bookwormchatterbox

Little reviews on little (and big!) books

What is Sensation Fiction?

Before I started 3rd year at University, I didn’t have a clue what Sensation Fiction was! I just considered it to be some sort of fantasy writing that really wouldn’t interest me. How wrong I was! 🙂 After reading Collins’s The Woman in White, I was hooked on the genre and have been ever since. I love how different it is to the expected Victorian novel where everything is happy and light and occasionally love wins through. These novels are gritty, tense, and sometimes haunting. I’ve already written on some of my favourite Sensation reads, so in this post I’d like to give a fairly comprehensive background for those of you who are just starting to venture into the great world of Sensational writing – I hope it also makes a couple of points that experienced Sensation readers will enjoy as well! 🙂 So, let’s start with what we can all expect from a Sensation novel. I’ll be using a fair amount of secondary sources here so if you have any questions about any of them, just ask 🙂

Victorian Sensation literature, which grabbed the public’s attention from around 1855-1890, caused a massive amount of controversy. The sensation novel was considered to be a mystery the reader had to solve and was often described as ‘the quintessential novel-with-a-secret,’ leading Thomas Hardy to regard the narrative form as ‘a long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance.’ The novels were loved by many readers, but they also forced many critics to voice their utter detestation of the literature produced during this time. What was so terrible about this genre, you might ask. Lyn Pykett believed that the reason it was seen as potentially dangerous to the readership was the fact that it tended to contain ‘passionate, devious, dangerous, and not infrequently deranged heroines,’ alongside ‘complicated, mysterious plots – involving crime, bigamy, adultery, arson, and arsenic.’ Sounds exciting, right? 😛 Well, not to everyone.

Critics worried about the ‘vulgarisation of literature,’ and claimed that these novels were ‘creeping upwards from the gutter into the drawing room.’ Most of us will have read at least one Sensation novel, whether it be Collins, Braddon or anyone else, so it really is surprising that these classic and brilliant texts were actually treated with so much disdain upon their publication. The introduction of the genre divided society and was a great topic of debate during the Victorian period. Winifred Hughes believed that one only had to engage with one of these novels in order to ‘find himself plunged into a turbulent universe far removed from mid-Victorian stodginess and respectability,’ showing the complete contrast to reality the readers were introduced to. For Hughes, sensation fiction offered an alternative to Victorian realism. Despite Gothic texts featuring dark plots and characters being in circulation, it would appear that the Victorians wanted a little bit more of a shock. An editorial from The Times in 1864 made the point that ‘this life of ours is too business-like and matter-of-fact to satisfy the cravings of imagination… To fill this void is the aim of sensation writers.’ Upon opening one of these new novels, the readers found themselves transported to a world far from daily life, which resulted in the genre gaining popularity extremely quickly. The novels functioned as a form of escapism from the monotony of the age, but also caused major anxiety as they ‘fed on… fears that one’s respectable-looking neighbours concealed some awful secret.’ (See Lydia Gwilt from Armadale, and Lucy Audley from Lady Audley’s Secret for excellent examples of this concealment).

Heroines seemed to be the main focus of attention in these novels as they were frequently decidedly different from the submissiveness expected of them. The readership was considered to be heavily female so there was also the worry for some critics that these women should not be reading of adulteresses, bigamists, and poisoners, of the total antithesis of, to use Natalie and Ronald Schroeder’s term, ‘the ornamental Angel in the House.’ Deborah Wynne states that ‘as women were presumed to be the principal consumers of novels, the popularity of the sensation novel suggested to some reviewers that the moral sanctity of the middle-class home itself was under attack,’ something that Margaret Oliphant suggested through her ‘concern about the moral effects of novel reading on impressionable (women) readers.’ Women had to read novels that were prescribed as acceptable for them to read; they had to contain proper values that women should aspire to embrace within their own lives. This was an extremely common conception amongst critics. An anonymous critic for St James’s Magazine claimed that women make up four-fifths of novel readers. Therefore, ‘we think that too much care cannot be taken that the entertainment provided for them should be unobjectionable in sentiment, as well as in impression.’

Looking at two main critics of the genre during the Victorian period, Jonathan Loesberg and Henry Mansel, we can easily observe the sheer and utter contempt for everything Sensation stood for. Loesberg found the novels included a ‘narrative of inevitable sequence,’ and were simply ‘novels of plot rather than novels of character.’ It would seem that the Sensation novel does not stop to develop in-depth connections with characters. Instead, it aims to shock the reader right from the beginning. Similarly, Mansel expressed his hatred for the genre in the same line. He concluded that ‘excitement, and excitement alone, seems to be the great end at which they aim.’ The novels do not develop character, but ‘abound in incident.’ He believed that these novels had been ‘called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite,’ and in part blamed the new interests of society for the production and publication of such texts. He acknowledged perhaps one of the reasons that the plots were so popular was the proximity of society to such people as were described in these novels. It was important to the sensation novel for the plot to appear as if it could potentially be happening right next door to the reader. The scenes are effective because of the type of people involved within them, people one may pass in the street without a second glance. He claimed that ‘we are thrilled with horror, even in fiction, by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us,’ but then goes on to judge that there is ‘something unspeakably disgusting in this ravenous appetite…this vulture-like instinct which smells out the newest mass of social corruption.’ It seems that he is saying it is the reader’s fault for demanding such novels that has corrupted society. This is in some ways backed up by the critic Alfred Austin who, writing in 1870, claimed that these novels are ‘the worst form of mental food,’ and that ‘the world may congratulate itself when the last sensational novel has been written and forgotten.’

