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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 6: Victorian lawyering and the novel

The homo ethicus and the redefinition of the old professions


Chapter 6 Victorian lawyering and the novel

As we have seen in Part I, the 1861 Census proved that a number of cultural and artistic occupations came to be viewed as professions around the mid-nineteenth century. This change in status, which involved the writers themselves, became an object of controversy in the Victorian cultural field as testified by the currently raging debates on the potential debasement of art. The main reasons for such debates were the ambiguous relations that many cultural producers, as manufacturers of customer-oriented commodities, established with the marketplace and their aspirations to social and professional respectability. Sensation novelists, in particular, were caught in an equivocal position. In addition to making a conscious use of lowbrow narrative forms targeting a trans-class audience, they significantly contributed to a process of serialization which downgraded their creations to products of Taylorized labour1. Exactly because they compromised their principles to meet the demands of a thriving literary ‘industry’, these novelists were most sensitive to the questions of artistic value and professionalization that they recurrently sensationalized in their novels.

The “chiaroscuro”2 portraits of people employed in cultural and artistic fields examined in the previous chapters epitomize the complex evolution of an occupational group that was still extremely variegated and lacked internal organization around the mid-century3. Even though they were increasingly viewed as middle-class professionals, the members of this group had indeed the most diverse social origins and ← 205 | 206 → educational levels, worked in a growingly commercialized society and...

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