Wednesday, 28 November 2012
In his famous and often-quoted article about sensation fiction in Quarterly Review (Vol. 113, April 1863) Henry Mansel wrote:
"A commercial atmosphere floats around the works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop. The public want novels, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season. And if the demands of the novel-reading public were to increase to the amount of a thousand per season, no difficulty would be found in producing a thousand words of the average merit." And later on: "These books would certainly not be written if they did not sell; and they would not sell if they were not read; ergo, they must have readers, and numerous readers too."
Sensation fiction was first and foremost recognized as commercial fiction to be consumed. Mansel identified periodicals, circulating libraries and railway bookstalls as the watering holes of mass readership to aid the proliferation of sensation fiction. Mansel's words echo Wilkie Collins's delighted realization, in his article "The Unknown Public" in Household Words, 21 August 1858, that there is a whole new, untapped reading public out there in the newly literate working classes; and he had a chance to make a fortune out of them.
Above all else sensation fiction was so sensational because its lurid and melodramatic tales of scandal and crime took place at the Victorian reader's doorstep. It was topical and contemporary and it was generally acknowledged that its power to thrill originated from these qualities of immediacy, verisimilitude and tantalizing proximity to the reader's reality. As Henry James put it in his review of Lady Audley's Secret (Nation 9 Nov 1865): "The novelty lay in the heroine being, not a picturesque, Italian of the fourteenth century, but an English gentlewoman of the current year with the use of railway and the telegraph." Mansel agreed: "Sensation novel, be it mere trash or something worse, is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation."
Following on from this, it was a small step to complain that all sensational authors did was re-circulate the despicable, abhorrent and miserable tales of the law courts in fictional form. In Mansel's words again:
"When fashionable immorality becomes insipid, the material for sensation may still be found hot and strong in the "Newgate Calendar;" especially if the crime is of recent date, having the merits of personality and proximity to give it a nervous as well as a moral effect. Unhappily, the materials for such excitement are not scanty, and an author who condescends to make use of them need have little difficulty in selecting the most available. Let him only keep an eye on the criminal reports of the daily newspapers, marking the cases which are honoured with the especial notice of a leading article, and become a nine-days' wonder in the mouths of quidnuncs and gossips; and he has the outline of a story not only ready-made, but approved beforehand as of the true sensation cast."
It can be argued that bigamy novels, such as Lady Audley's Secret and Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne, became a subgenre of sensation fiction having been specifically inspired by the setting up of the divorce court in 1858. After the establishment of this new court not only did the number of divorce cases increase but details of divorce and bigamy cases became more readily available to journalists and, through them, to other writers.
The case of Constance Kent is often mentioned as an inspiration for Lady Audley's Secret (a quick google search will show this, a couple of examples are Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Rhiannon Williams in her Feb 5, 2012 Observer review). While the crimes committed by Constance and Lady Audley are not that similar, there are interesting thematic parallels in the real life case and Braddon's fiction. Constance Kent was 16 years old, when in 1860 in the early hours of the morning she allegedly stole her little half-brother from the bedroom where her father and step-mother were asleep. She carried the toddler out into the garden through the French windows. She then cut his throat and pushed the poor lad's body into the privy. Her motivation, it was suggested, was jealousy. Her mother had been treated as an invalid and a lunatic, after her death her father married the governess. The victim of the crime was a son from this second marriage. While the children of the second marriage were cherished, Constance herself was sent to sleep at the top of the house with servants.
The case came into trial in June 1860, but although Constance was suspected by the mighty police detective Mr Whicher of the Detective Department, she was not convicted. Instead she moved to France. Curiously, several years later, she became religious, returned to England and confessed to the murder. To this day, her confession has not convinced everybody and there remains a mystery about the case. This case, also known as the Road House murder is re-told by Kate Summerscale in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) and a shorter summary is included in Mary S. Hartman's Victorian Murderesses (1977).
Another suggested influence on Braddon was the infamous Yelverton bigamy case that filled the newspapers in 1861 (see Jenni Fahnestock's article "Bigamy: The Rise and Fall of a Convention" in Ninenteenth-Century Fiction 36, 1981). Dashing Captain William Charles Yelverton met the 19-year-old Theresa Longworth on a steamer from Boulogne. Their love-affair led to a suspect Irish wedding in a locked church with no witnesses. Theresa was kept hidden from the Yelverton family, because they expected William to marry money, which Theresa did not have. Imagine her disappointment when William announced that he had married again. The trial for bigamy that took place in Dublin was a sensation, with Theresa as the wronged heroine and William as the dastardly, aristocratic villain. Although Theresa won the trial, she later lost an appeal in the House of Lords. She published a fictional account of the events in Martyrs of Circumstance in September 1861 using the name 'The Honourable Mrs Yelverton.' Theresa Yelverton's story is told in Wild Romance: The Scandal That Shook Victorian Society (2010) by Chloe Schama.
In the first volume of Lady Audley's Secret, Robert Audley refers to Maria Manning:
"What do we know of the mysteries that may hang about the houses we enter? If I were to go to-morrow into that common-place, plebeian, eight-room house in which Maria Manning and her husband murdered their guest, I should have no awful prescience of that bygone horror. Foul deeds have been done under the most hospitable roofs, terrible crimes have been committed amid the fairest scenes, and have left no trace upon the spot where they were done." (Vol I, Chapter 18)
Maria Roux was born in Switzerland but later worked in Britain as a lady's maid to the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. In 1847 she married Frederick Manning and using her savings they set themselves up as keepers of the White Hart Inn in Taunton. Neither the marriage nor the business went well and before long Mrs Manning had a lover, Patrick O'Connor, a shady, small-time businessman and a crook. In 1849 the Mannings gave up on their business and moved to London where Maria supported them as a dressmaker. On August 9th, 1849, Patrick O'Connor said he was heading to his ladyfriend's for dinner and promptly disappeared. Three days later his naked body was discovered by the police under the flagstones in the Mannings' kitchen, drenched in quicklime. There was no sign of the Mannings. The Detective Department sprang into action and the ultra-modern gadget of the telegraph was used to contact Edinburgh police where Maria Manning had fled. She was arrested, and Frederick was soon after caught on Jersey. Both were brought back to London and put on trial on October 29th, 1849. The husband tried to shift all the blame on the wife and the newspapers, after the country-wide murder hunt went on having their field day. It took the jury 45 minutes to judge the Mannings guilty and they were executed on 13 November 1849 in front of a huge, clamouring crowd. For a more detailed description which puts this case well in its social and cultural context see Judith Flanders's The Invention of Murder (2011).
In the quotation above, Robert Audley is talking to Lady Audley and goes on to say how "we may look into the smiling face of a murderer, and admire its tranquil beauty." (Ibid.) While his words are a veiled accusation, they also hint at the murky, hidden depths underneath the mundane surface of everyday life. Lady Audley's Secret knowingly and cunningly aims to create that sense of proximity and verisimilitude so crucial to sensation fiction.