxieties of its age, in spite of its reliance on outworn convention, the sensation novel becomes absurd in a more sinister and disturbing way” (65).
  • Sensation “registers a new uncertainty about the sources of violence and passion, an uneasy feeling that they are close to home and no longer so easily accommodated by conventional morality and religion” (66).
  • “For the critics, the supreme absurdity of the sensation novel lies in its implausible mixture of the contrary modes of perception: romance and realism” (66).
  • “Whether it has bestowed arbitrary suffering or arbitrary happiness, the sensation novel is moving toward an absurdist perspective, in which both the universe and human conduct are irrational and frequently determined by accident. For both heroes and villains, the final nightmare is a loss of control, not only over external events but even over their own actions” (72).


  • G.H. Lewes: “Art always aims at the representation of Reality, i.e. of Truth” (qtd. in Hughes 48).
  • focuses on life “as it actually is,” historically, psychologically, etc. (48)
  • adheres to the mimetic standard of “truth to life”
  • “indeed all nineteenth-century realism is dependent on an instinctive belief in the order and significance of the universe and of ‘life-as-it-is.’ The realist vision is essentially a moral one; the issues are moral ones in this kind of universe, where ‘reality’ itself is moral” (51).
  • “For the Victorians, unlike their twentieth-century successors, ‘truth’ and ‘human nature’ are constants; not only do they have an objective existence that can be observed and imitated by the artist, they obey certain innate laws, predictable and immutable” (51).
  • OBJECTS! “For Thackeray, the archrealist, the province of the novel, as distinguished from drama or poetry, is inherently restricted to the ‘drawing-room’–to the levels of reality where ‘a coat is a coat and a poker a poker; and must be nothing else according to my ethics, not an embroidered tunic, nor a great red-hot instrument like the Pantomime weapon” (Hughes 53-54).
  • “the realists are always willing to lavish their art and their concern on the average man in his average faults and frustrations. The Amos Bartons of realist fiction, however far removed from the center of their universe, still command the aesthetic and moral focus of the novels themselves; they matter in terms of the narrative structure, if not in terms of the reality it proposes to represent” (62).
  • reality “is pervaded by a sense of limitation on the scope and effectuality of human actions; it is ultimately impervious to human will and chicanery” (62).


  • This is also about the representation of Reality and Truth, but it’s a different way of perceiving truth. This perception depends on “some suggestion snatched from nature, in one or other of her uttermost moments, and then carried away and developed in the void” (David Masson, qtd. in Hughes 48).
  • “Although the Victorian concept of Idealism is always susceptible to tinges of utopianism or even simple escapism, its main impetus is toward artistic generalization, toward the portrayal of ‘types’ and universal passions” (Hughes 48).
  • Dickens is often classified as either a successful or an unsuccessful Idealist.


  • According to Lewes, “detailism” “confounds truth with familiarity, and predominance of unessential details. There are other truths besides coats and waistcoats, pots and pans, drawing-rooms and suburban villas” (qtd. in Hughes 48).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Alex Woloch and Sensation

I’m a fan of Alex Woloch’s book The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, so I’ve been seeing connections to this book throughout a lot of my reading. And, since this book is on my exam list, I’m going to explore some of those connections here.

Here are some of Woloch’s key terms:

Character-space: “that particular and charged encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space and position within the narrative as a whole” (14).

Character-system: “the arrangement of multiple and differentiated character-spaces–differentiated configurations and manipulations of the human figure–into a unified narrative structure” (14). “By character-system, however, I don’t mean the interlocking of a number of distinct fictional individuals within a narrative totality but rather the combination of different character-spaces or various modes through which specific human figures are inflected into the narrative” (32).

Worker character: “the flat character who is reduced to a single functional use within the narrative”; this character is “smoothly absorbed as a gear within the narrative machine, at the cost of his or her own free interiority” (25).

Eccentric character: “the fragmentary character who plays a disruptive, oppositional role within the plot”; this character “grates against his or her position and is usually, as a consequence, wounded, exiled, expelled, ejected, imprisoned, or killed” (25).

The Labor Theory of Character: “The nineteenth-century novel’s configuration of narrative work–within the context of omniscient, asymmetrical character-systems–creates a formal structure that can imaginatively comprehend the dynamics of alienated labor, and the class structure that underlies this labor. In terms of their essential formal position (the subordinate beings who are delimited in themselves while performing a function for someone else), minor characters are the proletariat of the novel; and the realist novel–with its intense class-consciousness and attention toward social inequality–makes much of such formal processes” (27).

Asymmetric Structure of Characterization: “many are represented but attention flows toward a delimited center” (30-31). “On the one hand, we have the polycentric arrangement of the story, the plot that pulls in many different individuals, each of whom has a unique (perhaps unelaborated) experience within the story and a unique (perhaps submerged) perspective on the story. On the other hand, we have the single, delimited, finite, and particular shaping of this story into a fixed discourse, the actual discourse that arranges such characters in a specific way. Here, the tendency is always away from a polycentric, or symmetrical, distribution, toward the various forms of imbalance: all the characters still retain some position in the narrative discourse (else we could never place them in the story at all), but these are radically differentiated” (41).

Within these key terms, I see several points of connection to my argument(s) about sensation fiction. For one of these connections, Winifred Hughes’ account of the development of sensation from its melodramatic roots is important: “Whether heroine or villainess, it is always a woman who demands the spotlight in the typical sensation novel” (45). In the melodramatic tradition, the heroine is the angel in the house, the pure, innocent victim whose honor is constantly under attack. Melodrama structures a centralized heroine against a villainous antagonist, while “[w]hat the sensation novel does is to disturb this balance” (Hughes 44).  In Woloch’s terms, sensation fiction changes the nature of the heroine’s character-space. As E.S. Dallas writes in The Gay Science, “When women are thus put forward to lead the action of a plot, they must be urged into a false position. To get vigorous action they are described as rushing into crime and doing masculine deeds. Thus they come forward in the worst light” (45). On a historical level, I think this illustrates Woloch’s theory that different characters “jostle for limited space within the same fictive universe” (13). In the critical response to sensation fiction, the angel in the house is portrayed as jostling for limited space–the incredibly limited narrative space of the heroine–with the likes of Lady Audley and Magdalen Vanstone.

Another possible connection revolves around the question of how the character-system of a novel might shift around when it gets adapted into a play. For example, in No Name, the man that falls in love with Norah Vanstone is re-purposed as Magdalen’s lover. And instead of Norah being a governess, she becomes an invalid. Can a character-system accommodate a system of characters who each take up more than one space? Does that change or revise the concept of character-space?

