Speaking in silence : female agency in sensation fiction, 1850-1880
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My research examines female agency in sensation fiction written from 1850-1880. I draw upon novels that, despite their popularity at the time of publication, are under-utilised in literary critical theory today. The relative voicelessness of female characters in sensation novels illustrates the inefficacy of the legal and educational systems for women. This speechlessness contrasts sharply with the agency these same female characters often demonstrate. In the given socio-historical context, it is necessary for the authors to justify this agency. This is variously done, in some cases by ascribing the force of that agency to religious conviction, or confrontation with pressing social issues, and in others by ultimately, and in an unlikely manner, bending it to the demands of a neat and socially acceptable plot. By reintroducing critical evaluation of lesser-known sensation novels, my research explores connections between accessible popular literature, featuring powerful transgressive female characters, and the ‘Woman Question’, thereby addressing aspects of women’s legal, marital, and material disempowerment. In Chapter One, I argue that British sensation novels like Marryat’s Love’s Conflict(1865) and Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863) build upon problematic tensions inherent between women’s private and public lives, transmuting Flaubert’s examination of excessive sensation and culpability in Madame Bovary (1856) into plot-driven narratives hinging upon women with secret knowledge. In Chapter Two, I examine the disjunction between serenely domestic plot outcomes and social anxiety using Wood’s Danesbury House (1861) and Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875). In Chapter Three, I draw upon Younge’s Heir of Redclyffe (1853), MacDonald’s David Elginbrod (1863), and Alcott’s Pauline’s Passion and Punishment (1863) as examples of popular religious sensation. In Chapter Four, I return to 1856, the year Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published to discuss how the secret knowledge that propels the plots of Reade’s Never Too Late to Mend (1856) and Skene’s Hidden Depths (1866) underscores the role of Victorian sensation fiction as a means of social activism. Finally, the thesis conclusion traces connections between concern over gender, secrets, and identity in these novels, attempting a new constructive portrayal of feminine identity by addressing contemporary anxiety about women’s roles.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2020-05-13
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Print and electronic copy restricted until 13th May 2020
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