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Maniac Brides: Southworth’s Sensational and Gothic Transformations Beth L. Lueck In Hickory Hall: Or the Outcast (1850; later The Prince of Darkness, 1869), when Regina Fairchild learns that her new husband not only has black blood but is also a slave, she recoils in horror from him. Her brother, who is narrating the story, calls his beloved sister, whom he had once likened to a queen, a “maniac bride.”1 Before his eyes—and ours, as readers—she is transformed from a woman of unsurpassed beauty into something monstrous. This metamorphosis is not only physical but mental; the woman’s reason deserts her the instant she discovers her husband’s racial character. Southworth sensationalizes this moment of revelation and transformation. With Regina uttering “a frenzied cry of anguish and despair,” she begins “foaming at the mouth” and goes “into the most violent paroxysm of madness” (130). Elsewhere in Southworth’s fiction, revelations about a character’s race and status as free or enslaved can bring about derangement, as in Retribution (1849), her first novel, published the year before Hickory Hall. That both novels appeared serially in the National Era, the abolitionist newspaper edited by Gamaliel Bailey Jr., underscores the significance of these ideas. In the paper’s prospectus, the editors stated, “The great aim of the paper will be a complete discussion of the Question of Slavery, and an exhibition of the Duties of the Citizen in relation to it”; Southworth’s early novels, appearing on the front page of that newspaper, played an important role in these discussions.2 In addition, the novelist explores the psychology of racial stereotyping, fears of miscegenation, and the uneasy tension between master (or mistress) and slave. When secret mixed-race identities are exposed, the fear of miscegenation causes the mental states of some characters to become precarious, while others descend into outright insanity. The convoluted plots and counterplots of melodrama and sensational fiction offer plentiful opportunities for the characters’ shifting racial, mental, and physical status, enabling Southworth to explore what it means to be black or white, free or enslaved, and rational or insane. 108 Beth L. Lueck A brief discussion of sensational fiction, which was becoming popular in the United States just at the time Southworth began her writing career, illuminates her use of the genre. A discussion of the Gothic mode in her early novels appears later in this chapter, where it is most relevant. Sensational fiction first evolved in the 1830s and 1840s in the United States, just as Southworth was beginning her writing career. An international genre, it developed almost two decades later in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe, where it reflected different cultural concerns. According to Shelley Streeby, in the United States sensational fiction grew out of revolutions in printing and transportation that enabled publishers to print more quickly and cheaply, and to ship printed material more rapidly across the expanding nation. Sensational literature began in the pamphlet novels of the 1830s and 1840s and the story papers of the forties and fifties, with the eightpage weeklies offering serialized stories whose plot twists and suspense devices engaged readers and encouraged them to buy the next installment. With editorials, news items, and letters to the editor printed side by side with serialized stories,3 these papers sometimes took part in ongoing debates about current issues, such as slavery and abolition, as in the National Era, or refrained from taking a stand on issues of national concern, as in the New York Ledger. The Era, where Southworth got her start writing serialized fiction, demonstrated its editor’s strong antislavery position, and the novelist’s work reflected that editorial concern. As Streeby further observes, sensational fiction, like melodrama, “emphasizes temporal coincidences, stages moments of truth that expose villains and recognize virtue, and tries to move its audiences to experience intense feelings, such as thrill, shock, and horror.”4 Like its British counterpart of the 1860s, Streeby explains, the American genre contained “manipulative, visceral, and voyeuristic ” elements that titillated readers and demanded an emotional and almost physical response. From its generic cousin, theatrical melodrama, sensational fiction —and E. D. E. N. Southworth—took “cross-dressing and other scenes of bodily masquerade and transformation,” producing a literature that became “a rich repository of changing ideas about sexuality, gender, class, and race.”5 While Streeby’s analysis of this literature focuses on American imperialism and urban culture, Southworth’s sensational fiction also foregrounds issues of race, slavery, and abolition. With her work...


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