The Female Servant and Sensation Fiction: ‘Kitchen Literature’

One of the most memorable condemnations of sensation fiction in the Victorian periodical press occurred in an 1865 North British Review article by W. Fraser Rae, who backhandedly credited Mary Elizabeth Braddon with “making the literature of the Kitchen the favourite reading of the Drawing Room” (qtd. in Steere 1). Elizabeth Steere’s engaging new study takes up this class-oriented understanding of the sensation novel through a gender-specific lens to focus on one of the genre’s most enigmatic recurring figures: the female servant.

Women in service abound throughout the sensation genre, from Phoebe Marks in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Lydia Gwilt in Armadale (1866) to Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone (1868) and Cytherea Graye in Desperate Remedies (1871). In The Female Servant and Sensation Fiction: ‘Kitchen Literature’, Steere examines the significance of these and other characters in a variety of texts as she persuasively contends that female servants are emblematic of how the genre subverts the class and gender boundaries of the era. As Steere demonstrates, the figure of the female servant is a fitting symbol for a genre that reviewers emphatically feminised in terms of its subject matter, authorship, and readership, and which gained shock value from the class and gender transgressions—including sexual improprieties—of its female characters. Steere’s fully historicised argument illuminates the intersections between Victorian class, gender, and sexuality.

After an introduction that establishes the class connotations of sensation fiction, Steere surveys the necessary historical contexts for her work in the first chapter, and then analyses various sensational texts with respect to different roles embodied by female servant figures: servant storytellers in Jane Eyre (1847) and Wuthering Heights (1847), servant victims in Wilkie Collins’s novels, the servant actress in Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), and the servant as lover and spouse in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Grey Woman” (1865). The book concludes with a chapter tracing the legacies of sensation fiction in twenty-first century neo-Victorian novels such as Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (2002), which Steere reads as fulfilling and surpassing the sensation novel’s transgressive potential by depicting an overtly lesbian relationship between two women across class boundaries.

Providing a usefully flexible model for the study of sensation fiction as a genre, Steere includes the two Brontë novels as proto-sensation texts, and contravenes the usual categorisation of Gaskell’s short story as Gothic, due to its lack of supernaturalism. Further demonstrating the pervasiveness of sensational techniques and content in texts outside those usually classified within the genre, the chapter on Lady Audley’s Secret incorporates a reading of Lady Dedlock’s maid Hortense in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853), a character whom Steere interprets as a “prototype of the criminal servant” (93). In this way, Steere’s approach is consistent with other recent scholarship that challenges the boundaries of sensation fiction, such as Thomas Hardy, Sensationalism, and the Melodramatic Mode (2011), in which Richard Nemesvari undermines the distinction of sensation novels from the dominant realist mode by arguing that Hardy retroactively aligned his works with realism, despite having deployed sensationalist elements throughout his novels (Nemesvari 20). Steere thus adds to the growing corpus of scholarship that reinstates the centrality of sensationalism to mid-Victorian literary culture, thereby redressing the exclusion of sensation novels from the canon. Steere goes even further by positing a legacy of sensation fiction that extends far beyond the Victorian period to the twenty-first century, finding parallels in the contemporary melodramas of Lifetime original television movies.

While these contemporary analogues are provocative, Steere’s work is strongest when grounded in the links between Victorian literature and culture. Her research is especially informative in conveying the historical nuances of the governess’s social position in chapter two, when Steere draws fascinating evidence from some of the theatrical adaptations of Jane Eyre to supplement her analysis of Brontë’s text. For example, Steere cites a telling moment from John Brougham’s 1849 stage adaptation, in which a character hears the arrival of Jane’s carriage, and is told by the footman that the passenger is neither a ‘gentleman’ nor a ‘lady’ (Steere 47)—a moment that pointedly underscores the vexed class and gender status of governesses.

Steere raises the stakes of the female servant’s potential for class and gender transgression by examining Gaskell’s understudied “The Grey Woman,” in which a loyal maid poses as her mistress’s spouse to protect her from the violent criminal who is her actual husband. Steere makes effective use of Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007) to contextualise Gaskell’s positive depiction of a female domestic and possibly romantic union. Steere rightly turns to Lady Audley’s Secret and Desperate Remedies for comparable literary examples of homoerotic bonding between mistresses and maids. Her readings of these texts, however, could benefit from Lynda Hart’s work in Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (1996), which explores similar territory in Lady Audley’s Secret, and whose discussion of female criminality would also have been valuable to Steere’s extended analysis of Braddon’s novel in chapter 4.

Nonetheless, Steere’s new text adds productively to the burgeoning scholarship on sensation fiction. Her focus on sensational representations of female servants reiterates the importance of apprehending Victorian class and gender in relation to one another, and her work points toward exciting directions for pursuing the legacies of a genre that has become indispensable to the study of the period.

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