By Helena Ifill
(Manchester, 2018) viii + 232 pp.
Reviewed by Marta Figlerowicz on 2018-08-05.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book whittles away at the distinction between the realist and the sensation novel. According to Ifill, critics have historically contrasted the two genres by invoking the determinism of realist fiction and the "circumstance"-governed plots of sensation fiction (4). The former supposedly offers theories of human minds, societies, and relations; the latter favors fanciful, improbable stories. While the realist novel delivers potentially subversive philosophical insight into the human condition, the sensation novel offers merely a brief, socially conservative distraction.

Twentieth- and twenty-first century scholars have long contested this easy dichotomy, which derives from the judgments of Victorian reviewers roused to criticism, we are told, by "the very popularity of the sensation genre" (5). Undeterred by either its popularity or the dismissiveness with which it was first received, more recent studies of the sensation novel have revealed its surprisingly deep engagement with Victorian medicine; its preoccupation with otherwise underexplored women's perspectives; its surprisingly open-minded explorations of gender, class, and race relations; and its occasionally sharp, if veiled, critiques of British imperialism.

To complement this increasingly varied and serious treatment of sensation fiction, Ifill highlights the sophistication of its character construction. The sensation novel, Ifill claims, reflects its era's emergent fascination with social science and history. For sensation novelists, she writes, "medical, scientific, and sociological theories of character formation are fascinating subjects for literary portrayal, and literary devices that can be used in the creation of sensational characters and plots" (24). According to Ifill, the sensation novel probes the notion of character and the psychology of individual development much more directly and aggressively than has been supposed. Far from avoiding the formal and philosophical concerns of deep character construction in favor of other narrative strategies and devices--as is often assumed even by critics who see it as ideologically sophisticated--the sensation novel tackles them head on. Indeed, it is out of its engagement with character that many of its other conceptually and formally sophisticated components radiate.

The book's three sections show how the sensation novel treats three major areas of Victorian theories of mind and character. By representing individuals in states of obsessive thinking or monomania, the novels explored in Section one replay and extend Victorian debates about human beings' capacity for self-control. The novels examined in section two probe Victorian theories of heredity and the extreme, fatalistic conclusions to which they can lead. Section three finds the sensation novel surprisingly preoccupied with educational and environmental conditions that create social effects--such as apparent differences between classes--that might otherwise be attributed to heredity.

To develop her argument as well as to contest Victorian critics' slighting of sensation fiction, Ifill closely reads selected novels by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins and makes them converse with scientific discourses of their time. Close analysis shows, Ifill argues, that Braddon and Collins "are sensitive" both to the potentially determinist qualities of heredity and biology, and "to the complex mass of context-dependent circumstances that build the chain of cause and effect that drives people through life" (212). At times, Ifill admits, the scientific models that Braddon and Collins adopt for their character construction lead them merely to "perpetuate" their societies' biases and false beliefs; but sometimes the social science of their day "allows them space to question and challenge ... various prejudices and stereotypes of their age"; (214). While Braddon and Collins emerge, then, as inconsistently critical or insightful social thinkers, they also prove more psychologically innovative than one might have assumed.

There is much to admire about Ifill's project and its execution. The archival work that grounds it is extensive and thorough. The contexts within which she places these novels are well-chosen and deftly depicted; her study of the theories of mind and personhood to which Braddon and Collins respond amounts to a small intellectual history of its own. Ifill's close readings are careful and attentive. The care with which she tracks the changing concerns and aesthetic trajectories of Braddon and Collins respects their specificity while also highlighting the resonances between them. Furthermore, though she astutely defines the surprising subversiveness of their prose, she also tells us when it shades into complacency, conservatism, or simplification. In broader terms, the book thereby feeds an emergent critical conversation about genre fiction in general as a site for exploring alternatives to conventional notions of individuality; the book can be productively read alongside the work of other young critics such as Palmer Rampell and Katherine Ding.

Nevertheless, even though the book's meticulous analyses are one of its main strengths, they sometimes shade into weakness. While carefully juxtaposing particular novels with the scientific theories that they arguably reflect, Ifill stops short of fully exploring key conceptual categories--starting with "character" itself. In using this term, she easily slides between its literary and moral or psychological meanings. Sometimes, she seems to treat character development primarily as a narrative device; at other times, the word "character" denotes a broader view of individuality and personality: something people experience in real life.

In part, this slippage is only natural, since it emerges from a similar ambiguity present in her sources. However, the persistent conflation of these two senses of the term "character" deprives Ifill of important critical opportunities. One of them involves the thorny problem of exemplarity. The realist novel famously uses its conventional modes of character construction to represent human beings who seem not just predictable, but also typical: men and women whose fates can be identified and whose social conditions can be easily generalized. Unlike these realist characters with their commonplace fates, the protagonist of a sensation novel tends to be not exemplary. The unconventionality of the protagonist might make the psychological and social points of the sensation novel difficult to notice, and maybe even less central to its aesthetic effects on their reader than Ifill implies. Conspicuous by its absence, then, is greater attention to theories of character propounded in our own time by Alex Woloch, Catherine Gallagher, and others.

I would also have liked to find more in this book about the novel as a genre--and its subdivision into the subgenres Ifill treats. How well, for instance, does the relative sophistication of the novels of Braddon and Collins exemplify the aims and effects of the sensation novel as such? While both writers been frequently labelled sensation novelists in a way that seems accurate, they have also often been seen as outliers whose aesthetic and psychological ambitions exceed those of their peers. Ifill's readings certainly show us that a conventional sensation plot can accommodate a certain kind of psychological complexity more easily than one might have assumed. But can Ifill's findings about Braddon and Collins serve to define the sensation genre as a whole?

Furthermore, Ifill's argument blurs the line between the realist novel and the sensation novel by turning the latter into an aspiring, or half-hidden, version of the former. In Ifill's readings, the two genres each probe social theory and the psychology of personal development, and besides diagnosing pressing social issues of their day, they both also make recommendations. To align the two genres in this way, Ifill transposes onto the sensation novel the value system of realist fiction: the sensation novel, she argues, meets the standards of realist fiction (i.e. in terms of deep psychological and social reflection about nature and nurture) better than its readers have tended to assume. But even if one grants this point, the sensation novel also has other generic aims that Ifill tends to underplay-- such as its interest in the fantastical, the supernatural, extraversion, and exaggeration. Besides tending to slight these elements of the sensation novel, Ifill does less than enough to show why (or whether) they are necessary to develop the psychological themes for which she praises Collins and Braddon. As a result, the realist novel hovers in this book as an implied but under-theorized intellectual benchmark: something superior to a genre that Ifill claims to be rescuing from subordination.

To raise these objections is not, however, to undervalue the contribution made by this book. While its account of the sensation novel could be more innovative and robust, it highlights many features of this genre that we have overlooked in the past, and shows how much work on it remains to be done.

Marta Figlerowicz is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University.

Leave a comment on Marta Figlerowicz's review.


 Subscribe to RSS feed