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Disability studies?

In the middle of reading the newest addition to my project, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, I realized that the plot hinges partly on yet another disables person–Steeve the “Softy” Hargraves. Similarly, I’m going off on yet another argumentative tangent here, but I’ve got to try everything out and see what sticks. How many sensation novels I’ve read have a disabled character who is somehow central to the plot? I think all of them. Lady Audley is MAD (supposedly), Steeve Hargraves is lame and “soft” in the head, that character from The Moonstone whose name I don’t remember is lame, Anne Catherick from The Woman in White is kind of mad (maybe?), Lady Isabel gets disfigured in a train crash, and the list goes on. I could probably do an interesting reading of these characters’ representation on the stage as somehow akin to a Victorian freak show–especially given the research I’ve found about the performance of Lady Audley’s Secret in a madhouse, played by madwomen. Of course, the drawback to this plan I’m forming is that I’d have so much Foucault to read, but that’s not a bad thing.

What if disability is somehow central to sensation literature (both novels and plays)? Perhaps disability presents a problem to be solved, or a problem that somehow cannot be solved, in the same way that narrative necessitates conflict and resolution. Perhaps narrative structure itself works according to a certain logic of disability, where a problem or secret distorts an otherwise mundane world. And how does this narrative logic of disability signify onstage? 

If I went in this direction, I’d pair Lady Audley’s Secret with The Woman in White, since that would just be a chapter about madness. Then maybe I’d pair Aurora Floyd with The Moonstone, since that could be about physical disability. I guess I’ll have to read more Charles Reade and Ouida to see if I can carry this through to those figures as well. This could certainly work for Sweeney Todd too. 

Sigh. This would take a whole new critical apparatus, but if the connections are there, then I have to follow them. As one of my colleagues just said today, your argument = the thing that’s easiest to write about. 

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Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading

This is from Eve Sedgwick’s book Touching Feeling, and the subtitle of this essay is awesome: “Or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You.” I probably do, Eve Sedgwick, I probably do.

Sedgwick acknowledges that paranoid methods of reading have helped draw attention to hegemonic class, gender, and race relations. However, she points out two things about this: first, even though paranoid reading can be wonderful, it’s only one among many relationships a reader can take to a text; and second, even though paranoid reading points out hegemonic social relations, it doesn’t follow that anything necessarily needs to be done about those hegemonic relations. In her account, D.A. Miller comes across as a guy on a street corner with an “the end is near” sign, to which she says…. “Yeah. So?” In her words: “for someone to have an unmystified view of systemic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences. To be other than paranoid […], to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity of enmity or oppression” (127-128). Here’s a bit of a tangent, but this, I think, is the response to so many people I’ve heard who shake their heads at a piece of critical writing and say, “umm…. that’s a really reparative reading….” as if that critique positions the writer as naive or unenlightened at best, revisionist and retrograde at worst. Sedgwick reminds us, though, that reparative reading does not necessarily deny the “reality or gravity of enmity or oppression.” Good to remember. 

Even more troubling, for her, is this: “it seems to me a great loss when paranoid inquiry comes to seem entirely coextensive with critical theoretical inquiry rather than being viewed as one kind of cognitive/affective theoretical practice among other, alternative kinds” (126). Again, she’s not saying that paranoid practices are necessarily unwarranted, but just that they’ve become hegemonic in their own right–and they’re not the only methodology out there. 

Then she goes on to define paranoia:

  • Paranoia is anticipatory: “The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed, the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se, including both epistemophilia and skepticism. […] The unidirectionally future-oriented vigilance of paranoia generates paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward: because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known” (130).
  • Paranoia is reflective and mimetic: “Paranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood, and it, in turn, seems to understand only imitation. Paranoia proposes both Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first–to myself. […] one understands paranoia only by oneself practicing paranoid knowing, and […] the way paranoia has of understanding anything is by imitating and embodying it” (131).
  • Paranoia is a strong theory: Sedgwick quotes Silvan Tomkins for a definition of “strong theory”: “Any theory of wide generality […] is capable of accounting for a wide spectrum of phenomena which appear to be very remote, one from the other, and from a common source. This is a commonly accepted criterion by which the explanatory power of any scientific theory can be evaluated” (134). Here’s Sedgwick: “As strong theory, and as a locus of reflexive mimeticism, paranoia is nothing if not teachable. The powerfully ranging and reductive force of strong theory can make tautological thinking hard to identify even as it makes it compelling and near inevitable; the result is that both writers and readers can damagingly misrecognize whether and where real conceptual work is getting done, and precisely what that work might be” (136).
  • Paranoia is a theory of negative affects: Positive affects are about seeking pleasure; negative affects are about avoiding or forestalling pain. This one is fairly self-explanatory.
  • Paranoia places its faith in exposure: “Whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practice, an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se–knowledge in the form of exposure. […] paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility” (138).

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Textual Harassment: The Ideology of Close Reading, or How Close is Close?

I think this is from Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic, and I read it awhile ago, so I’m just going to focus on the main points and their application to my project (well, to my project as I conceived of it in my prospectus). 

Armstrong argues against predominant methods of theorizing close reading that organize themselves around a thought/feeling binary. “A rationalist poetics,” she writes, “founded on the antithesis between thought and feeling which still goes largely uninvestigated in our culture, refusing the importunities of the desire of the text, acts as a screen for a more difficult and subtle problem. Sexuality, feeling and emotion are associated with a language of affect which is deemed to be non-cognitive and non-rational. Affect falls outside what is legitimately discussable” (86-87). 

Here’s her thesis: “The task of a new definition of close reading is to rethink the power of affect, feeling and emotion in a cognitive space. The power of affect needs to be included within a definition of thought and knowledge rather than theorized as outside them, excluded from the rational” (87).

And what is affect? Here’s Armstrong: “What we term affect, I would suggest, is the cathecting or build-up and release of energies in this intense analytic process, as well as the process itself” (93).

And a bit more: “I am not proposing a paranoid model of reader and text, but I do believe that all reading that is not reading for mastery necessarily gets caught up with, imbricated in, the structure of the text’s processes, and that this is where thought begins. The intensity of this experience can be renamed as affect and consigned to the non-rational, but this is an impoverishment. Arguably, close reading has never been close enough. It has always been the rationalist’s defence against the shattering of the subject. It has always been engaged with mastery, and the erotics of the text have been invoked to endorse the reader’s power over it” (94-95).

This is on my list because I think that the close-reading trajectory that I’m charting progresses along this thought/feeling binary that Armstrong tries to deconstruct. Sherlock Holmes–at the later end of my trajectory–is the type of close-reader that Armstrong finds problematic. He has no feelings, no emotional ties to the “texts” he reads. In evacuating feeling from his close-reading methodology, Holmes strives for mastery over his texts. Also, he’s always chastising Watson for his anti-rational romanticization of the crime narratives he relates.

Sensation fiction, on the other hand, enables Armstrong’s analysis. I think that sensational detectives, in a proto-Armstrong method, blend the power of affect into a cognitive space. I’ve already traced this idea through most of the texts I’m working with so far, so I won’t recount that all here. But this is what I’ll say about Armstrong if I’m asked…

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On Methodology

One of my biggest fears (which will absolutely happen) is that my exam committee will ask me about my methodology. There was a section on “method” in my prospectus, and I think it discussed affect theory, thing theory, theories of close reading, etc. The problem with that is that I still don’t know much about affect theory, and probably don’t know as much as I should about thing theory either.

But I do have a vision for how I want to be able to answer this question, so that’s something I actually can talk about. I want to be like Lynn Voskuil, Elaine Hadley, and David Kurnick. Their methodologies are graceful and rich. Lynn Voskuil uses the Victorian theory of “natural acting” as a lens through which to read her primary texts. Elaine Hadley reads a variety of texts and social events through the lends of what she calls the “melodramatic mode,” which is more than a simple genre, but is also a gestural language, a method of interaction, a method of political communication, etc. And David Kurnick writes that he wants to reverse engineer Henry James’s “scenic method” in order to account for the theatrical failures of major novelists. 

