The Reading Lesson: Novel Sensations of the 1860s

“Novel Sensations of the 1860s” is chapter 7 of Patrick Brantlinger’s book The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction. His main point in this chapter seems to be that the detective figure of sensation fiction diminishes the authority of the omniscient narrator of realist fiction. He makes some interesting points, and I particularly like how he responds to D.A. Miller’s contention that detective plots install a force of novelistic surveillance that resembles ideology: you can’t ever get outside of its reach. Following Foucault, Miller is obsessed with panoptic vision, so he sees the detective, and by extension, the novel as a whole, as a panoptic seer. Brantlinger points out that Miller’s argument doesn’t fully account for Bakhtin’s theory that the novel is always dialogic. Miller’s account does seem pretty monologic on the surface, but I need to investigate this on my own more fully, since I know that Bakhtin has no problem calling Tolstoy monologic, so I’m not sure he’d necessarily disagree with Milller…. But it’s an interesting point. Also, Brantlinger writes–based on Jameson’s claim that “the visual is essentially pornographic” (qtd. in Brantlinger 160)–that “surveillance, or the gaze of the detective-policeman, cannot be neatly disentangled from the pornographic gaze in any sensation novel” (160). Brantlinger references the pornographic gaze because sensation novels “operate obsessively, albeit regressively, to see, to render visible, what is unseen or hidden within ‘the secret theatre of home'” (160). So, Brantlinger poses the question: “Surveillance or pornography? […] Beyond the innocent though absolutist eye of the realist author, narrator, and reader, says the sensation novel, there is another, second way of seeing and therefore reading. But that second way of reading/seeing is neither self-evident nor safe” (162).

This is an interesting conversation between Brantlinger and Miller, and I think it relates specifically to my interest in the close-reading practices of sensation fiction–although I think Brantlinger pretty much covers everything I was interested in. But my thinking has taken some new directions since I formulated that interest, so that’s okay. Here’s how Brantlinger characterizes the detective-reader:

As if second-guessing the author, the detective reconstructs the fragmented text of the past–the buried story of the crime or crimes. As  super-reader, moreover, the detective seems to mediate between the novelist and the anonymous, ever-increasing “outlying mass of average readers,” the “unknown public” that Wilkie Collins, for one, both viewed with trepidation and sought to entertain. (146)

And here’s the main claim:

The emergence of the detective seems to be linked to a weakening or defaillancy of narrative authority, which in turn may be linked to a paradigm shift in modes of observation. (146)

Here’s the part where I have some questions:

The detective serves as an expert observer or reader of clues, one who is able to read differently from the (mere) novel-reader. The latter is reduced to hankering after both thrills and facts, while the distinction between the two–thrills and facts–blurs: the ultimate thrill is the final revelation of the criminal truth, a revelation provided by the detective, who after reading the clues can narrate the final, coherent story of the crime and effect a restoration of order. In this way, sensation novels are always allegories of reading that, on one hand, install a new professionalism or expertise while, on the other, validating the contested concept of novel-reading as mere pleasure, mere entertainment. From now on, they suggest, only experts can do the serious business of reading the book of the world. But for ordinary readers, there are newspapers and sensation novels. (146-147)

Hmmm….. I agree with this, overall. But I think there’s more to say here. It’s mostly the use of the words “professionalism,” “expertise,” and “experts” that I think are under-theorized here. First of all, a major part of D.A. Miller’s argument is that detective novels engage in a disavowal of professional crime-solvers, like the police, in favor of their amateur supplements. This is part of what establishes the normativity of surveillance in these novels. Police presence = disruptive, abnormal. Robert Audley or Franklin Blake = normal (and normative). So, I’m not sure that sensation novels really do “install a new professionalism or expertise.” I think the entire point of characters like Robert Audley and Franklin Blake and Magdalen Vanstone is that they are unprofessional and amateur–not experts at all. However, I have argued in other papers that Robert Audley, specifically, does gain expertise over the course of Lady Audley’s Secret (and I think I’ve run across an article that argues much the same thing). However, the novel is, in that sense, a bildungsroman that charts his development and professionalization. Brantlinger partially acknowledges this point: “the detectives in [sensation novels], for example, are often not Auden’s ‘genius from outside,’ but a character or characters directly involved in the story” (157). This is part of my point about Robert Audley’s professionalization: he is only motivated to act as a detective because he’s profoundly inside and involved in the story. As a barrister, he could have been the “genius from outside” in a number of other stories–but only affective bonds can prompt him to act. But Brantlinger concludes this particular point by writing: “In sensation and later mystery-detective novels, however, just as the intractable problem of evil is reduced to a neatly soluble puzzle on a personal level, so the search for self-knowledge is short-circuited” (157). I’m not sure about this. I think that Robert Audley’s narrative is similar to a bildungsroman–I’m not saying it is a bildungsroman, but I think it capitalizes (literally) on that structure–so maybe the search for self-knowledge is short-circuited…. but maybe the search for self-knowledge in a lot of these narratives is similarly short-circuited. I don’t know–I’ll have to examine this some more. The point is that many sensational detectives only become professionalized through the process of solving the crime–and they reach the closure of self-knowledge in these texts precisely because they are solving mysteries intimately connected with their own identities. So, yes, they are expert readers, but only in the way anyone might be an expert reader of her own life. As readers of the book of reality, I think many of them are profoundly amateur, especially when compared to a real “expert” like Sherlock Holmes.


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