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Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre.

Victorian Sensations: Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Edited by Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. xxiii + 278 pages.

Since the appearance of Winifred Hughes's The Maniac in the Cellar in 1980, Victorian scholars have given considerable attention to sensation fiction. A number of important essays, perhaps most significantly D. A. Miller's chapter on Woman in White (1860) in The Novel and the Police (1987), have been devoted to it (Miller's equally interesting chapter on The Moonstone [1868], maybe because it is less obviously marked by the Foucauldian themes of incarceration and sexual discourse, has not been as widely cited, though). And readings both of many of the specific novels included in the genre and of the genre itself have benefited noticeably from widespread historicist and contextual interpretations, which have made more sense of numbers of the novels' themes than have purely generic considerations. In particular, critics have noted the numbers of ways in which Wilkie Collins, Mary Braddon, and Ellen Wood have contested as well as embodied various Victorian ideas of gender, race, and class. For all this attention, there is really no firm critical agreement on a definition of the genre, or for that matter, whether one is possible or whether it was an invention (historically or aesthetically telling or not) of Victorian reviewers, much less as to the dates of its existence (confined to the 1860s, or beginning earlier and continuing later) or the precise novels, beyond a handful by Collins and Braddon, that belong to it. This new collection of essays, Victorian Sensations, does not break much new ground in the theoretical and historical discussion of the genre, but it does sum up most of its elements in a helpful way.

The book's three sections--on genre, on gender and sexuality, and on race and class--capture most categories of critical concern, although one misses some attention to work that has been done on connections between sensation fiction and contemporaneous Victorian scandals and infamous trials. And to a great extent the essays reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the critical attention to date. The opening section on genre, for instance, fairly sharply outlines the main features of a genre definition as well as the problems to which those features lead. If one defines sensation fiction, for instance, in terms of dependence upon thrilling plot and violent incident, one wonders what distinguishes it from types of melodrama that went before or after. Even if one adds to that definition its middle-class setting, one winds up wondering whether the setting's relationship with melodramatic features is enough to distinguish the novels from others of similar type. Diana C. Archibald, for instance, in her essay on Oliver Twist's (1837-38) representation of domestic violence, cannot determine whether that representation makes it sensation fiction or not, given the novel's setting of its domestic drama among the criminal classes.

The most helpful discussions of genre definition, such as Richard Nemesvari's essay, try to think of sensation fiction as a response to, and a version of, Victorian domestic realism. The collapse of Nemesvari's most spectacular claim, that sensation fiction indicated a crisis in the genre of realism, into the vaguer hyperbole that realism is always a genre in crisis, does not weaken the essay's real though more limited contribution of showing the ways in which the genre existed by virtue of the way it questioned how realism as a generic distinction works. Even this rougher definition by opposition leads to various problems since it quickly creates differing responses based on what contrasting works are put into play. Catherine J. Golden's article on Braddon's The Doctor's Wife (1864), for instance, nicely notes that the novel contrasts its own plot with the sensational plots produced by one of its characters and fantasized by its protagonist. But one need only compare the novel with its widely known model, Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), to conclude that the novel sensationalizes Flaubert's characterization even as it expurgates his plot. Needless to say, the linking of sensation and realism also leads to simultaneous arguments that certain books within the genre are canonical and that the genre is, by definition, of lesser aesthetic quality.

Since the best definition of the genre is in terms of an oppositionality that unsurprisingly does not lead to fixed boundaries, contextual and historicist discussions have been more productive. Connecting sensation fiction with gender issues goes back to feminist criticism of the 1970s, which frequently disagreed over whether authors like Braddon and Wood detailed or resisted Victorian gender stereotypes. That argument has become considerably more nuanced with the addition of D. A. Miller's more complex take on Collins's encoding of the developing Victorian conceptualizing of gay and straight sexual response as well as more recent feminist readings from critics such as Helena Michie in Sororophobia (1992) and Marlene Tromp in The Private Rod: Marital Violence, Sensation and the Law in Victorian Britain (2000). Victorian Sensations' section on gender and sexuality does not offer any new theoretical approaches in this area, but it adds a number of readings of less familiar novels. In particular, essays by Tamar Heller and Lindsey Faber on Rhoda Broughton's novels, especially if they lead to further work, may have the virtue of bringing this author back into print in the way work on Braddon did twenty-five to thirty years ago. There are also interesting essays on Le Fanu and Swedenborg by Devon P. Zuber and on Le Fanu and Rosetti by Nancy Welter.

The third part's discussion of class, race, and cultural contexts also covers familiar ground in its discussions of class and colonialism but adds some interesting readings on race. Kimberly Harrison discusses a lesser-known novel by Braddon, The Octoroon; or the Lily of Louisiana (1861-62). Monica M. Zook-Young looks at race in Collins's Armadale (1866). And there is also a striking essay by Tamara Wagner on the development of a cultural concept of suburbia in Collins's Basil (1852) and sensation fiction generally.

The greatest virtue of Victorian Sensations, as I said, may be more the way the collection sums up work in the field than in any new ground it breaks. All of the essays are, at the least, interesting. And some will surely draw attention to some lesser-known works in the genre. But none, I suspect, is likely to change the way either the genre or its most important authors are regarded. It is telling, perhaps, that some of the best and most cited works in the field, from D. A. Miller's in the 1980s through Michie's in the 1990s to Nicholas Dames's chapter on Collins in Amnesiac Selves from 2003, have been chapters considering authors and novels in some broader context with only passing concern with the genre. At least as of now, the tendency to see the genre as more a cultural event than an aesthetic form has been well established and the various outlines of that event have been articulated. This book, in the superior quality of its cultural and genre criticism, makes the same case that the genre is more a cultural concept than an aesthetic category (for this reason, the absence of essays that discuss nonfictional Victorian sensations is the book's major lacuna). Still, in the way its essays capture the main features of past work in the field, Victorian Sensations is likely to serve as a collection whose value is more than the sum of its particular chapters.

Jonathan Loesberg

American University

Washington, DC
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Author:Loesberg, Jonathan
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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