For an example of this criticism addressed to Lady Audley’s Secret, we can look at an anonymous article written in the London Review in March 1863 which analysed and critiqued both the genre and the novel itself. He or she claimed that the magazine had ‘already expressed some dislike on grounds of morality and good taste, for this class of novels,’ and comments that ‘these narratives of unredeemed depravity, while pandering to the morbid thirst for violent ‘sensation,’ can neither chasten, refine, nor invigorate the mind.’ There can be no moral worth in accepting this new genre, and the viewpoint, which this critic shares with many others of the Victorian period, is that the genre has ‘an unwholesome moral tendency.’ Sensation writers recognised that the Victorian public were faced with reading newspaper stories of murder and bigamy, so had to include a certain shock factor in their novels in order to keep readers engaged. The critic realises this but does not see it as the most wholesome way of providing literature. He or she claims that the genre ‘is an appeal to that low taste for criminal horrors.’ However, it must be acknowledged that the Victorian readership would perhaps have been used to such criminal activity in the newspapers, so any fictional depiction of a woman married bigamously, or committing arson, would still have been shocking, but perhaps not quite ground-breaking. Simply put, the article concludes with the acknowledgement that ‘we cannot approve its success.’ It seems shocking to read this now we know just how successful the novel has been!

On the other hand, comments on the genre weren’t all bad. Many saw the move towards darker and more intense literature as simply a sign of times, a cry from the public that they no longer want tales where nothing really happens and the heroine only stays at home. Despite extremely damning criticism from many during its rise to popularity, many critics acknowledged the place the genre held in the period. A writer for The Christian Remembrancer believed that the plots and character agency contained within showed ‘an impatience of old restraints, and a craving for some fundamental change in the working of society.’ Readers wanted something to get their teeth into and excite them. In fact, an influential medical journal in 1863 claimed that ‘a heroine who was not an adulteress and a poisoner would disgust a modern novel-reader, and would prevent him from following, even so far as the second volume, the fortunes of a person so uninteresting,’ showing just how quickly reading tastes had changed.

Take the chance if you can to settle down with a couple of classic Sensation novels, and try to put yourself in the place of a Victorian reading it for the very first time – it must have been shocking and captivating! Controversial plots, transgressive heroines, escapist adventures – all contained in one book. For readers today, we just see it as a great and intriguing story, but for the Victorians, Sensation fiction was more than that. It was one of the biggest genre shifts in literature that is amazingly just as popular today as it was in the 1800s! Sensation is all about shock value, keeping us gripped until we close the back cover. Shock value that transcends over nearly 150 years is something special, and I hope you agree 🙂

Do you have any favourite Sensation novels? What was the first one you ever read?

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Armadale by Wilkie Collins

There’s always a place in my library for Wilkie Collins. He is, quite simply, one of the best authors I’ve ever read. You’ve already heard me gush about how much I love his books in previous posts so I won’t go too overboard here, but this is yet another favourite of mine 🙂 Armadale will take you a while to get through – it’s a pretty long Sensation novel (with my Penguin copy ending on page 666 – freaky, right?) This fact is a little more scary once you actually read the book and find out more about the actions of the murderous Lydia Gwilt, or as I regard her, the ultimate anti-heroine. Lydia Gwilt is a terrifying character. She is evil through and through. In fact, she is poison. Yes, that seems a little strong to start off with, but trust me, you’ll find out what she’s capable of soon enough! That being said, there is a certain redeeming quality about her, but we are only introduced to this side of her personality at the end of the novel.

Published in 1866 in the midst of the Sensation fiction boom, Collins’s novel shocked and horrified critics through its use of such a malicious female character. The opening chapter or so runs a little slow in my opinion, but I’m assuming this is simply due to its role in setting up the characters and background. As this is a Sensation novel, we already expect certain things from it: murder, bigamy, poison, perhaps an assertive female character. Let’s just say none of these are in short supply! Collins draws on every aspect of the classic Sensation novel in his writing and thank goodness he did! 🙂 Personally, I would like to talk more of Lydia Gwilt than of the actual novel, but I really should give a brief summary to entice you to read it 🙂

Armadale centres around two men both called Allan Armadale. There had been a previous dispute between their fathers where one had murdered the other. One Allan Armadale adopts the name of Ozias Midwinter and runs away from home where *surprise* he runs into the other Allan Armadale and becomes his companion. Here’s where things get a little confusing 🙂 Midwinter eventually learns through a letter from his deceased father exactly who Allan is, but Allan doesn’t know who Midwinter is. Allan inherits the large estate of Thorpe Ambrose from his family, and meets the family living in one of the cottages there, the Milroys (consisting of Major Milroy, his wife, and daughter Eleanor). After many visits to the cottage, Allan falls head over heels in love with Eleanor.

