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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 5: Venal, playful, charming: the hallmarks of professional performers

Going on the stage in the mid-nineteenth century

Extract

Chapter 5 Venal, playful, charming: the hallmarks of professional performers

The middle decades of the nineteenth century witnessed important changes in the career prospects of professional performers. In much the same way as painters, Victorian actors experienced the transition from the old system of patronage to a more autonomous occupational system, which was subject to the demands of a competitive cultural marketplace. Still “closely associated with individual patrons” in the eighteenth century1, performers became paid employees in the following century and offered their services in a large variety of work places “rang[ing] in status from patent theatres to penny saloons”2. Around the middle of the century, moreover, they were slowly “admitted to a more or less unquestioned professional standing”3. Included in the list of “educated persons” in the 1841 census, they were attributed a professional status in the 1861 census4, even though their group was quite heterogeneous and lacked the basic requirements of qualification. In describing the transformations underway in the category of “players” in the early nineteenth century, Penelope Corfield observes: “But in fact the work was haphazard, the training informal, and the level of skills and rewards exceptionally variegated. That made it very difficult to forge a collective identity, let alone a professional closed shop”5. ← 173 | 174 →

While rapidly increasing in numbers during the century, Victorian performers thus remained disorganized as an occupational group. The absence of self-regulatory bodies which could provide training and rules of professional access was only...

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