The Effects of Female Sensationalist Fiction in the Victorian Era
“It is impossible to talk of the adult female reader as though she of all time held a consistent, stable identity”
– Kate Flint
“Escape reading gives us a hint about what is being escaped from ; it may reflect a rearward image of the tone of the times”
– Sally Mitchell
In the Victorian epoch, the coming of female sensationalist fiction ( or merely “sensation fiction” ) was widely condemned by critics. Their chief expostulation was how adult females were portrayed in the novels, which went against the general perceptual experience of them as being virtuous and desexualized. Furthermore, critics believed the books would take to the eroding of society’s ethical motives and codifications. The counterargument is that by making female characters that were non mirror images of the stereotyped Victorian adult female, esthesis fiction was really a good add-on to the literary and cultural landscape. And because the books were so widely accessible, they were able to distribute this message of authorization and emancipation to a ample audience. This paper will analyze both these claims, with the ultimate justice being non critical discourse but history itself.
Sensation fiction refers to a group of novels foremost published in England in the 1860s, including Wilkie Collins’sThe Woman in White, Ouida’sFolle-FarineandStrathmore, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’sLady Audley’s SecretandThe Doctor’s Wife. The qualifier “sensation” refers to the condemnable Acts of the Apostless and suspense embedded within the narrative, along with a broader description as a “condensation for Victorian anxiousnesss over a scope of issues including cultural aesthetics, gender, category, race, and religion” ( Bernstein, 2 ) .
For illustration, the rubric character ofLady Audley’s Secretengages in bigamy, attempted slaying, incendiarism and fraud, all in an attempt to accomplish societal promotion. Braddon’s word picture of a adult female who manipulates her individuality and flouts conventional category and gender functions in order to better her batch was typical of esthesis fiction ( ibid ) . The esthesis heroine is the “bourgeois homemaker turned scoundrel: on the surface, the quintessential Victorian angel-in-the-house, but underneath an appealing devil of domestic offenses for which she is ne’er convincingly punished” ( ibid ) .
But possibly the chief ground these characters were so controversial was because they acted like work forces. Lady Audley was non merely familiar with wires and railroad timetables, she was besides knowing in poesy, and had the ability to cite it ( Flint, 284 ) . In fact, her independency was so strong that she didn’t even truly need work forces:
“The common enticements that assail and shipwreck some adult females had no panic for me…The mad folly that the universe calls love had ne’er had any portion in my lunacy, and here at least extremes met, and the frailty of coldheartedness became the virtuousness of constancy” ( Braddon, 233 ) .
Determined to foil Robert Audley, Braddon’s heroine becomes independent, aggressive and barbarous, and her battle is a “duel to the death” ( ibid, 208 ) . Although this is so what happens ( Lady Audley is incarcerated and later dies ) , Braddon’s point, that adult females who exercise their strength for their ain terminals instead than their husbands’ , rings true loud and clear.
Critics mostly believed that esthesis novels would take to promiscuousness and moral decay:
“This exceeding status of early life–freedom from restraint, and prematurely liberty and pick and action in esthesis novels, this autonomy is exaggerated indefinitely. There is nil more violently opposed to our moral sense than the arrant unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to aby and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters. We believe it is one head among their many dangers to youthful readers” ( “Our Female Sensation Novelists, ” 353 ) .
In add-on, the rapid and fecund production of esthesis novels was every bit unreassuring:
“The huge addition of novels, largely worthless, is a serious danger to public civilization, a menace which tends to go more and more at hand, and can be arrested by an energetic declaration on the portion of the critics to make their responsibility with painstaking rigour” ( Lewes, 354 ) .
The anxiousness over such fiction was particularly due to “the presence of sexual desire and sexual energy, ” peculiarly when these were written by women” ( Flint, 274 ) . The author and critic Margaret Oliphant, in an 1868 essay, described sensational fiction so:
“We have grown accustomed to the narration of many bangs of feeling… What is held up to us as the narrative of the feminine psyche as it truly exists underneath its conventional coverings is a really heavy and unpicturesque record. Women driven wild with love for the adult male who leads them on to despair… adult females who marry their grooms in tantrums of animal passion ; adult females who pray their lovers to transport them off from hubbies and places they hate ; adult females… who give and receive firing busss and frenetic embracings, and live in a juicy dream… such are the heroines who have been imported into modern fiction” ( Oliphant, 259 ) .
Oliphant was troubled by the “subversive elements” she found in sensational fiction, peculiarly in the typical heroine’s efforts to derive power via her beauty. As evidenced in Ouida’sStrathmore, Marion was particularly guilty of this:
“‘No adult male life could withstand me–not even Lord Cecil Strathmore! ’ And as she thought this last big but to the full warranted idea, Marion, Lady Vavasour, lying back in her fauteuil, with her caput resting negligently on her arm, that in its bend rested on the satin shock absorbers, with that grace which was her curious appeal, as the firelight shone on her disentangled hair and the roseleaf flower of her delicate cheeks, glanced at her ain contemplation in a mirror standing nigh, on whose surface the whole matchless tableau was reproduced with its delicacy and superb coloring, and smiled–a smiling of unagitated security, of brilliant victory. Could she non vanquish whom and when and where she would? ” ( Ouida, 64 ) .
Many other critics agreed with Oliphant in her disapprobation of the manner adult females were portrayed in these books, these “women driven wild with love, ” who “were an insult to the domestic ideal of the genteel heroine of mainstream fiction cherished by the literary establishment…such ‘feverish productions’ mocked this class-bound theoretical account of muliebrity by portraying an aggressive adult female of intense desires ‘underneath’ the pristine, desexualized angel of the house extolled in domestic novels” ( Bernstein, 1 ) .
Both authors and readers of esthesis fiction were branded bounderish and psychotic, prone to sexual promiscuousness and rampant consumerism: “Rather than the soft and thrifty homemaker of domestic political orientation, esthesis fiction constructs the madame monster of the market place, the adult female dazzled by her desires for material acquisitions and animal pleasures” ( ibid, 3 ) . For illustration, after Lady Audley is arrested, she is incarcerated in a sanatorium into which she smuggles all the stuff ownerships she can pull off:
“She had non forgotten her favorite Russian sables even in this last hr of shame and wretchedness. Her materialistic psyche hankered avariciously after the dearly-won and beautiful things of which she had been mistress. She had hidden off delicate tea cups and covered vases of Sevres and Dresden among the creases of her satiny dinner frocks. She had secreted jewelled and aureate imbibing cups amongst her delicate linen. She would hold taken the images from the walls, and the Gobelin tapestry from the chairs, had it been possible for her to make so. She had taken all she could” ( Braddon, 383 ) .
Similarly, critics outfitted the female reader of esthesis fiction with a “diseased appetency, ” whose main symptom was the demand for infinite esthesis novels: “And as exhilaration can non be continually produced without going morbid in grade, works of this category manifest themselves as belonging to the morbid phenomena of literature, called into being to provide the cravings of a morbid appetency, and lending themselves to further the disease, and to excite the privation which they supply” ( Mansel, 482-483 ) . This was personified in Braddon’sThe Doctor’s Wife, which is based on Flaubert’sMadame Bovary. Here, the chief character, Isabel Sleaford, spends all her clip reading Gallic novels as a manner to look for exhilaration in her ain life, which causes her to compromise her housewifely responsibilities ( Flint, 288-289 ) .
Critics believed that such heroines embodied base animate being inherent aptitudes and uncontrolled passion, and were appealing because they were undisciplined and unprompted and had ne’er known restraint ( “Our Female Sensation Novelists, ” 354 ) . The concern was that esthesis fiction imparted unnatural and out cognition. Oliphant marked esthesis novels as “the lower strata of light literature” and “dirty reading defiling good misss, ” which corrupted genteel adult females with illicit cognition of gender, information that should stay the particular horizon of streetwalking, underclass adult females: “All their indecent mentions and exhibitions of out cognition, this intense grasp of flesh and blood, this avidity of physical esthesis, is represented as the natural sentiment of English misss, and is offered to them non merely as the portrayal of their ain province of head, but as their amusement and mental food” ( Oliphant, 258-259 ) .
Privileged-class adult females were restrained, passionless, and dedicated to their duties as female parent, married woman and family director, “of good blood and preparation, ” who did non indulge in such surpluss of feeling:
“It is a shame to adult females so to compose ; and it is a shame to the adult females who read and accept as a true representation of themselves and their ways the ambiguous talk and heavy dispositions herein attributed to them. Women’s rights and women’s responsibilities have had adequate treatment, yet a adult female has one responsibility of priceless importance to her state and her race which can non be overestimated—and that is the responsibility of being pure. There is possibly nil of such critical effects to a state… there can be no possible uncertainty that the evil of adult male is less catastrophic, less black to the universe in general, than the evil of adult female. That is the flood tide of all bad lucks to the race ( Oliphant, 275 ) .
Here, Oliphant was puting up the duality between two types of adult females, the inferior, impure adult female versus the superior, pure adult female. However, while she and others attempted to segregate the readers of esthesis fiction into the former class, the fact was that the audience transcended category differences. “Written in ‘easy and right English’ and circulated both in cheap and dearly-won signifiers, esthesis fiction was accessible to a considerable cross-section of Victorian society” ( Rae, 204 ) . As best sellers, esthesis novels helped spread out the “reading category, ” and were consumed by a wide spectrum of people, chiefly adult females. This included the recreational reader, the compulsive consumer of sensational melodrama, the student, the married woman, sister, and girl, and the female professional ( Flint, 4 ) .
Thomas Wright dubbed the readers of sensational fiction “The Unknown Public, ” which was made up of adult females of working-class beginnings, those of “the counters, the more civilized female handcrafts and the dressmaking and hat shop professions, ” along with those who considered themselves “too civilized to work, and married womans of clerks, tradesmans and artisans” ( Wright, 282 ) . He estimated this group to be every bit big as five million.
Sensation fiction signified a “revenge” for both adult females and the lower class, both authors and readers, on the “sanctioned aesthetics of the privileged” ( Bernstein, 7 ) . The novels were successful in portion because “they touched upon one of the concealed ailments of Victorian society: the pent-up and unrealized lives of adult females. Middle category adult females, pent up in the Victorian place with few mercantile establishments for their energies and possibly entrapped in loveless matrimonies, dreamed about passionate lovers, capable of eliciting their slumbering emotions” ( Fryckstedt, 42 ) .
In this respect, the novels could be considered “mental nutrient, ” as the reader was “habitually acknowledged as possessing a wider, more elusive interpretative system than that granted to the heroine, which contradicted the “dangerously noncritical inanity which so many critics chose to show as being induced by the opiate of esthesis fiction” ( Flint, 293 ) . The “forbidden knowledge” the books carried contested societal unfairnesss and societal functions:
“The novelist who interprets the illicit universe to the legitimate universe, commands from the nature of his place a certain popularity. Miss Braddon trades familiarly with gamblers, and betting-men, and brassy miscreants. She knows much that ladies are non accustomed to cognize, but that they are seemingly really glad to larn. The names of drinks, the trifles of the faro-table, the slang of the sod, the talk natural to a crowd of fast work forces at supper, when there are no ladies present but Miss Braddon ( James, 746 ) .
The thought that esthesis fiction would “breed a plague so foul as to poison the really life-blood of our nation” is amusing ( Murray, 935 ) . Modern critics regard Victorian sensational fiction as positive in that they helped advance women’s opposition to culturally prescribed functions. “By rejecting the priggish moral tone that characterized popular fiction of the 1850s, and by devouring novels filled with offense, passion and sensualness, Victorian adult females readers began in the 1860s to oppugn the constitution ( Schroeder, 87 ) . The books rebelled against the impression that adult females should be inactive, beatific child-wives, absolutely guiltless and sexless. Though the writers were forced to bow to convention and punish aggression and self-assertiveness, and although these novelists were “thwarted in a full geographic expedition of their inventive universe by Victorian convention and stereotypes, they did travel good beyond the codification of repudiation and entry that informed earlier fiction” ( Showalter, 162 ) .
In one sense, since esthesis fiction did non outlive the 1860s, it can be viewed as exactly the impermanent craze its critics labeled it as. However, the world is that these books non merely influenced the literary market place and other authors ( Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot ) , but the nature of women’s functions themselves. Sensation fiction, though tantalizing and racy, besides contained elements of feminism before such a thing even existed. Furthermore, by making a broad audience, including many people who usually wouldn’t be prone to pick up a book, it bridged literary and cultural boundaries. Alternatively of poisoning the state, in many ways the books cured it.
Bernstein, Susan. “Dirty Reading: Sensation Fiction, Women and Primitivism.” Gale Group, v36 n2. Spring, 1994.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth.Lady Audley’s Secret. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Flint, Kate.The Woman Reader, 1837-1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
James, Henry.Literary Criticism. New York: The Library of America, 1865.
Lewes, George Henry. “Criticism in Relation to Novels.” The Fortnightly Review. December, 1865.
Mansel, Henry. “Sensation Novels.” Quarterly Review 113. April, 1863.
Mitchell, Sally.The Fallen Angel: Chastity, Class and Women’s Reading, 1835-1880. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981.
Murray, Vincent. “Ouida’s Novels.” The Contemporary Review 22, 1878.
Oliphant, Margaret. “Novels.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 94. September, 1867.
Ouida.Strathmore. New York: P.F. Collier, 1889.
“Our Female Sensation Novelists.” Littel’s Living Age, 103, 1863.
Schroeder, Natalie. “Feminine Sensationalism, Eroticism, and Self-assertion: M. E. Braddon and Ouida.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol 7, No. 1. Spring, 1988.
Rae, W. F. “Sensation Novelists: Miss Braddon.” North British Review, 4. 1865.
Showalter, Elaine.A Literature of Their Own: British Womans Novelists From Bronte to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Wright, Thomas. “Concerning the Unknown Public.” The Nineteenth Century, 13, 1883.