By Beth Palmer
(Oxford, 2011) ix + 206 pp
Reviewed by Lyn Pykett on 2011-05-27.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

Joining a growing body of work on both the nineteenth-century sensation novel and the position of Victorian women writers in the literary marketplace, this book has three main aims: to establish a broader context for the success of the best-selling sensation novels Lady Audley's Secret and East Lynne by showing how sensation is rooted in the periodical press; to highlight the role of three  female sensation novelists -- Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and Florence Marryat -- as successful editors of  family magazines;  and finally to argue that by staging sensation as a series of performances in print,  these three writers could "exert authority in a male dominated magazine market " (1).

Of course Palmer is not the first to seek to contextualise the sensation novel in the periodical press. Deborah Wynne's pioneering The Sensation Novel and the Family Magazine (2001) successfully traced the connections between sensation novels and the magazines in which they first appeared, showing how the development of a pervasive discourse of sensationalism in nineteenth-century middle-brow culture helped to mark the advent  of modernity. Focusing more specifically on women writers and readers, Jennifer Phegley's  Educating the Proper Woman Reader (2004) illuminatingly explored the development and defence of sensationalism in magazines and the role of both Braddon and Wood as magazine editors. Sensationalism in Belgravia during Braddon's editorship of that magazine  is  also treated in  Alberto Gabriele's Reading Popular Culture (2009).  But Palmer brings something new to  this topic.  While she draws on the work of Wynne and Phegley,  she has her own distinctive approach to sensationalism,  which she defines (specifically in relation to Braddon, Wood, and Marryat) as "a series of performances and rehearsals of a particular kind of cultural script " (13).  Whether writing novels or editing fiction, these three--as Palmer presents them-- were always staging sensation. 

A concise introduction briefly glosses  "sensation,"   locates  the three selected writers within  the conditions of editorship and the press in the 1850s and 1860s,  and defines the  concept of performativity that  underlies the book as a whole.  Palmer takes her cue  from Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity in Gender Trouble (1990), which casts gender as a series of performances, a discursive practice which is always in process.  Bending Butler's thesis, however, Palmer argues  that  as part of a cultural survival strategy,  the performative self-fashioning undertaken by  her  three writers (and, one might argue, by Victorian women writers more generally) self-consciously engaged with-- and in several respects conformed to--established gender norms.   The trope of performance is apt,  for  as Palmer explains,  both Braddon and Marryat were actors and playwrights as well as novelists and editors. But performativity itself plays hide and seek in this book.  By turns,  Palmer tends to over-stress its importance through assertion and repetition, or to let it drop out of sight.  Moreover, in her eagerness to show that her three writers were self-empowering performers, Palmer perhaps underestimates the availability of female author--editor role models in the 1850s and 1860s. Charlotte Yonge, for example, is merely mentioned in passing.

In the first of the book's five substantive chapters, Palmer  explores the new conditions of the press in the 1850s and 1860s. These, she argues,   furnish  both the context for the sensation novel of the 1860s and 1870s and the enabling environment for the success of her three  author-editors.   This chapter  tracks  the growth of serialized fiction in magazines, the rise of the celebrity editor or conductor of periodicals, notably Dickens and Isabella Beeton, and the ways in which the new feminist magazines associated with the Langham Place Group negotiated between popular and political publishing modes, producing their own celebrity editor (so Palmer argues) in the shape of Emily Faithfull, editor of the Victoria Magazine.

Following this wide-ranging and informative opening chapter,  three ensuing chapters  each focus on a single author. Chapter Two seeks to show  how Braddon's early sensational styles reworked (or 'performed') those of successful writers such as Dickens, and how she self-consciously marketed herself as a celebrity.  From Braddon's correspondence we learn that she took on the debate about sensation and sought  to make her magazine sensational -- by adopting and encouraging  her contributors to adopt what she termed "strong measures"  as a distinctive house-style on a par with the amusing and fanciful ("Dickensy") house-style of Dickens's periodicals.   Thus, Palmer argues,  Braddon made herself a key player in the sensation market: a writer-editor whose performance of sensation was empowering rather than burdensome--like Frankenstein's  monster-- as her critics claimed. Palmer tells something less than the whole story here.  In her eagerness to show   that the performance of sensation was a means of exploring, enacting and reworking contemporary notions of female autonomy and agency, she  overlooks the important role played by John Maxwell in orchestrating Braddon's early career as an author and editor. Nevertheless, this chapter-- one of the best in the book--offers fresh perspectives on Braddon's work. It ably treats some of Braddon's own Belgravia serials, such as Dead Sea Fruit,  which is said to bristle 'with self-justifying awareness of its sensational status' (65), and Hostages to Fortune.  Hostages, Palmer argues, not only highlights the similarities between aestheticism and sensation, but also transfers to  aestheticism the alarming qualities hitherto associated with sensation.

Turning to  Mrs. Henry  Wood,  Chapter Three explains how she   negotiated  the two apparently conflicting discourses of sensationalism and pious Christianity, cultivating a staid, respectable, domestic persona  "in order to distance herself from the more dangerous facets of sensationalism even while her fiction worked to elicit the most sensational effects on its readers" (83).  In Palmer's persuasive argument,   Wood's conventionality, her self-conscious performance of the role of the domestic woman, and her carefully fashioned and complexly shifting Evangelicalism  all combined to give her a model for feeling  that was based on authenticity, and this provided  an alternative to the hyperbole and fleshliness associated with sensationalism.

Florence Marryat sought  no such alternative.  As we learn from the particularly informative chapter on her,  she used her editorship of London Society to spurn   the domestic model of authorship adopted by Wood.  In its place she adopted  a bohemian and flirtatious editorial persona that  enabled her to orchestrate the competing egos of her contributors and also helped to promote  her own brand of eroticised sensation fiction.  Palmer perhaps underplays Marryat's links   to a second generation of more sexually outspoken sensationalists, such as Rhoda Broughton.  But  with the aid of fascinating illustrations,  Palmer  demonstrates that Maryatt made herself a celebrity by  exhibiting herself  to the readers of  London Society  as an instantly recognizable  visual commodity.  

     The final chapter tells an after-story.  By locating  the women's writing of the 1890s within the context  of the  periodical press, it tries to    to show what the women authors and editors of the late nineteenth century had learned from Braddon, Wood, and Marryat. Observing  the new journalism, new models of finance and distribution, new attitudes to fiction, and the prevalence of the New Woman, Palmer argues that while  middlebrow women's magazines and feminist newspapers of the 1890s disagreed about  the New Woman, they both treated  the female figure in ways that recall the strategies  used by the  "sensational"  author-editors of the 1860s. This last point is interesting and is worth pursuing further.  On the whole, however,  the final chapter seems an afterthought--or afterwalk--that  treads  familiar ground.

      Informative and lucid, this book usefully complements what we already know about  the sensation novel  by persuasively arguing  that it shares  the multiplicity, polyvocality, and heterogeneity of the periodical press in which it was rooted. Palmer also enriches our understanding of  the three writers she treats and of  the history of female authorship.  However, in  her eagerness to show how her three author-editors fashioned their performing selves,  Palmer tends   to underplay the importance of other models of female authorship and editorship in the nineteenth century, such as those  Linda Peterson has explored in her important study, Becoming A Woman of Letters (2009), which Palmer includes in her   bibliography, but fails to refer to in her argument.


Lyn Pykett is Professor Emerita in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University, Wales. 




Leave a comment on Lyn Pykett's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org