The construction of womanhood in Victorian sensation fiction 1860-70
The status of sensation fiction as “popular literature” led Victorian critics to dismiss the genre as light literature, a tendency which has been perpetuated in literary criticism until very recent years. In this work, I attempt to place the genre in a new light by asserting the seriousness with which it addressed major psychological, social, economic and political issues of the era. Through analysis of the Victorian critical reception of sensation fiction, I reveal the ways in which sensation novelists challenged the aesthetic and ethical codes of conventional realism through their insistence on a new perception of the real. I further discuss the influence which the novels’ introduction of fantasies of rebellion and escape might have had on their major consumers: women. My purpose here is to reveal the link between the cultural conditions of women’s lives and the ways in which they might have responded to the subversive elements in the sensation novel. My study reveals that the sensation novel closely examined the ideologies responsible for the gendered power structure which characterized the Victorian era. By pushing psychological and sexual constructs of identity to their extremes, the sensation novelists managed to reveal the internal contradictions in these ideologies on which society based its notions of stability. The novels exposed the falsity of the gendered constructs of character by calling into question the age’s models of the self-controlled male and the irresponsible, explosive female. Not only do they suggest that the fixed model of individual identity is an idealistic aspiration rendered impossible by uncontrollable, psychological drives or inexplicable external influences, but also that the model itself becomes a source of psychological stress because of the need it creates to display external composure while suffering from internal stress. In the case of women, the novels unmask the material underpinnings of ideological constructs of female irresponsibility, passivity, explosiveness, and incapacity, thus undermining the validity of the constructions of womanhood which appealed to notions of female “nature.” In the way they link women’s subversive behaviour directly to the stifling economic and psychological conditions of their lives, the novels reveal that women’s madness is not the result of their instability as the doctors claimed, but of their confined lives. The novels further maintain that ideological notions of female helplessness and irresponsibility were inseparable from the material benefits they guaranteed for men. The institutions of the family, the asylum, and the law became effective means to ensure women’s subjection. Although the sensation novels challenged Victorian psychological and sexual ideologies, they often resorted to these self-same ideologies in order to establish order in their novels. Rebellious females are incarcerated as mad, while marriage, which is often depicted in the novels as a source of female subjection, is offered as a final reward. Yet, this final establishment of order cannot be taken at face-value since it stands in direct opposition to many of the suggestions in the preceding narrative. While appearing overtly conformist, sensation fiction raised many troubling questions about the ideological and material organization of Victorian society.