Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels: Pleasures of the Senses

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

The aim of Laurie Garrison’s book, entitled Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels: Pleasures of the Senses is to help fill a critical void in the study of sensation novels, in particular as regards the cultural context in which these novels were generated. Whereas in the past critics focused their attention mainly on questions of gender and psychology (from Elaine Showalter to Jenny Bourne Taylor, Lyn Pykett and Ann Cvetkovich to Pamela Gilbert), recent critical studies have tended to inspect new fields of analysis such as science, technology and medicine. This is the case, for instance, with Nicholas Daly’s Sensation and Modernity in the 1860s and Andrew Mangham’s Violent Women and Sensation Fiction.

In this respect, Garrison concentrates on the “physiological” implications of sensation novels, and on the mid-nineteenth century critical debate that arose from the awareness that “sensations” were to be intended as subjective bodily stimuli that had a large impact on the moral frame of mind of (female) readers engaged in “sensual” reading experiences. In Garrison’s words, “the sensation novel inspired a new form of reading, one that depended first on the physical effects it inspired in the reader and secondly on the psychological effects that occurred as a result of this form of reading” (p. xii).

The first chapter opens with an extended reading of three famous Victorian reviews, namely Margaret Oliphant’s 1862 article published in Blackwood’s, Henry Mansel’s “taxonomical” description of sensation novels for the Quarterly Review (1863), and an anonymous article published in the Medical Critic and Psychological Journal in 1863. Although they have different approaches, these three articles share the idea that sensation novels appealed to the nerves (with a “dangerous” physical effect on their readers), and seemed to be indebted to recent physiological studies such as Alexander Bain’s The Senses and the Intellect (1855) and George Henry Lewes’s The Physiology of Common Life (1859). Oliphant’s contribution, for instance, is “a study of the forms of sensation produced in the reader” (p. 11), and Henry Mansel tries to legitimise his assertions by using a language indebted to physiology and Darwinism. Despite the fact that the article published in the Medical Critic and Psychological Journal does not dismiss in toto the sensational phenomenon, the reviewer associates the erotic appeal of sensation novels with the fashion for the crinoline in women’s dresses, which was considered at the time as “utterly destructive” to modesty. But Victorian reviewers were not unanimous in deriding novels such as The Woman in WhiteLady Audley’s Secret or Aurora Floyd. In particular, Garrison demonstrates convincingly that the Victorian debate on the sensation novel was far more complex than it first appeared, and that critical stigmatisations were counterbalanced by appraisals of the genre. Indeed, between 1863 and 1868 a number of articles appeared with the aim of defending this new literary genre, such as “Not a New Sensation” and “The Sensational Williams” (both published in All the Year around), and George Augustus Sala’s “The Cant of Modern Criticism” and “On the Sensational in Literature and Art”, both published inBelgravia, the magazine founded and edited by the so-called “queen of circulating libraries”, Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Many of these articles were written as a direct response to Oliphant’s and Mansel’s accusations, and tended to emphasise the fact that the term “sensational” could be similarly applied to Sir Walter Scott’s or Shakespeare’s works in many respects. But the debate on the sensation novel was also characterised by a proliferation of parodies, which probably culminated with the publication of the serial novella Groweth Down Like a Toadstool (a title that evidently mocks Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower) in St. James’s Magazine in 1876-77. Garrison’s choice of this text (and other satires) is appropriate, since literary parody offers a distorted mirror image of the narrative codes of a certain literary genre and, in this case, can be useful to approach, isolate and study the basic components of the sensational recipe. Significantly, Groweth Down Like a Toadstool “emulates sensation novels as well as sensation novel reviews by describing bodies, parts of bodies and the effect they experience in comically scientific terms” (p. 49).

