- Sensational Deviance: Disability in Nineteenth-Century Sensation Fiction by Heidi Logan
While the significance of disability to Victorian culture is widely recognized, the ways in which disability is defined and studied remain works in progress. A trio of recent books, Jennifer Esmail’s Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture (2013), Karen Bourrier’s The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel (2015), and Heather Tilley’s Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing (2019), have productively explored clearly demarcated aspects of disability’s cultural history. These scholars have built on the foundational work of Martha Stoddard Holmes, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Mary Klages, which established disability’s [End Page 693] importance to Victorian literature and demonstrated the value of studying both the literary depiction and the lived experience of disability.
In Sensational Deviance: Disability in Nineteenth-Century Sensation Fiction (2019), Heidi Logan does not focus on a particular aspect of disability experience but instead analyzes the significance of disability, broadly defined, to sensation novels by two of the genre’s foremost authors, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Their depictions of disfigurement, cognitive and sensory difference, mental illness, and congenital impairment feature in detailed readings of nine novels, including well-known examples of the genre, such as Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), and less familiar novels, such as One Thing Needful (1886), from a later phase of Braddon’s career. Logan argues for the importance of these novels’ pairings of different kinds of physical, mental, or moral exceptionality or, to use the wording of her title, different kinds of deviance. In the case of Collins’s Poor Miss Finch (1872), for example, Logan stresses the significance of Collins’s treatment of both blindness and epilepsy and, in the case of Hide and Seek (1854), she explores the paired depiction of deafness and a degenerative spinal condition.
While genre matters to Logan, the strength of her project lies in its comprehensive and well-researched discussions of individual novels. Logan’s readings challenge existing assessments by arguing that Collins’s treatment of disability is progressive. Logan sees aspects of Collins’s exploration of disability, such as his portrayal of disabled characters as successful and content with their lives, as “surprisingly anticipatory of some approaches in modern-day disability studies” (26). Turning to Braddon, Logan again finds evidence of a progressive approach to disability, proposing that Braddon’s novels “display considerable originality and complexity in terms of recognizing and undermining assumptions about physical impairment” (158). Whereas Logan’s analysis of Collins’s novels is largely concerned with physical disabilities, her discussion of Braddon’s novels engages closely with ideas about moral insanity; Logan also prioritizes the importance of gender to Braddon’s representations of characters whose bodies and behaviors are non-normative.
Logan’s decision to divide her book into two halves, each dedicated to an author, will benefit readers who are relatively new to the study of Victorian disability or who are interested in only one of the authors under discussion. Readers in search of a focused discussion of a specific text will also appreciate Logan’s dedication of chapters to individual novels. For other readers, Logan’s treatment of the four Collins novels in four separate chapters, organized by publication date, may feel like a lost opportunity to offer a more integrated discussion of both the novels and the ways in which they imagine disability. Logan does pair novels in her treatment of Braddon’s work. In her final chapter, she offers readings of The Lady’s Mile (1866) and One Thing Needful, but she reflects only briefly on connections between them at the chapter’s end. A chapter on Lady Audley’s Secret and John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863) helpfully pairs these two novels in order to explore Braddon’s complex “portrayal of unusual women” (192).
In the case of all nine novels, Logan provides a comprehensive discussion of their representation of non-normative characters. Logan’s thoroughly researched chapters...