Here’s what I admire: you can’t just pin these folks down to a school of thought. They don’t announce their theoretical labels with bumper-sticker tags like “deconstruction,” “Marxism,” or “feminism.” They’re more elegant and subtle, like the Victorians, hahaha. Seriously, though, these methodologies feel organic, like they’ve grown from the subject itself. That’s what I want. I want a methodology that feels like it came from my research topic. I guess that would make me a historicist, which I suppose is the over-arching methodology I’m admiring here. 

So I’m going to say all that when they ask about my methodology. And I’m going to say that so far, the thing that I’m hanging onto is the “legitimate” vs. “illegitimate” theater. I haven’t seen anyone do for this what Elaine Hadley did for the melodramatic mode, so maybe I could do it? Maybe I can find a cache of reviews and articles and cultural instantiations of theatrical legitimacy and illegitimacy and can use that to build a theory that might account for how material objects function in sensation novels and their theatrical adaptations. I’m not sure that elegant methodologies are born this way, but my research so far suggests that this could work, so I’m going to pursue this for now.

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Argument 3.1: Illegitimate Objects

I’m going to try out a new argument that I think might just work. Also, I think it might actually be an argument, so extra points for that. Here goes (nothing?).

Sensation novels of the 1860s are obsessed with the legitimacy and illegitimacy of objects. We can see this in the concerns over forged handwriting, vials of poison taken completely out of context, pieces of clothing that may come from one dress or another, disguises of all kinds, portraits that may or may not be faithful representations of the sitter, antiquities that need to be authenticated, and homemade dresses that just don’t look quite right. We can connect these objects to larger themes about anxieties over illegitimacy: the bigamy plot, disinheritance, false imprisonment, marriage under generally false pretenses, etc. However, I argue that advances in theatrical technology and changes in the format of stage productions exert an influence on these “illegitimate” objects that has hitherto been unexplored. Since these novels were widely adapted for the stage, I think it makes sense to apply the novels’ questions of legitimacy and illegitimacy to a mid-Victorian theatrical context. Illegitimacy is a fraught term for the mid-Victorian theater, and it affects the ways in which objects and object-relations are presented. If we can read a certain “object theatricality” into the sensation novels of the mid-century, then we also need to examine issues of legitimacy and illegitimacy as they apply to the stage.

Legitimate theater vs. illegitimate theater: The Theatre Regulation Act of 1843 changed the hierarchy of London theaters. Before 1843, there were “legitimate” patent theaters–mostly just Covent Garden and Drury Lane–which had received their patents in the 1660s, when Charles II was restored to the monarchy. Patent theaters were the only ones allowed to perform what was known as “legitimate” drama: farce, comedy, and tragedy. Legitimate drama can also be characterized as “spoken-word” drama, since only the patent theaters were allowed to produce plays in which people talked. The other theaters produced “illegitimate” drama, which was everything else: opera, burletta, burlesque, pantomime, extravaganza, etc. These plays might have words, but they could only be sung, not spoken. The Theatre Regulation Act ended the monopoly on spoken-word drama by the patent theaters, but theaters continued to struggle to raise their social legitimacy long after 1843. In 1863, H. J. Byron’s burlesque, 1863; or, The Sensations of the Past Season tries to assert the legitimacy of burlesque:

Burlesque is like the winnowing machine:

It simply blows away the husks, you know,

The goodly corn is not moved by the blow.

What arrant rubbish of the clap-trap school

Has vanished–thanks to pungent ridicule;

What stock stage customs, nigh to bursting goaded,

With so much blowing up have now exploded. (72-73)

Repertory vs. Long Run: Another change in theatrical tradition happens during the mid-century that changes the way objects are presented as “legitimate” or “illegitimate”: the shift from repertory productions to long runs. Repertory theater had dominated English theater, probably since its beginnings in the medieval period. Theaters collected a repertoire of plays and produced those plays in some sort of cycle. This was an efficient production model in small towns or on tours, since in small towns, the audience might be the same for every production, so it made sense to produce a series of different plays in order to keep them coming to the theater. On tours, acting companies had to carry all their equipment with them all over the world, so it made sense to carry only a set number of scenes, etc, and perform an entire repertoire before moving on to the next location (much like a touring band’s set list, I imagine).

By the 1860s, railway travel had vastly increased the number of people coming into and out of London, and advances in steam had cut down on international travel time, which in turn increased the number of tourists in London. Thus, it was easy for many more people to get to London just to see a play. With 1500, even 3000-seat theaters selling out with popular plays, it started to make more sense to shift to a long-run format, in which a theater would produce the same play, night after night, presumably for a new audience. Some of Tom Robertson’s more popular plays ran for over 1000 nights. The long-run format meant that the theater could focus its energies on making the play as scenically elaborate as possible. Scenes and backdrops were no longer generic; they were built anew for each individual play. And thanks to the parallel aesthetic popularity of realism, audiences started to demand more scenic “legitimacy”–in other words, sets needed to look as realistic as possible. If there was a train crash in the play, the audience wanted to see a train crash on stage–and set designers gave them what they wanted.

Archaeology: Archaeologists were discovering all kinds of stuff all over the world. And stealing it from the countries it belonged to. So there you go. Scene and set designers went crazy over archaeological detail. Some even travelled to the countries in which plays were set to study the landscape and ruins–one of them brought a gondola back from a trip to Italy to use on stage. Audiences demanded precise attention to detail, and if scenes weren’t EXACTLY historically accurate, the set designers would hear about it in the reviews. The key word here might be “accuracy” more than “legitimacy,” but it’s a parallel concept, and relates directly to object-relations on stage.

Object-relations in sensation novels should be read in the context surrounding issues of “legitimacy” on the Victorian stage. Since the novels’ use of disguise and role-playing already suggest a theatrical context, and since the novels are obsessed with issues of legitimacy on a variety of levels, it makes sense to see them partially as fictional descendants of the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843. This means that discussions of “legitimacy” should include the valences that that term would have had for the theater.

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Johnny Depp! Sweeney Todd! Too much awesome!!! (But also: c’mon, ladies!)

Thanks to the director’s commentary, I know that this movie version of Sweeney Todd is based on a Broadway play (I guess I could have deduced that from all the singing), so I won’t worry about its anachronism or Victorian-ness. Except that it might be more “Victorian” than the novel. Which is awesome. After watching it for the first time (first impressions are all I have time for this close to my quals), I think that this adaptation took a cheap serial with no continuity and turned it into–what else?!–a sensation novel.

Here’s what happened in the Johnny Depp version: the movie opens with a colonial return (cf. John Hazel in Foul Play, George Talboys in Lady Audley’s Secret, Captain Kirke in No Name, etc.), as Sweeney Todd comes back from being transported for a crime he didn’t commit (yeah, John Hazel, big time). So, already, he’s sympathetic. And he’s aligned with the long-suffering husband figure. The role of Mark is adapted into someone named Anthony (reference to Mark Antony? I don’t really see a connection, but that’s a weird coincidence). He’s on the ship with Sweeney Todd in the opening scene (why? I don’t know. Doesn’t seem to matter).

Sweeney Todd was married to a beautiful woman (hmmm…. much like Archibald Carlyle and George Talboys), but oh no! A caddish judge stole Sweeney Todd’s beautiful wife! He lured her to a party and then kidnapped her! (Wow. Even the Victorians allow sensational heroines more sexual agency than that. Think about that, Tim Burton.) Absolutely none of this happens in the novel, where Sweeney Todd is distinctly working-class, sociopathically incapable of love, and motivated exclusively by money (or commodity fetishism?). This adaptation places him squarely in the middle class–the beloved locale of melodrama and sensation fiction. It also continues the quintessential trope of melodrama: the assault on the virtuous heroine’s virtue (that’s intentionally redundant). The judge (Alan Rickman! I love you, Alan Rickman!) enacts this assault on Sweeney Todd’s wife, and then again on Sweeney Todd’s daughter. Unlike Isabel Vane or Lucy Audley, both of these women maintain their virtue until the end (wow, is this adaptation waaaay more conservative–on a certain level–than Victorian sensation fiction?).

Anyway, Sweeney Todd meets up with Mrs. Lovett and hears the (partial) story of how his wife poisoned herself and how his daughter is the ward/prisoner of the judge. He vows revenge and ends up killing half of London after they decide that, hey, why waste good human flesh by burying it? (This realization comes after they kill a completely superfluous character who recognizes Sweeney Todd’s disguise and threatens to blackmail him for half his profits). The interesting thing about this change is the class issue. When we first meet Mrs. Lovett, she bakes the worst-tasting meat pies in all of London. Why? Because meat prices are so high, that’s why. Again, this adaptation subtly changes the class dynamics of these characters. In the novel, Mrs. Lovett is obviously a good capitalist, but in the adaptation that relationship gets foregrounded a bit more brutally. But as interesting as that is, the adaptation shuts down the subversive gender dynamics of woman-as-capitalist by making Mrs. Lovett fall (kind of?) in love with Sweeney Todd and obviously fantasize about marrying him, domesticating him, and replicating the safe middle-class lifestyle he shared with his first wife. In fact, it even turns out that she has lied to him by implying that his first wife died of the poison she took, when in fact, she is still living as a beggar woman. And Sweeney Todd kills her–kills his wife, not recognizing her, and then kills Mrs. Lovett after he finds out about her lie-by-omission. Side note: in the film, he throws Mrs. Lovett into a furnace, while in the novel, he uses the traditionally feminine method of poison to kill her off. Hmmmm…….

And let’s talk about Johanna, shall we? In The String of Pearls, Johanna is pretty badass for a Victorian heroine. Sure, she falls in love with Mark Ingestrie and waits patiently and passively for him to seek his fortune and come collect her when he’s ready to get married. Okay, very Victorian. But when he doesn’t show, and she starts getting clues that he may have run afoul of Sweeney Todd–that creepy barber on Fleet Street–she takes matters into her own hands. First of all, she tells another guy who’s in love with her: “dude, it’s not gonna happen.” Then, she dresses up as a boy, gets a job as Sweeney Todd’s apprentice, smothers her stereotypically “female” emotions (which, ahem, Tobias was terrible at doing), and starts looking for evidence. It’s Johanna that figures out the mystery of Sweeney Todd’s chair, and Johanna that helps the magistrates catch him in the act. Compare that to the Tim Burton adaptation. What does Johanna do? She sits imprisoned in her room, next to a caged bird (because Tim Burton clearly took Freshman English and learned about symbolism) getting ogled by Anthony (Mark!) and by the judge. When she refuses to marry the judge, he puts her in an asylum (the novel put Toby in an asylum–gender politics!), and she waits patiently for Anthony (Mark!) to bust her out. BTW, at this point, she’s never actually exchanged ANY words with Anthony–she’s really just trying to escape her cage, and any generic white knight will do. Anthony dresses her up as a boy, and then she hides in a box while Sweeney Todd murders her mother (neither of them know it’s her mother). The end.

So. The angel in the house? As it turns out, it’s not just a Victorian thing. This adaptation actually managed to turn Mrs. Lovett–MRS. LOVETT, goddammit!!–into a wannabe conventional Victorian housewife. But there’s still something that is really amazing for my project: the razors. The most amazing thing about this adaptation of Sweeney Todd is that it turns The String of Pearls into a love story–a love story between a man and his murder weapons. I’ve already commented in an earlier post about how disconnected the original Sweeney Todd is from all the objects he collects. He categorizes his collections of souvenirs, but he doesn’t appear to have any emotional connection to them. Even with the titular string of pearls–his biggest “take” ever–he just wants to unload them to the highest bidder. Who cares about the pearls? Not even Johanna cares about the pearls, and they’re a gift from her potentially-dead lover. But not Johnny Depp. He sings a love song to his razors, when he finds them hidden under a floorboard. He gazes at them lovingly as he examines his reflection in their shine. He calls them his friends. Then, when Mrs. Lovett pipes in that she’s his friend, too, he repeats that the razors are his friends. Tim Burton clearly wants us to see them as a prosthesis, an extension of Johnny Depp’s hand, most likely as an allusion to Edward Scissorhands–but it works perfectly for the Sweeney Todd of Victorian fiction. This is a great intertext for my project, because I’m interested in the affective relationships of sensational detectives, and in the object-relations that drive their quests for revenge. Here, we have a middle-class Sweeney Todd from a conventional middle-class marriage, who was the victim of a crime, and returns (colonial-return-style) to solve another crime (via committing brand new crimes) and who becomes attached to the objects of these crimes. Generally speaking, this is a sensational plot (albeit a sexually sterile one, despite the heaving bosoms). Interestingly, the director’s commentary links a lot of the camera-work in this Tim Burton adaptation to a horror-film tradition, to which I say, okay, great. But I see the roots of melodrama here, and the corresponding legacy of sensation fiction strongly influencing this adaptation. Perhaps another question to pursue might be: is modern-day horror the descendent of 19th-century stage melodrama? And that’s a whole other dissertation….

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Victorian Theater: A Timeline

Again, this is based on Michael Booth’s Theatre in the Victorian Age.

1831:

  • Madame Vestris begins her management of the Olympic

1832:

  • First Reform Act
  • Select Committee on Dramatic Literature

1833:

  • Dramatic Copyright Act
  • Dramatic Authors’ Society founded

1837:

  • Death of William IV
  • Accession of Queen Victoria
  • William Charles Macready begins his management of Covent Garden
  • A new train station opens (Euston Station)

1838:

  • Proclamation of the People’s Charter
  • National Gallery opened
  • Coronation of Queen Victoria
  • Paddington Station opened

1839:

  • Vestris-Mathews management of Covent Garden
  • Webster management of Haymarket
  • First theatrical use of limelight
  • Chartist disturbances
  • First Afghan War

1840:

  • Victoria and Albert marry
  • Institution of the penny post

1841:

  • Macready management of Drury Lane
  • Birth of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII)

1842:

  • Presentation of Chartist petition to Parliament

1843:

  • Theatre Regulation Act
  • Macready leaves Drury Lane
  • Thames Tunnel opened

1844:

  • Phelps management of Sadler’s Wells (in north-east London)
  • Webster management of Adelphi
  • First electric telegraph line, Washington-Baltimore

1845:

  • Irish famine

1846:

  • Corn Laws repealed

1847:

  • Covent Garden opened as an opera house

1848:

  • First theatrical use of electric carbon-arc
  • First proposal for a national theater
  • Windsor Castle Command performances
  • Revolution in Europe
  • Chartists disturbances and final petition to Parliament
  • Waterloo Station opened
  • Gold discovered in California

1850:

  • Charles Kean management of Princess’s

1851:

  • Great Exhibition in London

1852:

  • Canterbury Hall opened in Lambeth, first purpose-built music hall
  • King’s Cross Station opened

1853:

  • Buckstone management of Haymarket

1854:

  • Crimean War
  • Crystal Palace opened

1855:

  • Henry VIII runs 100 nights at the Princess’s
  • Metropolitan Board of Works established

1856:

  • Covent Garden destroyed by fire
  • Henry Irving appears in Sunderland
  • Ellen Terry appears at the Princess’s as a child actress
  • End of Crimean War

1858:

  • New Covent Garden Opera opened
  • Swanborough management of the Strand

1859:

  • Charles Kean leaves Princess’s

1860:

  • Victoria Station opened

1861:

  • Death of Prince Albert
  • Civil War in America

1862:

  • Phelps leaves Sadler’s Wells
  • Cotton famine in Lancashire

1863:

  • The Ticket-of-Leave Man begins a run of 407 nights at the Olympic
  • Underground Metropolitan Line opened

1864:

  • Charing Cross Station opened

1865:

  • Marie Wilton management of Prince of Wales’s
  • End of Civil War
  • Assassination of President Lincoln

1866:

  • Select Committee on Theatrical Licenses and Regulations

1867:

  • Standard Theater reopened under John Douglass management
  • Second Reform Act (England)
  • Dominion of Canada established

1868:

  • Gaiety opened under Hollingshed management
  • Reform Act (Scotland)
  • St. Pancras Station opened

1869:

  • Suez Canal opened

1871:

  • Irving joins the Lyceum
  • First Gilbert and Sullivan opera, Thespis, at the Gaiety

1874:

  • Irving plays Hamlet at the Lyceum

1875:

  • Our Boys begins a run of 1366 performances at the Vaudeville

1876:

  • Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India

1878:

  • Irving management of Lyceum
  • Second Afghan War

1879:

  • Harris management of Drury Lane
  • Hare-Kendal management of St. James’s
  • Tay Bridge disaster

1880:

  • Bancroft management of the Haymarket
  • Bancrofts are first to use the “picture-frame” stage
  • First Boer War

1881:

  • First telephone exchanges in London and the provinces
  • Natural History Museum opened

1885:

  • Music Hall Artists’ Association formed
  • Bancrofts leave Haymarket
  • Burmese War
  • Parliamentary Redistribution Act

1886:

  • Colonial Exhibition in London

1887:

  • Empire Theatre of Varieties opened
  • Queen Victoria’s Jubilee
  • International Copyright Act

1889:

  • Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in London

1890:

  • Alexander management of St. James’s

1891:

  • Actor’s Association formed
  • Independent Theatre Society founded by J.T. Grein
  • English Opera House (Palace Theatre) opened
  • American Copyright Act

1892:

  • Charley’s Aunt begins run of 1492 performances at the Royalty
  • Select Committee on Theatres and Places of Entertainment

1894:

  • Elizabethan Stage Society founded by William Poel
  • Manchester Ship Canal opened

1895:

  • Irving knighted

1896:

  • Last Gilbert and Sullivan opera, The Grand Duke, at the Savoy
  • Arthur Collins management of Drury Lane

1897:

  • Bancroft knighted
  • Beerbohm Tree management of Her Majesty’s
  • Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee

1898:

  • Fire at the Lyceum destroys most of the stage props and scenery

1899:

  • Irving management of Lyceum taken over by Lyceum Theatre Company
  • Stage Society founded
  • Second Boer War

1901:

  • Death of Queen Victoria
  • Accession of Edward VII
  • Building of new Harrod’s department store begins

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My argument in talking points…

My exam committee (as they appear in my imagination): Can you articulate your argument for us?

Me: (rambling away…) Yes, but if I could position it a bit first…. I think that the critical work on sensation fiction tends to focus on three novels: The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne. Especially in the 1980s, this is what “sensation fiction” meant. We can see this in Jonathan Loesberg’s “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction,” and we can see it in Winifred Hughes’s The Maniac in the Cellar. I think we can even see it in D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, even though that’s not specifically about sensation fiction per se. But other than George Eliot, he only talks about male authors, and he has two entire chapters devoted to Wilkie Collins (even though Lady Audley’s Secret would have served his point just as well).

In the 1990s, I feel like scholars started branching out from this sensational trinity. Lyn Pykett, for example, positions sensation fiction in relation to the New Woman, and Nicholas Daly positions it in relation to realism and aestheticism. But even so, this continues to reinforce the normativity of novelistic discourse. My project seeks to branch out even further by reading sensation fiction in relation to the theater. I’m interested in arguing that sensation fiction is actually indebted to advances in theatrical technology for its portrayal of circumstantial evidence and material objects. There are at least two excellent studies (by Lynn Voskuil and Elaine Hadley) that examine the nineteenth-century theater (and the sensation theater specifically, in Voskuil’s case) in relation to its technological advances and material properties. These advances brought a whole new level of realism (or “detailism,” as G.H. Lewes would say) to the stage, and I argue that sensation novels capitalized on these details in their plots.

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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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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).

Realism:

  • 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).

Idealism:

  • 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.

Detailism:

  • 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).

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