Laurie Garrison, Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels

Laurie Garrison, Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels: Pleasures of the Senses (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 248pp, £50.00 hb, ISBN 9780230203167

Of all Victorian literary genres, sensation fiction is perhaps the one which has leant itself most readily to interdisciplinary readings concerning its engagement with contemporary science and pseudo-science. The depiction of extreme mental states such as hysteria and insanity, and of mental and physical disabilities allows for sensation novels to be read in the light of medical, psychiatric and psychological theories. Sensation fiction is also frequently read in terms of evolution and degeneration due to the representation of degenerate characters and emphasis on competition for both partners and social position, not to mention Wilkie Collins’s serialisation of The Woman in White in 1859, the same year as the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This relationship between science and sensation fiction has been helped by the production of early key critical works by well-respected scholars such as Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth, which provided an important theoretical and methodological starting point for later contributors such as Andrew Maunder.

In some parts of her book, Garrison contributes to the existing body of critical engagement with sensation fiction by providing refining and qualifying readings of well-studied but important sensation texts, both of novels and of reviews such as Margaret Oliphant’s ‘Novels’ and ‘Sensation Novels’, which have been extremely influential on modern critical understandings of the relationship between sensation authors and their reading and reviewing public. Garrison, for example, shows that the majority of early reviewers were actually quite ambivalent in their opinions of sensation fiction, only becoming truly concerned about the corrupting power of the genre towards the end of the 1860s. Similarly, although an analysis of the magnetic influence of Count Fosco in The Woman in White is not particularly new, Garrison refreshes the issue by foregrounding the importance of Laura and Marian’s mesmeric, erotic relationship as a means of evading him. Her close readings are, on the whole, persuasive and enlightening, revealing a good eye for detail and nuance.

Early in her study, Garrison attempts to move the focus of critical responses to sensation fiction away from psychology towards physiology, arguing that there are ‘many more direct references to physiology’ than to psychology in ‘sensation novel reviews’, and that the sensation novel ‘depended first on the physical effects it inspired in the reader and secondly on the psychological effects that occurred as a result of this form of reading’ (p.xii). This feels more like a slight shift in emphasis than a new line of enquiry however, as many of the theorists Garrison refers to such as G. H. Lewes have already drawn the attention of sensation fiction researchers. Garrison makes use of Lewes’s and also Alexander Bain’s physiological theories to throw light on Victorian reviewers’ depictions of the experience of reading sensation fiction but, as is often the case with this sort of interdisciplinary work, does not prove many direct connections between the science and the literature. Nevertheless, the exploration of senses and stimuli in the reading of sensation fiction leads to some important conclusions about subjectivity and the way in which the effects of reading sensation fiction (obsessive consumption of novels, unhealthy levels of physical excitement, etc.) were pathologized by reviewers. Garrison is, therefore, covering some old ground from a different angle, and this will certainly make the book accessible to those who have read only the most canonical sensation fiction.

Luckily, the sensation genre is still relatively uncharted territory beyond staple works such as The Woman in White, and there is plenty of work to be done on its employment of, and often challenging of, scientific theories. Garrison also takes some important steps forward in this area. For example, chapter two combines the previously mentioned reading of mesmerism in The Woman in White with an exploration of the theme of spiritualism in Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower. This chapter feels rather bisected. Garrison begins with an overview of mesmerism and spiritualism in the Victorian period, briefly discussing ‘the physiology of the trance’ and observing that ‘those who took part in the debates about mesmerism and spiritualism drew directly on textbooks of physiology’ (p.62), then explaining some of the moral concerns raised by such pseudo-sciences. When she moves onto the novels themselves, however, the importance of physiological understandings of mesmerism and spiritualism is somewhat lost, making way for a more traditional and isolated (but often fascinating) close reading of the way these practices are depicted in each novel. The reading of The Woman in White in connection to mesmerism is far more convincing, perhaps because ‘Broughton’s engagement with spiritualism in Cometh Up as a Flower exists at the level of allusion, reference and language’ (p.88), but Garrison makes some interesting connections between different spiritualist beliefs and Cometh Up as a Flower.

Garrison’s final chapter is her most substantial, engaging and controversial, including analyses of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd and Mrs Henry Wood’s St Martin’s Eve in relation to sociological theories of the period and the evolution of the sensation heroine. Through analysis of the characterization of, respectively, Estella, Aurora and the three ‘heroines’ of St Martin’s Eve, Garrison builds up a strong argument that the most successful sensation heroines are those who can both withstand the shocks and adventures to which they are exposed, and who can ‘train’ their husbands to withstand life with a passionate, sensational woman. The social theories of Herbert Spencer feature prominently and effectively throughout this section. Garrison also makes some interesting (and debatable) claims in this chapter, such as attributing sensation heroines’ uncanny ability to have a child only when their trials are at an end to some means of birth control (p.149).

All in all, Science, Sexuality and Sensation Novels offers a good combination of new readings of old texts and introductions to less frequently studied works. Although there is certainly a physiological thread running throughout the book, its strength lies less in a sustained central argument and more in detailed and effective analytical readings of a wide range of sensation novels.

Helena Ifill, University of Sheffield