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  • Stretching "The Sensational Sixties":Genre and Sensationalism in Domestic Fiction by Victorian Women Writers
  • Tamara Wagner (bio)

It has become a critical commonplace that midcentury sensation fiction provided a crucial conduit for the Victorian novel's development as a self-consciously middle-class form of cultural expression that renegotiated representations of the domestic. What has remained reduced, at best, to tangential references, however, is the adoption—and to an important extent, the pre-figuration—of sensational paradigms in fiction by domestic novelists. As these novelists were primarily women writers who largely defined themselves as anti-sensational by adhering to the idea of home as a desirable cultural institution, this distinction was premised not so much on style or modes of representation as on an ideological outlook that could be pointedly ambiguous. Such straightforward dichotomies of sensational versus domestic or even antifeminist counterparts obscure the two-way process of influence between changing, complementary, and competing narrative forms. In engaging critically with the literary potential of the sensational to redefine domestic ideals, midcentury experiments in domestic realism stretch the margins of the sensational sixties. This adoption and subsequent adaptation of popular paradigms were by no means unidirectional. Nor were they exclusively restricted to the sensational. On the contrary, despite attempts to police sensationalism's perceived incursion into the increasingly well-guarded confines of domestic realism, critics and novelists at the time were keenly aware of the opportunities this mutual influence generated beyond a mere justification of their own integration of popular elements into their writing.

Whereas the increasingly critical, even tongue-in-cheek, invocation of sensation fiction's most prevalent motifs in the 1870s testifies to its adaptability, it is particularly revealing to look more closely at emergent sensationalism in the 1850s, a phenomenon that has only recently received critical attention. In order to illustrate how this twofold stretching of the sensation genre's demarcations compels us to broaden our understanding of its cultural centrality and its impact on the novel genre, I shall concentrate on the works of two otherwise markedly different women writers who have both repeatedly been dismissed as antifeminist and, by implication, as resistant to literary sensationalism's [End Page 211] subversive potential. While opening up any such facile alignments to critical investigation, these texts simultaneously frame sensationalism's inception and its growing presence from the early 1850s to the redeployment of what had become quickly consolidated paradigms in the mid-1870s. Published in 1853, when sensation fiction was slowly taking centre stage in the book market, Charlotte M. Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe engenders a twofold domestication of the Gothic as it both reworks traditional Gothic motifs and creates an awareness of the fissures within domestic realism. Embedding the Byronic Sir Guy Morville's desire to belong to a domestic family within a spectrum of newly evolving sensational motifs, the novel asserts domesticity as an ideal. It sensationalizes the domestic in order to revaluate it. What soon becomes a recurrent twist in domestic fiction's exploitation of the sensation novel's "domestic Gothic" is complicated in the construction of a bohemian surrogate family as an alternative in Eliza Lynn Linton's Patricia Kemball (1875). As the heroine deserts the home begrudgingly offered by her aunt to seek refuge in the household of a poor physician and his spinster sister, the orphan's informal adoption accentuates the pressing need for a home all the more poignantly by rejecting its conventional definitions.

In both novels, the desire for adult adoption underscores both the fallibilities and the appeal of the nuclear family. The novels' implicit questioning of family structures thereby does not so much contain as rechannel the subversive strategies with which nineteenth-century sensational writing has traditionally been credited. Instead, an extended metaphorical construction of adoption and expulsion operates at once to tease out and to invert the domestic Gothic's variegated narrative potential. Indeed, we must get away from understanding the sensation novel as a fixed, always easily identifiable category. Sensation fiction did not suddenly burst onto the market, nor was it isolated from competing modes of representing everyday life. Situated within this volatile, intensely self-critical, and constructive interchange, Yonge's and Linton's versions of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 211-228
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-06
Open Access
No
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