Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

Sensational fiction in Marvellous Melbourne

Susan K. Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi look at a sub-genre of popular writing that spanned the globe from London to Melbourne

Kylie Mirmohamadi & Susan K. Martin 5 October 2011 3012 words

Above: Detail from the cover of Sensational Melbourne.
Photo: State Library of Victoria

It is early 1863. Despite the heat, you hurry up Collins Street to Mullen’s bookshop, anxious to acquire the book everyone is talking about. A smiling assistant comes to your aid, and almost as soon as you have the first volume in your hand you cut the pages, open to the first page and start to read:

Audley Court lay low down in a hollow, rich with fine old timber and luxuriant pastures. You came upon it through an avenue of limes, bordered on either side by meadows, over the high hedges of which the cattle looked inquisitively at you as you passed, wondering, perhaps, what you wanted; for there was no thoroughfare, and unless you were going to the Court, you could have no business in that sheltered roadway.

At the end of the avenue there was an old arch and a clocktower, with a stupid, bewildering clock, which had only one hand. Through this arch you walked straight into the gardens of Audley Court.

When English author Mary Elizabeth Braddon penned this description of Audley Court, as the setting for her tale of bigamy and murder, she staked a claim for herself within an emerging sub-genre of popular writing that was to span the globe in the nineteenth century, encompassing London and the provinces, as well as Melbourne and the Victorian goldfields, in a web of print. This scene of English solidity and ease was wholly familiar to domestic and colonial readers like the one in Mullen’s (although they necessarily had differing relationships to the narrated landscape) and yet an uncanny sensibility haunts the conventions. The reader senses the disquiet within the quietness of this dream-like scene: the way is sheltered, but there is also no road out. Like a clock with one hand, something is not right at Audley Court. And so the sensation begins.

The thrill and suspense of Lady Audley’s Secret lies in the gradual uncovering of the story of Lady Audley, a childlike, beguiling blonde who has only recently married Sir Michael. Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert Audley, a dilettante lawyer given to whiling away his idle Temple life smoking cigars and reading risqué French novels, becomes intrigued by the mysteries surrounding his beautiful young “aunt” and plays amateur detective with increasing purpose and determination.

It is not difficult to see why this story thrilled its readers: it not only has a racy, complex plot – deception, bigamy, murder, mistaken identity – and fascinating characters, but it is also laced with contemporary references to textuality, materiality and modernity. The plot rests on ultra-modern elements – fashions, fast trains and shipping timetables. Telegrams are sent, shopping is done, newspapers and novels are read, and individuals travel to town with modern rapidity. Descriptions abound of luxurious household furnishings and possessions that held the British middle classes in their thrall. Lady Audley was truly a modern consumer event.

Lady Audley’s Secret was recognised as the quintessential product of an emerging genre. When the ill-fated journal, Robin Goodfellow, was withdrawn from the market before Braddon’s serialised story was complete, frustrated readers, perhaps fearing that the narrative suspension that was a key element of serial reading would in this case become permanent, appealed directly to her to finish it. The story was duly serialised in the Sixpenny Magazine between January and December 1862, but it was in volume form that Lady Audley’s Secret achieved its remarkable publicity and success. In 1870 a critic declared that this “book was an event, and its author became a personage.” Hailed in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts as the “queen of the circulating library,” and “the founder of the new school of sensation fiction in which bigamy is the leading incident,” this wildly successful author was later at the centre of her own minor sensation owing to overtones of bigamy in her relationship with the publisher John Maxwell.

What, then, was this genre within which Braddon was so important a writer? Sensation fiction was a global phenomenon of Victorian publishing. While the high era of sensation was in the mid to late 1860s, it was influential throughout the nineteenth century in both Britain and the colonies. It resonated in Australian colonial literary cultures, and especially in gold-boom Melbourne. Novels of this type were written in atmospheric style, with intricate and suspenseful plots that involved crime, adultery, incest, marital violence and unhappiness, divorce, murder and madness, and of course bigamy, concealment and deception. Much of this plotting reveals an obsession with law – marriage and inheritance laws and their involvement in the transfer of property in particular. But this materiality is balanced by more intangible themes of uncanny doubling and odd resemblances. They were novels of their time in an era of rapid growth and change and opening up of markets, and as such drew upon the paraphernalia of the burgeoning consumer culture to create an image of respectable British domesticity, only to expose a chasm of fear and decay at its very heart. Henry James famously opined that sensation fiction explored “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors… Instead of the terrors of Udolpho, we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house or the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible.”

The unsettling possibilities that coloured that first glimpse of Audley Court re-emerge at intervals throughout the novel, especially when eyes are turned towards the Lime Tree Walk, that avenue which was “so shaded from the sun and sky, so screened from observation by the thick shelter of the over-arching trees, that it seemed a chosen place for secret meetings or for stolen interviews; a place in which conspiracy might have been planned or a lover’s vow registered with equal safety.” In the world of the novel, as in the world of sensation in general, the emblematic English countryside bears hidden scars of murder – it is “stain’ed with foul deed[s]” even as it exudes peace. In the same way the solid country seat houses a dark, alternative narrative of present and imminent danger, to match the “old legend” related by one character about her ancestral home: “some gloomy story, such as those always attached to an old house, as if the past were one dark page of sorrow and crime.” Even the broken well, which is to feature so dramatically in Lady Audley’s story, carries visual hints of latent violence and danger: at sunset “the dank weeds and the rusty iron wheel and broken woodwork seem as if they were flecked with blood.” Little wonder that the Archbishop of York preached in 1864 that such novels taught readers “not to trust to appearances, but to believe that behind there lies a world of crime and misery.”

