Helena Ifill, Creating Character: Theories of Nature and Nurture in Victorian Sensation Fiction

Helena Ifill, Creating Character: Theories of Nature and Nurture in Victorian Sensation Fiction (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2018) viii + 232 pp. £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-7849-9513-3

The ‘Queen of the Circulating Library’, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and her ‘literary father’ (in Braddon’s own estimate), Wilkie Collins, conquered the 1860s reading public in Britain and beyond with novels that defined sensation fiction: a genre concerned with ‘current and provocative issues [… such as] class relations, gender roles, the diagnosis and treatment of insanity, educational reform, and the ethos of self-help’ (5). If the iconoclastic engagement that the genre made with such issues ensured its censure by contemporary critics (and, of course, its popularity), it has also made sensation fiction fertile ground for interdisciplinary readings by modern scholars. In Creating Character, Helena Ifill brings to our notice how the themes just mentioned were among those that ‘sparked discussions about determinism and character formation in Victorian society’ (5). Previous scholarship, she notes, has shown the sensation novel to provide an ‘unstable, fragmentary, alterable view of the self’; here she aims to elaborate on the more minute, but just as vital, topics of ‘how different determining factors are employed to create that view’ (9) in the sensation novels of Braddon and Collins; the purposes these factors serve; and these novels’ engagement with the ideas of physicians, physiologists and other thinkers on this subject.

Ifill’s monograph explores seven novels by Braddon and Collins split across three parts (each consisting of two chapters). The Introduction details sensation fiction’s treatment of character, including in comparison to realist fiction: the oft-cited difference between ‘novels of circumstance’ and ‘novels of character’, respectively. Ifill nonetheless asserts character as a central concern in the genre, albeit in distinctive terms; such fictions reveal ‘a conflict between a conception of the will as a decisive force and an awareness that a person’s personality, abilities and actions are dictated by determining factors over which they have little or no control’ (7). She gives a lucid survey of how the Victorians perceived character formation, ranging across such topics as materialism, monomania, and degeneration. One notable absence here is Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859) - arguably the most popular Victorian treatment of ‘character’, and coeval with sensation fiction; this intersection has rarely been attended to in scholarship, however.1

Part One, ‘Self-control, Willpower and Monomania’, opens with the portrayal of this last condition in Collins’s Basil and No Name. Ifill claims that Robert Mannion, Basil (to a lesser degree), and Magdalen Vanstone display symptoms and aetiology that readers would have recognized as consistent with those of the condition. Monomania, she concludes, is utilized to ‘explore issues of self-control and the difficulties of deciding when, why and how we should feel sympathy for people who do “bad things”’ (38). Of Braddon’s John Marchmont’s Legacy, Ifill elucidates the tragedy of Olivia Marchmont via two ‘dominant Victorian conceptions of femininity’ (69): the social construct of the ideal woman and physiological ideas of women’s nature. Bringing Olivia into an astute comparison with the alternative ‘models’ (85) presented by Mary and Belinda, she judges of John Marchmont’s Legacy that ‘success [in meeting the ideal] is arbitrarily reliant on the physiology of, and the environmental influences experienced by, each individual’ (91).

Part Two, ‘Heredity and Degeneration’, begins with Braddon’s The Lady Lisle, and the switching of the lower-class James Arnold with the upper-class Rupert Lisle as children. The second, raised as an orphan, proves capable of reversing the hereditary decline that seemed to be the family’s destiny, while James becomes increasingly depraved. Ifill evidences how heredity ‘holds[s] a lot of potential power’ (117) in the novel, though its influence varies according to whom it concerns, James or Rupert. Yet in either case, Ifill considers its result as being to inscribe the social conservatism that often appears at the conclusion of the sensation novel: ‘heredity functions […] to protect the middle and upper classes from the possibility of incursion by the lower classes’ (117). Not simply persuasive in and of itself, this chapter ably establishes the significance of The Lady Lisle in terms of Braddon’s oeuvre – it must be hoped that Ifill’s intervention will prompt greater attention to this text. Conversely, Armadale, the subject of the following chapter, has experienced a resurgence of scholarly interest in recent decades. Its analysis is preceded by a foray into Collins’s earlier short story ‘Mad Monkton’, which Ifill demonstrates to be a crucial linking text for the author’s treatment of inescapable heredity. If a criticism is to be made here, it is only that the reading of Armadale might have been enlivened by incorporating and extending this deft analysis of ‘Mad Monkton’ to form a comparative piece of the sort staged earlier (with great success) between Basil and No Name.

Part Three, ‘Education, Environment and Circumstance’, more closely attends to the ‘Nurture’ aspect of the monograph’s subtitle. Considered first is Collins’s Man and Wife (1870); often derided as more polemical than his earlier works, Ifill argues for its consistency with his 1860s novels on the basis that ‘notions of character formation remained an intrinsic and functional part of his fiction’ (176). It is a persuasive argument that she elaborates with recourse to the characters of Geoffrey Delamayn and Anne Silvester; the analysis of the former especially is a highlight, with contemporary theories of education (from Herbert Spencer, Kingsley, etc.) woven seamlessly in support of it. But perhaps the strongest part of Creating Character is reserved for its final chapter: a reading of Braddon’s Lost for Love. Ifill pursues it through attention to the characters of Flora and Louisa, and their different responses to intellectual development. Evidencing the novel’s close engagement with ideas about the purpose and extent of female education, Ifill is keen to underscore the novel’s ambiguities: ‘Braddon’s advocacy of female ability is embedded almost unresistingly within the tenets of domestic ideology’ (207). Lost for Love, and Ifill’s reflections on it, recommend themselves as being of interest to scholars not only of Braddon and sensation fiction, but also of the history of education. It is an apt conclusion to Creating Character; offering a convincing account of Braddon and Collins’s engagement with the multifarious notions of character formation in the Victorian period, Ifill’s monograph is a valuable addition to the study of sensation fiction.

James Green, University of Exeter


1One exception is Nicholas Rance’s ‘The Woman in White and No Name: The Sensation Novel and Self-Help’, in Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 81-108.