New entry for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…
When the category of ‘Sensation Fiction’ was first applied as a genre label in the Literary Budget periodical of November 1861, it coined a term for a new species of narrative that was at once innovative, soon-to-be hugely influential, and at the same time the next logical step in a long literary tradition. Much like the opening scene of a bestselling novel, something had happened, was happening, and was going to happen. In publishing terms, the ‘hook’ had been well and truly set, addicting and titillating readers with a chain of withheld secrets and startling revelations. As the name suggests, these books were intended to excite the senses, piling shock after naked shock.
For readers, who were overwhelmingly in favour, and critics, who were not, the concept of the ‘novel of sensation’ coalesced around three English authors. The serialisation of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White in Dickens’ All The Year Round from 1859 to 1860 (and its subsequent publication as a novel) had quite literally caused a sensation, with readers desperate for the next instalment besieging booksellers. All manner of unlicensed merchandise quickly followed, as well as fashion lines inspired by central characters and even themed tea-rooms. Ellen (‘Mrs. Henry’) Wood’s East Lynne (1861) – a tale of seduction, infidelity, dual identities and murder – was similarly popular and trailblazing, while Mary Elizabeth Braddon, already active in the genre with novels such as Three Times Dead (1860), was shortly to begin her breakthrough serial and masterpiece, Lady Audley’s Secret.
Not that there was anything new about the subject of crime in popular literature, or its use to shock and excite the reader. The early Victorian bestselling triumvirate of Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton and Harrison Ainsworth had all done it in novels such as Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, Paul Clifford, Eugene Aram, Rookwood and Jack Sheppard, with both Lytton and Ainsworth looking back to the Georgian Newgate Calendars, salacious criminal biographies dressed up with a Christian moral. Ainsworth would go on to champion Ellen Wood, and East Lynne was first serialised in his New Monthly Magazine after she had failed to find a publisher. In common with his fiction, East Lynne was at heart a melodrama, blending the codes of gothic romance with the domestic realism of George Eliot and Harriette Martineau. And even more extreme examples of ‘criminal romance’ were legion among the penny bloods, most notably those put out by Edward Lloyd and G.W.M. Reynolds in the 1850s. Lloyd, for example, had published The String of Pearls by James Rhymer and Thomas Peckett Prest, in which Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was loosed upon the world, while Reynolds’ epic serial The Mysteries of London had drawn comparisons between underworld crime lords and corrupt Tory politicians. Similarly, there were also prototype detective stories to draw upon, like the Mémoires of Eugène François Vidocq – a French criminal turned detective whose work inspired Poe, Hugo and Balzac – Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and, in England, William Russell’s Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, and Dickens’ ‘On Duty with Inspector Field’, not to mention the general public’s insatiable hunger for true crime, with murder cases dominating newspaper headlines.
Neither was The Woman in White produced in a vacuum. Collins had been experimenting with crime fiction for the better part of a decade, in novels such as Basil and Hide and Seek. He also contributed a fascinating story, ‘The Diary of Anne Rodway’, to Household Words in 1856, in which a poor seamstress investigates the mysterious death of her best friend. This contained many of the tropes on the sensation novel, such as the amateur detective and a focus on evidence, clues and secrecy. And like his friend, Dickens, Collins loved the stage – as did Braddon – and all three wrote for the theatre and acted. Thus, the energy of popular theatre, the gothic sensibility of the Newgate novel, and lurid crime reporting, with real murders occurring across social classes (not limited to the poor rookeries of popular fiction), poured into conventional middle-class literature, the artform the Victorians never tired of declaring the defining cultural narrative of their age. The real innovation of the sensation novel was that just as it penetrated the domain of the ‘respectable’ novel, its usual setting was the equally respectable bourgeoise home, the bastion of Victorian values. As Henry James, for whom this genre was a guilty pleasure, later wrote, the sensation novel had ‘introduced those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors’. Thus, the gothic became domestic: ‘instead of the terrors of “Udolpho”,’ he continued, ‘we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible’.
Alongside The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret represents the pinnacle of sensation fiction. (East Lynne is fun, but it lacks the symbolic or emotional depth of Collins and Braddon.) It is certainly a ‘must read’ for anyone who loves a mystery thriller and is written with such verve that it remains a remarkable easy read despite its vintage. Braddon’s prominent authorial voice makes much use of the first person, which gives the narrative the deceptively anecdotal tone of an old friend relating some particularly juicy local gossip. The novel is also very well paced. Like its gothic antecedents, its structure relies on the twin gears of suspense and escalating shock, and Braddon uses a nice pattern of action followed by reflection leading to further action in tight chapters that are unusually short for the period, giving the text an almost respiratory cycle. Once you tune in, it is very difficult to put down, which is exactly how contemporary readers found it.
The beautiful and demure Lady Lucy Audley, née Graham, a young governess and former schoolteacher recently married to the rich widower Sir Michael Audley, has many secrets. Although not the ultimate secret, some of the most significant are so strongly implied in the first of the three ‘volumes’ that comprise the novel that they are hardly ‘secrets’ at all. But around these core transgressions a vast web of intrigue and menace continues to grow until antagonistic forces inevitably collide and all is revealed, along with one final shock – the beginning, the middle and the twist. Compared at one point in the story with Lucretia Borgia and Catharine de Medici, Lady Audley is complicated. Were we to relate her to The Woman in White, it could be argued that her character combines the beauty and vulnerability of Laura Fairlie with the resourceful intelligence of Marian Halcombe, the treachery of Sir Percival and the malevolent cunning of Count Fosco.
The novel’s protagonist finds himself caught in my lady’s web, beset by dark suspicions and artful misdirection, his loyalties divided between his family and his oldest friend. Robert Audley is Sir Michael’s nephew and, not being blessed with a son, is looked upon by his uncle as his own. Sir Michael’s daughter, the horsey and robust Alicia, loves her cousin, who is himself largely unmoved but expects to be browbeaten into marriage eventually. This is because Robert is quite useless, a barrister who does not practice, or really do much of anything. He is downright un-English in his disdain for hunting, shooting and riding, and, like his author, is an avid reader of French literature who would happily (paraphrasing Tennyson) ‘lie in the sun and eat lotuses, and fancy it “always afternoon”’. Commensurate to his social class, Robert has a tidy private income and no real need to work, and idles away his days reading, smoking, and hanging around the Temple only to socialise with other lawyers: ‘Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man’. Then something happens that he does take seriously, and he finally applies his legal training to a perplexing mystery. And much as he would prefer to let it go, fearing where his investigations will ultimately lead, he is compelled to go on until his quest for the truth becomes an obsession. As a result of this testing journey, he finally becomes a productive member of Victorian society. The novel is thus a mystery thriller, in which an albeit amateur detective tracks down evidence and leads, and falls for red herrings, slowly uncovering a shocking conspiracy while the subject of his investigations plots to thwart him. Just how far, Braddon teases the reader, will Lady Audley go to keep her secret?
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