The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Deborah Wynne is concerned with both the material production of fiction and the experience of reading. In this informative study of the sensation novel in the 1860s, she reminds us that these two things are closely inter-related, and in ways which make our reading of Victorian novels quite different from the ways in which they were read by their first readers. More often than not the twenty-first century “reader” of a Victorian novel will first encounter it, as did many of its first “readers”, in the form of a dramatic adaptation—although in our case the adaptation will be for the screen (small or large), rather than the stage. If we consume the novel in a printed version, it will usually be in the form of a single paperback volume—with an attractive cover adorned with a still from the screen version, or a reproduction of a suitable nineteenth-century painting—which we may polish off in as many or as few sittings as we choose. However, in the nineteenth century, and especially in the 1860s, many novels would first have been encountered in “tantalising portions” in the pages of family magazines, those weekly or monthly miscellanies which ran serialized versions of one, two, or more novels alongside poems, short stories, and essays on various subjects, for the entertainment and instruction of their middle-class or upwardly mobile working class readers.

These Family magazines, like all periodicals, Wynne argues, “exist as sites of simultaneity in that they present a cluster of apparently unrelated texts at the same point in time and space, all having the potential to be read in relation to each other” (20). Was this potential realized, and, if so, with what results? Wynne inclines to the view that readers did ‘sample all the different texts on offer’, rather than singling out one or two features and ignoring the rest. Her evidence is, in part, intuitive: she thinks it likely that Victorian readers would have read everything in a particular issue of a magazine on the grounds that this was an age of thrift and recycling, and, in a period of relatively expensive print, they would have wanted to drain every drop of entertainment potential from each issue of the magazine purchased. She also adduces internal and (occasionally) external textual evidence to demonstrate that some editors—notably Dickens—deliberately orchestrated the contents of individual issues of a magazine around the lead serial. The result of the realization of the magazines’ potential for simultaneity was a particular form of intertextuality and a particular mode of reading which Wynne explores by means of a careful and often illuminating analysis of seven sensation novels in the context of the periodical texts in which they first appeared.

Collins and Dickens are the central figures in Wynne’s study, which suggests that their joint work for All The Year Round played a (perhaps the) leading role in developing a “discourse of sensation” in the 1860s. Chapter 2 links the sensational import and impact of The Woman in White to its “interaction” with the sensational journalism of Dickens’s All The Year Round which reinforced Collins’s narrative with further stories of wrongful imprisonment, and articles on the treatment of the insane, the health and safety of the modern middle classes, and the rise of the gentleman criminal and the “solitary clever detective” (54). Chapter 4 looks more closely at Dickens’s work as an editor, and reads Great Expectations both as a sensation novel which sought to capitalize on Collins’s success, and in the context of All The Year Round’s construction of a sensationalist discourse around the natural selection debates and other “anxiety stories” related to origins and degeneration. Chapter 5 shows how Dickens as the “conductor” of All The Year Round, sought to intensify both the sensationalism and the realism of Collins’s No Name by supporting its main themes with essays on the plight of young girls living “outside the shelter of the respectable family” (99), and on theories of race and degeneracy. Chapter 8, on the other hand, looks at the different intertextual readings of the sensational Armadale that were offered by its appearance in the upmarket Cornhill Magazine, alongside the domestic realism of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and, subsequently, Trollope’s The Claverings—a juxtaposition which brings into sharp focus the hybridity of the sensation novel, and its particular mixture of “middle-class domestic realism and lowbrow melodrama” (165).

Wynne also sheds fresh light on a number of other successful sensation novels which have been much discussed in the recent revival of critical interest in this genre. By relocating East Lynne in its original context in the pages of the New Monthly Magazine, a periodical with a largely male readership, Wynne challenges some recent feminist readings of this novel and offers an interesting reading of its class positioning—as resolutely, if politely championing middle-class values. An examination of Once A Week’s “sophisticated approach towards cultural analysis in its discussions of literature, art, and the theatre” (114-5), underpins a persuasive discussion of Braddon’s “spirited defence of melodrama and sensation fiction” (114) in Eleanor’s Victory. A mercifully brief chapter on Charles Reade’s Very Hard Cash in the context of All The Year Round gives a few reasons why this novel was even less successful as a serial that it was in its revised volume form.

Although this book only focuses on one aspect of Collins’s oeuvre it will be of great interest to students of his work, throwing fresh light on the nature of his achievement as a sensation novelist. It also has much to say to students of nineteenth-century fiction more generally, as well as to students of the periodical press. Sensation novels were sometimes criticised by their first reviewers for being “newspaper novels”. This book succeeds in clarifying the nature of the links between the sensation fiction of the 1860s and some aspects of contemporary journalism, by demonstrating how sensation fiction was “shaped and defined by its periodical publishing space” (168). In doing so it also begins to sketch in a lateral mode of reading in which the nineteenth-century reader learned (or was led by an editorial conductor) to dance through apparently “disconnected items of temporary intelligence” (C.H. Butterworth, quoted on p.13), in a way which “extended the boundaries of the serial novel by encouraging the reader’s engagement with its accompanying texts” (168).