Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel

by Mariaconcetta Costantini (Author)
©2015 Monographs 364 Pages


This book explores the extent to which four sensation novelists responded to the Victorian theorizing of professionalism. A crucial period of redefinition of the professional ideal, the third quarter of the nineteenth century also witnessed the rise and the decline of the sensation novel, a scandalous and electrifying form that challenged aesthetic and socio-cultural standards. Owing to their controversial position in the literary marketplace, novelists like Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Reade and Ellen Wood developed a keen interest in professional issues, which occupy centre stage in their 1850s-70s narratives. By drawing on a variety of sociological, cultural and philosophical theories, Costantini skilfully assesses the ideological implications of the genre’s fictionalization of professionalism. She shows how sensation novelists provocatively represented the challenges faced by both elite and rising professionals, who are used as narrative vehicles for thorny discourses on authorship, ethicality, aestheticism and sociocultural identity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I – Cultural and artistic professionals
  • Chapter 1: Serving God and Mammon: Victorian art, sensation and market imperatives
  • Cultural challenges and artistic preoccupations
  • An open forum for professional debates: the sensation novel
  • Chapter 2: The trials of periodical-press occupations
  • The “laborious duties” of a Victorian editor
  • (Im)moral censure and professional criticism
  • The “young Buccaniers” of Victorian journalism
  • Chapter 3: The professional dilemmas of literati
  • Wo/men of letters: writing and identity
  • “I’m a scamp and a scoundrel”: the professional ascent of a bohemian
  • Profit-oriented and respectable: the contradictions of the bourgeois writer
  • Chapter 4: Sensational virtuosi of the brush
  • Vocation, labour and the temptations of customized art
  • Roguery and artistry: incompatible notions?
  • A respectable bohemian: towards a new model
  • Chapter 5: Venal, playful, charming: the hallmarks of professional performers
  • Going on the stage in the mid-nineteenth century
  • Braddon’s sensational actresses
  • An amiable swindler: acting and cheating in No Name
  • Part II – Tradition and innovation: medicine and the legal world
  • Chapter 6: Victorian lawyering and the novel
  • The homo ethicus and the redefinition of the old professions
  • The legal world and literature: Victorian intersections
  • The golden slavery of professionalism: three sensational models
  • Chapter 7: Agents of law and order
  • The rise of detectives: from history to fiction
  • Variations of amateur detection
  • Professionals in a quandary: career prospects and moral puzzles
  • Chapter 8: Challenging the Hippocratic Oath: ethics and the medical profession
  • Nineteenth-century medicine and the spirit of reform
  • Sensational intersections: literature, medical practice and deontology
  • Doctoring in the world of capitalist economy
  • The new frontiers of gender: she-doctors and nurses
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


This book has been part of my professional life for some years. It was first conceived when I was writing a book on Wilkie Collins, Venturing into Unknown Waters, as part of my reflection on the fluidity of mid-Victorian society and culture. While examining Collins’s response to the challenges of modernization, I became aware of the special attention that the conceptual category of professionalism receives in sensation fiction, and subsequently I decided to explore the ideological impact of its frequent narrativization in the genre.

In pursuing this project, I have benefited from the insights and critical judgement of many friends and colleagues. My principal vote of thanks goes to Francesco Marroni for his constant support and encouragement. He discussed with me the rationale and contents of this book at length, and offered precious advice along the way. I am also greatly indebted to Allan Conrad Christensen and Gloria Lauri-Lucente for their generous and careful reading of the typescript as it was being written. Their penetrating commentaries have made it a much better book.

The following people deserve my gratitude for giving suggestions and providing resources: Silvia Antosa, Anne-Marie Beller, Roberto Garaventa, Helena Ifill, Andrew King, Paul Lewis, Andrew Mangham, Aldo Marroni, Jude V. Nixon, Ben Okri, Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, Ardel Thomas, Saverio Tomaiuolo, and Tania Zulli.

I owe special thanks to the commissioning editor at Peter Lang, Adrian Stähli, who followed this project with unmatched professionalism and commitment, and to Friederike Meisner for her patient work. I would also like to express my gratitude to the staff of the British Library, the Senate House Library, the Staatsbibliothek of Berlin, the Emory University Library and the Pierpont Morgan Library for patiently fulfilling all my requests.

