Women’s Authorship and Editorship in Victorian Culture: Sensational Strategies

In the last years there has been an increasing interest in investigating the relationship between the Victorian editorial market and the spread of the sensation novel. From Margaret Beethan’s A Magazine of her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800-1914 (1996), Graham Law’s Serializing Fiction in The Victorian Press (2000), Deborah Wynne’s The Sensation Novel and the Victorian Family Magazine (2000), and Barbara Onslow’s Women of the Press in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2000) to Jennifer Phegley’s contribution in Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation (2004) and Andrew Maunder’s important editorial project in his Varieties of Womens Sensation Fiction (2004), critics have focused on the impact of serialization on the success of the novels penned by more or less famous representatives of the sensational school. In this respect, Beth Palmer’s Women’s Authorship and Editorship in Victorian Culture. Sensational Strategies represents another important contribution to the ongoing critical debate, in particular as regards the double engagement as sensational editor and writer in three major figures: Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, and Florence Marryat. Palmer focuses on what she defines (borrowing her approach from Judith Butler) as the “performative” authorship of these writers. Through an analysis of the roles played – both in a literal and a metaphorical sense – by Braddon, Wood and Marryat, Palmer also places in the foreground the editorial politics and gender issues which were raised by them in the predominantly male world of the Victorian press.

The author opportunely chooses to open her study with an introductory view of the context in which the sensation novel flourished: namely, the shilling-monthlies, the influential figure of Dickens, the impact of the Englishwomans Domestic Magazine, and the rise of the woman’s question in periodicals such as the English Womans Journal and the Victoria Magazine. Whereas on the one hand these latter monthlies, edited and conducted by the so-called ‘Langham Place Group’, introduced readers to debates over the status and rights of married women with a mixture of radicalism and adherence to social norms (which will be also typical of the uneven approach to the issues of femininity in many sensation novels written by women), on the other hand The Cornhill, Temple Bar,and The Monthly Magazine paved the way for a new conception of novel-writing, in terms of style and theme. It is not therefore coincidental that sensationalists such as Collins, Wood, and Braddon decided to publish some of their novels in these newly-opened and successful monthlies, which in turn were based on the model suggested by Dickens in Household Words and, particularly, in the more ‘entertaining’ (and less socially engaged) All the Year Round. In a way, Braddon, Wood and Marryat fashioned themselves first as writers and then as editors on the example offered by Dickens. As Palmer writes: “Dickens helped in three significant ways to form the press conditions that enabled Braddon, Wood, and Marryat to succeed as author-editors. He rehabilitated fiction serialization, linked author and editor into a celebrity persona, and orchestrated his contributors to perform further versions of the persona he had created through style and content choices” (p. 30). Although, unfortunately, Palmer mentions only in passing Dickens’s and Collins’s tense editorial relationship, and does not devote any space to Charles Reade’s tormented defense of the sensational Hard Cash in Dickens’s All the Year Round, this is a very engaging chapter, and gives an excellent introduction to the themes that will be treated in the pages that follow.

Braddon’s activity as a writer and editor is at the center of the second chapter of Palmer’s book, in which the author offers a comprehensive investigation of the talent and initiative of the so-called ‘Queen of the circulating libraries’. After a brief analysis of The Trail of the Serpent and the sensational blockbuster Lady Audleys Secret, which aims to underline the fact that Braddon trained as a future first-rate (sensational) editor in these novels, Palmer studies the writer’s achievements in Belgravia. Apart from equalling the sales of the Cornhill, Belgravia (which Braddon edited from 1866 to 1876 with her husband and publisher, John Maxwell) represented an editorial stage in which she recited her role as a sensational writer and, sometimes behind the scenes, as a champion of the sensational cause. Braddon’s “strong measures” (an expression she uses in a letter to her literary mentor Edward Bulwer-Lytton) feature as “the structuring stylistic principle” of Belgravia, and translate “into profitable stylistic effects: ‘sensational’ images, styles, and tropes that reach beyond the norms of realist fiction or conventional politeness” (p. 59). Braddon’s indirect counter-attacks against Margaret Oliphant’s vehement criticism, for instance, are exemplified by a series of journalistic articles (such as Augustus Sala’s “The Cant of Modern Criticism” [1867]) that defend the sensation genre through a journalistically sensational style. As for Braddon’s own contributions to her periodical, Palmer argues that in Dead Sea Fruit, Charlottes Inheritance and Hostages to Fortune (the last novel to be serialized in Belgravia), Braddon practices what she preaches, performing her narrative and editorial sensational persona. The final part of the chapter is devoted to a study of the poetry published in Belgravia, which was the object of ironic criticism in the Victorian press. The anonymous “Lusignan” and Braddon’s “The Lady of the Land” are given as examples of the ways in which sensual representations of femininity were used to maximize, with a mixture of allure and fear (and through the use of a different artistic language), the same codes as sensation novels. I would have expected, in this context, also a brief reference to Braddon’s The Doctors Wife (1864), a novel that includes among its characters the sensational novelist Sigismund Smith, who writes for the periodical press and who aspires to become a respected three-volume novelist (and will reappear in this latter role in another novel entitled The Ladys Mile). The Doctors Wife is probably one of Braddon’s most intelligent meta-narrative comments on the ‘dirty job’ of the sensational serial writer, and it is a pity that Palmer does not mention it.

