Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel

The middle decades of the nineteenth century were characterized by an intense rethinking of professional ideals, as Victorian professionals strove to redefine their corporate identities. Occupational groups employed in cultural and artistic fields such as actors, painters, journalists, but also detectives, engineers, civil servants and governesses, lacked an internal organization. As a result of the diverse social origins and educational ranks now possible, and because they were represented in terms of ambiguous neither/nor identities, whole categories of workers came to view themselves as a “maverick fourth class”. The “mavericks” were inevitably attracted by tantalizing, modern entrepreneurial criteria, and by the ethics of bourgeois capitalism, but these principles were themselves questionable, and needed to be reconciled with the moral values and the old hallmarks of traditional gentility. Along with the periodical press, the Victorian novel became an authoritative forum for debates on issues concerning professionalism, and the sensational was undoubtedly the genre that gave fictional shape to subjects such as the author’s ambiguous professional goals. The sensation novel flourished in a period of modern reforms and changes, such as the 1858 Medical Registration Act (which aimed to distinguish qualified from unqualified practitioners), and the classificatory vocational schemes introduced by the 1861 Census (which proved how a number of cultural and artistic occupations came to be viewed as professions around the mid-nineteenth century). As a consequence, literati, writers, and sensationalists too, had to rethink their roles, and all were compelled to reconsider their ideas about professionalism as cultural producers divided between the profit mindset of the Victorian middle-class and the old ideals pertaining to traditional gentlemanliness.

Among recent noteworthy studies in sensation fiction, Mariaconcetta Costantini’s Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel (2015) stands out by filling the critical gap between sensationalists’ codification of Victorian society, and their own concerns over the changing ethical standards in employment. The book explores the conflicting ideas in literature about professional obligation and social standing. Costantini’s study pays specific attention to several kinds of vocational issues recurring in sensation novels, which shuttle back and forth between two antithetical poles (old vs. emergent). What she refers to as the neither/nor criterion of a fluid and variegated social class that finds its professional identity in status and cultural production can be interpreted, according to Costantini, from the hermeneutical standpoint of a no/yes model theorized by Julia Kristeva in regard to “non-disjunctive” oppositions of the utterance. In the specific case of sensations novels, this means that the contradictory dramatis personae represent professional dilemmas and “are provided by the ‘chiaroscuro’ portraits of fictional alter egos that are involved in sensational plots and forced to interact with an extremely agonistic society” (60).

Sensation novelists often denounced the bourgeoisie’s hypocrisy by trespassing on the ominous secrets hidden behind a veil of supposed respectability. The social indefiniteness of surfacing social ranks without corporate identities strongly encouraged sensationalists to reconcile the values of the homo aestheticus with those of the homo economicus. Victorian writers would have been forced to address the dilemma of their own professional status while at the same time conforming to the modern leanings of the marketplace. Torn between conflicting aspirations, sensationalists were challenged to reformulate their functions as cultural producers within the terms of a discordant capitalistic liberalism which tended to commodify literary outputs. That was the uncertainty of Mary Elizabeth Braddon when she wrote to Edward Bulwer Lytton that she could not serve both “God and Mammon” (p. 29).

Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel probes the professional dilemmas experienced by four practitioners of the sensation genre: Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Reade and Ellen Wood. From Costantini’s viewpoint, “these authors were gripped by similar sociocultural anxieties, concocted analogous plots of transgression and tended to characterize professionals as non-disjunctive figures of modernization” (17). More specifically, her book is subdivided into two parts both linked to the opposition of old vs. emergent professions. The eight chapters of the volume are connected either with traditional professional fields (clergymen, army officers, lawyers, doctors) or others that started to be perceived as vocational during the Victorian period. Part One (Cultural and artistic professionals) concentrates its analysis on the fictional alter egos that sensationalists created: editors and journalists who epitomized the paradoxical condition of all Victorian cultural producers. During the transitional years from Romantic to Victorian paradigms of authorship, the dominance of the novel over poetry gave sensationalists like Collins and Braddon the opportunity to fictionalize the writer’s uncertainty about his or her cultural placement. Positioned between opposing ideals of their role as authors, they tackled “the naturalistic aspect of their genre against high-culture realism” (319), developing an aesthetically hybrid art and a scandalous novelistic form. Furthermore, the conflict between these contending criteria came “to define literary professionalism within an epistemic space strongly influenced by the opposing principles of heteronomy and autonomy of art” (111) as conveyed by Pierre Bourdieu’s theories. Costantini devotes the last occupational fields in Part One to painters and actors: the former explored from the sensationalists’ perspective of a connection between visual arts and illegality, the latter as the memorable examples of professionalism in fiction. Significantly, the artistic occupations became increasingly accessible to women under the reign of Queen Victoria, and sensation novelists in particular challenged gender boundaries in their ascent. While the nineteenth century saw an increase in women writers, as Costantini remarks, “the onslaught Mary Elizabeth Braddon suffered in 1860s proves that women novelists were victims of persistent gender prejudices against female intellectualism and professionalism” (97).

