This book explores the range of ways in which the two leading sensation authors of the 1860s, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, engaged with nineteenth-century ideas about how the personality is formed and the extent to which it can be influenced either by the subject or by others. Innovative readings of Braddon’s and Collins’s sensation novels – some of them canonical, others less well-known – demonstrate how they reflect, employ, and challenge Victorian theories of heredity, degeneration, willpower, inherent constitution, education, insanity, upbringing and social circumstance. Far from presenting a reductive depiction of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’, Braddon and Collins show the creation of character to be a complex interplay of internal and external factors that are as much reliant on chance as on the efforts of the people who try to exert control over an individual’s development. Their works raise challenging questions about responsibility and self-determinism and, as the analyses of these texts reveals, demonstrate an acute awareness that the way in which character formation is understood fundamentally influences the way people (both in fiction and reality) are perceived, judged and treated. Drawing on material from a variety of genres, including Victorian medical textbooks, scientific and sociological treatises, specialist and popular periodical literature, Creating character shows how sensation authors situated themselves at the intersections of established and developing, conservative and radical, learned and sensationalist thought about how identity could be made and modified.
The introduction provides an overview of the intertwined strands which run through Creating character. Sensation fiction is introduced as a genre which was itself seen by Victorian literary critics as a negative determinant which could corrupt readers, and which both Victorian and modern critics have identified as predominantly concerned with plotting rather than characterisation. Contrastingly, I argue that sensation fiction is in fact very concerned with the creation of character and is sensitive to the varied ways in which the personality can be formed, modified and corrupted; the emphasis on plot is in fact an acknowledgement of the many uncontrollable factors which can dictate the course of a person’s life. Next, the relevant contextual background of ongoing scientific, medical and educational debates is explained, ranging from early theories of moral management, through Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) and onwards to the development of degenerationist and eugenicist thought. Recurring topics of criminality, insanity and education are also introduced here, as are the theories of some of the prominent Victorian medical people whose work is drawn on extensively in future chapters. The Introduction ends with a summary of what the reader can expect in the rest of the book.
Basil’s Robert Mannion, and No Name’s Magdalen Vanstone are both subject to monomaniacal impulses. In Basil, Collins draws on early-nineteenth-century theories of insanity and moral management, promoted by “alienists” such as John Connolly and J. C. Prichard, which warned of domination by unruly passions. Mannion allows himself to be swept away by his uncontrolled emotions, and therefore contributes to his own mental deterioration. In No Name, Collins makes use of mid-Victorian theories of the will, developed by mental physiologists such as William Benjamin Carpenter, to depict Magdalen as someone who has not been trained to manage her willpower correctly and is therefore overwhelmed by a monomaniacal urge when faced with sudden tragedy. Unlike Mannion, Magdalen also possesses intrinsic reserves of moral strength and endures a series of internal conflicts between her monomania and her ‘better’ nature. In his contemplation of the different aspects which comprise the individual personality, Collis asserts (and so counters mid-century associationist psychology as propounded by men like Alexander Bain) that we are not ‘born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper’, but also insists that our inborn traits may be cultivated for better or for worse.
In John Marchmont’s Legacy, Braddon draws on two dominant Victorian female stereotypes: the ideal woman, or Angel in the House; and the emotionally volatile woman who, as prevailing medical discourse of the era asserted, was a prey to the influence of her reproductive system. The intellectually brilliant and emotionally repressed Olivia Marchmont is the antithesis of the ideal woman, while her monomaniacal malicious actions (inspired by unrequited love for her cousin Edward) seem to confirm a connection between female sexuality and pathological behaviour. Olivia is at once not womanly enough, and too womanly, leading to inconsistencies in her characterisation which reveal the incongruity of Victorian conceptions of gender, whilst allowing for speculation about what it means to be a woman. Olivia is also compared with two critically neglected, hyper-feminine, female characters, Mary Marchmont and Belinda Lawford. In her depiction of Belinda particularly, Braddon shows her readers the near-impossible combination of deterministic factors required to form the prized ideal woman, and implies that to hold women up to such standards is not only unrealistic but ignores the potential of women who may be able to contribute to society in ways that do not conform to narrow and essentialist conceptions of gender
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.
Wilkie Collins’s Armadale is compared with his short story ‘Mad Monkton’, both of which speculate about negative hereditary transmission. Whereas ‘Mad Monkton’ portrays the consequences of hereditary insanity as devastating and inescapable, Armadale engages with a broader range of hereditary threats, but does not depict them as insurmountable. I attribute this change to both Collins’s choice of genre and his growing sense of responsibility as a widely read author. As a sensation author Collins had an eye for the alarming, and in Armadale his imaginative speculations foreshadow the paranoia of developing degenerationist thought which expressed concern with numerous issues, including the hereditary nature of criminality and insanity, atavism, regression, miscegenation, and acquired characteristics which could develop into morbid traits in the next generation. By associating different types of degeneration with different characters, and by offering different reasons for the development of that degeneration, Collins raises questions about class and race. However, Collins crucially opposes the view that morality is irrevocably hereditary at the same time as he invokes the fearful consequences of if it were. Moreover, Collins attempts to create sympathy with, rather than to reject or isolate, social outsiders.
This chapter returns to the topic of monomania. Hester Dethridge develops homicidal urges after murdering her abusive husband. Collins emphatically draws attention to the circumstances which lead to Hester’s mental condition in order to fulfil the main purpose of the novel, highlighting the dangers of the British marriage laws which disadvantage women. The novel’s secondary purpose is the disparagement of what Collins perceived as a harmful national obsession with physical prowess. The upper-class villain, Geoffrey Delamayn, has been raised to prize his physicality over intellectual and moral development, and as a result he is little more than a bestial thug. The final part of the chapter shows how Collins makes use of the strange and improbable coincidences that are a staple of sensation fiction. Rather than playing down such moments, Collins emphasises ‘the capricious mercy of Chance’ and uses it as a way of revealing the influence of unforeseen circumstances on his characters and their development. Overall this chapter shows that Collins depicts human beings with little capacity for agency, personal responsibility or self-determinism; seeming acts of free will are really the result of external influences (social, legal, educational and circumstantial), and can only ever be short-sighted.
Braddon depicts education as a means of cultivating character in her largely overlooked novel Lost for Love. The novel’s heroines, Flora Chamney and Louisa Gurner, find happiness because of their intellectual abilities, and end up marrying men who are responsible for their intellectual development, providing a sort of unofficial higher education. Braddon shows that women are capable of rigorous intellectual pursuits, and that this will make them attractive, interesting and useful companions to men. By emphasising woman’s role as helpmate to man, Braddon places a conservative sheen over a potentially radical depiction of female ability, and in doing so makes several inferences regarding both biological and social determinism in relation to women. On the one hand, Braddon presents women as having vast inherent intellectual potential which requires education to fulfil its promise. However, she also acknowledges that in Victorian patriarchal society it is men who are responsible for women’s development and implies that if men are going to rule society they must think more carefully about the women they want to cultivate as future wives and mothers. In this way Braddon’s addressing of the Woman Question, and her depiction of companionate marriage are grounded on her beliefs regarding character formation.