- Rediscovering Victorian Women Sensation Writers ed. by Anne-Marie Beller and Tara MacDonald
This accessible edited collection concerning Victorian women’s contribution to sensation fiction contains a new introduction and seven essays that were originally published as a special issue of Women’s Writing in May 2013. This volume extends the recent effort, seen in such collections as Andrew Maunder’s Varieties of Women’s Sensation Fiction, 1855–1890 (2004) and Pamela K. Gilbert’s A Companion to Sensation Fiction (2011), to move beyond the most established sensation novelists—Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and, to a lesser extent, Ellen Wood—in order to come to a more nuanced understanding of this complex and, at times, contradictory genre. The contributors do an excellent job of drawing much-needed attention to some of the lesser-known female sensation writers, including Rhoda Broughton, Amelia Edwards, Florence Marryat, Ouida, and the virtually undiscussed Matilda Houston. Rather than focusing on the historical or sociological interest of Victorian women’s sensation writing, as many previous studies have done, the editors and contributors of this volume emphasize the formal and aesthetic qualities of the texts, paying particular attention to the authors’ choices of genre and style.
Several essays in the collection discuss how women writers negotiated their work’s relationship to the sensational, taking into account how such a label could affect the critical reception and financial success of their writing. In one of the strongest essays of the collection, Tamara S. Wagner explains how Rhoda Broughton, who is typically identified as a sensation novelist because of her frank heroines and candid descriptions of the female body, “simultaneously trades on and eschews the genre’s parameters” in her 1873 novel Nancy (71). Wagner convincingly argues that in this self-reflexive novel, Broughton intentionally plays upon and ultimately disappoints the reader’s [End Page 163] narrative expectations by presenting an outspoken heroine who proves to be rather innocuous and setting up what seems to be an inevitable adultery plot, only to drop it. Moving from Broughton, a writer known for her sensational writing, to George Eliot, a writer celebrated for her realism, Mary Beth Tegan argues that Eliot’s historical romance Romola (1862–63) actually “shares important concerns and generic conventions” with contemporary sensation novels (24) and that “Romola’s struggles with sensation mirror Eliot’s own” as she “work[s] through her ambivalence about the artistic value of sensation” (37). In the final essay of the collection, Jane Jordan explores how Ouida’s categorization of her own work as “romans français écrits en anglais” (102) and her contributions to fin-de-siècle debates regarding the decline of the English novel reveal the effects of literary censorship.
Many essays in the collection also grapple with how critics today should categorize these texts. Providing one potential solution, Tabitha Sparks suggests that the “sensation novel” is an imprecise category and proposes a new genre, “the novel of experience,” to describe texts such as M.C. Houston’s Recommended to Mercy (1862) and Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861). Her “novel of experience” features, among other components, “a worldly, mature or even ‘fallen’ hero or heroine” who is typically “(re)integrate[d] … into mainstream society” in complex, controversial ways (13). Offering a different perspective on this issue, Nick Freeman moves away from strict categorization in his discussion of the sensation novel and Victorian ghost stories, suggesting that mid-century writers including Wood, Broughton, and Edwards “all moved fluidly between the two [genres]” (43) and that while “it is tempting to classify such tales as hybrids of the ghost story and sensation fiction[,] … to do so would be in some respects anachronistic” because genre boundaries “were more fluid and permeable” in the 1860s than they would be later in the century (54). While the collection offers multiple perspectives on the issue of genre classification, nearly all of the contributors seem to agree that, as Anne-Marie Beller and Tara MacDonald state in the introduction, “the sensation genre is difficult to define...