Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review : The Maniac in the Cellar - Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes (Princeton University Press 1980)

In this approachable academic analysis of the nature, origins and impact of the Sensation Novels of the 1860s, Winifred Hughes examines the primary works of Charles Reade, E.M. Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and Wilkie Collins in detail, before making a strong case to show how the spirit of the Sensation Novels continued in a much more literary vein in the works of Thomas Hardy.

She sees their roots in the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, the romances of Sir Walter Scott and the Newgate Novels of the 1830s. However, whilst Gothic novels had the elements of romance, adultery and murder which Sensation Novels would appropriate, they lacked a contemporary context. The fact that Sensation Novels were not set in a medieval Italian castle but in middle-class England gave them a thrill and immediacy that was all the more shocking. Newgate novels were contemporary, but they dealt with a criminal underclass whose activities might as well have been as distant as Scott's warring clans to their readership.

She examines the nature of the criticism levied against Sensation Novels, much of which was for the way in which adultery, bigamy and murder was apparently condoned by the authors.Underlying this was a sense that books such as these were democratising the novel, bridging the gap between the penny-dreadful and serious literature and offering dubious moral examples to readers of the lower classes, just as characters such as Aurora Floyd or Magdalen Vanstone move with apparent ease between social classes. Equally, Sensation Novels threatened to usurp the traditional role of the Woman within Victorian literature.Rather than being the emotional lynchpin of traditional melodrama (or - in an area not explored by Hughes - the fulcrum and motive force around which all Women's literature from Jane Austen through the Brontes to Elizabeth Gaskell revolves),  women become for the first time forces of moral ambiguity (in the case of Lady Isabel Vane) or evil (as per Lydia Gwilt).

Hughes locates in Wilkie Collins the Sensation Novel's key place as the transitional form between early Victorian romance and melodrama and its successors in twentieth century thrillers and detective novels.  In tightly-plotted but essentially open constructions such as The Woman in White and Armadale, characters are still subject to external supernatural forces such as dreams, fate and coincidence. Collins' great insight was to enclose the construction of The Moonstone by making it a mystery to be solved. By limiting the scope, Collins reduces the dependence on the supernatural and thus transforms the melodrama into a form that is suited to the emerging materialistic society. The runaway success of detective fiction as a genre in the twentieth century validates this choice. In this respect, Hughes' highly perceptive coda on Thomas Hardy recognises his work represents a return to a more traditional melodrama, but one that takes place in a universe stripped of moral absolutes. As such it represents the bridge from the Sensation Novel to the literary nihilism of the Twentieth Century

1 comment:

Leon Akpalu said...

Thanks for this. I was searching the web for a book I half-remembered, and I believe this is it. I had Ms. Hughes confused with Nina Auerbach, and if you haven't read her already, I think you'd enjoy her work also.