In Thomas Hardy, Sensationalism, and the Melodramatic Mode, Richard Nemesvari attempts to trace the influence of melodrama and sensationalism on Thomas Hardy’s imagination and novelistic production. For Nemesvari, “evoking the melodramatic and the sensational becomes a way for Hardy to engage with the late-Victorian cultural, economic, and sexual anxieties that are central elements of his plots” (1). More specifically, Hardy has recourse to tropes and tactics borrowed from these modes when he seeks to think through and comment upon transformations to gender roles, and to the kinds of mid- to late-nineteenth century social power formations that have long been of interest to literary scholars influenced by Foucault. One of his project’s important scholarly contributions has to do with its structure, which consists in pairing novels traditionally judged to be marginal or flawed—Desperate Remedies (1871), A Laodicean (1881), and The Hand of Ethelberta (1876)—with novels usually considered to represent Hardy at his finest—The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), and Jude the Obscure (1895)—to illustrate that with the sensational and the melodramatic in view, “minor” and “major” works have more in common than we generally think. Indeed, paired according to the order just given, the coupled novels are shown to share preoccupations with masculine identity, female embodiment, and modern class, respectively.
In his introduction, Nemesvari refers to Peter Brooks’s influential work on melodrama, especially its emphasis on the melodramatic as a mode of “excess and overstatement,” (2) and its investment in melodrama as a form deeply interested in questions of ontology and ethics. He also cites the scholarship of Michael Booth to underscore his interest in melodrama’s historical ability to cut across class lines, in being enjoyed by both upper and lower classes. The scholar whose working definition of melodrama seems most useful for him may be Elaine Hadley, with whom he shares a belief in melodrama’s function as a mode of “cultural critique rather than […] one of exploratory psychodrama” (4). Indeed, for Nemesvari, melodrama is not merely a low form of tragedy, but is rather tragedy’s partner in its ability to explore troubling questions in a post-secular and uncertain moment.
Nemesvari’s interest in melodrama’s “appeal to shared communal experiences,” (6) or in the ways in which its appeal resembles the power of oral storytelling tradition, becomes the grounds for a somewhat awkward bridge to sensation fiction, a subject introduced in the second half of the introduction. Noting that Hardy’s youth—marked as it was by overhearing tales of criminality—may have left him particularly open to an interest in the Newgate novel, Nemesvari suggests he might also have been interested in its successor form, the sensation novel. Here, while allowing that there is no direct biographical evidence of Hardy’s familiarity with sensation fiction’s first flowering in the 1860s, Nemesvari infers that as a literarily-engaged young man, Hardy must have been at least loosely aware of the larger conversations and controversies surrounding the sensation novel. But ultimately the biographical connections are of less interest to him than the broadly shared properties of sensation fiction and melodrama: the fact that the two forms “rely on exaggerated plot twists and sudden revelations” and that they both “appeal to intense emotions” (11). Nemesvari focuses most on melodrama’s and sensation fiction’s destabilization of gender roles: “Hardy’s choice to consistently place women at the center of his narratives, and to focus on issues of female sexuality and eroticism, means that his novels evoke a key aspect of sensationalism whatever else they might be doing or attempting” (11-12).
As some of my own summary above may suggest, Nemesvari is less clear and less theoretically dialogic in his formulation of sensation fiction than he is in his approach to melodrama, and while he is sharp on the similarities between the two modes, he is less precise than he might be about the distinctions between them. Sometimes, indeed, he seems to want to use a more genealogical approach, and to have the stage melodramas that would have been popular in Hardy’s youth serve as historical precursors to the sensation fiction that arose at the time of Hardy’s arrival in London; here he is professedly in line with the claim of such scholars of sensation fiction as Ann Cvetkovich (85). At other points, the “melodramatic” and the “sensational” seem to be concurrent and detached from historically specific forms in ways that make them seem collapsible into one another. The “sensational” here can come to encompass whatever is excessive, secret, shocking, and intense or emphatic about the body in Hardy’s work; when this occurs, often the “melodramatic” might be—indeed sometimes is—the better substitute phrase.
Nemesvari makes some efforts to wrestle with this difficulty in the introduction, as he notes that generic definition is a “vexed question”; and it is true, as he suggests, that “[b]ecause both melodrama and sensation fiction are hybrid forms that place little value on formalist unities and consistencies, it is difficult to itemize those elements that nominally determine their structures” (12). But it is not clear, especially as he moves into the book’s body, that his decision to follow other critics in adopting “the melodramatic mode” over “melodrama” as a referent is as helpful as it might be, nor indeed, is his definition of the sensation novel as, above all, a novel with an illicit secret at its core. If we think about the Raffles and Bulstrode plot lines from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), we might see that sensationalism infects even the “high” realist tradition that Nemesvari often wants to oppose to Hardy’s work. Nemesvari suggests that since “[d]etailed studies of Victorian responses to sensation fiction are now widely available […] only those elements most relevant to Hardy need be discussed here” (10), yet some of the authors he groups together in the accompanying footnote often deploy the “sensational” in quite different ways.
In the body of the book, Nemesvari gives a series of generally persuasive readings of the novels at his study’s center, and his readings of the less canonical, indeed under-read works will be particularly important and valuable for future scholars. While he can be better on similarities between his paired novels than on differences between them—and where sometimes his emphasis on the logic of his specific pairings overlooks the ways these novels overlap with other novels from Hardy’s oeuvre—Nemesvari produces some notably elegant insights when his eye is closely trained on the texts at hand. And some of Nemesvari’s most interesting interventions consist in the nicely specific moments where he ties particular features of Hardy’s novels—e.g. the temperance plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge or the riding prowess of Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd—to particular historical formations in melodrama and sensation fiction—here, respectively, the popularity of temperance melodramas as a subclass of melodrama, and Bathsheba’s suspect associations with the horsewoman in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd (1863). In general, it might have been illuminating for the arguments about the “sensational” in particular to bring in more such specific points of historical comparison, and indeed, more of a sense of the literary backdrop against which Hardy is operating. Wilkie Collins, for example, who for most critics today, as for many in the Victorian period, often stands as a sort of ur-sensation novelist, never rates a mention after the introduction; yet recourse to his fiction, and to critical writings about it (such as those by D.A. Miller and Jennie Bourne Taylor) might have been illuminating as a way of contextualizing some of Nemesvari’s claims about, for example, surveillance and power in Far From the Madding Crowd and A Laodicean.
On the whole, however, Nemesvari is convincing in his claim that Hardy repeatedly does have recourse to melodramatic and sensational tropes and themes, and that he does so in particular when he wants to interrogate and investigate gender, power, and “the vulnerability and artificiality of class definition” (155). His is a useful study for reframing and rethinking the arc of Hardy’s career, and for reconsidering how we come to distinguish between “major” and “minor” works.
Dehn Gilmore is an Assistant Professor of English at the California Institute of Technology. Her first book, The Victorian Novel and the Space of Art: Fictional Form on Display, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in the spring of 2014.