The White Phantom

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

In his essay on “The Unknown Public” in Household Words in August 1858, Wilkie Collins assumed a great gulf fixed between the middle-class literary audience (“the subscribers to this journal, the customers at publishing houses, the members of book-clubs and circulating libraries, and the purchasers and borrowers of newspapers and reviews …”) and the huddled mass of working-class readers (“the mysterious, the unfathomable, the universal public of the penny-novel-Journals”). Yet only a few years later critics were outraged that the sensation novel was encouraging a dangerous narrowing of the gap between bourgeois and proletarian tastes. According to W. Fraser Rae in the North British Review of September 1865, by publishing her “stories of blood and lust, of atrocious crimes and hardened criminals … in three volumes in place of issuing them in penny numbers,” Mary Braddon was turning “the literature of the Kitchen” into “the favourite reading of the Drawing Room.” In a notice of Collins’s Armadale in the Westminster Review in July 1866, J.R. Wise saw “Sensational Mania” as a “virus . . . spreading in all directions, from the penny journal to the shilling magazine, and from the shilling magazine to the thirty shillings volume.” Yet, despite the quantity of university seminars and academic articles dedicated to the sensation novel over the last few decades, we have come little further in understanding its true relations to the popular melodramatic fiction of the mid nineteenth century. The main reason is that few people are familiar with “penny bloods” because they are now so difficult to get hold of. Though novels issued in penny numbers like Reynolds’s Mysteries of London, or serialized in penny fiction papers like the Family Herald, reached hundreds of thousands of Victorian readers, these publications were both physically fragile and aesthetically unappealing to contemporary librarians or collectors, so that few original runs survive. So, while major publishers like Oxford, Penguin and Everyman are happy to issue competing scholarly editions of The Woman in White or Lady Audley’s Secret in cheap paperback format for class use, writers like Reynolds remain vastly underrepresented even in the British Library catalogue and fail to show at all in the Gutenburg Project. For this reason alone, we should be grateful to the Sensation Press, a small independent publisher committed to reprinting popular Victorian literature, and with a special interest in Braddon.

From the start Collins had found little difficulty in placing his work in prestigious middle-class periodicals like Bentley’s Miscellany or Dickens’s Household Words, but Mary Braddon began her literary career writing bloods for the unknown public, and continued to appear anonymously in the cheapest weekly papers well after Lady Audley’s Secret had brought her name to public attention. The White Phantomappeared originally from May 1862 in weekly parts in The Halfpenny Journal; A Magazine for All Who Can Read, and the Sensation Press edition represents its first appearance in volume form. In all, half a dozen other Braddon serials seem to have appeared in the same paper, which was published by her partner and agent John Maxwell, of which two have already been reprinted by the Sensation Press—The Black Band (1998) and The Octoroon (1999). In her introductions to these volumes, Jennifer Carnell paints a vivid picture of the conditions in which they were written. Following the lead of Collins in “The Unknown Public”, she refers extensively to the “Answers to Correspondents” columns of the paper in order to convey the attitudes and aspirations typical of its subscribers. She argues that the plates that headed the weekly instalments—all reproduced here in their appropriate places—are more likely to be acquired from French sources than freshly commissioned, and thus that the unexpected twists and turns of the plot may be attributable to constraints other than the looming deadline. And she quotes tellingly from Braddon’s correspondence with her literary mentor Edward Bulwer Lytton, where the following self-deprecatory postscript must refer to one of the closing episodes of The White Phantom:

I do an immense deal of work which nobody ever hears of, for Halfpenny & penny journals. This work is most piratical stuff & would make your hair stand on end, if you were to see it. The amount of crime, treachery, murder, slow poisoning, & general infamy required by the Halfpenny reader is something terrible. I am just going to do a little paracide [sic] for this week’s supply.

In the narratives themselves, though, there is little sense of Braddon writing tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, since we know that both the composition and serialization of, say, The White Phantom and Aurora Floyd, were largely simultaneous, what is striking is the facility with which the author supplies the different demands of the penny journal and the shilling magazine markets, just as later in her career she would become the darling of both the circulating libraries and the newspaper syndicates.

What then are the general characteristics of Braddon’s halfpenny bloods, in contrast to her shilling sensations? First, the short weekly instalments lead to a rather more episodic, anecdotal, syncopated narrative. Second, there are more frequent appeals to conventional radical sentiments, whether sympathy for the down-trodden masses or anger at aristocratic vice. Lastly, the moral scheme tends much more uniformly towards monochrome, as typified in the closing lines of The Black Band:

We have followed the innocent and the guilty alike impartially through the intricate labyrinth of life. We have seen the innocent for a time oppressed—the guilty for a time triumphant; but we have also seen that the wondrous balance of good and evil will infallibly adjust itself in the end; and that a dire and unlooked for vengeance will alight upon the heads of those who defy the Power which rules this marvellous universe, or laugh to scorn the just and merciful laws of an All-Wise Providence.

That said, in The White Phantom , Braddon does blur the boundaries to a significant extent. Though there are a number of heavy stage villains, like the hired murderer Gambia, an Indian devotee of the Thug cult, the narrative is a good deal less steeped in blood than The Black Bland, and there is a rather more tonal variation and moral ambiguity. The angelic foundling heroine Aurora (a far cry from Floyd, it must be stressed) is brought up as a showgirl by the tender-hearted huckster John Primmins, and this leads to a number of interludes of Dickensian humour which can counterbalance the Gothic excess:

“… Walk up, ladies and gentlemen, walk up! Come and see the new and original drammer hentitled the Mountain Spectre, or the Bleeding Finger! with real blood, which is drawn fresh for every performance from a gentleman who is kept on purpose to ’ave his throat cut hevery three quarters of a hour …”

At the same time, the golden-haired, alabaster-skinned anti-heroine Lady Blanche Vavasour, with marked homicidal tendencies and a talent for disguise, reveals something of the complexity of Lady Audley when her guilty secrets are finally revealed. It is probably this interest in “the dangerous edge of things” that makes The White Phantom such an absorbing read.

Through her meticulously researched biography with its wealth of new material on Braddon’s career as an actress, as well as the Sensation Press editions of Braddon’s plays, Jennifer Carnell has also done a great deal to aid our understanding of the relations between sensation fiction and the popular Victorian theatre. Crisply printed and handsomely bound in black cloth with an attractive dust-jacket in “yellowback” style, this edition of The White Phantom is another valuable contribution to our understanding of the market for melodrama in the mid-Victorian decades.