Costantini devotes Part Two of her work (Tradition and Innovation: medicine and the legal world) to medical and legal figures. Doctors frequently featured in sensation novels because writers dramatized scientific practitioners’ reconciliation with the moral dilemmas of non–artistic professionals. Costantini traces the social trajectory of the homo ethicus’s virtues as they descended into the entrepreneurial and venal exigencies of the homo economicus. At this crossing place between Victorian medicine and sensation fiction, Reade’s Hard Cash and Wood’s Owald Cray seem to epitomize remarkably caustic portrayals of such medical misconduct and professional negligence (318 ff). On the other hand, the legal profession featured heavily in the sensation fiction published in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Barristers, usually educated at Oxford at the expense of well-off families, and the lower branches of the profession such as attorneys and solicitors, were heterogeneous, and the latter branches often aimed at reducing the privilege of the upper elite. For this very reason, sensation writers depicted lawyers as semiotic non-disjunctive characters by fictionalizing a process of professional reshaping upon the ethical binary interest/disinterestedness. Above all, the literature of the period raised issues of truth and trust focused on the Victorian fear that lawyers could profitably employ storytelling strategies to manipulate the legal reconstruction of facts. Indeed, mid-Victorian novelists questioned the parallels between legal and literary storytelling (see, for example, Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone, Chapter 6). Be that as it may, the main purpose of the sensation genre in relation to medical and legal issues was to unveil “the moral pretentions and ideological contradictions of the bourgeoisie, the class to which most professionals belonged or were admitted […]. The sensationalists’ depictions of the conflicts arising within traditional professions can be read as further projections of the struggles for success and responsibility” (207). Alongside detectives, Costantini also notes that, together with doctors and lawyers, old professions encompassed careers in the army, the Church, and the government. She also casts light on both the neither/nor ambivalent identity of the governess (a stock characters in Victorian fiction, at the same a time paid servant and a foster middle-class mother) and she carefully examines the fictional role of engineers, arguing that “sensation novelists turned the neither/nor identity of engineers into a token of ideological complexities of historical conjuncture” (24).

Costantini gives plenty of textual references, and her book turns into a fundamental sourcebook for scholars about the Victorian professions. By setting up such substantial connections between fiction and extra-literary professional fields, and by offering comprehensive pictures of literati, she gestures to the variety of ways in which mid-Victorian writers fictionalized professionalism. Since sensation novelists conceived of professionals as ideologically divided subjects, they could not help but recount their own real social experiences within the sensation genre, thereby articulating the ambivalent socio-professional dilemmas of the Victorian age. Inspired by actual events of their time, and fascinated by morbid sexual scandals as well as criminal deviances, sensationalists concocted both realistic and melodramatic strategies in order to smash the standard ethicality of other literary forms. By deconstructing the ordinary conformities of Victorian literature and by reshaping professionalism in line with emerging ideas, from the mid- to late-nineteenth century the “maverick fourth class” symbolized the cultural agon for discordant arguments. Ultimately, as Costantini summarizes in the Introduction of her essay, “if the occupational types analyzed in Part I bring to the fore many anxieties confronting Victorian cultural producers, the professional orders investigated in Part II demonstrate the sensation novelists’ interest in the dynamizing effects of an ideal that was modifying the traditional structure of English society” (25-26). Tracing these concepts to their manifold conclusions, Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel is a pervasive compendium of intriguing literary issues as they relate to transitional professional models.

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