Lauded and condemned for its readability and currency, sensation fiction was the literature of movement and restlessness – an expression of the self-consciously mobile modernity at the centre of an ever-expanding, ever-unfolding Empire. Sold on railway platforms and perfectly paced for rapid travel, popular fiction was often seen as a symptom of the declining standards ushered in by modernity: “Surely,” wrote the Dublin University Magazine in 1875, “the most rigid puritan mother must relax something of her asceticism in railway reading, and despair of retaining her daughter’s attention to any ‘good’ book amid the distracting, rushing, shrieking accompaniments of the express train.” Advertisement was crucial in the popular print culture that exploded onto the Victorian market – wrapped around the novel’s pages were advance notices of the author’s and others’ work, alongside exhortations to visit this or that shop. Readers of Melbourne’s Argus were informed in an advertisement for Wright’s coal-tar soap that, in addition to the product being “recommended by the entire medical profession,” the Belgravia Office adds that “Miss Braddon has a high appreciation of Messrs. Wright and Co.’s coal-tar soap.” The names of a myriad of products and places were woven into the very text of Lady Audley’s Secret – a kind of proto–product placement. Descriptions of Lady Audley’s hair, grumbled one critic, read like advertising copy: “quite in the style of the advertising female who professes to have the power of making any lady ‘beautiful for ever.’” Explicit advertising recurs within the text and throughout the novel’s plot as well. The cosmetic manufacturer, Mrs Rachel Levison, and her “pearl powder” are mentioned by name, along with the efficacy of hair dye and rouge. In Lady Audley’s Secret people are advertised, and advertised for, like so much desirable merchandise: the future Lady Audley comes under the gaze of Sir Michael as a result of “an advertisement which Mr. Dawson, the surgeon, had inserted in The Times for a governess.” Robert advertises for his missing friend George in the British and Australian papers. Even the death notice so central to the plot is described as an advertisement, on a par with the “advertisements of farming stock, quack medicines, and other interesting matter” which Robert Audley sees in the country paper.

THE TERM “sensation fiction” arises from and carries the dual meaning of the two kinds of effects this literature was supposed to cause – social and physical. The term was coined by the earliest reviewers – who, in identifying such features and grouping them together, made up the genre they were critiquing. Sensation fiction keyed into, described and explored the most salacious and shocking hidden events and possibilities in middle- and upper-class English life and exposed them on the page in all their fascinating detail. This sensational exposure, in turn, was believed to give rise to physical sensations of a dangerous kind – excitement and titillation, leading from innocuous goose bumps to severe mental distraction. The Quarterly Review’s disapproving critic in 1863 used a technology-charged image to capture the sensation novel’s purported effect on the reading body, claiming that its aim was to “electrify” the reader’s nerves. Early British reviewers of the genre quickly noted the danger to young minds and bodies of this “unnatural excitement.” Such warnings in Britain and the Empire (and from Britain to the Empire), as is often the case, had the reverse effect from that intended – from the beginning, supply of sensation novels, and their accompanying thrills, could barely keep up with demand. A negative review of Lady Audley’s Secret published in the Critic in December 1862 reveals the instant popularity of sensation fiction in England: it was an “epidemic,” this novel pervaded conversations, and it was “anxiously sought after and greedily devoured.” The enduring cult of sensation was spread abroad throughout the literary empire. Ten years later, the Age claimed that Melbourne – a city of readers, then as now – “loves sensation,” though the appetite for it “in the higher circles” was reportedly waning. The writer gave this fondness for sensation a specific (and hierarchical) sense of place, mapping it onto the city’s commercial grid: “From Mullen’s in Collins-street down the humblest circulating library in the slums of East Collingwood, sensation is the backbone of the bookseller’s trade.”

There has been much scholarly speculation about the sudden rise and spectacular popularity of the sensation fiction genre in the early 1860s. Why, when Britain seemed to be at its most triumphant, prosperous and stable, was there a sudden thirst for fictions which suggested that the British ruling class, perhaps the empire itself, concealed at its heart rot, corruption and disintegration? By the mid nineteenth century the Victorian news was full of sensational events – detailed accounts of divorces and their causes, murders and suicides with more specifics of dosage and blood than would appear in a twenty-first-century newspaper. That real-life sensation circulated freely in nineteenth-century print culture is made clear in George Augustus Sala’s defence of modern novels (and, more specifically, his friend Mary Braddon) in Braddon’s own magazine, Belgravia: “If we read the newspaper; if we read the police reports… if we have ever troubled ourself about a Yelverton marriage, a Tichborne baronetcy, a Thellusson will, a Road murder, a Cornhill burglary, a gold-dust robbery, a Roupell forgery, a Simla court-martial, we shall take no great harm by reading realistic novels of human passion, weakness, and error.”

One anxiety exposed by such fictions was that the Victorian mode of reserve and discretion actually fostered concealment, secrets and refinements of deception. In the burgeoning and increasingly mobile population of Britain the apparent openness of social intercourse was becoming questionable. Local family connections and community memory were no longer a guarantee even in Britain for the identity and integrity of individuals who moved to the city or across the country in pursuit of work or away from debt. Mobility to, and within, colonial outposts like Australia made such guarantees even more tenuous. The rising “self-made” middle classes were neither guaranteed nor held back by family connections or class base in either locality. In an increasingly mobile world, identity could be shifting, and could be changed; past misdemeanours and family connections could be more easily concealed or swept away. Many Victorian fictional plots, identified as sensation or not, circulate around such issues as mistaken identity and long-lost relatives.

Lost or mistaken or concealed identity could offer a fresh start as well as opportunities for evil. The positive, as well as the negative, possibilities of fluid identity caught the imaginations of Victorian readers. The cultural preoccupation with the possibility that identities could be manufactured or, indeed, stolen, reached fever pitch in the courtroom dramas surrounding the Tichborne case in 1871, in which a butcher from Wagga Wagga claimed to be the presumed-drowned heir of the Tichborne family fortune. Such was the public interest in the case that the chief justice complained that he had “not a moment’s peace of mind from morning till night, on account of the hundreds of applications sent to me by persons who wish to hear the proceedings.” In his opening address to the jury, Mr Serjeant Ballantine left them in no doubt that the case raised fundamental ontological questions; that, in short, they must decide whether his client was the real heir or “the representative of one of the most atrocious impostures that was ever conceived by mortal man.” Mary Elizabeth Braddon played her own cameo role in this drama, owing to the presence of an excerpt from her novel Aurora Floyd in a notebook associated with the claimant.

Plots of concealment enable discovery, and sensation fiction involved the pleasures of stories which incorporate the reader as detective or detector. As with detective fiction, sensation fiction often offered the dual pleasure of both the release and the subsequent containment of a dangerous anxiety – the reader of Lady Audley’s Secret learns what is hinted at in the novel’s opening lines, that all is not well at the bucolic heart of Britain. The stable, established, aristocratic country house is the centrepiece for the novel. The central character so perfectly performs innocent virgin Victorian womanhood that she captivates its owner, and wins the prize. She becomes an ideal Lady Audley. When she is exposed as not a virgin, not innocent, it is not just a case of deception which can be erased from the scene to restore order. As many scholars of this novel have argued, the perfection of Lady Audley’s performance suggests that ideal Victorian femininity is a performance – it destabilises the whole world in which the novel is set.

England may have been the world of the novel, but Lady Audley’s Secret made its way into the wider world of empire as it was exported across the globe to colonial cities. It was wildly successful in Melbourne, as in other places. In a continent that was “the single largest off-shore market for British books,” Melbourne stood out as marvellously bookish. Historian Martyn Lyons notes that this city “received more colonial editions than any other port of the British Empire.” Colonial Melbourne boasted a thriving book trade: “As every reading man in Victoria knows,” boasted the Argus in 1874, “the facility of obtaining new books either for perusal or purchase, is not perceptibly less in Collins-street than in Paternoster-row.” Some twenty years later the publisher G.T. Hutchinson told an interviewer that “Melbourne is essentially the first literary centre of Australia.”

So despite Australia’s usefulness within Victorian fiction as a non-place from which characters conveniently emerge with identities transformed and lives changed, nineteenth-century Melbourne was itself, self-consciously, a literary city. Words and print permeated city spaces from shop signs to playbills, and every inch of the colonial home, from the library books in the bedroom and sitting room, to advertisements, papers and letters. Newspapers and periodicals were purchased and carried home with anticipation, through urban and suburban streets and along rail and tram networks, as the latest episode of serialised fiction revealed its incremental delights. Columns of those same newspapers contained the sordid details of crime and misery that stalked Mr Hoddle’s gridded streets, while the accompanying advertisements offered everything from quack medications to pianos. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s stories, in serial and in volumes, were read in Melbourne as in London: Mullen’s was a jostling space of Braddonomania, as much as was Mudie’s in London. Long after sensation fiction’s heyday in Britain, the gold boomtown was producing and consuming and talking about sensational words.

Melbourne, revelling in its status as a UNESCO City of Literature, is in 2011 still concerned with words, and continues to be defined in terms of textual representation, output and consumption. Sophie Cunningham’s literary reflection on the city and on the significance of place has recently been a runaway success as Melburnians show yet again that they, like their nineteenth-century counterparts, self-consciously inhabit a city of words. Auditoriums are packed during the Writers’ Festival, independent bookshops, though dwindling in number, dot the streetscape, and students flock to creative writing courses. Over a century ago Lady Audley’s Secret beguiled and vexed the readers of the southern city; their engagement with literature continues to inspire and define them. •

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