Thomas Hardy, Sensationalism, and the Melodramatic Mode by Richard Nemesvari, Reviewed by Tara MacDonald
 

Thomas Hardy, Sensationalism, and the Melodramatic Mode
By Richard Nemesvari
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) xii + 245 pp.
Reviewed by Tara MacDonald on 2011-08-12.

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That Thomas Hardy really was a sensation author might itself be called a sensational secret. In his new book, Richard Nemesvari argues that critics need to recognize the ways in which Victorian melodrama and sensation fiction informed Hardy's novelistic method. The implications of this convincing, stimulating argument stretch beyond Hardy's novels. Arguments like Nemesvari's can encourage us, as scholars, to consider the accuracy and utility of generic classifications. In fact, by frequently citing critics who decline to classify Hardy's work as sensational, he implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) asks us to consider what is at stake in disrupting generic boundaries, many of which were erected in the late-nineteenth century by commentators distinctly hostile to sensation fiction.

In the Wessex edition of this works, Hardy classified three of his titles--Desperate Remedies (1871), The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), and A Laodicean (1881)--as "Novels of Ingenuity." Taking all three, which many critics already consider sensational, Nemesvari pairs them with three titles that Hardy classified as "Novels of Character and Environment" and that are not typically considered sensational: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), and Jude the Obscure (1895). In usefully pairing two kinds of novels to organize his argument, Nemevari shows Hardy's varying, but consistent, use of melodramatic and sensational devices. Nemesvari admits, however, that by publishing all of his fiction under the designation "Wessex Novels," Hardy situated himself as the realist "historian of Wessex" and seemed to distance his work from sensation (19).

In defining melodrama, Nemesvari draws heavily from Peter Brooks's The Melodramatic Imagination (1976) and Michael Booth's English Melodrama (1965). While Brooks traces melodrama to French theatre at the dawn of the nineteenth century, Booth tracks it to Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, and Nemesvari seems to side more with Booth, although his stance could be made more explicit. He does, however, suggest that Hardy's upbringing in Dorset offered him access to an oral tradition, which, with its tales of extreme situations and responses, was steeped in melodrama even before the word was coined. According to Nemesvari, Hardy's tragic vision, which is driven by a melodramatic urge (5), is woven from sensational elements: his focus on female sexuality and eroticism evokes a key element of sensationalism (11-12), and his emphasis on the specular recalls sensationalism's emphasis on secrets, the viewable, and shifting subjectivities (13).

Here, as throughout the book, the differences between melodrama and sensation are not always clear. Though the title of the book clearly marks them as two distinct modes, Nemesvari aims to study Hardy's use of both "Victorian melodrama, and the kinds of sensation fiction that grew out of and fed back into nineteenth-century dramaturgy" (2). Further, the three sections of the book, and their respective chapters, repeat the terms "sensation" and "melodrama," often in the same title, as in Chapter Five, "'Lady--not a penny less than a lady': Satire, Melodrama, and the Sensational Fiction of Class Status in The Hand of Ethelberta." In Nemesvari's defence, however, these terms are notoriously porous when applied to English novels of the nineteenth century, and sensation has been particularly difficult for critics to define. Nemesvari's focus on the specular, so important to Hardy's aesthetic, works well to indicate Hardy's use of sensationalism, and also its roots in theatre.

The book is organized into three thematic sections: "Melodramas of Masculinity," "Sensational Bodies, Melodramatic Spectacles," and "Melodramas of Modernity and Class Status." In a strong chapter on Hardy's first published novel, Desperate Remedies, Nemesvari re-examines the oft-cited history of its origins: that it grew out of Hardy's first attempt at novel writing, The Poor Man and the Lady, when George Meredith read it and--according to Hardy--suggested that he "rewrite the story" with a "more complicated 'plot'" (25). Questioning the assumption that Hardy was simply taking Meredith's advice rather than shaping the novel himself, Nemesvari contends that Meredith would not likely have offered such advice. Instead, he suggests, Hardy's story of how he came to write Desperate Remedies seems more like an attempt to distance himself from his first, sensational novel, and to deny its clear connections to his later work. Through examples like this, Nemesvari shows how Victorian reviewers, contemporary critics, and even Hardy himself have worked to distance his novels from sensation and melodrama, in a manner that often obscures their indebtedness to these modes.

While Nemesvari argues that Desperate Remedies largely foregrounds male competition, his account of its sensationalism highlights its broader gender politics. Having thoughtfully and playfully deduced some queer implications from the bedroom scene between Cytherea and Miss Aldclyffe, Nemesvari argues that Miss Aldclyffe's role as "a manly woman challenges the novel's Victorian audience and disrupts its expectations in ways that were very disturbing at this cultural moment" (34). At this point, he might have linked her to other aggressive sensational heroines, such as the eponymous protagonist of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd (1862) or Edith Archbold, the "female rake" of Charles Reade's Hard Cash (1863). Though Nemesvari later notes that both Aurora and Hardy's Bathsheba Everdene are sensational horsewomen (89), I looked for more of such comparisons in a book about sensation as well as Hardy. Further, the earlier dates of Braddon's and Reade's novels make me question just how much a figure like Miss Adclyffe would have challenged and disturbed readers of the 1870s. Nonetheless, this is a persuasive chapter, and Nemesvari's analysis of the scene in which Manston captivates Cytherea with his organ playing wonderfully calibrates the sexual tension between the two and the theatrical impact of the storm outside, which "reads like a transcription of the sensation scenes so common in Victorian stage melodrama" (44).

