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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 4: Sensational virtuosi of the brush

Vocation, labour and the temptations of customized art

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Chapter 4 Sensational virtuosi of the brush

The nineteenth century was marked by a dramatic expansion in the number of art producers and consumers. The third quarter of the century, in particular, proved to be a “golden age” for artists, many of whom became members of a “wealthy, high-living […] and highly visible group”1. Their rise in wealth and status was consequent on the shift from the aristocratic system of patronage to an artistic marketplace dominated by affluent bourgeois customers, who were anxious to imitate the nobility and give public display of their power. As Bourdieu observes, in describing the new condition of artists in the second half of the century:

The relationship between cultural producers and the dominant class no longer retains what might have characterized it in previous centuries, whether that means direct dependence on a financial backer (more common among painters, but also occurring in the case of writers), or even allegiance to a patron or an official protector of the arts2.

The emergence of entrepreneurs and nouveaux riches among customers created large demands for artistic products. Paintings, for example, were increasingly viewed as commodity fetishes which were purchased to display the prosperity and social prominence of their buyers.

The influence of plutocracy was stronger in England than in countries like France where, “despite the increasing privatization of the market, paintings were still regularly commissioned by church and state”3. As a result, English painters were more ambiguously enmeshed...

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