Recently, I was giving a talk on Victorian sensation fiction and I wanted to stress the ways in which this genre emphasizes materiality and the experiential dimension of the body. I linked the genre’s investment in the matter of the body to what some critics have called ‘the material turn.’ Many contemporary critical fields – feminist theory, ecocritism, postcolonial theory, critical posthumanism, and social and cultural geography – have seen a renewed interest in embodiment and the senses. Theorists in these fields frequently engage with phenomenology, referencing and building upon Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the body as a phenomenal, changing, and lived body that alters as it interacts with an environment to which it both responds and shapes. Yet such an emphasis is also visible in Victorian writing, as critics like William Cohen, in his excellent Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses (2009), have shown. So what many contemporary critics have called the materialist turn is in some senses, a material return.
I’ll be teaching a new MA course on Sensation and Gothic fiction at the University of Amsterdam next year, and I would love to hear suggestions about what Victorian novels I should include. I am also hoping the course will help me answer some of the questions I have about the differences between these two genres. A key difference seems to be setting, as sensation novels typically take place in England, with Gothic fiction more often adopting a foreign setting; yet the urban gothic novels of the late-nineteenth century (novels like Dracula, for instance) seem to blur these lines. Is it the element of the supernatural or fantastic that defines a novel as gothic vs. sensationalist?
Thomas Hardy likes graceful women, but none are as deliberately graceful as Cytherea Graye in his first published novel, Desperate Remedies (1871). In a scene rife with small-town prying eyes and the unconscious self-caricaturizing of town locals displaying their cultivation through the organization of a Shakespeare reading, the beautiful Cytherea enters a room – her appearance forming “an interesting subject of study for several neighbouring eyes.” Hardy highlights the “gracefulness of her movement, which was fascinating and delightful to an extreme degree,” before further describing the faultlessness of her figure in the following terms: Continue reading “Grace and the “Material Media” of Hardy’s Desperate Remedies”