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.
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.