The case of Ellen Wood, studied in the third chapter, summarizes the complexity of the sensation phenomenon, and suggests that it is necessary to approach it not as a single stable generic category. Opposite to Braddon (and to Marryat), who were not afraid of impersonating the ‘theatrical’ role of the sensational writer, Wood’s attitude was much more reserved and demure, to the point that her peculiar sensationalism has been defined by critics as ‘domestic’. Indeed, her evangelicalism contributed to her emphasis on religious belief, suffering, and expiation in her most renowned novel East Lynne (but also, generally speaking, in almost all of her literary and non-literary works). Although the association between sensationalism and evangelicalism seems an unlikely one, in truth (as Palmer convincingly argues) they share the same interest in the question of female desire and of class-consciousness. Wood’s variation to the sensational formula is similarly present in her activity as an editor of Argosy from 1867 to 1890, and particularly in the Christian tone she chose for her periodical. Both the articles included in the Argosy and the literary contributions that were serialized in it (including Wood’s) are characterized by an interest in moral questions, in the value attributed to self-abnegation in women, and in the ‘sensational’ primacy of feelings and emotions. As the author puts it, “Wood co-opts the hedging and double logic used by evangelical women writers to discuss (and in her own fiction to enact) the complex position of women in Argosy” (p. 113).

The fourth chapter focuses on the life, works and editorial activity of Florence Marryat, whose literary background (she was the daughter of the novelist Captain Marryat) and adventurous existence (she travelled a lot, separated from two husbands, was a convinced spiritualist and lead an atypical religious life), contributed to her personal declination of the sensation novel. After the enormous success of Loves Conflict (1865), she continued to promote herself and her sensationalism, characterized by an interest in performative sexual desire, first in the course of her editorship of London Society from 1872 to 1876 (in which she serialized other novels and published short articles), and then in her activity as an actress, singer, and playwright. Similarly to Dickens, Marryat’s editorial activity boosted her future ‘staging’ of her sensational self in public readings and in the theatre. This is certainly Palmer’s most original chapter, in particular when she concentrates on some illustrations (mainly by George Cruikshank Jr.) included in London Society, and analyses them as further proofs of Marryat’s promotion of her editorial identity and of her provocative role in ‘London society’. Sensation novels such as No Intentions (1874), Open! Sesame! (1875), and My Own Child (1876), which treat topics such as marital love, spiritualism, and female desire through a highly eroticized language, provide “a set of styles and tropes with which Marryat could ask questions about identity, femininity, and selfhood” (p. 146).

Palmer closes her study with a chapter on the legacies of sensation in the late-century press and in the New Women fiction. Whereas on the surface female sensationalists and New Women writers seemed to be miles away in terms of style and political attitudes, novelists such as Braddon, Wood, and Marryat were a source of inspiration for many of the themes (related to gender inequalities and precarious marital status) and the assertive female models advocated, for instance, by Sarah Grand and Mona Caird. The greatest difference is represented by the way these novels were offered to the public, since serial publication in the monthly magazines was perceived as an old-fashioned and ‘feminized’ practice by the 1890s. The role of the monthly magazines thus changed, in the sense that periodicals such as Woman at Home, Our Mothers and Daughters,and Womans Signal (each in a different way) hosted debates on the ‘proper’ role and condition of women, and on the impact, or alleged immorality, of New Women fictions. According to Palmer, these magazines “offered the reader several alternative versions of femininity with (or against) which a reader could relate” (p. 180). To conclude, apart from some very minor omissions (but perfection is impossible), Beth Palmer has written a very convincing and critically robust study. Through an accessible (but scientifically rigorous) language, this book may be regarded as an important thought-provoking addition to the analysis of the complex dialogue between sensationalism, the periodical press, and the Victorian editorial market, opening new critical perspectives on the performative quality of nineteenth-century female narrative agency.

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