Argument (well, argument-so-far…)

Here’s another articulation of my argument, as I conceive of it right now….

On a broad level, I want to argue that we need to read sensation novels in the context of their theatrical adaptations. As I’ve tried to explore why this is true and why it matters, I’ve begun to position sensation fiction in relation to realism. I think this is an important relationship primarily because it was a relationship that Victorian critics were really invested in. I also think it’s an important relationship for me to work out in my argument because I’m interested in material culture and the ways in which material objects are interpreted in sensation literature. Elaine Freedgood talks about this in the context of realist fiction, arguing that there are “hidden meanings” behind the seemingly meaningless objects that pour out of Victorian realist fiction. This goes along with Thackeray, who says that in his fiction, “coats and pokers are just coats and pokers”–there’s nothing special or metaphorical about these objects. This is why I think Freedgood’s book is so revolutionary–because she posits the meaning behind the things that Thackeray thought were meaningless.

Additionally, G.H. Lewes distinguishes between realism and what he calls “detailism,” which is, I think, what Freedgood is writing about–the details that seem irrelevant to the actual realistic universe (this is a universe that Winifred Hughes sees as a moralistic one). I’m not sure how important this distinction between realism and “detailism” is in the period–perhaps this is just Lewes’s idiosyncratic way of defining “real” realism against less “real” realism–but I think it’s an important distinction with regard to sensation fiction. I’m interested in the “detailism” of sensation fiction. And unlike Thackeray’s realism, which seems to negate its own interest in the objects in its background, I think sensation fiction is also fascinated by detailism. Emerging theories of circumstantial evidence show us that details are interpretable; in opposition to Thackeray’s stance, they are not just “there” in the background–they are part of the story.

In fact, I argue that objects in sensation novels are interpreted theatrically. That is, they are gathered together, they are put in dialogue with one another, and they are made to act out a scene that establishes identity. That’s one reason why we need to read these novels in relation to their theatrical adaptations: because the novels are indebted to the stage for their portrayal of evidence and details. But, I argue, it’s not just “the stage” in general that this portrayal of evidence is indebted to. Actually, it’s stage technology. The melodramatic stage tradition did not read specific objects this closely, and while sensation novels are influenced by melodrama in a lot of important ways, their use of material objects owe more to the stage technicians of the 1860s than to the earlier stage melodramas. When stage technicians started bringing material objects on stage, forcing actors to interact with them in detailed, “realistic” ways, these objects suddenly became more performative, more eccentric. It’s the technology of these objects that the sensation novels often seems so fascinated by. My argument posits–if I can state this hyperbolically–that without Tom Robertson’s use of cups and saucers on stage, for example, later detective fiction like Sherlock Holmes might not have been possible. I want to put the stage technician in the history of the sensation novel, from its precursors in the 1840s to its descendants in the Sherlock Holmes tradition.

Also think about this: staging scenes of identity: there are identities that need to be performed in order to be real…. (Butler, performativity?)

By the end, we get a detective figure that is almost like an object; how do objects constitute objectivity?


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