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 ...
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.