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Sensation and Professionalism in the Victorian Novel

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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 3: The professional dilemmas of literati

Wo/men of letters: writing and identity

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Chapter 3 The professional dilemmas of literati

“The rise of the sensation genre coincided with the height of the novelist’s newly won prestige as a social and ethical force”1. As Andrew Radford suggests, the emergence of the new genre on the mid-Victorian literary scene occurred at a time of significant changes in the professional status of writers, who were acquiring more visibility in the system of cultural production. Novelists, in particular, had experienced a relevant transformation of their socioeconomic and professional standing between the early- and mid-Victorian decades. The parallel development of a mass readership formed by rising numbers of semi-literates, and of a print culture destined to satisfy their demands, had resulted in the dominance of the novel over poetry as the main literary genre of the age.

Such a phenomenon influenced the transition from Romantic to Victorian paradigms of authorship. As producers of literary works that were largely classified as middlebrow and lowbrow, Victorian novelists were increasingly dissociated from the highbrow production of early-century poets and, consequently, from the models of authorship incarnated by their predecessors. To the spiritual ministry of the Romantic poet – a concept developed to counteract the materialism of eighteenth-century culture – novelists opposed a renewed interest in the pragmatic aspects of their occupation, such as their dependence on a productive system which controlled their routine labour, and their contribution to the customization and revalorization of literature as commodity.

As a result, the first half of the century was...

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