What makes Victorian sensation fiction a genre uniquely suited for exploring issues of disability and deviance? Heidi Logan's Sensational Deviance contributes to a long-standing critical tradition in Victorian literary studies that has focused on sensation fiction's immense popularity during the 1860s and 1870s. In contrast to the realist novel, sensation fiction built upon the Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century—an aesthetic already preoccupied with the supernatural and the occult—to explore Victorian cultural anxieties about modernity at the height of British imperial expansion. Logan turns to sensation fiction precisely because of its dominance in the literary marketplace and because it fixates intensely on embodiment as part of its "scientific interest and fascination with social marginalization." (2019, p.1). Because disabled bodies are represented so frequently, Logan joins scholars like Martha Stoddard Holmes (2004), Karen Bourrier (2015), Kylee-Anne Hingston (2019), and Clare Walker Gore (2020) who have traced the ways Victorian novelistic representations have both reaffirmed and challenged narratives of disability as medical defect or pathetic tragedy. The sensation novels from 1854 to 1886, Logan argues, merit greater critical attention by disability scholars, because these works notably diverge from "mainstream Victorian depictions of disability due to their stronger than usual interest in the disabled person's sensory, psychological, and social experience" (2019, p.16). These sensation novels center disabled experience in order to "undermine prevailing assumptions about specific disabilities or about hierarchies of value attached to bodies and minds" (2019, p. 16). For Logan, sensation fiction is thus a "dissident genre" that troubles dominant scientific and medical assumptions about bodily norms by "enter[ing] into dialogue with them" (2019, pp. 15-16).

To make the case that sensation fiction ultimately "demystif[ies] the disability to show readers what disability is really like, and to encourage readers' identification with disabled characters," Logan narrows her archive of texts to the work of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon because their novels anticipate a social model of disability in their rejection of medicalized frameworks for disability (2019, p. 17). Collins and Braddon respond directly to burgeoning fields of psychiatry, psychology, and criminology by undermining their deterministic theories of hereditary, insanity, and degeneration, all of which would come to underpin Social Darwinism and other eugenic movements in the late nineteenth century. Often, Collins' and Braddon's characters refuse curative intervention or the assumption that disability can be read on their bodies at all. From the deaf-mute Madonna in Collins' Hide and Seek (1854) to the "mad" Lady Audley of Lady Audley's Secret (1861-2), disabled characters in these popular sensation novels lack the sentimental pathos of figures like Dickens' Tiny Tim because they trenchantly insist on disability on their own terms. Logan's attentiveness to not only canonical sensation novels but also lesser-known works like Collins' The Dead Secret (1857) and Braddon's The Trail of the Serpent (1860-1) helps track how both writers evolve in their engagement with disability over the course of their writing careers. If anything, Logan makes evident just how much sensation fiction is inflected by disability and how progressive these novels are in imagining what we might now call disability identity, consciousness, and pride.

Because Logan's project takes on over nine different novels, Sensational Deviance often reads like a collection of separate case studies that each examine representations of disability per novel, where the Collins section primarily revolves around characters with physical disabilities while the Braddon section mostly focuses on cognitive disability. Each case study offers incisive close-readings of a novel paired with analyses of scientific and medical writings from the period, but the bipartite structure of the study makes each case study and each section feel independent of the other rather than mutually constitutive. This decision to split the monograph into discrete sections per author felt like a missed opportunity to not only 1) put Collins' and Braddon's work into dialogue in terms of how they make possible the forms of readerly identification that Logan rightly points out, but also 2) to make a stronger case for how and why these writers should be read together and over other, less-canonical sensation fiction writers or even realist writers that regularly invoke disability in the prosthetic ways David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have described in Narrative Prosthesis (2000). For example, because mutism and blindness appear in novels by both writers, the section divisions per writer and chapter divisions per novel precluded what could have been an overarching synthetic argument about what these two writers' deployments of disability might say about sensation fiction as proto-crip literary form and about disability's place in Victorian Britain.

Sensational Deviance makes the compelling provocation that Collins' and Braddon's sensation novels "champio[n] disabled people's self-determination: a decision that specifically rejects any idea of disabled people's inferiority or that they are fated to have unhappy lives" (Logan, 2019, p. 242). While this argument powerfully reclaims sensation fiction from reductive readings of the genre as conservative and pathologizing, Logan does not quite contend with the anachronistic presumptions that are inevitably attached to this claim. What exactly is gained and lost in making a case for sensation fiction's progressivism in terms of disabled people's autonomy? Do disabled figures have to be "active" or self-determining in order to be valued as characters? Given her original claim about the genre's "dissident" quality, Logan's move to highlight sensation fiction's "advanced approach" to disability contradicts what she identifies as the genre's characteristic ambivalence and presumes disability as a stable conceptual category reducible to character (2019, p. 243). As Sensational Deviance demonstrates across its many meticulous readings, sensation novels are not so much advanced in their anticipation of disabled people's self-determination—a quality that appears in numerous pre-modern accounts of disability—but that they actively interrogate and co-opt the very discourses attempting to contain disability and deviance toward unexpected cripistemological ends.

References

  • Bourrier, K. (2015). The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.7499689
  • Gore, C. (2020). Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Jackson's Entry, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Hingston, K. (2019). Articulating Bodies: The Narrative Form of Disability and Illness in Victorian Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvqmp1gs
  • Holmes, M. (2004). Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.11877
  • Mitchell, D., Snyder. S. (2000) Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/mpub.11523
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