A Student Response to Mansel and Braddon

The Merit of a Sensation Novel?

H.L. Mansel offers an interesting critique on sensation novels, and it is apparent that the rise of sensation novels within Victorian popular culture was not a trend Mansel supported. This critique raises questions: is a novel written for entertainment value inherently bad? Is it a waste of time for both the reader and author? Mansel’s opinion is scathing in its judgment, comparing sensation novels to alcohol, the readers of those novels to alcoholics, for these novels were “written to meet an ephemeral demand, aspiring only to an ephemeral existence… striving to act as the dram or the dose” (Mansel 492). He blames libraries, railway stalls, and mass production to meet consumer demand for the “deterioration in the quality” of Victorian literature that these sensation novels exemplify (491).

To Mansel, these novels were a waste of effort on part of the authors. However, despite the fact he lambasts sensation novels consistently throughout his piece, he also administers credit where credit is due in relation to an author’s skill. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret is one of the novels Mansel reviews, and though he has no love for the novel’s genre, he greatly compliments Braddon’s writing while tearing down her contemporaries. Mansel rates Lady Audley’s Secret one of the “bigamy novels par excellence” (494). He states Braddon is “an author of real power, who is capable of better things than” sensation novels (494). To Mansel, Braddon is a case where “the skill of the builder deserves to be employed on better materials” (494). By writing sensation novels, Mansel implies that Braddon was lessening herself by writing pieces of literature Mansel considers cheap.

Braddon’s strong writing skills are readily apparent. Mansel may degrade sensation novels for being works of pure entertainment, but Lady Audley’s Secret is both well-written and exciting to read; I would recommend the novel to others. Braddon showcases a strong understanding of pacing and fine detail. These elements combine together to build the suspense and tension of the novel. She employs a tactic that is still a key feature within suspense and thriller entertainment to this day. The very first chapter introduces us to Lady Audley and immediately sets our attention on her. Here, look at this beautiful and talented woman with this sudden and great opportunity to marry wealthy. She’s easily loved by all who meet her in this town which she has recently made her new home. The others within the town don’t know much about her past, but Miss Graham’s of such good character her past’s something her new acquaintances won’t worry about. But we, the readers, will get a glance into Miss Graham’s character that let’s us know that she is not who she seems. This first chapter reminds me of opening scenes written for television crime dramas. It’s akin to an episode of Criminal Minds where the audience meets a character who appears like an average citizen, but will reveal a villainous nature within the first scene.

The key plot point of Chapter I is Lucy accepting Sir Michael Audley’s proposal. However, the scene of the proposal, which is a moment in Lucy’s and Michael’s lives that should be a happy one, is steeped in tension. First, Braddon introduces Lucy’s ribbon-necklace which holds a “trinket… [and] she always [keeps this trinket] hidden under her dress” (Braddon 50). Tension is introduced through an object of intrigue. This intrigue continues through the proposal scene to the closing of the chapter. This proposal is not ordinary. It is not overly sweet with happiness. Instead, it’s gloomy. Sir Audley begins his proposal by first speaking to Lucy of what he views as a “sin” – “that of a woman who marries a man she does not love” (51). He expects to be rejected; his mood is solemn. Lucy matches him with agitation and a chilling honesty that she cannot ignore the opportunities this marriage offers to a woman born in poverty like herself (52). The scene is absolutely grave as Lucy definitively states to the man who has offered her his hand “I do not love anyone in the world” (52). The striking opening chapter is closed with the reveal of Lucy’s mysterious trinket – not “a locket, a miniature, nor a cross: it was a ring” (53). This reveal, instead of relieving tension, skyrockets the tension and suspense of the novel through the roof, promising the reader an entertaining tale to come.

I agree with Mansel that Braddon’s writing is skilled. I don’t know enough to comment on the state of Victorian sensation novels as a whole. However, as a modern reader examining a Victorian’s opinion on Victorian literature, I will say a novel like this has gained merit in a way Mansel possibly never even considered. Not only is this novel enjoyable, it’s enlightening. Mansel notes that the sensation novel was set within Victorian England for “proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation” (Mansel 492). While Mansel may have worried over the “morbid” and “slanderous” natures this setting introduced to Victorian literature (493), it allows for small opportunities of learning for the modern reader. This novel is a cultural snapshot of Victorian England. George Talboys showcases Victorian mourning practices (Braddon 87). From this novel, I learned when “newfangled [oil] lamps” were introduced into Victorian England (104). I learned that people had to force out the phrase “telegraphic message” before “telegram” became the common phrase of use (96). Braddon’s details capture small parts of Victorian England that allow for the audience to gain greater understanding of the setting.

Ultimately, whether or not this is a work of any form of merit or simply the product of mass-produced entertainment can be debated. No matter, it’s a novel I thoroughly enjoy.

 Works Cited

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret.  Edited by Natalie M. Houston, Broadview Press, 2003.

Mansel, H. L. “Sensation Novels.” Lady Audley’s Secret, edited by Natalie M. Houston, Broadview Press, 2003, pp. 490-494.

8 thoughts on “A Student Response to Mansel and Braddon

  1. What I found particularly interesting in reading Mansel’s critique of sensation novels was how incredibly similar it is to much of our entertainment nowadays. Sensation novels have not disappeared! Look at incredibly popular novels like “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train”. Are these not the sensation novels of the new millenium? I found myself agreeing with Mansel’s opinion, only I wasn’t agreeing with him on Victorian sensation fiction, I was applying it to modern suspense fiction! Is there merit in easy mass consumed literature? Is it wrong to just write a story to entertain audiences without much deeper meaning? I would say it has its place, but it definitely doesn’t hold up to more meaningful literature. Oddly enough, it does seem Victorian sensation fiction has gained merit simply by being a window into another time. As you layed out at the end of your entry, there are many interesting historical facts to be learned through “Lady Audley’s Secret”, giving it a sort of historical merit. When once it was just a gripping modern story, now is a glimpse into a completely unfamiliar time. I bet Mansel would have been shocked to find out it would be studied in university! Maybe one day so will “Gone Girl”.

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    • Thank you for commenting! “Gone Girl” and “the Girl on the Train” were two novels/movies I was thinking about too when I was writing this, I just haven’t had a chance to actually read or watch them yet so I went with Criminal Minds as my example. The Pretty Little Liars books and tv show was another one I was considering using. All of them definitely show how the like spirit of sensation fiction lives on through modern suspense tropes and fiction!

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  2. Your thoughts on a novel being written for entertainment’s sake struck me because the same type of question is presented when reading works like Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” His vast range of writing in different genres is complex and trying to decide if such genres are simply for entertainment’s sake or to present a moral for a reader is impossible to answer. The question presents a line of dialogue which can be discussed for hours on end. Like you, I found Braddon’s novel enjoyable and at the same, I found the different aspects and themes of the novel incredibly thought-provoking.

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    • Thank you for commenting! I haven’t read “The Canterbury Tales,” it’s something I’ll have to look into reading. I love literature that plays with its genre.

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  3. The fallacy in believing that art created for a mass market cannot have any intrinsic value is one that makes me deeply angry even considering. Mansel’s understanding of Braddon’s novel was insulting, even if it seemed to be issued as a compliment.

    It reminds me of the common distaste towards genre fiction by many “educated” folk. As you say, I learned a surprising amount from this “mere” sensation novel, things like the effects of riding the trains, or that beautiful detail about the telegraphic messages you mentioned. It expressed the growing societal pressure on women to wed, and the difficulty of their lives if they remained alone. The inclusion of Alice as a character was enough to educate me that not all rich women were forced to stay indoors, that the idea of a woman who rides horses and spends times outdoors was not unthinkable.

    Perhaps, in a hundred or so years, we will be studying genre fiction or crime thriller novels to watch the 21st century obsession with terrorism or race unfold? A novel’s depth is more than the word count, but in how it reflects the world around it, despite a potentially ridiculous or sensational premise. I loved reading your take on this!

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    • Thanks for commenting! Your comment on crime thrillers is intriguing. They’re definitely something I could see being studied in the future for a purpose like that. Anything relating to how we currently document and sensationalize stories through the true crime genre is something I would bet will be worth studying in the future too!

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  4. I agree with my peers here in the comment section that your take on Mansel’s critique of sensation novels is fascinating. H.L. Mansel’s apparent scorn for the sensation novel reminds me of a gentleman who engaged me in conversation on a plane once. He asked what I was reading, and when I replied with the title, he spouted out this long rant about how fiction, and especially genre fiction, has no edifying quality. He said that he only reads non-fiction because only non-fiction can teach one anything. However, as you and our peers have pointed out, there exists much edifying content in sensation novels, and in genre fiction in general. Like Kit, the character of Alicia Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret taught me that the stereotype of the Victorian lady as closeted and prim is not the case for all women.

    This whole discussion reminds me of the age-old conversation of what is the point of literature. Does it exist to educate or entertain? I believe it exists to do both, and whether a particular work leans towards one side or the other should not make it a “waste of effort.”

    Like Sapphire, I believe Mansel would be aghast if he knew that sensational novels like Lady Audley’s Secret are on the syllabi in universities. Though I for one am glad they are as I was both entertained and educated while reading Lady Audley’s Secret this semester.

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    • Thank you for commenting! Similar conversations that I’ve had like the one you experienced were definitely on my mind when I was reading Mansel’s review. I distinctly remember having the thought “This man would denounce all of science fiction in a heartbeat” when I did my first read of it. I wholly agree that fiction exists for both reasons and that what side it leans too is irrelevant. Sometimes I really just need fiction for entertainment’s sake to relax darn it!

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