It all seems so perfect, doesn’t it? Enter Lydia Gwilt.

Previously a maid to one of the Allan’s mothers, she hears of the rise in wealth of Allan and, encouraged by her old sinister friend Mrs. Oldershaw, tries to concoct a plan to establish herself as the lady of the manor. Soon she arrives at the front door of Major Milroy, posing with fake references as a governess. There she lies in wait for her prey. Despite her best efforts, and by this I mean that she tries absolutely everything in her power, she realises that there is no chance of her splitting Allan and Eleanor up. Do women like Lydia Gwilt give up? Of course not! Instead she moves her interests to Midwinter, and upon learning that his real name is the same as that of the subject of her foiled efforts, creates a new plan. If she can marry Ozias under his real name, then arrange for the original Allan Armadale to somehow go missing, she can then suddenly appear as Mrs. Armadale and inherit the entire estate. Foolproof, right? WRONG. What Lydia didn’t plan out was the problem of actually falling in love with Midwinter.

[*SPOILERS*] To cut a pretty long story short (trust me, the bits I miss out are really worth reading!), Lydia arranges, with the help of a sanatorium doctor, Dr. Downward, to kill Allan. Midwinter and Allan are lured there and placed in separate rooms. The reason for this is that Downward and Lydia’s plan involves filling Allan’s room with an imperceptible gas which will leave no trace in the body. However, the gassing goes awry when Midwinter insists that he switch rooms with Allan, all because he has a feeling something bad will happen. Here we see the only redeeming quality of Lydia that I mentioned earlier. On realising her husband is in the wrong room, she quickly dashes in and drags him out of harm’s way. She really does love Midwinter, and makes the ultimate sacrifice for him. After making sure he is safe, she writes a confession letter and then takes her own life in the gas-filled room. The novel ends with the death of Lydia, the marriage of Allan and Eleanor, and a final resolution that everything has returned to the way it should be.

Sorry, that was a pretty big brief summary 😛 Now you know everything, I can move on to talk about the character of Lydia Gwilt 🙂 She is a powerful and vindictive woman, leading Henry Chorley to describe her as ‘one of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened literature.’ She is severely lacking in feminine restraint which we see in her diary entries and letters where she says things like: ‘I am in one of my tempers to-night. I want a husband to vex, or a child to beat, or something.’ As already explained in earlier reviews, the Victorian domesticated ideal of woman was a creature who was devout and dutiful; what we see here is the complete antithesis. On the outside, she pretends to be sweet in order to avoid suspicion about her character and her intentions, but of course we as the reader can see straight through her disguise.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, she is a source of poison throughout Armadale, not only manipulating others, but physically poisoning characters. She uses her looks to get exactly where she wants, and where looks fail, violence prevails. Her schemes are constrained to her diary; just like Lucy Audley, it is vital that she maintains the angelic front. She will not let anyone stand in her way, threatening many characters throughout the novel. On writing of Allan Armadale, she describes him as:

‘a rattle-pated young fool – one of those noisy, rosy, light-haired, good-tempered men, whom I particularly detest… I really never saw a man whom I could use so ill, if I had the opportunity.’

She shows just how vindictive she can be when Allan ignores her in the street later in the novel. She states:

‘no man living ever yet treated me as if I was plague-struck… as if the very air about me was infected by my presence!… When he walked away from me down that lane, he walked to his death.’

Lydia is almost like an evil chameleon. She changes the way she acts depending on who is present, and this is how she manages to avoid suspicion for so long. She is the supreme anti-heroine, choosing to try and shape her own destiny through vengeance and violence. She plans all of her wicked schemes by herself, showing to the reader that she is in fact not just another woman doomed to sit in the shadows for eternity. She only recruits people and asks for their help when she truly needs to, choosing instead to be assertive and independent in all of her plans. The acts she performs are sinister in the sense that they can be imagined by any reader. The act of poisoning is not at all far-fetched and we read of Lydia:

‘measuring the doses with my eye, and calculating how many of them would be enough to take a living creature over the border-land between sleep and death.’

As I mentioned in the review of Braddon’s Aurora Floyd, hair colour was regarded as symbolic in the Victorian period. Here we have a woman with flame-red hair which suggested associations with evil and the devil (rather fitting here!) Galia Ofek writes that this previously unsightly hair colour corresponds with Lydia’s ‘aggressive, bloody femininity… and flaming sexuality.’ We see many examples of this throughout the novel. When her attempts on Armadale’s life fail, she doesn’t waste time thinking about what might have been or whether what she is doing is right or not; she instantly tries to plan out the next best way to kill him.

Then we have the ending, and I think it’s safe to say it’s a bit of a shock. Lydia becomes almost dictated to by her husband, and ultimately sacrifices herself for him, a complete alteration from the character we have seen previously. She concludes that:

‘the one atonement I can make for all the wrong I have done you is the atonement of my death. It is not hard for me to die, now I know you will live.’

It could be considered that this is the only possibility in which Lydia is trying to redeem herself for all of her past actions. Collins perhaps chooses this ending in order to show that such ruthless behaviour cannot survive in the world.

I’d have to say that this is a wonderful read – as you can probably tell from this review, there’s plenty of stuff going on! If you’re wanting to have a look at other pieces of Collins’s Sensation fiction which doesn’t include The Woman in White, then I suggest you try to read this novel 🙂 There’s intrigue, murder, poison, and evil deeds galore, and I guarantee you’ll never get bored!

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Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

If you’re a big Sensation fiction fan like myself, chances are you’ve already come across Lady Audley. In fact, even if you’re just a Victorian enthusiast, I’m sure you’ll have read or simply heard of the novel. As I stated earlier in my review of Braddon’s subsequent novel, Aurora Floyd, I found Aurora to be a much more interesting heroine, but that doesn’t take anything away from Braddon’s classic novel 🙂 If you’re new to the whole genre of Sensation (don’t worry, I’ll be doing a blog post at some point on the genre itself) and wondering what the average plot involves, this is a fantastic piece of literature to start with.

To me, the best thing about the novel is that it opens with a lovely chapter entitled ‘Lucy’ which basically gives the reader the story of how Lucy Graham became Lucy Audley and teases us with the concept of Lucy’s innocent looks. We read that she:

‘was blessed with that magic power of fascination by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. Everyone loved, admired, and praised her.’

She seems absolutely perfect, but of course, we as the reader already suspect that nobody can truly be so angelic (and obviously the title of the novel kind of gives it away that all is not what it seems!) Old Sir Michael Audley’s proposal allows Lucy to escape her surroundings and gain a standing within society. However, the reader also hears her comment that this marriage will mean:

‘No more dependence, no more drudgery, no more humiliation… every trace of the old life melted away – every clue to identity buried and forgotten,’

implying that there is something more to her character, something she wishes to keep secret and forget. The unravelling of this secret is the main plot of the novel.

*[SPOILERS]* Lucy is a character with an extremely strong sense of agency. She alters her identity in order to maintain the façade that she is the stereotypical sweet, fair-haired, angelic wife. She is ruthless in the protection of her secret past which is… that she has already been married!! The novel has alternating chapters at the beginning to show her first husband, George Talboys, attempting to track her down with the assistance of the male protagonist of the story, Robert Audley. One day, George goes missing and Robert will not rest until he discovers what has happened to his friend. Eventually we find out that George had confronted Lucy over her identity, after which she shoves him down a well and leaves him there – what a nice lady! Like I said, she will do anything to cling onto the life she has now created for herself and when Robert Audley unveils the truth, she even attempts to burn him alive in his bed to stop him telling anyone! It must be mentioned that at the end of the novel, Lucy is diagnosed with hereditary madness which in some ways (but not totally!) explains why she acts the way she does throughout the course of the book.

The reader will also note that she is an extremely good actress as we see at many points where she manipulates those around her, not caring who she hurts in the process. It emerges that the past life she is trying to conceal is that of her life as Helen Talboys, wife to George. When George leaves to try and make his wealth in Australia, Helen (or Lucy – it starts to get a bit confusing :P) doesn’t think he will ever return, so takes matters into her own hands to try and move on and marry better and higher (and richer!) She reinvents herself, entices Sir Michael Audley with her apparent sweetness and beauty, and becomes lady of the manor. The narrator describes her as:

‘pleased with her high position and her handsome house; with… every whim indulged; admired and caressed wherever she went… it would have been hard to find… a more fortunate creature.’

She has indeed been fortunate, but only by telling lies and this is what makes her a very distant character. Like most of the villainesses or perhaps I should say transgressive female characters of Sensation fiction, she evokes no sympathy from the reader (well, I definitely didn’t warm to her, that’s for sure!) Perhaps you felt differently upon your reading of the novel, and I’d love to hear if you did 🙂

I found her to be a very strange character. She adapts to the role of loving wife beautifully, and maintains the angelic front whilst working to keep her secret from being revealed. Here we see the opposing and conflicting sides of Victorian woman’s character (and there are a lot of secondary sources you can read on this): the angel and the demon. Lucy conforms to the expected Victorian domesticated ideal, the angel in the house, but still has this venomous ruthless streak. This in turn sums up some of the anxiety that surrounded the genre of Sensation fiction. Part of the excitement and nervousness came from the fact that you could never be 100% sure the people around you were who they claimed to be, and here we have the angelic sweet Lucy who turns out underneath it all to be a bigamist, mad, and willing to murder. Appearances can most definitely be deceiving in this case! By being initially set up in the novel as ‘the sweetest girl that ever lived,’ it is a shock to see her behave so terribly.

At the close of the novel, the reader sees Lucy Audley left to perish in a foreign mental asylum under a false name, but her influence remains at Audley Court thanks to the portrait she leaves in her chambers. There’s always a sinister portrait in these stories! 🙂 It is, in fact, of great importance and is one of the first glimpses we get of Lucy’s true identity. The picture is described as having ‘something of the aspect of a beautiful fiend,’ the side of Lucy that is yet to come forward and show itself. It is remarked by Lucy’s step-daughter:

‘I think that sometimes a painter… is able to see, through the normal expression of the face, another expression that is equally a part of it, though not to be perceived by common eyes. We have never seen my lady look as she does in that picture; but I think that she could look so.’

Of course, the reader and the rest of the characters in the novel do eventually see the true persona of Lucy Audley and it’s not that different to the fiend described on the wall. On being ejected from her home after her deeds have been unveiled, we see the coarse side of Lucy, only caring of the possessions she is being forced to leave behind, not caring a jot for the man who gave them to her. She is regarded by Robert Audley as ‘the most detestable and despicable of her sex – the most pitiless and calculating of human creatures,’ and I don’t think it could be summed up better than that.

Ultimately, despite her best efforts including threatening to kill Robert and actually trying to in the fire, her secret past is revealed and she is ousted from her position in society. She pays the price for her actions, and she is one of those characters where there really could have been no other ending fitting for her. Such baseness cannot live within respectable society, so she had to be removed from it.

So, to conclude, I would recommend this book to everyone 🙂 I may have rambled on here a bit, but trust me, I still have plenty more to say on this book! It really is a great read and the plot is gripping. It definitely deserves its classic status and I would urge anybody who hasn’t yet had time to read it to give it a go – you won’t be disappointed! 🙂

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Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Most of you will already be familiar with Braddon’s more famous novel, Lady Audley’s Secret (which will be reviewed later), but I wish to talk about this equally fantastic piece of Sensation fiction. It was published relatively quickly after her success with the character of Lucy Audley, and gained almost the same popularity. However, when we talk of Braddon’s novels, we instinctively still choose Lady Audley’s Secret. Granted it is a thrilling read, but I felt that Aurora Floyd pulled me in more as a reader. Of course, you can make your own choices on which text you prefer, but in case you’re not familiar with the book at all, here’s my little synopsis 🙂

Appearing around 1863, Braddon’s next Sensation novel arrived when her writing was at its most popular. Focusing upon Aurora Floyd, Braddon constructs a similar character to that of Lucy Audley with some glaring differences, the most important being hair colour. I know it seems pretty silly to bring up, but the depiction of hair colour was extremely important to Victorians. They believed it instantly gave an insight into a person’s nature. Women with fair/blonde hair were more likely to be innocent and amiable, those with dark hair (like Aurora) were thought to embody the passionate and dangerous woman, and those with red hair… well, I’ll touch on that when I turn to Wilkie Collins’s Armadale. Instead of the golden-haired so-called angel Lucy Audley, the reader is introduced to the boisterous, tempestuous, dark-haired Aurora. She grows up without a mother around and has essentially wrapped her father around her little finger. She gets away with doing what she wants, when she wants and therefore she is portrayed (at least at the beginning of the novel) as a character with a great deal of agency over her life. In her younger years, she refuses to conform to what is expected of her, stating:

‘What is the use of this big world, if we are to stop for ever in one place, chained to one set of ideas, fettered to one narrow circle of people, seeing and hearing of the persons we hate for ever and ever, and unable to get away from the odious sound of their names?’

She desires to see more of the world and hates being restricted in her environment. Aurora likes to read horse-racing magazines and gets into heated debates with men, not exactly the proper behaviour expected from a young lady. Conversely, the reader sees Aurora’s cousin, Lucy Floyd, as the perfect embodiment of Victorian womanhood and the pinnacle of domestication. Lucy conceals and restrains her emotions as a proper lady should, even hiding the fact that she is in love with Aurora’s first fiancée. Strangely, Lucy is the one portrayed at the start of the novel as the victim; she is not really allowed a voice and a sense of her own agency the way Aurora is. In this way, Aurora is seen and portrayed to be the more exciting girl out of the two. Braddon therefore seems to make the ideal conception somewhat boring. Braddon sets up Aurora to be the more interesting and passionate girl who has far more men interested in her than Lucy, even describing Aurora’s appearance as that of a Medusa:

‘Aurora was lying upon the sofa, wrapped in a loose white dressing-gown, her masses of ebon hair uncoiled and falling about her shoulders in serpentine tresses, that looked like shining blue-black snakes released from poor Medusa’s head to make their escape amid the folds of her garments,’

again, the concept of Aurora’s passionate personality being portrayed by her dark colouring. However, as the reader discovers, it is ultimately Lucy and her behaviour that wins out in the end. She marries the man she adores, and shows Aurora that fitting the role of submissive female is the way to solve all of her problems. Braddon therefore endorses behaviour such as Lucy’s to the reader; women who are dutiful do not have the hassles and troubles associated to passionate women like Aurora. Without a proper female influence around, Aurora never learns how to deal with male attention in an appropriate manner, so when the groom Conyers convinces her that he’s in love with her, she makes the rash and unfortunate decision to elope with him, breaking her father’s heart in the process. I have read of critics who believe that Braddon’s choice to leave Aurora without a mother could have been a literary device in itself; when Aurora makes foolish decisions, one could always give her the benefit of the doubt and essentially make excuses for her by saying ‘Remember, she had no mother’ – a bit of a cop-out if you ask me.

When she finally returns to her home, Aurora wishes to put the whole sordid affair behind her and marries John Mellish, a man who has devoted his whole heart to her. Of course, she is still married to Conyers, but chooses to hide her bigamy from everyone and tries to become a more domesticated version of herself. She lives a relatively peaceful and content life with her new husband, but occasionally the old passionate Aurora screams to the forefront. The main problem with Aurora is her inability to accept any responsibility for her past actions. She brushes them under the carpet and never really shows the reader that she feels any remorse for the pain she has put her father through. This is what I found most frustrating about her. It’s even noted in the text that she never atones for her past, and this makes Aurora a very difficult character to feel any sympathy with.

As I said earlier, the passionate side of Aurora doesn’t simply disappear when she re-marries. The most violent of incidents the reader sees is the whipping altercation. Upon seeing one of the older servants mistreat her dog, Aurora takes discipline into her own hands. You could almost imagine the fire lighting up in her eyes as Braddon describes the incident:

‘Aurora sprang upon him like a beautiful tigress, and catching the collar of his fustian jacket in her slight hands, rooted him to the spot upon which he stood. The grasp of those slender hands, convulsed by passion, was not to be easily shaken off… Taller than the stable-man by a foot and a half, she towered above him, her cheeks white with rage, her eyes flashing fury, her hat fallen off, and her black hair tumbling about her shoulders… She disengaged her right hand from his collar and rained a shower of blows upon his clumsy shoulders with her slender whip… stinging like a rod of flexible steel in that little hand… Her tangled hair had fallen to her waist by this time, and the whip was broken in half-a-dozen pieces.’

So, to cut a long story short, she really goes for it! She is only interrupted by her husband, John, otherwise who knows what would have happened. Just when the reader begins to wonder what else will happen in Aurora’s life, Conyers reappears! He threatens to tell everyone of her bigamy unless she pays him off, which of course once more enrages Aurora. She meets him in secret to tell him how much she abhors him; she can’t stand the fact that he could potentially ruin the life she has made for herself, but this has its own problems when Conyers is found dead. Of course, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in suspecting Aurora as the prime suspect, but all I’ll say is she is innocent – I’ll let you take the time to find out who the real killer is 🙂

The most notable thing I have to write about is Aurora’s transformation by the end of the novel: ‘we leave Aurora, a little changed, a shade less defiantly bright, perhaps, but unspeakably beautiful and tender, bending over the cradle of her first-born,’ a complete alteration to the character we meet at the beginning who rejects domestication and longs for more action in her life. Her passions initially run riot, but she is eventually pruned to fit in with the way society expects her to behave, only exhibiting the desire and passion to be a wife and mother. It would seem that the novel is partly suggesting that one must eventually embrace domesticity in order to live happily, as shown through Lucy Floyd’s contentment and eventually Aurora’s. However, if Aurora had simply been yet another conforming woman, there would have been presumably no events in her life to report. There would have been no regrets, no concealment, essentially, no novel. The narrator directly addresses the reader in the last few pages and states that: ‘if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story.’ The heroines of sensation novels need to have something to hide and have assertiveness and the ability – or perhaps desire – to transgress at their heart. Therefore, to the reader, Aurora embodies such desires, and is a suitable and adequate heroine for the genre.

