Creating Character: Theories of Nature and Nurture in Victorian Sensation Fiction (2018) by Helena Ifill

Sep 20, 2019 | Reviews

Jessica H. Everard

Citing Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “On Self-Control” (1863), Helena Ifill begins her first monograph, Creating Character: Theories of Nature and Nurture in Victorian Sensation Fiction, repeating its opening, “What is Self?” (1). It is clear to see why the author chose the works of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins to present nineteenth-century views of personality construction. Ifill contends that “for Braddon and Collins, medical, scientific, and sociological theories of character formation are fascinating subjects for literary portrayal, and literary devices that can be used in the creation of sensational characters and plots” (24). The author explains how sensation fiction has largely been ignored by scholars when researching the genre’s cultural significance in favour of more ‘realist’ novels. Ifill looks at how the characterisations of sensation fiction, especially its flair for pushing Victorian social norms, deeply engage with psychological and scientific theories of the nineteenth century and how the characters in Braddon and Collins’ work are shaped as a result of this. Additionally, the author comments upon her reasons for developing Bulwer-Lytton’s ideas, noting that his essay “On Self-Control” was not particularly ground-breaking or completely original, but the concepts found in the text “interested, preoccupied, and troubled many Victorian thinkers [and were] clearly influenced by their particular socio-historical moment” (1). As a postgraduate student working on a thesis exploring identity in Collins’ novels, I was already an admirer of Ifill’s scholarly writings and have found Creating Character to be very useful. I highly recommend it to those interested in sensation fiction, Victorian psychological views, and the relationship between literature, Victorian psychiatry, and science.

Ifill divides Creating Character into three parts with each section exploring a major nineteenth-century theory regarding character and psyche development. Balancing out the texts of Braddon and Collins within two respective chapters per part, the first section, “Self-control, willpower and monomania”, explores Victorian psychiatric theory (focusing particularly on the work of William Benjamin Carpenter) regarding a person’s capacity to control their own mental state. Additionally, Ifill researches the prevalence of monomania, a term coined by Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol years prior to Queen Victoria’s birth. Ifill explains that during the time of Braddon and Collins’ writing, “monomania was mainly associated in the public mind with obsession” (38) and analyses the influence of this psychiatric concept within Braddon’s John Marchmont’s Legacy (1863) and Collins’ Basil (1852) and No Name (1862). The following section, named “Heredity and degeneration”, examines the often-detrimental impact of family history upon a person’s character within sensation fiction. Here, Ifill provides close textual analyses of Braddon’s lesser-known novel The Lady Lisle (1862) and one of Collins’ ‘great four novels’, Armadale (1866). Ifill’s extensive use of secondary sources, such as journals exploring medicine and psychology, and popular periodicals of the time, inform the reader that Victorian society, and sensation novelists in particular, were fascinated by the “possib[ility] (as the Westminster Review states) for ‘moral and intellectual traits [to] follow down a race from father to son’ just like physical attributes” (98). Finally, in the third section, “Education, environment and circumstance”, Ifill investigates Braddon and Collins’ engagement with the concept of environmental surroundings being a powerful factor in the formulation of an individual’s character. The final part of Creating Character deals explicitly with class disparity and the perceived variances in character which were often recognised as hereditary issues. For example, Ifill states that “the prevailing trend in thinking about character formation in the second half of the nineteenth century … turned progressively towards theories of hereditary degeneration to explain deviant behaviour” (155). With Victorian prejudice in mind, Ifill studies how Braddon’s Lost for Love (1874) and Collins’ Man and Wife (1870) navigate different theories of nature and nurture as they relate to class issues.

Throughout Creating Character, Ifill provides the reader with detailed contextual analyses of sensation fiction and how it was received in its heyday of the 1860s. The author uses this analysis to present sensation fiction as a good source of historical and cultural information. For example, Ifill argues that sensation novelists were able to spark “discussions about determinism and character formation in Victorian society, such as class relations, gender roles, the diagnosis and treatment of insanity, educational reform, and the ethos of self-help” (5). To reinforce this claim, Ifill uses wonderful bibliographical sources for her work. The range of materials used, from contemporary and modern sources, is helpful for people wanting to learn more about character development and its impact on mid-Victorian society. Furthermore, the texts which Ifill evaluates in Creating Character allow for a new layer of criticism to be unearthed. When students are introduced to sensation fiction, they are often presented with the acclaimed classics of Braddon and Collins, such as Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and The Woman in White (1859). However, by examining novels which have received little to no academic attention, such as The Lady Lisle (1862), readers are able to discover innovative material and uncover previously overlooked information.

Nevertheless, one may argue that throughout Creating Character, Ifill does not present an absolute definition of ‘character’. Thus, there is a lack of clear argument within the academic monograph. However, in my opinion, Ifill not presenting a definitive explanation of what is meant by ‘character’ allows a multifaceted understanding of the term to present itself, and Ifill is able to consistently return to the book’s initial concept; Bulwer-Lytton’s question, “What is Self?”. The complexity of a notion such as ‘character’ means that it is very difficult to suggest a specific definition, especially when an understanding can be different depending on the subject field applied. For example, in literature, the concept of character is utilised as a narrative device. Whilst in psychology, the notion of character is largely based around external influences as opposed to biological traits. Additionally, ‘character’ can be presented in a variety of ways: choice of clothing, relationship with religion, presentation of the home, all examples which are found in the works of Braddon and Collins. Therefore, I can only praise Ifill’s ability to create a work which presents distinct findings from different realms of study and maintains clear, concise ideas throughout.

Conclusively, I have found Creating Character to be a very interesting read, one which would be a great addition to the bookshelves of its intended audience: those interested in nineteenth-century society and literature. Ifill’s secondary sources are incredibly thorough and may be used as a handy tool for those looking to explore and study sensation fiction and its relationship with science and psychology further.