The second chapter of Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels focuses on the impact of mesmerism and spiritualism on sensation novels such as The Woman in White and Cometh Up as a Flower. In the first case, Garrison underlines that Wilkie Collins (who was directly involved in the debates about mesmerism to the point of publishing an article entitled “Magnetic Evenings at Home” in 1852) depicts intense stimulations of the body and introduces the figure of Count Fosco as the novel’s “abusive mesmerizer” (p. 73). In Garrison’s view, Fosco’s multiple attempts to subdue Marian’s consciousness have the effect of cementing, on the contrary, the relationship between Marian and Laura, helping them to undermine his mesmeric control (which was however successful with his wife). The Woman in White finally dramatises the positive powers of mesmerism as a way to create new female communities and to give voices to their desires. In this respect, it is a pity that Garrison did not choose to mention (even in passing) The Moonstone in the section devoted to Collins, because this novel is similarly centred on the presence of reduced states of consciousness, and on male fantasies of control over female bodies. As far as Broughton’s novel is concerned, the references to spiritualism – which was another matter of intense debate at the time – are here more of an indirect nature, and are, as it were, concealed between the lines of the narration. On many occasions, for instance, the female narrator Nell Le Strange (who recounts her life just before her death of consumption) contemplates the existence of other worlds in her quasi-philosophical meditations. Therefore, whereas Collins evokes physiological processes through the language of mesmerism, in Cometh Up as a Flower “Rhoda Broughton drew on the discourses of spiritualism in order to represent conflict between the physical body and the soul”. Finally, both writers borrowed from the language of mesmerism and spiritualism so as to create “sensational effects” (p. 105).

The relationship between social sciences and sensation novel is the object of analysis of the third, and last, chapter of Garrison’s book. Here the author focuses on the “increasing scrutiny of the sexual and reproductive behaviours of women that intensified as the 1860s progressed” (p. 107), and on the sensation novelists’ negotiations with the works published by J. S. Mill (Principles of Political Economy), Herbert Spencer (Social Statistics) and Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species). Marriage, breeding, reproduction, and control of female sexuality are at the centre of these studies, as they are also at the centre of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd and Mrs. Henry Wood’s St. Martin’s Eve. Despite the fact that Great Expectations seems to present readers with a depiction of “disturbingly abundant” desire (Miss Havisham) and “submerged sexuality” (Estella), Dickens “did not necessarily intend for us to read Miss Havisham and Estella as decidedly negative representations of women”. As Garrison puts it, Dickens’s female characters represent “one of the most subtle […] critiques of evolutionary theory’s implications for gender politics of the period” (p. 132). Social sciences have a strong impact also on Aurora Floyd, which dramatises the power of female agency in a patriarchal society, and the socially beneficial influence of “eccentricity” (a notion introduced by J. S. Mill). Indeed, Braddon’s “fast” Aurora, who loves horseriding, marries her father’s groom in a fit of girlish passion (to misquote from Oliphant’s famous review), and does not hesitate to whip the brutal Steeve “The Softy” Hargraves (in one of the most sensationally shocking scenes of the novel) is finally rewarded with the prizes of marriage and motherhood. The chapter concludes with an analysis of Mrs. Henry (Ellen) Wood’s St Martin’s Eve. One of Wood’s heroines, Charlotte Norris, reminds readers of the dark-haired and stately Aurora Floyd, and of Dickens’s Estella. However, like Braddon’s most infamous female character Lady Audley, Charlotte’s “survival instincts” prevail over her reason, and lead her to an asylum. In contrast, Wood describes Frederick and Georgina’s “procreative partnership” according to Darwinian paradigms. Similarly to Aurora Floyd in Braddon’s eponymous novel, Georgina’s assertive and rebellious behaviour has to be “tamed” in order to make her a “reproductive” wife. Here Wood succeeds in reconciling, as she also does in other novels, sensationalism and domesticity.

Garrison’s critical approach would have probably profited from a more extended association between the physiological “effects” of sensation novels and the reading practices of nineteenth-century female readers. I am referring in particular to the analysis of the “consumption of print” in works such as Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader, Terry Lowell’s Consuming Fictions and, more recently, Gender and the Victorian Periodical (eds. Hilary Fraser, Stephanie Green and Judith Johnson) and Encounters in the Victorian Press(eds. Laurel Brake and Julie Codell). All in all, Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels remains a critically solid book, and Garrison’s exploration of the physiology of reading is a very interesting and original contribution to the study of the sensational “phenomenon”, of the nineteenth-century debate on sensation reading, and of the ways bodies read, and were read.