Finally, I want to thank my family for being so supportive and understanding. They have amorously forgiven my professional escapes and never failed to offer their warm encouragement in the period I spent fully immersed in writing. ← 7 | 8 →

The book incorporates some parts of the chapter “Sensation, Class and the Rising Professionals”, in The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction edited by Andrew Mangham (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Portions of Chapters Three and Seven were previously published in two collections of essays, respectively “Wo/men of Letters: Writing and Identity in Armadale”, in Armadale. Wilkie Collins and the Dark Threads of Life, ed. M. Costantini (Aracne, 2009) and “Strategies of Letter Manipulation in Wilkie Collins”, in Letter(s). Functions and Forms of Letter-Writing in Victorian Art and Literature, ed. M. Costantini, F. Marroni and A. E. Soccio (Aracne, 2009). I am grateful to Cambridge University Press and Aracne for granting permission to use the material.

Thanks also to @Punch Limited for permission to use the cover picture. ← 8 | 9 →


“What character professional institutions have in common, by which they are as a group distinguished from the other groups of institutions contained in a society, it is not very easy to say”1. At the century’s end, in the last volume of his monumental study of human societies, Herbert Spencer recognizes the classificatory difficulties posed by one form of social organization: “professional institutions”. In examining nineteenth-century professions as opposed to those of antiquity, he identifies the common function in what he calls “the augmentation of life” – a function shared by such diverse professional figures as the medical man, the performer, the artist, the teacher and the lawyer. In Spencer’s view, this function is fulfilled at two main levels: practically – in the form of medical and legal assistance aiming to “increase life” – and mentally-emotionally through artistic and intellectual activities that reach similar scopes by arousing people’s interests and emotions2.

While emphasizing the notion of communal service associated with these institutions, Spencer’s definition proves the complexity of the Victorian debate on professionalism, which was still lively at the fin de siècle. The mid- to late-nineteenth century was, indeed, a period of intense rethinking of the professional ideal in England. Spurred by various phenomena of social mobility, the reshaping of this ideal was also influenced by the ideological contradictions of the class to which many professionals belonged, the Victorian bourgeoisie, whose economic ethic comprised two conflicting orientations: the capitalistic-entrepreneurial and the vocational3. For this reason, a main objective pursued by professionals during the century was the redefinition of their corporate ← 9 | 10 → identity. Their efforts to develop jointly accepted ethical principles and behavioural standards aimed at overcoming the ideological tensions produced by the coexistence of opposing sets of values, such as the entrepreneurial notion of profit and the Christian ideal of calling.

As a result, Victorian professionals gradually came to view themselves and to be viewed as “a maverick fourth class”4 imbued with bourgeois values but distinct from the tripartite social models proposed by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophers and economists. In repositioning themselves within a society increasingly dominated by a capitalist economy, the members of this class not only aimed at regaining the lost “halo” of which they had been stripped5, that charismatic authority which had granted social respect and autonomy to the old professions. They also strove to set themselves up as the guardians of the intellectual and moral values of reason, esoteric knowledge and professional ethics as opposed to capitalistic imperatives.

This large-scale process of redefinition became fully evident in the third quarter of the century, when the so-called traditional professions6 went through important reforms. In the same period, occupational groups previously classified simply as “educated persons” were admitted to a professional standing, as testified by the higher ranking of “actors, authors, editors, journalists, artists” and others in the 1861 Census7. ← 10 | 11 → Still, the concept of professionalism remained a largely controversial one in the mid- to late-Victorian period. Exactly because it comprised a variety of occupational figures and interests, the professional class was ambiguously located within a social structure that it both validated and destabilized. The very relations that this class established with the bourgeoisie were highly unstable. Although professionals tended to represent themselves as alternative to free enterprise capitalism, they were constantly attracted by entrepreneurial principles which they strove to integrate into their emergent ideology. Such an ambivalent attitude is well epitomized by the gradual transformation of the professional into a double-edged symbol of liberal individualism, a figure combining the valorization of culture with deference to the market and combining freedom with conformity to social rules.

The complexity of the Victorian construction of professionalism has been explored by a number of twentieth-century sociologists, who have described the middle decades of the nineteenth century as a pivotal moment of socio-ideological reorganization. Harold Perkin, Philip Elliott, W. J. Reader, Penelope Corfield, Magali Sarfatti Larson and other scholars agree on the fact that mid-Victorian professionalism became a site of fiercely discordant opinions and, for this very reason, was instrumental in the process of modernization of English society. Besides embodying discordant ideals of the Victorian bourgeoisie (e.g., the opposition entrepreneurial/vocational mentioned above), professionals were important focal points at which old and new ideologies converged. More specifically, as Magali Sarfatti Larson observes, nineteenth-century professionals incorporated three main cultural residues of the pre-industrial past – namely, the work ethic of craftsmanship, a community-rooted ideal of universal service and a secularized version of the feudal notion of noblesse oblige8. At the same time, their ← 11 | 12 → practices and codes of conduct were influenced by the socioeconomic relations of their time. Located as they were within an industrial capitalist system, these social subjects reconfigured professionalism in terms of marketability, since they tended to translate their scarce resources (expert knowledge, skills) into socioeconomic rewards9.