While Desperate Remedies explores--in Nemesvari's account of it--the anxieties of middle-class masculinity in a newly bourgeois world, he finds The Mayor of Casterbridge catching the tension between old and new forms of masculine identity in the late nineteenth century. Henchard's "melodramatic masculinity" is based on "an assertive individuality" outmoded by the capitalist discipline and mechanized consistency of a new culture. In contrast, Farfrae's mutability separates him from the melodramatic mode. This is consistent with Nemesvari's tendency to mark outmoded or aristocratic characters as melodramatic, while applying "sensational" to characters embracing new technologies or new forms of work (perhaps most notably Paula Powers in A Laodicean). But since Nemesvari refers to a "Melodramatic Modernity" in his chapter on Jude the Obscure, I would like to have seen more about the relationship of these terms to modernity or to the past.

The second section of the book begins with a strong chapter on surveillance, specularity, and the body in Far from the Madding Crowd. While the first section links Casterbridge to temperance dramas on stage, this chapter shows how soon critics understood Madding Crowd as sensational. In this novel, wrote an anonymous critic in the Westminster Review (Jan. 1875), "sensationalism is all in all. If we analyse the story we shall find that it is nothing else but sensationalism" (qtd. 84). Comments like this perhaps make it surprising that a book like Nemesvari's has not been written until now. Taking his cue from Ann Cvetkovich's observation that sensationalism captivates us with the "thrill of seeing" (qtd. 86), Nemesvari examines the various ways in which characters see and are seen by others, and the (gendered) power dynamics that inevitably result.

One of the more striking arguments in the chapter focuses on Hardy's account of the pregnant, abandoned Fanny Robin as she drags her body to the Casterbridge workhouse. In a lengthy but persuasive statement, Nemesvari explains, "Hardy's insistence that his audience not only confront this scandalous and improper situation but also on some level experience it with Fanny through his intense evocation of her suffering creates precisely the materialized, affective evidence of her vulnerability and exploitation that drives sensation fiction's social critique" (109). For Nemesvari, this episode also shows how Hardy uses melodrama with female characters as distinct from male ones: while criticizing the self-dramatizations of Boldwood and Troy, he encourages the reader to sympathize with the melodramatically victimized fallen woman. In an argument that could be applied to the work of other sensation authors, most notably Ellen Wood, Nemesvari suggests that by evoking and encouraging an "excess" of emotion, this affective response to Fanny, and even to Bathsheba at various points, allows the reader to sidestep "ideologically conditioned" reactions (113).

Pairing Madding Crowd with A Laodicean, Nemesvari finds both novels attentive to surveillance and modes of seeing. But he contrasts the "quasi-nostalgic" tone of Madding Crowd with the timeliness of the later novel, subtitled "A Story of To-Day." Indeed, its emphasis on telegraphy, photography, and railway travel link it to much sensation fiction. Along with Paula Power's physical absence, as Nemesvari points out, the telegraph is what allows her to play with her own autonomy and bodily discipline. Drawing on a range of critics (Anna Maria Jones, William A. Cohen, Jay Clayton, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, among others), Nemesvari argues that the telegraph was not, as a twenty-first reader might assume, thought to be entirely disembodied. Clayton, for instance, reveals that venturesome Victorians held telegraph wires to their tongues or, holding the wires in their hands, felt the signals pass through their bodies. In this context, Paula's use of the telegraph need not deny her embodiment, but gives her a way to express a sensuality freed from conventional restrictions. This leads to a lovely argument in which Nemesvari links the telegraph to the blush, as both require decoding (especially by the male characters in the novel) to be read correctly.

The final section of the book treats The Hand of Ethelberta and Jude the Obscure as novels about the performance of class status, though Nemesvari's readings are perhaps less surprising than in previous chapters. Citing Cvetkovich's assertion that sensationalism "produces the embodiment ... of social structures" (qtd. 159), Nemesvari shows how Hardy uses Ethelberta and Lord Mountclere to demonstrate the arbitrariness of class status. In varying ways, he argues, both of these figures demonstrate the anxiety that "modern developments" have made class distinctions extraneous, and their miming of the upper classes suggests that class identity can no longer establish cultural worth (173). For Nemesvari, Ethelberta is a truly modern character: adapting to various sensational personae as demanded by her changing needs, she knows herself as a social construct. This is a convincing argument, but Nemesvari might have made even more of Ethelberta's public reading and her status as a sensation author.

In the final chapter, Nemesvari argues that Jude the Obscure, like Ethelberta, engages in satire. Expanding upon Aaron Matz's recent Satire in an Age of Realism, he notes that satire depends on the ability to discriminate between appearance and reality, and thus emphasizes the need to move beyond conventional assumptions. But how then is satire related to sensation, a form similarly invested in the relationship between appearance and reality, and the challenging of conventional assumptions, especially as they relate to gender? For Nemesvari, Arabella Fawley is sensational because she can create spectacular and/or specular performances (as an abused wife or barmaid), while Sue is also sensational because her "radical desire for sexual and gender self-determination" undercuts systemic power structures (196). Are all New Women, then, sensational?

This question itself leads to larger questions about the sensation genre: How does it change after the 1860s? Is sensation really a distinct genre? How important is it to distinguish between sensation and melodrama? Such questions are not always answered here. Yet in fairness, this is an illuminating and persuasive study of what Hardy does with sensational and melodramatic modes. Thought provoking, far-reaching, and displaying extensive knowledge of Hardy and Hardy criticism, this book is written in accessible, eloquent prose. It is a valuable addition to contemporary criticism on Hardy and also to scholars interested in sensation fiction, melodrama, and the interplay between novelistic and theatrical forms in the nineteenth century.

Tara MacDonald is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, University of Amsterdam.


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