Helena Ifill
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The Lady Lisle
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The Lady Lisle features two near-identical boys from different ends of the social spectrum. The possibility of altering the development of their inborn natures through upbringing and education is explored and contested when the two are swapped by the villain, Major Varney. The upper-class child is sent to a middle-class school where he is raised in such a way as to negate detrimental qualities which initially seemed innate. Contrastingly, the lower-class child, James, impersonates the true heir and proves to be selfish, violent and eventually murderous, like his father. Yet it is never entirely clear to what extent James’s behaviour is due to heredity or to his emotionally abusive upbringing. A shift in narrative tone is identified which moves from making allowances for James due to ‘nurture’ towards castigating him as bad by ‘nature’. In this way Braddon raises questions about the malleability or fixity of the personality, about how we define, recognise and value naturalness, but ultimately combines the forces of education and hereditary degeneracy in order to segregate the lower classes, and to bring the morally upright middle classes together with the affluent upper classes.

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Creating character

Theories of nature and nurture in Victorian sensation fiction


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