The professionals’ dithering over contending values was also a consequence of the pressures exerted by rising occupational groups. Towards the middle of the century, the exclusivity and homogeneity of the few elite groups entitled to rank in the professions were challenged by the bids for recognition of emergent social contingents, whose values started to penetrate into the traditional orders. Such challenges were posed both intra- and inter-professionally. If the members of the so-called old professions – most significantly, physicians and barristers – were forced to cope with the demands of people of lower status employed in their same fields, the elevation of occupational categories previously viewed as non-professional (i.e., artists, writers, actors, and so on) contributed to destabilizing values and standards associated with the traditional notion of professionalism.

An ideal that came to be questioned in this revisionary process was that of gentlemanliness. Originally connected with the code of conduct of the leisured class, the paradigm of the gentleman was gradually adjusted to the changing exigencies of the Victorian middle class, which sought to reconcile self-help virtues (industry, self-assertion, compromise) with the old hallmarks of gentility (leisure, generosity, probity). Such negotiations were also at the core of the century’s redefinition of professionalism. Whereas the old elites had espoused ideals of communal service and noblesse oblige pertaining to traditional gentlemanliness, the lower ranks were more pervasively influenced by the economic ethic of bourgeois capitalism. With their progressive rise, these lower ranks brought the entrepreneur’s scale of values to bear upon the gentleman’s, as proved by the growing allure of individual initiative and investment in personal skills.

The injection of new values into inherited codes of conduct turned the professional ideal into a controversial topic of discussion for specialists as well as for the general public. A recurrently tackled matter ← 12 | 13 → involved the determination of the ethical principles to which professionals should conform in their everyday practice. The development of shared codes proved less difficult for some categories that already possessed long-established norms and rituals. The best-known example is discernible in the case of doctors, who had to adapt the ancient Hippocratic Oath to a social system that posed new deontological challenges. More complex was, instead, the elaboration of common ethical standards for those emergent groups that were not traditionally perceived as professionals, that lacked internal organization and were extremely heterogeneous in their ideological orientation. This situation is well exemplified by the struggles for self-redefinition on the part of artists and performers (writers, painters, actors, and so on), who rose to professional ranking in the middle decades of the century. Unlike the members of the old professions, who were primarily asked to be trustworthy and serve their clients’ interests, these rising figures had to rethink ethicality in relation to their role of preservers/violators of aesthetic ideals that were at risk of being desacralized. Rather than facing purely deontological dilemmas, the members of this variegated group were thus challenged to reconsider their function as cultural producers within a marketplace that tended to commodify their products. The ethicality of their conduct was consequently measured against their adherence to either principle of the binary autonomous/heteronomous which, in Pierre Bourdieu’s view, always influences the valorization of the producer’s cultural output10.

The Victorian periodical press was an important forum for discussing issues concerning professionalism11. In addition to medical, legal and other non-literary questions, many articles published at the time ← 13 | 14 → dealt with questions concerning the autonomy/heteronomy of art, as exemplified in the campaign against popular artists mounted by orthodox critics. Another site for “‘theoriz[ing]’ the professional”12 was the Victorian novel. The most influential literary form of the age, the novel gave fictional shape to questions that were largely debated by experts and the general public. Another function it fulfilled was that of creating or discovering “a new, supplementary world, a metaworld, a hyper-reality” which contributed to changing “the real world” through the effects the works had “on the belief and behavior of those who read them”13. A literary magnet for discourses on professionalism originating in various disciplinary precincts, Victorian fiction elaborated these discourses in two main ways: by deconstructing models that were felt to be inadequate and by reconceptualizing professionalism in the light of surfacing ideas.