As a follow-up to the more well-known Lady Audley’s Secret, I’d say that Braddon does a fantastic job of creating a completely different character from that of Lucy Audley. Aurora Floyd had me hooked from beginning to end, and I never knew what was going to happen next; in my opinion, an author who can do that is very special indeed. If you enjoyed Lady Audley, then I hope you’ll love this too! 🙂

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East Lynne by Ellen Wood

This is the first book that I’ve ever had to put down for a moment to have a quick cry. Yes, it sounds really silly, but that’s how masterfully the novel depicts heart-wrenching moments. I’ll come to why it made me so emotional, but first I’ll tell you why you simply have to read this book 🙂

Wood’s Sensation novel, published in 1861, focuses on the unfortunate life of Lady Isabel Vane who marries Archibald Carlyle, only to be enticed away by the horrible Captain Levison. Isabel already suspects that her husband is having an affair with a local woman, Barbara Hare, when in fact all Archibald is doing is helping Barbara reunite with her brother. Fuelled by Levison’s constant insinuations that her husband is unfaithful, Isabel flees from her home, her children, and Archibald to start a new life with the Captain. Now, such an action in Victorian times would have been scandalous! A woman disregarding her duties as a wife and mother was deemed unacceptable. However, this was the period where the divorce court was starting to flourish, and the reader sees the separation of Carlyle and Isabel. Wood chose to write of topics which were popular with Victorian society, and therefore provides readers with concerns of mid-Victorian society. East Lynne included the concept of an unhappy marriage, a subject causing great debate at the time due to the introduction of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act which effectively helped to establish the divorce courts.

Ellen Wood does a fantastic job of showing to the reader the unbearable guilt that Isabel feels upon running away. Her life with Levison and the child she has to him is an extremely unhappy one, especially since Levison keeps stalling on when they are to be married to make the child legitimate. The reader can see very clearly that Levison cares little for Isabel and the child, admitting to Isabel that he knew all along that Archibald wasn’t having a love affair with Barbara Hare, only a business one. Of course, this enrages Isabel! She left her entire life behind to be with this scoundrel who lied to her when she was at her most vulnerable!

Then comes the train crash… The railway plays an integral part in East Lynne. Without the accident, who knows what would have become of Isabel Vane? Wood’s novel puts into print what so many people were worried about regarding the new railway system, and backs up views that they were temperamental and dangerous. Railways don’t really play a massive role (they’re only discussed as a means of getting somewhere) until Isabel’s accident, in a chapter aptly named ‘An Accident.’ It starts relatively safe, but the sense of destruction as a result of the crash is massive, with Wood acknowledging that,

‘Railway accidents are less frequent in France than they are with us; but when they do occur they are wholesale catastrophes, the memory of which lasts for a life time. The train was within a short distance of the station when there came a sudden shock and crash as of the day of doom; and engine, carriages, and passengers lay in one confused mass at the foot of a steep embankment.’

The result of the crash is Isabel’s disfigurement in the novel:

‘The change that had passed over her in those three months was little less than death itself; no one could have recognised in the pale, thin, shattered, crippled invalid, she who had been known as Lady Isabel Vane.’

Isabel’s survival prompts her to take on her biggest challenge yet. She returns to her old home, assured that nobody will ever be able to recognise her in the hopes of gaining a role within the house looking after her own children as ‘Madame Vine.’ Life is hard for her; she has to watch her former husband live happily with his new wife, Barbara, and watch her children cared for by another woman. However, any sympathy we feel for Isabel is quickly quashed by Ellen Wood. She swiftly reminds us at every available opportunity that Isabel has brought this suffering upon herself through her past actions. It’s almost as if Wood anticipates that we will feel empathy with Isabel’s situation, that we will associate with her feelings of neglect and jealousy. This also meant that she had to be very careful so as to not endorse Isabel’s behaviour, but simply showed how such a belief of adultery can easily develop. The narrator addresses us directly on several occasions in order to show that a woman who commits adultery can suffer a fate worse than death.

‘She had taken a blind leap in a moment of wild passion… she had found herself plunged into an abyss of horror… Oh, reader, believe me! Lady – wife – mother! should you ever be tempted to abandon your home, so will you awake. Whatever trials may be the lot of your married life… resolve to bear them… pray for strength to resist the demon that would urge you so to escape… for be assured that the alternative, if you rush on to it, will be found far worse than death.’

Wood implies that no matter how hard a marriage is, a wife should stick by her husband as the adulterous alternative is a living hell. Isabel Vane is made an example to wives who are thinking of leaving their husbands. This narrator also tries to account for Isabel’s rash actions on the night she decides to flee from her husband:

‘She was most assuredly out of her senses that night, or she never would have listened. A jealous woman is mad; an outraged woman is doubly mad; and the ill-fated Lady Isabel truly believed that every sacred feeling… was betrayed by Mr Carlyle.’

We read of the vulnerability of Isabel and the effects that jealousy have on her mind. She was not herself when she made the decision to run away from Carlyle, just in a heightened state of anger and passion. I would say that Isabel doesn’t deserve hate for her decision; she made her choice, it was the wrong one. She has to live with the consequences for the rest of her life, and that is punishment enough for her. Her disguised return to her home to care for her children is another radical choice we see her make. Again, the moral compass of the narrator enters and asks if the reader would ever emulate such actions:

‘“She brought it upon herself! she ought not to have come back to East Lynne!” groans our moralist again… I agree with you that she ought never to have come back; that it was an act little short of madness: but are you quite sure that you would not have done the same, under the facility and the temptation?’

