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Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel


Mariaconcetta Costantini

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.
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Chapter 1: Serving God and Mammon: Victorian art, sensation and market imperatives

Cultural challenges and artistic preoccupations


Chapter 1 Serving God and Mammon: Victorian art, sensation and market imperatives

In a letter to Edward Bulwer Lytton written in 1863, the rising novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon describes a professional dilemma she was facing as follows:

I want to serve two masters. I want to be artistic and to please you. I want to be sensational, & to please Mudie’s subscribers. Are these two things possible, or is it the stern scriptural dictum not to be got over, “Thou canst not serve God and Mammon”. Can the sensational be elevated by art, & redeemed from all it’s [sic] coarseness?1

In addressing her friend and mentor, Braddon candidly admits to being torn between conflicting aspirations. Her inability to choose between “God and Mammon” cogently renders the difficulty of the negotiation between the agonistic forces underlying the Victorian cultural order. More specifically, the clash between elevated and sensational forms of art mentioned in the letter evokes a cluster of contending drives which were shaping the field of artistic production in the mid-nineteenth century. Divided as they were between disinterestedness and profit, highbrow and lowbrow forms, restricted and large-scale production, Braddon and other Victorian artists had to define their professional status within an epistemic space that was strongly influenced by the opposing principles of heteronomy and autonomy of art – two principles which, as theorized by Pierre Bourdieu, played a crucial role in the representation of “the ← 29 | 30 → symbolic struggles between artists and the ‘bourgeois’...

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