This fact is hardly surprising if we construe the nineteenth-century novel as a mirror of, and a product for, the bourgeoisie – the class to which most novelists belonged. By bringing into focus questions with which they personally coped as professionals of the pen, writers achieved two scopes: they conveyed thought-provoking views of their occupational trials and revealed their ambivalent relations with commercial and industrial segments of the Victorian middle class. Diverse though they are in their characteriological traits, the numerous professionals featured in their narratives testify to the authors’ keen interest in the development of a “maverick fourth class” suspended between the absorption/rejection of bourgeois values and, as such, in need of a wide-ranging ideological redefinition.

This interest has been an object of growing critical investigation in the last few decades. Scholars have explored many fertile intersections between Victorian fiction and non-literary disciplinary fields (e.g., medicine, the law, police detection), thereby proving that the novel was a useful vehicle for reimagining socio-professional ideals. Another focus ← 14 | 15 → of attention has been the frequency with which Victorian literati fictionalized their own occupational challenges. A number of recent monographs14 have shown the cultural relevance that a specific typology of characters – writers and intellectuals – acquired for nineteenth-century novelists who, in portraying their alter egos, turned the spotlight on controversial aspects of their own professionalization. Novels written around the mid-century, in particular, bear witness to the recurrence of this process of self-representation, through which eminent literary figures (Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, among others) staged their concerns about the writer’s positioning amid discordant drives and standards.

As suggested by the above-mentioned examples, professional issues are pervasively dramatized in Victorian fiction. Independently from the narrative modes they adopt, novelists manifest a strong curiosity about the trials faced by doctors, lawyers, artists and other professionals who are made to play important roles in their novels’ diegetic constructions. The ideological meanings attached to these figures vary, of course, in accordance with the authors’ conservative or innovative views. As members of a developing trans-class category ambiguously related to other social groupings, professionals are in fact the pivots of conflicting discourses concerning the desirability of social mobility within a system that is still governed by conservative forces.

A Victorian genre that underscores the dynamizing effects of professionalization is undoubtedly the sensation novel. This new genre, which was officially inaugurated by the publication of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859–60), started to take shape during the 1850s, reached its climax in the following decade and gradually declined in the 1870s15. Its heyday coincided with a climactic period of professional ← 15 | 16 → reforms and changes, among which it is worth remembering the Medical Registration Act (1858) and the classificatory novelties introduced by the 1861 Census. The sensation novelists’ attention to professionalism was also engrossed by the ambivalent role they played within the literary marketplace. Despite their socioeconomic success as best-selling authors, these novelists were in fact vilified in the orthodox press for launching a market-oriented scandalous novelistic form. Behind such a stigmatizing attitude lay the assumption that this sort of fiction would debase the quality and scopes of literature while morally infecting the readers’ minds. The fierce attacks of their detractors were a source of anxiety for these writers, who were forced to rethink their function as cultural producers divided between Art and Mammon.

The present book explores the professional dilemmas articulated by four practitioners of the sensation genre: Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Reade and Ellen Wood (née Price). As will be shown, these embattled novelists were active participants in the Victorian process of redefinition of professionalism. A number of works they published in the third quarter of the century revolve around thorny problems of status, deontology and cultural production, which contribute to shaping the works’ formal features. At the level of diegesis, for instance, many professionals featured in these authors’ novels function as “desiring machines”16, since they create and sustain the narrative movement of the plot with their socioeconomic ambitions. Because of their fluid class identity, moreover, these figures are frequently depicted as neither/nor subjects suspended between conflicting ideas of morality ← 16 | 17 → and social belonging. With a few exceptions, their characterization is thus interpretable in the light of the model of “non-disjunction”17 proposed by Julia Kristeva which, we will see, is also applicable to the authors’ ambiguous occupational positioning.

The sensation novelists’ response to, and emplotment of, nineteenth- century professional discourses deserve attention, since they shed light onto the peculiarities of a literary phenomenon that strongly influenced mid-Victorian culture. Some crossings between the fictional genre and professionalism have been explored in studies of single authors (mainly, Collins and Braddon) or in critical analyses of the intersections between Victorian literature and specific disciplinary fields. There is still need, though, for a comprehensive investigation of the modalities with which the practitioners of the genre narrativized their society’s and their own concerns over the changing facets of professionalism. This book aims to fill in this critical gap. By examining works composed by four sensation novelists in the period 1850s–70s, I intend to prove that these authors were gripped by similar sociocultural anxieties, concocted analogous plots of transgression and tended to characterize professionals as non-disjunctive figures of modernization. The latter aspect is particularly noticeable in their provocative depiction of rising professionals. Matter-of-fact but humane, ambitious but ‘reasonably’ honest, unrefined but capable of arousing the reader’s sympathies, these characters are often portrayed as disharmonious figures that offer clues to the complex ideology of their creators. By highlighting the moral and behavioural greyness of emergent social groups with whom they identified, sensation novelists proved that the modernizing process they were experiencing was not devoid of ambiguities. To the very ideal of progress they espoused as protagonists of an evolving literary marketplace their works attach shadowy connotations, since the ideal is both hailed for its innovative potential and feared as an agent of anomie.