Wood tries to show that such an act of endangerment may seem foolish to the reader, but in a real-life case, if given the opportunity to return to the family you have deserted, it would be a great temptation to go back disguised. Isabel never stopped loving her children and this is temptation enough to draw her back to East Lynne again.

OK, now we come to the point which made me so emotional. Granted, Isabel suffers daily upon seeing her children live with another woman, and being unable to tell them the truth about who she really is. The real devastating moment comes near the end of the novel where her son, William, takes seriously ill. Isabel takes up residence at his bedside, watches her former husband worry over his son, and sees Barbara wish for the boy to accept her as his real mother. The pain she experiences in being unable to tell William the truth is excruciating to her, and she physically breaks down when her son eventually passes away. Of course, in the play production of the novel, we have the quote, ‘Dead! and never called me mother!’ (or something similar – I’m not too sure of the proper one, sorry). We don’t have this quote in the novel – it doesn’t exist. The depiction of the hours leading up to William’s death and Isabel’s reaction to it was one of the most upsetting moments I’ve ever observed in literature. I think Ellen Wood is a genius as a result. I’ve never cried reading a book before, and it just shows how she makes us engage with the characters so as to experience the sorrow with them. I defy you not to feel even a tiny bit emotional at this point in the book! Ultimately, Isabel crumbles under the weight of her guilt and her secret, eventually revealing her true identity to Carlyle on her deathbed towards the close of the novel. Her ex-husband does forgive her, but upon her death, wishes her name and her memory to be swept under the carpet – the damage she had inflicted is gone with her passing.

Overall, I would have to say that Ellen Wood’s novel is definitely worth a read – it really has earned its place as a classic Victorian Sensation novel, adored by readers of all levels of society upon its publication, and still enjoyed to this day, especially by me! 🙂

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The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

‘A man in my place would have lost all patience, and would have given up the struggle in disgust. Being a woman, and having my end in view, my resolution was invincible.’

Most readers will already be familiar with Collins’s classic novel, The Woman in White, but I would like to delve into his other masterpieces a little more. Of course I will be writing on The Woman in White at some point, but I thought it would be nice to give some credit to the rest of his work, the novels which have been to some extent ignored over the years in favour of the more popular ones 🙂 To be quite honest, I used any excuse to write on Wilkie Collins at University – I love his books! The Law and the Lady has got to be one of my favourites. Linking back to the concept of the female detectives I discussed in earlier reviews, the 1875 novel is about Valeria Woodville, a newlywed who finds out that her husband Eustace had previously been on trial for the murder of his first wife by poisoning, but had received the verdict of Not Proven. This meant that there was not enough evidence to charge him, but equally not enough to prove that he was innocent, essentially a kind of limbo position we have in the law here in Scotland. On learning this, Valeria takes it upon herself to adopt the role of the amateur sleuth in an attempt to clear her husband’s name once and for all, leading one critic to cite her as ‘one of the very first detectivettes.’

Along the way, she encounters many challenges to her task, not least her own husband willing her to give up the investigation, but she is spurred on by her tenacity to complete her investigations. To a patriarchal society where the wife is simply supposed to submit to her husband’s requests, she controversially defies his instructions in order to satisfy her own inquisitiveness. Valeria really does love her husband, but this role allows her to emerge from the shadows of the submissive Victorian domesticated ideal. She probes people for information and, when necessary, uses her feminine charms to get what she wants. She reads diaries and trial transcripts in order to understand her husband’s position, arriving at 3 distinct questions she has to solve. Did the woman die poisoned? Who poisoned her? What was their motive? After this, she takes the initiative to set up meetings with people she deems crucial to help her answer these questions. Throughout the novel, she seems to define herself as the woman doing the man’s work, and becomes the assertive partner in the relationship – let’s just say her husband Eustace is a bit of a wimp! Her transgressive behaviour is the making of Valeria – her stubborn attitude culminates in the truth finally being revealed, something the law system failed to do. Again, I won’t ruin the ending, but I’ll just leave a little hint – it’s very frustrating (not just for the reader, but for Valeria herself).

I couldn’t possibly review this novel without mentioning Miserrimus Dexter, an old friend of her husband and a key help (and sometimes hindrance) to Valeria’s investigations. The first time I read this book, I’ll embarrassingly admit that the description of him scared me senseless! A half-man who hops about his darkened home on his hands, a ‘frantic creature,’ a ‘fantastic and frightful apparition, man and machinery blended in one.’ Pretty creepy! His mood swings are unpredictable, and along with his almost Frankenstein-like helper, Ariel, they add the Gothic element to the novel. To sum up, I would say that The Law and the Lady is a great attempt by Collins to contribute to novels about female detectives which deserves far more credit than it has been given. It is an exciting and gripping read – I honestly couldn’t put the book down and read it all in one day! 🙂 However, my advice would be to take your time with this book – it’s definitely worth a few re-reads.

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