- Reading Popular Culture in Victorian Print: "Belgravia" and Sensationalism
Reading Popular Culture in Victorian Print is a wide-ranging exploration of the "trope of sensationalism" in the Victorian periodical press. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Belgravia is focussed upon as a "unique example in the history of miscellanies" (28), but also as a case study for considering the ways in which we can approach periodical research.
Alberto Gabriele's work is especially important because few single issues of Belgravia complete with paratextual material exist, and he has attempted to piece together, as much as possible, the Victorian reader's experience. Although not all readers would have read "a single issue as a complete unit" (42) from cover to cover, Gabriele effectively argues that researchers should be attentive to the montage effect produced by reading a single issue of Belgravia containing stories, articles, advertisements, illustrations, and poetry.
Connected to the notion of montage is the (sometimes oppositional) relationship between fragmentation and unity. The early chapters of this book associate both fragmentation and the periodical press with the shock of the sensational, modernity, and industrialization, and explore how periodicals are inherently fragmentary because of their diverse contents by different authors (including serialized novels delivered to the reader a fragment at a time). Yet Gabriele also argues for a sense of "symbolic cohesiveness that brings together the mosaic of perspectives and disparate stimuli that constitute the magazine" (35); he suggests this reflects the way in which late-Victorian society wove fragmentation "into a larger theory [End Page 99] of culture" (42). Included in this discussion is a consideration of the potentially disruptive influence of sensation fiction, which challenged the social status quo. Braddon's Belgravia as a whole is also shown to be at odds with late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century aesthetic theories, such as E.S. Dallas's The Gay Science (1866), which tend "towards abstraction that dismisses and finally erases the episodic and the fragmentary from artistic appreciation" (53).
Chapters three and four consider various relationships between readers, periodicals, and contributors. This includes an assessment of the way in which Belgravia's audience was "defined by the fascination for the controversial issues that the novels appearing in installments provoked" (70); debates over author anonymity; an examination of Victorian advertisements, showing the shift towards "brand-name advertising, which imagined—and created—target niche markets" (84); and "industrial journalism," which took the reader behind the scenes of the factories that produced the items she or he was intended to covet. Gabriele finds in the diversity of advertising "a hidden symmetry of recurrent phrases," speaking a language "of an increased availability of products, of purported thrilling novelties, and of fabled universal access to luxury" (90). Chapter four also considers the anonymously serialized Bound to John Company, or the Adventures and Misadventures of Robert Ainsleigh, started, and later revised, by Braddon into Robert Ainsleigh but finished (due to her nervous breakdown) by an unknown author (1868-69). Gabriele shows how this novel (concerning the East India Company) sensationalises the "telling of British history" (83).
Chapter five explores the relationship between popular periodical fiction and pre-cinematic entertainment. Gabriele argues that both periodical literature and magic lantern shows present "episodic" information "as part of a somewhat coherent fragmentary genre" (116), and that Belgravia achieved "the ability to strike the optic nerve with a quick and strong impression," much like a magic lantern slide (120). The chapter concludes by showing how early silent film often directly adapted sensation plots such as Lady Audley's Secret or, like Louis Feuillardes's Les Vampires (1915-16), drew on the sensational. The final chapter, "Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Paris," jumps back to the 1870s and 1880s with the promise of a discussion of Braddon's 1873 feuilleton novel La Chanteuse des rues, yet Braddon is disappointingly only mentioned briefly. Instead we have a discussion of French sensation fiction and the pros and cons of genre distinctions, especially in relation to "sensation" and "detective" fiction.
The book concludes with a useful index to Belgravia's contents...