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

2 responses to “The Maniac in the Cellar: The Sensation Paradox

  1. Thanks for this. I read this a long time ago, and was confusing it with Nina Auerbach’s _Woman and the Demon_ (which of course also has some fairly sensational subject matter).

    For me, the crucial idea I got from The Maniac in the Cellar was that the novel becomes a talisman reflecting the world in a sort of sympathetic magic: the novel where everything works out in the end serves to reassure the reader that even though life maybe incomprehensible, everything likewise will work out and make sense. And how (a) the detective story is an especially strong example of this, as it features a central character whose role it is to do the figuring out, and (b) how this sympathetic correspondence gets subverted to great effect when — for instance — Collins jerks the rug out from under everyone at the end of The Moonstone.

    But anyway: thanks for writing this. I’ve been pestered for a long time by not knowing which book it was that I was looking for. Now that you’ve helped me identify it, I look forward to tracking it down and rereading.

    All the best!

  2. schillingklaus

    I deprecate the dramatic method, and I will not be deterred by anyone from writing in the way of Fielding and Thackeray, with long prefaces, interfaces, appendices, authorial intrusions, fourth-wall-breaking, and similar great devices.

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