New Sensations: Placing Sensation and New Woman Literature

In the first of an ongoing series of posts, Katherine Mansfield, a second-year doctoral candidate based in Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, introduces her project: Sensationalising the New Woman: Crossing the Boundaries between Sensation and New Woman literature, 1859–1901. 

Critical discussion regarding Sensation fiction has tended to focus on the genre itself, examining its main themes, such as the devious and criminal wife, and the bigamy and murder plots; in contrast, New Woman studies has placed the genre in relation to other fin-de-siècle movements, for example decadence and first-wave feminism, but has not paid much attention to links with earlier developments. Equally, the first phase of Sensation and New Woman fiction has remained within strict time boundaries; 1860-1880 for Sensation fiction, and 1880–1900 for New Woman literature. In my PhD project I seek to move beyond these limitations to conceptualise and explore the connections between Sensation and New Woman fiction, investigating the extent to which Sensation literature is a forerunner to the early development of the New Woman novel; and consequently how the two genres blur, or cross, temporal and conceptual boundaries.

The largest distinction between Sensation and New Woman fiction is typically considered to be the introduction of feminist politics in the later decades. Lyn Pykett in The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (1992), the starting point for my project, summarises the argument of many other critics when she states that, while Sensation fiction reproduced ‘the anxieties and tensions generated by contemporary ideological contestation of the nature of woman, and of women’s social and familial roles’, New Woman writers directly associated themselves with the Woman Question and the contemporary women’s rights movement. [1] Pykett interprets the difference between the genres to reside in the authors’ intention to write, viewing Sensation works as being complicit with contemporary social and sexual politics rather than representing a campaign for change. In part the later feminist rhetoric and ideological position of New Woman fiction are symbolised by the term ‘New Woman’, which came to stand for the mobilised movement for women’s rights. It emphasises New Woman fiction as literature unified and defined by its concern regarding women’s rights (both for and against), a rationale missing from Sensation fiction.

The term ‘New Woman’ is associated with the year 1894 and the publication of ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ by Sarah Grand in The North American Review, as well as the response by Ouida (the pseudonym of Maria Louise de la Ramée) who extrapolated the phrase, and with which she titled her essay, ‘The New Woman’. However, as Ann Heilmann reveals, the phrase was in circulation much earlier in the decade: ‘the term “New Woman” was used in its capitalised form as early as 1865, when the Westminster Review branded the subversive heroine of the new sensation novels as the “New Woman…no longer the Angel, but the Devil in the House”’. [2] Although the term had not yet gained its later, specifically political meaning, its entrance into the English language during the Sensation era is significant. The Westminster Review uses the phrase in connection with rebellious heroines in literature, very much as it would be used later in the period by satirical magazines such as Punch to define women pushing the boundaries of Victorian gender conventions.

Illustration by unknown artist © Punch, or the London Charivari 1894

Illustration by unknown artist © Punch, or the London Charivari (1894)

Significantly, the Westminster Review article also references the ‘New Man’ who in Sensation literature ‘with the cruel look, and the stern pitiless smile […] rules everybody, especially the women’. [3] While this New Man is markedly different from his late-Victorian nephew, the figure and phrase associate him with the New Woman movement, and interestingly the Old Man type. In New Woman literature, the New Man presented an alternative to the current model of Victorian masculinity in that he acknowledged and supported women’s equality. The New Man presented in the Westminster Review varies from the later New Woman ideal but the introduction of the terminology in reference to Sensation heroes reinforces the connection I am proposing. It demonstrates an initial (and perhaps tentative) idea in Sensation literature being developed into a fully-fledged feminist strategy by New Woman writers. Cultural responses to the Woman Question are rarely placed in the context of the Sensation period, but the revelation of the capitalisation of ‘New Woman’ and ‘New Man’ earlier than widely conceived shows it was a concern acknowledged in literature, and recognisable to the reading public. As my project progresses, I will argue, in contrast to Pykett, that Sensation authors did adapt their work to contemporary discussions, not merely reproducing them, but using them to expose and comment on inequality in society.


[1] Lyn Pykett, The ‘Improper’ Feminine: The Women’s Sensation Novel and the New Woman Writing (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 7.

[2] Ann Heilmann, New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), p. 22.

[3] Anon., ‘Belles Lettres’, Westminster Review, 28.2 (1865), 568-84 (p. 568).

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