Leave a comment

Filed under Secondary reading

Sensation Quotation

  • “I feign probabilities; I record improbabilities: the former are conjectures, the latter truths: mixed they make a thing not so true as gospel nor so false as history; viz, fiction” (Charles Reade, Preface to “The Autobiography of a Thief”, qud. in Hughes 17).
  • “The sensation novel, be it mere trash or something worse, is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation. It is necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by its explosion; and a tale which aims at electrifying the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting” (from the Quarterly, qtd. in Hughes 18).
  • “I know a great many excellent people who reason against plain experience […] who read the newspaper in the morning, and deny in the evening that there is any romance for writers or painters to work upon in modern life” (Wilkie Collins, No Name, qtd. in Hughes 18).
  • Description of the representative Collins production: “a kind of literary centipede of a hundred different joints, each separately alive, and each popping out of the one that preceded it” (“Aurora Floyd,” Spectator XXXVI (January 31, 1863), p. 1586, qtd. in Hughes 19).
  • Sensation novels depend on “breathless rapidity of movement; whether the movement be absurd or not matters little, the essential thing is to keep moving” (G.H. Lewes, qtd. in Hughes 24).
  • “the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction” (Wilkie Collins, Preface to Basil, qtd. in Hughes 24).
  • “If any one writes a novel, a play, or a poem, which relates anything out of the ordinary experiences of the most ordinary people–some tragedy of love or revenge, some strange (though not impossible) combination of events, or some romance of guilt and misery–he is straightaway met with a loud exclamation of ‘Sensational!'” (an unsigned article in All the Year Round entitled “The Sensational Williams,” qtd. in Hughes 28).
  • “life itself is similarly sensational in many of its aspects, and Nature is similarly sensational in many of her forms, and art is always sensational when it is tragic” (an unsigned article in All the Year Round entitled “The Sensational Williams,” qtd. in Hughes 28).
  • “The mystery of evil is as interesting to us now as it was in the time of Shakespeare; and it is downright affectation or effeminacy to say that we are never to glance into that abyss” (an unsigned article in All the Year Round entitled “The Sensational Williams,” qtd. in Hughes 28).
  • “What is held up to us as the story of the feminine soul as it really exists underneath its conventional coverings, is a very fleshly and unlovely record […] Now it is no knight of romance riding down the forest glades, ready for the defence and succour of all the oppressed, for whom the dreaming maiden waits. She waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through, and a host of other physical attractions, which she indicates to the world with a charming frankness […] were the sketch made from the man’s point of view, its openness would at least be less repulsive. The peculiarity of it in England is […] that this intense appreciation of flesh and blood, this eagerness of physical sensation, is represented as the natural sentiment of English girls, and is offered to them not only as the portrait of their own state of mind, but as their amusement and mental food” (Mrs. Oliphant, in an article for Blackwood’s, titled “Novels,” 1867, qtd. in Hughes 29-30).
  • “[Braddon] has brought in the reign of bigamy as an interesting and fashionable crime, which no doubt shows a certain deference to the British relish for law and order. It goes against the seventh commandment, no doubt, but does it in a legitimate sort of way, and is an invention which could only have been possible to an Englishwoman knowing the attraction of impropriety, and yet loving the shelter of the law” (Mrs. Oliphant, in an article for Blackwood’s, titled “Novels,” 1867, qtd. in Hughes 29-30).
  • “We think that the “Lady Audley” style is more national, more our own. A good sound, brutal murder, with plenty of blood in it, chimes in better with our patriotic feelings: it is not un-English […] If there must be sin and crime to give flavour to English fictions, we vote for murder” (J. Herbert Stack, “Some Recent English Novels,” Fortnightly XV (June 1, 1871), p. 739, qtd. in Hughes 32).
  • “They [sensation novels] are unnatural because any one who would introduce the play of strong passions into the milk-and-water commonplace of modern society is forced to be unnatural” (Leslie Stephen, “The Decay of Murder,” p. 726, qtd. in Hughes 33).
  • “Crime, indeed, has always been a theme for dramatic poets; but with the old poets its dramatic interest lay in the fact that it compromised the criminal’s moral repose. Whence else is the interest of Orestes and Macbeth? With Mr. Collins and Miss Braddon (our modern Euripides and Shakespeare) the interest of the crime is in the fact that it compromises the criminal’s personal safety” (Henry James, “Miss Braddon,” p. 111, qtd. in Hughes 33).
  • “Although the picture was ugly, there was a strange weird attraction in it, and people went to see it again and again, and liked, and hankered after it, and talked of it perpetually all that season, one fraction declaring that the lucifer-match effect was the most delicious moonlight, and the murderess of the Earl the most lovely of womankind, till the fraction who thought the very reverse of this became afraid to declare their opinion, and thus everybody was satisfied” (from Eleanor’s Victory, by Braddon, qtd. in Hughes 37).
  • “I hate all mysteries […] And as for secrets, I consider them to be one of the forms of ill-breeding” (Lady Janet in Collins’ The New Magdalen).
  • “Among English novels of the present day, and among English novelists, a great division is made. There are sensational novels and anti-sensational, sensational novelists and anti-sensational, sensational readers and anti-sensational. The novelists who are considered to be anti-sensational are generally called realistic” (Trollope, from his Autobiography, II, 41, qtd. in Hughes 38-39).
  • “According to Miss Braddon, crime is not an accident, but it is the business of life. She would lead us to conclude that the chief end of man is to commit a murder, and his highest merit to escape punishment; that women are born to attempt to commit murders, and to succeed in committing bigamy” (“Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon,” North British XLIII (September 1865), pp. 98, 101, 104, qtd. in Hughes 40).
  • “[M.E. Braddon] may boast, without fear of contradiction, of having temporarily succeeded in making the literature of the Kitchen the favourite reading of the Drawing-room” (“Miss Braddon,” North British, p. 105, qtd, in Hughes 42).
  • “Unhappily, the sensational novel is that one touch of anything but nature that makes the kitchen and the drawing-room kin” (“Sensational School,” Temple Bar, p. 424, qtd. in Hughes 42).
  • “It is on our domestic hearths that we are taught to look for the incredible. A mystery sleeps in our cradles; fearful errors lurk in our nuptial couches; fiends sit down with us at table; our innocent-looking garden walks hold the secret of treacherous murders; and our servants take $20 [in pounds] a year from us for the sake of having us at their mercy” (“Sensational School,” Temple Bar, p. 422, qtd. in Hughes 44).
  • “When women are thus put forward to lead the action of a plot, they must be urged into a false position. To get vigorous action they are described as rushing into crime, and doing masculine deeds. Thus they come forward in the worst light, and the novelist finds that to make an effect he has to give up his heroine to bigamy, to murder, to child-bearing by stealth in the Tyrol, and to all sorts of adventures which can only signify her fall […] It is not wrong to make a sensation; but it the novelist depends for his sensation upon the action of a woman, the chances are that he will attain his end by unnatural means” (E.S. Dallas, The Gay Science, qtd. in Hughes 45-46).
  • Detailism: “confounds truth with familiarity, and predominance of unessential details. There are other truths besides coats and waistcoats, pots and pans, drawing-rooms and suburban villas” (G.H. Lewes, “Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction” (1858), reprinted in Alice R. Kaminsky, ed., Literary Criticisms of George Henry Lewes, p. 87, qtd. in Hughes 48).

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Maniac in the Cellar: The Sensation Paradox

Winifred Hughes’ The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s is still probably one of the seminal works on sensation fiction. It was published in 1980, a year after The Madwoman in the Attic, but after initially thinking the two works were in dialogue, I don’t think Hughes’ title seems to refer to Gilbert and Gubar’s book. In fact, The Maniac in the Cellar doesn’t seem to be very polemical or even argumentative so far. It reads more like a guidebook for people interested in sensation fiction, so I think it must have been published at the beginning of the renewed critical interest in the literature of sensation.

The first chapter sets out to define what Hughes calls the “sensation paradox,” so I’ll start there. “What distinguishes the true sensation genre, as it appeared in its prime during the 1860s,” Hughes writes, “is the violent yoking of romance and realism, traditionally the two contradictory modes of literary expression” (16). So, here’s our first key term in this chapter:

Sensation Paradox:

The subject matter of the sensationalists is at once outrageous and carefully documented, “wild yet domestic,” extraordinary in intensity and yet confined to the experience of ordinary people operating in familiar settings. The narrative technique combines a melodramatic tendency to abstraction with the precise detail of detective fiction, an unlimited use of suspense and coincidence with an almost scientific concern for accuracy and authenticity. (16)

Also: “The chosen territory of the sensation novelists lies somewhere between the possible and the improbable, ideally at their point of intersection” (16).

Apparently, the sensationalists claimed Dickens as their prototype (5), although Hughes also notes that the “new genre had no perceptible infancy; its greatest triumph, as well as its masterpieces, coincided with its initial appearance” (6). As many other histories of the genre argue, sensation is democratic in its appeal, but it locates the threat and source of terror not in the wilds, the distant criminal classes, or the unknown terrors, but in the middle-class household, the territory of the familiar.