An analysis of these novelists’ treatment of professional matters suggests a rather homogeneous picture of the Victorian school of sensation. The representatives of this school might appear diverse in their ← 17 | 18 → life and artistic choices18; but they had similar approaches to some phenomena that were altering the sociocultural structure of their world. A recurrent feature of their narratives was, for example, the ambivalent depiction of the bourgeoisie – the motor of Victorian economy and culture. While celebrating the initiative and the industriousness of middle-class people like themselves, sensation novelists denounced the class’s hypocrisy by unveiling ominous secrets hidden below the bourgeois façade of respectability. Their reworking of scandalous and violent themes that had nourished the imagination of lowbrow readers was not only part of a commercially successful enterprise. It was also symptomatic of the authors’ experimentation with a new hybrid genre that challenged some foundations of the domestic novel, a major vehicle for bourgeois ideology. Together with the socio-sexual mores of well-to-do dissemblers, sensation novelists exposed the mounting greed of people enthralled by the values of capitalist economy and showed their moral decline as a consequence of the money-fixation.

The genre’s unmasking of the middle-class trappings of power was in line with its problematic representation of professionalism. Just as they staged the secret transgressions of respectable bourgeois families, novelists like Collins, Braddon, Reade and Wood focused upon the contradictions of a professional ideal that was still anchored in some traditional values but was also being reshaped by the agonistic forces of modernization. In addition to deconstructing models that were viewed as obsolete or ethically questionable, these novelists challenged dominant prejudices by conveying electrifying images of the process of ← 18 | 19 → erosion of the old world and by sketching forward-looking pictures of professionals rising from the margins of society.

The analysis conducted in this book aims at assessing the ideological impact of the genre’s narrativization of professionalism. For this scope, I have identified a set of recurrent occupational typologies and examined the various meanings attached to them in sensation novels written in the period 1850s–70s. The volume is arranged in two parts corresponding to the mid-Victorian distinction between two kinds of occupations: those connected with traditional professional fields, such as medicine and the law, and others that started to be perceived as professional at the time. The eight chapters into which the two parts are subdivided focus on various forms of employment, which belong to the two poles of the macro-opposition old vs. emergent professions. The choice of these forms reflects their relevance in the sensation novels under scrutiny, as well as in view of the novelists’ sociocultural experiences.

The first part investigates a variety of cultural and artistic occupations traditionally regarded as non-professional (literature, journalism, editing, painting, acting) which fascinated sensation novelists or at which they tried their hands. The second part concentrates, instead, on two fields of the older learned professions: medicine and the law. Both the medical and the legal fields were sites of reforms and ideological struggles that came to influence the mid-century rethinking of professionalism.

As shown in the individual chapters, sensation novelists adopted similar strategies of emplotment and characterization to depict occupations included in both macro-categories. Yet they also dramatized specific occupational problems. It suffices to consider the different challenges met by practitioners of the arts and practitioners of law and medicine. If the former were primarily asked to reconcile the values of the homo aestheticus with those of the homo œconomicus, the latter strove to combine long-established models of service and trustworthiness with the inevitable demands of the marketplace.

Part I opens with an exploration of the pressing dilemmas faced by Victorian novelists who aspired to professionalization but who were simultaneously caught in contradictory roles, as artists serving an increasingly commercialized marketplace. In addition to considering ← 19 | 20 → the aesthetic and moral problems tackled by the Victorian intelligentsia, the first chapter pinpoints some peculiarities of the sensation genre and the controversial position of its practitioners within a fast-evolving cultural milieu.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
ideal fictionalization aestheticism sociocultural identity ethicality

Biographical notes

Mariaconcetta Costantini (Author)

Mariaconcetta Costantini is professor of English literature at G. d’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara. She has published monographs, articles and books chapters on Victorian literature and culture. Her publications include the book Venturing into Unknown Waters: Wilkie Collins and the Challenge of Modernity (2008) and the edited collection Armadale: Wilkie Collins and the Dark Threads of Life (2009).


Title: Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel