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  • "Take It When Tendered":M.E. Braddon's Thou Art the Man and the Weekly Telegraph's Media Model of Disability
  • Courtney A. Floyd (bio)

Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon—social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors.

—Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination (1981)

Even before their first appearances in the pages of Victorian newspapers, the ailing, impaired, and suffering bodies depicted in popular nineteenth-century sensation fiction were surrounded by patent medicine advertisements. In the weeks leading up to its serialization in the Weekly Telegraph (1887–1951), for example, Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Thou Art the Man (1894) was advertised in the newspaper's 1894 "programme" of novels alongside patent medicines such as Blair's Gout and Rheumatic Pills, Towle's Pennyroyal and Steel Pills, and Wilkinson and Co.'s Famous Special Elixir. Given that, as Martha Stoddard Holmes and Mark Mossman note, sensation fiction's "poetics," "plotting and characterization," and "critical reception [use] the body as a nexus of expression, experience, and meaning making" (493), such spatial association of the bodies in sensation fiction with those in patent medicine advertisements seems strategically pointed. But to what end?

Scholars of Victorian periodicals have long accepted, and in many cases championed, Bakhtinian dialogic approaches to the myriad interacting texts newspapers contain. Deborah Wynne, for instance, in her foundational work on serial sensation fiction, notes that periodicals such as the Weekly Telegraph "exist as sites of simultaneity in that they present a cluster of apparently unrelated texts at the same point in time and space, all having the potential to be read in relation to each other" (20). James Mussell maintains that "the study of periodicals requires the … acknowledgement that the individual number is the manifest interaction of its producers—including contributors, editors, readers, and the interactions of the market" (Science 5). "Any discussion of the periodical press," he concludes, echoing Bakhtin's claims in the epigraph to this article, "must include form" (Science 5). Mussell contends, in fact, that "form was the way in which nineteenth-century serials [End Page 59] imagined what they did not know" ("Cohering" 94; my emphasis).1 As he goes on to explain, "the nineteenth-century periodical … was a genre predicated upon the new," and "in their telling of the new, periodicals accounted for new things, events, or phenomena by accommodating them within a world that had already been negotiated with their readers through repeated acts of telling, reading, and buying" (95).

But just what, to borrow Wynne's diction, was the Weekly Telegraph "inviting" readers to do with this juxtaposition of advertisements for sensation novels and patent medicines? What knowledge, to use Mussell's term, was "cohering" with this repeated layout? As Dallas Liddle notes, while Bakhtin's ideas about dialogism have been "widely accepted" in periodical studies, they have "yet to be put to useful work" (7). Despite an overall consensus about the importance of "dialogic interaction" (Bakhtin, Problems 183) in periodical studies, there has been a surprising scholarly silence regarding the sorts of interactions between sensation fiction and patent medicine advertisements mentioned above. In fact, with the exception of Kylee-Anne Hingston's examination of the interplay between patent medicine advertisements in Harper's Weekly and representations of bodies in Wilkie Collins's No Name (1862–63), which lays the groundwork for thinking about such juxtapositions as sites of competing disability narratives, there has been almost no work at all on the subject.2

In this article, I argue that the Weekly Telegraph's repeated juxtaposition of advertisements for sensation novels and patent medicines created a conceptual link between the two in readers' minds with which the newspaper invited readers to imagine and, within the frame of that imagining, to understand and evaluate the body. Using this juxtaposition, the Weekly Telegraph placed sensation fiction and patent medicine advertisements in conversation with each other and with already existing Victorian discourse about bodily "normalcy" and "ability"—setting itself up as a diagnostic tool (and, perhaps, a curative) for the bodies affected by that discourse.3 Ultimately, this process of imagining the "normal" and "abnormal" body via...