In addition to Dickens being the prototype for sensation, Hughes identifies two direct antecedents: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Eugene Aram (1832) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). While Eugene Aram anticipates the sensation novel by presenting a respectable criminal, Jane Eyre deals with the same themes of sexuality and madness that explode in later novels like Lady Audley’s Secret.

I find this chapter especially helpful because it gives an account of the relationship between sensation fiction and sensation theater: “one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted” (Wilkie Collins, Preface to Basil). According to Hughes, the term “sensation drama” “may actually have predated its counterpart ‘sensation novel'” (14). (See Booth, English Melodrama, p. 145; and Tillotson, “Lighter Reading,” p. xii.) Sensation drama also exemplifies the sensation paradox because:

By the time the sensation drama appeared, theatrical technicians were capable of furnishing the required spectacle–fires, earthquakes and cataracts, naval battles in real water, detailed reconstructions of pubs or railway stations, horses and other live animals, even real hansom cabs driven across the stage. Thus the most extravagant and incredible excesses of melodrama could be effectively combined with a literal exactness in physical setting. (11)

Sensation novelists strove to exploit their novels’ connection to their dramatic roots, according to Hughes, because they aspired to “the art of Shakespeare” (15).

This Hughes chapter is also great because it identifies a few sensation sub-genres that I’m interested in investigating further:

The Newspaper Novel: This sub-genre has its origins in actual criminal reports (18). Apparently, Charles Reade collected newspaper clippings in order to give him ideas for plots, and in order to offset the “dangers of the imagination” (Hughes 18). Wilkie Collins also used the newspaper as an origin-point, saying, “I know a great many excellent people who reason against plain experience … who read the newspapers in the morning, and deny in the evening that there is any romance for writers or painters to work upon in modern life” (No Name, p. 69).

The Bigamy Novel: This one is self-explanatory for me. It’s East LynneLady Audley’s SecretAurora Floyd, etc. This type of novel was distinguished by its use of a popular trope, le mort vivant, or the dead-alive. Usually, le mort vivant is a spouse lurking somewhere in the background, presumed dead, but resurfacing at inopportune times.

Hughes also talks a bit about exaggeration as an artistic and rhetorical technique in sensation:

Villainy, disasters, emotions–everything in a sensation novel is larger than life; intensified, distorted, prodigious; invested with the quality of nightmare. Humanity in seen in extremis, perpetually at the point of crisis. Under these conditions, rhetoric begins to flourish, whether establishing an eerie atmosphere or conveying hysterical dialogue or lashing emotion into frenzy. (22)

Dramatic Method of Narration: This is the theory, influenced by drama, that “fictional characters should ‘play out the play’ on their own account, without authorial interference, since, in Dickens’ phrase, ‘it is, as it were, their business to do it, and not mine.’ The author should dramatize his story rather than himself, abandoning the role of omniscient puppeteer favored by Thackeray and Trollope. Not only should the narrator refrain from comment in his own voice or discursive digressions in the manner of Fielding, he should also avoid explicit dissection and analysis of character, as practiced preeminently by George Eliot. Even the direct representation of a character’s thoughts, an obvious convention of narrative, is frowned upon as an intrusion beyond the narrator’s sphere as well as an interruption in the flow of events” (24-25).

This dramatic method of narration is interesting for my project because the “dramatic theory of characterization encourages the practice of individualizing by means of externals–through dress, mannerisms, and physical peculiarities” (25-26). This includes material objects, I think, because, as Hughes says, “when the aim is sensation, scene is everything, a raison d’etre in itself” (25).

Finally, Hughes gets to the topics of sex, vice, and crime. While Victorian reviewers castigated sensation novels as threats to morality, Hughes argues that they were really just exhibiting a distaste for female passion and sexuality. In Hughes’ account, sex and murder are inextricably linked in sensation, since the “weaker” sins of the flesh are less legally punishable than murder, which comes to acquire “a certain legitimacy, even wholesomeness” by comparison (32). Perhaps, Hughes writes, “sexual repression finds a convenient outlet in violence” (32). Eh. I’m unconvinced by this part of Hughes’ account, partly because it doesn’t really square with Foucault’s repressive hypothesis. In fact, Hughes is enacting the repressive hypothesis through this reading, and I think that the entire genre of sensation fiction is part of the proliferation of discourses that grow out of confessional sexuality. Murder in these novels attempts to shut down discourse, to contain it, to stave off confession.

“The Sensation Paradox” chapter ends by identifying the sensation novel as protonaturalism, which I think is interesting: “In the sensation novel, the most outlandish fantasy meets up with the hard detail of protonaturalism” (34). Also, Hughes mentions Victorian critics who attempt to come up with explanations for sensation’s appeal based on rationality. E.S. Dallas, for one, sees “the craving which exists among us for sensation” as “but the reaction from over-wrought thinking,” merely the frivolous leisure of a genuine “age of thought” (The Gay Science, p. 299-300, quoted in Hughes 35). She also mentions Ruskin’s essay on “Fiction, Fair and Foul,” which “at least recognizes the crucial role played by the drab monotony of urban life, which may produce an unnatural appetite for excitement” (Hughes 35). This makes me think of Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” which basically says that the blase attitude is endemic to big cities. I’ll leave this summary with one of the chapter’s last sentences:

In a self-styled “age of analysis and criticism,” of rational and scientific explanation, the missing dimension of transcendence was liable to take on strange and twisted forms. (37)

This could relate to my interest in affect and rationality in close-reading practices within sensation novels. More on this to come.


Filed under Secondary reading

The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer

The last sentence of this novel is bizarre: “Johanna and Mark lived long and happily together, enjoying all the comforts of an independent existence; but they never forgot the strange and eventful circumstances connected with the string of pearls” (347). Thomas Preskett Prest is known as a “hack writer,” so I guess I don’t have to worry about the lack of psychological depth that that last sentence displays–after all the trauma Johanna and Mark have been through, how can they possibly not remember the “strange and eventful circumstances connected with the string of pearls”???? Why would their forgetfulness even be a question?

But what really intrigues me here is that the novel ends with the string of pearls–which shouldn’t be weird, given its title. But for me, this string of pearls is exactly what makes the object-relations in this 1846 novel different from those of the novels in the sensation decade. Basically, nobody in The String of Pearls really cares that much about this string of pearls. (Compare this to the pearls in Foul Play, which represent so many things and have so much affective weight…) Also, nobody really seems to know where these titular pearls come from. Colonel Jeffery tells Johanna that Mark Ingestrie got the pearls somewhere in his colonial adventures, but he hears this second-hand, from Mark’s friend Thornhill. During a shipwreck, Mark gives the pearls to Thornhill, thinking that he won’t survive, and wanting Johanna to have them as a token of his love. Here’s the part where, in a sensation novel, these pearls would have enormous emotional significance. In fact, Magdalen Vanstone and Frank have a similar relationship, and Magdalen treasures every trace of Frank she has in her possession. But here in The String of Pearls, Thornhill loses the pearls, and his life, to Sweeney Todd, and Johanna dismisses their affective significance altogether:

but what are pearls to me? Oh! would that they had sunk to the bottom of that Indian sea, from whence they had been plucked. Alas, alas! it has been their thirst for gain that has produced all these evils. (58)

And she later reiterates:

‘I do, indeed, care little for them,’ said Johanna, ‘so little, that it might be said to amount to nothing.’ (82)

So… we aren’t really encouraged to care about the pearls finding their way back to their rightful owner–which is a much different relationship than we have to, say, Magdalen’s inheritance, for example.

In fact, once Sweeney Todd gets ahold of them, hijinks ensue, and it’s hard to tell whose cause we should root for. At first it seems like Sweeney Todd is the wrongful owner of the pearls, but then a gang of thieves tries to steal them from him, and the narrator starts editorializing:

There is something awful in seeing a human being thus hunted by his fellows; and although we can have no sympathy with a man such as Sweeney Todd, because, from all that has happened, we begin to have some very horrible suspicions concerning him, still, as a general principle, it does no decrease the fact that it is a dreadful thing to see a human being hunted through the streets. (65)

So… now we kinda want Sweeney Todd to get away with the pearls?! And he does. And the pearls continue to circulate throughout the novel. And they eventually end up back with Mark and Johanna, as the novel’s final sentence indicates. But who cares? Nobody. The pearls are more of a plot device.

These matter-of-fact object-relations distinguish The String of Pearls from the account Lynn M. Voskuil gives of sensation drama, for example. Voskuil uses Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism to explain the “talismanic properties of commodities,” which “were precisely a function of their familiarity, their status as everyday, usable items” (78). Marx’s account of commodities, according to Voskuil, goes something like this:

Products are transformed into commodities, he says, when they begin to circulate in the marketplace and, in the act of exchange, appear to develop social lives of their own, independent of the producers who made them. What is more, commodities seem to have social lives their makers lack, for as private individuals working independently, the producers do not interact with each other directly–only their products do. (77)

In this sense, the string of pearls seems like a fetishized commodity, since it does develop a social life of its own through the act of exchange, and it does circulate independent of its producers (who are completely effaced).

However, Voskuil goes on:

Noteworthy in Marx’s account is the paradoxical doubleness that commodity fetishism promotes. How can real, everyday items becomes [sic] spectacles? How does their down-to-earth familiarity come to seem fantastic? Marx answers those questions by suggesting that we habitually engage in a complex suspension of disbelief. (77)

This applies neatly to sensation drama, as Voskuil shows, because mundane items become exoticized onstage. However, does this doubleness exist in the string of pearls? Is it both an everyday item and a fantastic spectacle? I don’t think so. At least, not compared to the objects that drive subsequent sensation plots. The string of pearls is merely an exchange-value… although, I guess in Marx that leads right into commodity fetishism…. But what I mean is that, given its “exotic” origins, the string of pearls is curiously un-exotic, relative to the objects in sensation literature. Johanna rejects it as a fetishistic object, and despite the last sentence’s connection of it with memories of “strange and eventful circumstances,” it seems strangely devoid of any emotional significance. It’s like an afterthought that reminds Johanna and Mark of their eventful past, whenever they happen to glance at it for a second.

Character List:

Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet Street. He has a special shaving chair that’s attached to a trap door, so that when he leaves the room to “get a sharper blade” he pulls the lever that drops his unfortunate client 20 feet below, onto a stone-floored basement. They usually die on impact, so that he can send their meat to Mrs. Lovett to bake into her famous pies and keep their money and/or valuables for himself. He employs apprentices, who he sends on errands while he’s killing people, but once the apprentices start suspecting something fishy, he has them committed to a madhouse and later killed. Johanna Oakley and a magistrate (Sir Richard) eventually catch him in the act and he gets hanged.

Tobias Ragg: Sweeney Todd’s apprentice, who starts suspecting mischief early on in his apprenticeship. He’s terrified of Sweeney Tood because Todd tells him that he once caught Tobias’s mother stealing from a wealthy family in whose service she was employed. Todd says he will accuse Tobias’s mother and get her hanged if Tobias doesn’t cooperate submissively with everything he says. But it’s not long before Tobias begins to suspect that Sweeney Todd is killing his customers, so, wracked by guilt, he decides to act upon his suspicions and search Sweeney Todd’s house. He finds huge caches of jewels and other valuables (including tons of hats). After this discovery, he heads to his mother’s house to say goodbye, intending to escape to sea. However, Sweeney Todd shows up and convinces Tobias’s mother (who is actually not guilty of any theft at all) that he is insane and needs to be committed to a madhouse. He eventually escapes with the help of a fellow madwoman (who’s not really mad).

Johanna Oakley: She’s in love with Mark Ingestrie, but Mark has no money, so he goes off to sea to make his fortune. He sets a date by when he should meet her and ask her to marry him, but when he doesn’t show up by the date, Johanna assumes the worst. She believes he is dead, and her fears are partially confirmed by Colonel Jeffery, who has never met Mark, but has heard Mark’s story from Mark’s friend, Thornhill. After Thornhill goes to be shaved and never returns (surprise, surprise), Colonel Jeffery investigates and shares his findings with Johanna (who he also falls in love with). After discussing her situation with her best friend, the romantic Arabella Wilmot, Johanna decides that Mark may have met his end at Sweeney Todd’s establishment, so she goes undercover dressed as a boy and becomes Sweeney Todd’s new apprentice. In this role, she displays much more poise, clear-headedness, and control over her emotions than poor Tobias, and becomes partially responsible for bringing Sweeney Todd to justice. She gets reunited with Mark, and they live happily ever after.

Mark Ingestrie: He’s in love with Johanna Oakley, but decides to seek his fortune abroad so that he can make enough money to marry her (and also have adventures, of course). After surviving a shipwreck in the Indian ocean, he gives a valuable string of pearls to his friend Thornhill, asking him to give the pearls to Johanna Oakley, since Mark thinks he will die at sea. He doesn’t die, however. Through a series of events that the novel doesn’t ever narrate, Mark makes it back to England, but he’s completely destitute when he gets there. He gets a job at Lovett’s bakery, only later finding out that the only way you can quit that job is to die. He bakes the pies, which is great at first, because he’s starving. But after he gets tired of only eating meat pies, he subsists on baked flour and makes a desperate attempt to escape. The desperate attempt leads him to break into a secret chamber, which presumably reveals that the meat pies he’s been making for several months are actually made of human meat. He escapes by flattening himself under a tray of pies and being hauled up in the pie elevator from his bakery prison cell. He denounces Mrs. Lovett, who promptly dies of poison (with which Sweeney Todd tainted her brandy).

Leave a comment

Filed under Primary literature (novels)

The Rhetoric of the Backlash

Still no real argument in my dissertation, but the prospectus is done, and now I’m trying to continue my thinking in preparation for my qualifying exam. So, right on schedule, I think I have a new direction for my argument-less dissertation. As one of my committee members pointed out, it looks like I’m partly interested in writing a reception history of sensation novels and their theatrical adaptations. In fact, adaptations are part of reception, so this could be a focus I should pursue more deeply.

I don’t have any specific ideas about this yet, but I want to record this thought, since it’s something I want to come back to. And it reminds me of the origin of my interest in this project. When I first decided to research sensation literature and adaptation, I was thinking of one of my groups of friends, who all had newly-minted master’s degrees in English, but who were all–gasp!–reading the Twilight series. I read the series, too, when I needed some brainless reading right after having finished my master’s thesis. And why do I feel the need to preface my reading of Twilight with the peer-pressure excuse (all my friends were doing it!) and the “look how smart I usually am” excuse (I have a master’s degree!)??? Because of the backlash that attends any hugely successful pop-culture phenomenon. And maybe the rhetoric of the backlash is something I should take more seriously for my project. (As it relates to sensation fiction, not to Twilight, of course.)

Here’s some of that backlash against Twilight:

But, just like with sensation fiction, there’s always a backlash against the backlash:


And since Twilight is also embroiled in issues of adaptation, I think it’s an apt enough parallel to my project. I’m not particularly interested in Twilight as a novel, a cultural object, or anything other than entertainment, really. What originally interested me about the entire phenomenon was the reactions and conversations of a group of well-educated adults who found themselves connecting with this bizarre, scoffed-at teenage fantasy. I’m interested in the jokes my friends and I told as we watched the movies (yes, in the theater), good-naturedly making fun of ourselves for watching something so…. what? Childish? Unrealistic? Feminine? I’m interested in the justifications we used, the conversations we had about the books/movies, and of course, the sensations that the movies evoked. Because, like it or not, this is a series about courtship, marriage, unregulated sex/sexual desire, the care of children, love triangles, appetite, and the grotesque body. This is the progeny of Victorian melodrama, so I think it’s as good a reason as any for starting a project on Victorian popular fiction, adaptation, and sensation. 

Stay tuned for more on…. the rhetoric of the backlash!!!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized