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.
Sensationalising Substance Abuse in the Victorian Home
Controversies about the mid-Victorian sensation novel newly brought to the fore clinical conceptualisations of novel reading as an addiction. Yet as novelists capitalised on the sensational potential of substance abuse at home as part of the genre‘s rupture of ideologies of domesticity, they juxtaposed the consumption of sensational material with other emotional and physical dependencies, while reading could be a panacea or cure. M. E. Braddon‘s John Marchmont‘s Legacy (1863) and Wilkie Collins‘s The Law and the Lady (1875) form particularly revealing examples of self-reflexive sensation novels that capitalise on a clinical Gothic of addiction by appropriating discourses that had, ironically, attacked the sensation genre most virulently.
in the mid-nineteenth century.
Winifred Hughes provides a neatly
synoptic account of the literary provenance of the sensationnovel,
arguably the mode of popular fiction from the 1860s until the
1880s. She acknowledges the form’s ‘general affinity with
the eighteenth-century Gothicism of Ann Radcliffe and “Monk”
Lewis, the historical romance of Sir Walter
–4). ‘Few readers will be able to resist the mysterious thrill of this sudden touch’, said Blackwood's Magazine ; ‘[t]he sensation is distinct and indisputable’ (quoted in Page 1974 : 118). Blackwood's was correct. Overnight, it seemed that Collins had succeeded in creating what contemporaries regarded as an entirely new sub-genre: the sensationnovel (Mangham 2013 : 1). As an outstanding instance of what Timothy Morton has called ‘environmental creepiness’ ( 2010 : 54), Collins's novel is equally compelling. Place is often evoked in disturbing ways; gardens and
this. In her public life, however, as ‘George Eliot’, she
was a secular and liberal realist and the sage writer of moral fiction.
Although she was considered in some circles an adult novelist, she was
deeply committed to widening the sympathies of her readers to include
the experiences of the middle and lower orders of society. 8
But elements of the Gothic and its descendant, the
new form of eugenics.7 If reading Victorian literature can make us aware
of what was wrong in Victorian society, and how concepts of nature and
nurture were used to sustain and challenge those problems, it can also
help us to be aware of what continues to be wrong in our own.
1 G. W. Child, ‘Physiological psychology’, p. 63, emphasis in original.
2 Deborah Wynne, The SensationNovel and the Victorian Family Magazine
(Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p. 149.
3 Anon., ‘11 major misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter movement’,
Black Lives Matter
unwelcome ways. The developing personality of an
individual was therefore a site of potential danger and vulnerability, as
well as opportunity.
The sensation novel
Lytton’s ‘On self-
control’ is just one example of a popular
nineteenth-century author displaying interest in issues relating to determinism. Sensation fiction, the controversial literary genre that dominated
the scene in the 1860s, contains numerous representations of deterministic forces that are variously internal and external, naturally arising and
Victorian medical men could suffer numerous setbacks on their individual paths to professionalisation, and Thomas Elkanah Hoyle's career offers a telling exemplar. This book addresses a range of the financial, professional, and personal challenges that faced and sometimes defeated the aspiring medical men of England and Wales. Spanning the decades 1780-1890, from the publication of the first medical directory to the second Medical Registration Act, it considers their careers in England and Wales, and in the Indian Medical Service. The book questions the existing picture of broad and rising medical prosperity across the nineteenth century to consider the men who did not keep up with professionalising trends. Financial difficulty was widespread in medical practice, and while there are only a few who underwent bankruptcy or insolvency identified among medical suicides, the fear of financial failure could prove a powerful motive for self-destruction. The book unpicks the life stories of men such as Henry Edwards, who could not sustain a professional persona of disinterested expertise. In doing so it uncovers the trials of the medical marketplace and the pressures of medical masculinity. The book also considers charges against practitioners that entailed their neglect, incompetence or questionable practice which occasioned a threat to patients' lives. The occurrence and reporting of violent crime by medical men, specifically serious sexual assault and murder is also discussed. A tiny proportion of medical practitioners also experienced life as a patient in an asylum.
In the next two chapters I will explore the use of the
double as an uncanny allusion marker which draws attention to a
text’s status as an act of repetition, to its own
‘doubling’ of its source material. The first of these paired
chapters focuses on nineteenth-century texts, tracing the development of
the uncanny double from the Romantic Gothic tradition through to the
Victorian sensationnovels of
next. It is with Collins that the continuing complex interplay of poison and the imagination is most strikingly evoked.
Note, first, the chronological and thematic proximity of the sensationnovel to the trial of Thomas Smethurst. According to contemporary and modern critics, the sensation genre burst on to the literary scene with the 1859–60 serialization of Collins’s Woman in white. The core elements of sensation were fully catered for by the details of Smethust’s case – a point not lost on commentators of the day. In its initial editorial on the case, The