Sensational Deviance: Disability in Nineteenth-Century Sensation Fiction (2019)

Sensational Deviance: Disability in Nineteenth-Century Sensation Fiction (2019) by Heidi Logan

Kylee-Anne Hingston

Engaging with the current scholarly conversation about disability in Victorian sensation fiction, Heidi Logan’s Sensational Deviance (2019) maps nineteenth-century psychological and medical rhetoric in novels by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, unearthing the ways in which the authors interrogate that rhetoric’s scientific suppositions by focusing on the social, cultural, and legal experience of disability. This work will be useful to scholars of Collins and sensation fiction for its readings of understudied and lesser-known novels, such as Collins’ Dead Secret (1857) and Braddon’s John Marchmont’s Legacy (1862­–63) or One Thing Needful (1886), and for its contextualizing research on medicine, psychology, psychiatry, and science.

In the book’s introduction, Logan provides useful background about nineteenth-century science, medicine, psychology, and psychiatry, addressing their coterminous development with industrialization and social reform. In particular, she stresses the expansion of degeneration theory—the idea that the human race might degrade in moral, mental, and physical health by de-evolving—and Braddon and Collins’ subsequent concern with heredity in their novels. Next, she offers a brief history of literary disability studies, which informs her readings of Braddon and Collins’ work. Unfortunately, this history overgeneralizes Victorian depictions of disability as stereotypical and sentimental, perhaps to bolster the book’s argument that sensation fiction in general and Collins and Braddon in particular portrayed disability more complexly and subversively than did other genres and authors. But to claim that role for sensation fiction is to ignore the recent work done on disability in the domestic realism and children’s fiction by Dinah Mulock Craik and Charlotte Yonge. While disability’s centrality to Victorian sensation fiction and sensation fiction’s to Victorian understandings of disability has certainly been well established over the past two decades of scholarship, sensation fiction is by no means the only Victorian literary genre to produce sophisticated portrayals of disability. Nonetheless, Logan here astutely points to Collins and Braddon’s unique “interest in the disabled person’s sensory, psychological, and social experience” in fiction (16), an interest that is especially inflected with contemporaneous medical-scientific debates and that attends to disability’s intersectional relationship with race, gender, and class (25).

Following the introduction, the book is divided into two parts, four chapters on four of Collins’ novels, and then three that cover five Braddon novels. Each part examines the authors’ novels chronologically, hinting at the progression of their disability portrayals. The first chapter considers Hide and Seek (1854), in which Collins “focuses on [the deaf heroine] Madonna’s cognitive and somatic experiences” (26), focalizing through her visual perspective and prioritizing sight as a “source of pleasure” (43). This chapter argues that the hearing and non-hearing characters’ use of blended finger-spelling and home sign significantly accommodates for Madonna’s deafness in a way that allows her to securely claim “a deaf identity” in spite of “lack[ing] a deaf community” (41). In the next chapter, Logan moves on to the lesser-known The Dead Secret (1857), arguing that, in its depiction of disability (the hero Leonard Frankland’s blindness and his mother-in-law’s trauma), Collins investigates fluctuations of power caused by the intersecting identities of class, disability, and gender. In doing so, she argues, the novel challenges not only the normative hierarchies within these three identity markers but also the hierarchy of senses that places touch as the least informative to devalue the blind persons’ tactile method of “gaining data” (62, 67).

The third chapter turns to a novel often studied by those interested in Collins’ portrayals of disability: Poor Miss Finch (1871–72). Logan researches the potential sources for the narrative of Lucilla Finch’s blindness and its temporary “cure” via surgery. This chapter argues that, in this novel, Collins proffers answers to “long-standing philosophical questions about blindness” (91) and asserts both “the rights of disabled people to self-actualize” and that blindness can be an “‘ingredient’” for personal happiness (89). The chapter less convincingly agrees with Lillian Nayder’s argument that Collins’ depiction of Lucilla’s lover’s epilepsy, his subsequent blueness from silver nitrate treatments, and Lucilla’s repulsion at his colour are meant to allegorize “‘the blindness of racial prejudice’” (101). The final chapter of part one treats another popular novel for Victorian disability studies, The Law and the Lady (1875). Rather than centring on the more overt disabilities, Miserrimus Dexter’s congenital amputation and his cousin Ariel’s intellectual disability, the chapter speaks more of Dexter’s psychiatric decline and what Logan terms “women’s position of legal disability” (116)—a term that problematically conflates or equates oppression based on gender with that based on disability. Logan continues that conflation by suggesting that “femininity becomes a disability” (147); while femininity was certainly pathologized in the nineteenth century (and still is), such a suggestion uncomfortably seems to make disability short hand for oppression of any kind.

In part two, Logan observes that Braddon’s fiction engages with nascent Victorian criminology and examines deviance in “gender, social roles, and economics” in connection with disability. Part two opens with a chapter on Braddon’s The Trail of the Serpent (1860–1). Here, Logan highlights the novel’s significance for illustrating the effect of disability on professional work, in this instance, the effect of mutism on the hero Joseph Peters’ criminal detection. Peters’ faces both ableism and classism, Logan notes, but ultimately proves himself a highly capable detective.

The next chapter focusses entirely on mental illness: the “discourses of moral insanity and hereditary insanity” as well as “hysteria” (192) in Lady Audley’s Secret (1861–2) and John Marchmont’s Legacy (1862–3). Strangely, this chapter seems to abandon any dialogue with disability studies as a field. Rather than engaging with recent work in mad studies or with the Victorian disability scholarship that addresses degeneration and the institutionalization of mentally ill and cognitively disabled people,[1] the chapter’s theoretical foundation is Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady (1987) and Jill Matus’ Unstable Bodies (1995). While these two works about the Victorian connection of gender and madness are undoubtedly valuable when looking at Braddon’s sensation fiction, a grounding in disability theory would have greatly strengthened the chapter and its contribution to the book’s overarching argument. However, the chapter also points to how the two novels grapple with “the question of culpability for actions that are deemed socially deviant” (200) and with “the mysterious difference between madness and badness” (204) that pathologizing social deviance provokes.

While part one devotes one chapter to each novel, the chapter divisions in part two are somewhat arbitrary, based more on chapter length than anything else. For example, the final chapter covers two rather unrelated novels that were written twenty years apart, with no introduction to give a logic for their pairing. Instead, the chapter opens focussing on The Lady’s Mile (1866) and then halfway through jumps forward without any transition to One Needful Thing (1886). The first novel tells the story of a painter who temporarily goes blind. Logan contends that though the novel relies on “the castration motif” in its depiction of blindness (220), it also reflects “an attempt to understand a blind person’s experience” (221). In the second novel, Braddon quite overtly deals with the anxieties that degeneration theory prompted: the congenitally “deformed,” “hyper-intellectual” (227) but physically strong Lord Hubert adopts the daughter of his political rival, an industrial socialist, and the girl eventually marries Hubert’s physically perfect half-brother, Victorian. Notably, Logan underscores the novel’s “ambiguity” about degeneration, eugenics, and disability (236).

Overall, Sensational Deviance would have benefitted from more theorization from disability studies, especially when referring to notions of “acceptance” of or “compensation” for various impairments and when offering interpretations of disability as metaphors or symbols in the novels. Such instances lacked the necessary contextualization of how those narratives and interpretations can be harmful. Nonetheless, this monograph usefully uncovers the source material and contemporaneous medical and psychological theories informing Braddon’s and Collins’ novels, elucidating how both authors push against the authority of the medical establishment even while they draw on its rhetoric.

Works Cited

Jackson, Mark. The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, Manchester UP, 2000.

Wright, David. Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847–1901, Oxford Historical Monographs, Oxford UP, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=4964784.


[1] See, for example, Mark Jackson’s The Borderland of Imbecility (2000) or David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England (2001).

novel tells the story of a painter who temporarily goes blind. Logan contends that though the novel relies on “the castration motif” in its depiction of blindness (220), it also reflects “an attempt to understand a blind person’s experience” (221). In the second novel, Braddon quite overtly deals with the anxieties that degeneration theory prompted: the congenitally “deformed,” “hyper-intellectual” (227) but physically strong Lord Hubert adopts the daughter of his political rival, an industrial socialist, and the girl eventually marries Hubert’s physically perfect half-brother, Victorian. Notably, Logan underscores the novel’s “ambiguity” about degeneration, eugenics, and disability (236).

Overall, Sensational Deviance would have benefitted from more theorization from disability studies, especially when referring to notions of “acceptance” of or “compensation” for various impairments and when offering interpretations of disability as metaphors or symbols in the novels. Such instances lacked the necessary contextualization of how those narratives and interpretations can be harmful. Nonetheless, this monograph usefully uncovers the source material and contemporaneous medical and psychological theories informing Braddon’s and Collins’ novels, elucidating how both authors push against the authority of the medical establishment even while they draw on its rhetoric.

Works Cited

Jackson, Mark. The Borderland of Imbecility: Medicine, Society and the Fabrication of the Feeble Mind in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, Manchester UP, 2000. Wright, David. Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847–1901, Oxford Historical Monographs, Oxford UP, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uvic/detail.action?docID=4964784.