Braddon started writing Aurora Floyd (serialized 1862-63) in the period between the failure of Robin Goodfellow, which had been serializing Lady Audley’s Secret, and the time when she was forced to finish Audley due to popular demand. All signs point to a formulaic hack job–and, honestly, this is what made me put it on the list, and I thought there’d be some interesting bad writing going on.
But no! I’m finding AF disappointingly good. I’m about a third through it, and it doesn’t really feel like a sensation novel at all–it’s almost as if Braddon listened to complaints about sensation novels and wanted to write proper realist fiction. And i think she succeeds. Here’s one set piece narratorial self-indulgence that sounds like it could have been written by George Eliot:

I might fill chapters with the foolish sufferings of this young man; but I fear he must have become very wearisome to my afflicted readers; to those, at least, who have never suffered from this fever. The sharper the disease, the shorter its continuance; so Talbot will be better by-and-by, and will look back at his old self, and laugh at his old agonies. Surely this inconstancy of ours is the worst of all–this fickleness, by reason of which we cast off our former selves with no more compunction than we feel in flinging away a worn-out garment. Our poor threadbare selves, the shadows of what we were! With what sublime, patronizing pity, with what scornful compassion, we look back upon the helpless dead and gone creatures, and wonder that anything so foolish could have been allowed to cumber the earth! Shall I feel the same contempt ten years hence for myself as I am to-day, as I feel to-day for myself as I was ten years ago? Will the loves and aspirations, the beliefs and desires of to-day, appear as pitiful then as the dead loves and dreams of the bygone decade? Shall I look back in pitying wonder, and think what a fool that young man was, although there was something candid and innocent in his very stupidity, after all? Who can wonder that the last visit to Paris killed Voltaire? Fancy the octogenarian looking round the national theatre, and seeing himself through an endless vista of dim years, a young man again, paying his court to a “goat-faced cardinal,” and being beaten by De Rohan’s lackeys in broad daylight.
Have you ever visited some still country town after a lapse of years, and wondered, O fast-living reader! to find the people you knew in your last visit still alive and thriving, with hair unbleached as yet, although you have lived and suffered whole centuries since then? Surely Providence gives us this sublimely egotistical sense of Time as a set-off against the brevity of our lives! I might make this book a companion in bulk to the Catalogue of the British Museum, if I were to tell all that Talbot Bulstrode felt and suffered in the month of January, 1858,–if I were to anatomize the doubts and confusions and self-contradictions, the mental resolutions made one moment to be broken the next. I refrain, therefore, and will set down nothing but the fact, that on a certain Sunday midway in the month, the captain, sitting in the family pew at Bulstrode church, directly facing the monument of Admiral Hartley Bulstrode, who fought and died in the days of Queen Elizabeth, registered a silent oath that, as he was a gentleman and a Christian, he would henceforth abstain from holding any voluntary communication with Aurora Floyd. But for this vow he must have broken down, and yielded to his yearning fear and love, and gone to Feldon Woods to throw himself, blind and unquestioning, at the feet of the sick woman.

Okay, it’s a bit over the top, but what do you expect from Victorian prose? What I particularly like is that idea of separate selves from different time periods that Andrew Miller talks about in Burdens of Perfection (he puts it much more eloquently than that, but I don’t have time to make things pretty). And the idea of a “sublimely egotistical sense of Time” leads to all sorts of directions you wouldn’t associate with a sensation novel.
Where AF does feel like a variation of the LAS formula, though, is the whole idea of some chick having a secret. Really, it could have been called Aurora Floyd’s Secret. And it’s thinking about these secrets that I got my Clever Idea about the genre of sensation fiction. The Basic Story about it is that it’s like Gothic romance, but instead of taking place in suspect Papist places on the Continent, it happens within the domestic sphere, and that’s what’s so spooky about it. So here’s my Gothic/Sensation grand narrative. In “The Eye of Power,” an interview translated in Power/Knowledge (1980), Foucault explains the Panopticon in relation to the Gothic:

A fear haunted the latter half of the eighteenth century: the fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men and truths. It sought to break up the patches of darkness that blocked the light, eliminate the shadowy areas of society, demolish the unlit chambers where arbiitrary political acts, monarchical caprice, religious superstitions, tyrannical and priestly plots, epidemics and the illusions of ignorance were fomented… During the Revolutionary period the Gothic novels develop a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbour, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors. The landscapes of Ann Radcliffe’s novels are composed of mountains and forests, caves, ruined castles and terrifyingly dark and silent convents. Now these imaginary spaces are like the negative of the transparency and visibility which it is aimed to establish. (153-154)

If the Gothic novel (and the Panoptic gaze) centers on the issue of space, sensation fiction obsesses about time. Robert Audley (like Walter Hartright before him) carefully plots events in time, whittling away a mysterious three year period into, finally, two specific days. Everything is about the Andersonian “meanwhile,” and the precision with which it can be fixed. And how is AF’s secret framed? It seems to me that it’s not so much sensational that we don’t know what she did and want to find out–it’s the maddening sense that there’s this span of time with definite start and definite end (which again gets whittled down) about which we know nothing. Dark time instead of dark space.

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