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Comptes rendus

Nicholas Daly, Sensation and Modernity in the 1860s

Françoise Baillet
p. 223-226
Bibliographical reference

Nicholas Daly, Sensation and Modernity in the 1860s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 245 p. ISBN-13 978-0521760225.

Full text

1Over the last decades, the mid-Victorian era has been under close academic scrutiny. Since W. L. Burn’s 1964 text, The Age of Equipoise, the idea of consensus, in particular, has been widely explored, giving rise to a number of seminal interpretations and reassessments. Central to this interest lies the issue of social conflict which, in those days when Reform seemed to blur class distinctions, undermined the “fragile, fractured and fragmentary” Victorian social fabric, constantly threatening it with disorder. In Sensation and Modernity in the 1860s, Nicholas Daly takes a fresh look at the question, concentrating on the relation between class and culture. Focusing successively on a selection of literary and artistic artefacts, including novel, drama, painting, the performing arts and chromolithography, Daly offers his readers a convincing and thoroughly documented analysis of the role of aesthetics in the expression and handling of some of the most pressing political and social anxieties of the day, broaching the subject of readership and spectatorship in an age of mass consumption:

[I am interested in] how writers and artists in the years of Reform meditated upon the crowd as a category made visible by both social and political modernization, and evaluated their own ambivalent position relative to this new potential audience, sometimes trying to capture its attention, sometimes trying to evade it (150).

2In those years when political power appeared to be shifting toward the working class, when Britain was about to make that great “leap in the dark” some dreaded as an open door to chaos, the sphere of culture, it was felt, no longer provided the class distinctions society needed. Hierarchy did seem at risk and the need was felt to promote and defend the widely shared vision of society as a layered system. In such a confused context, Nicholas Daly contends, sensation novels, drama and paintings suggested a useful reflection on how the sphere of culture might “re-imagine [its place] in relation to an age of crowds” (7) and how, perhaps more importantly, the latter could be dealt with.

3After a brief—perhaps too brief—overview of the mid-Victorian aesthetic context, in which he mentions the rise of the sensation novel, melodrama and Art for art’s sake as typical artefacts of the period, Daly broaches the concept of whiteness, defined as closely tied to that of sensation. The first three chapters of Modernity and Sensation thus hinge on the omnipresence in mid-Victorian literature and arts of those “vulnerable, ethereal and even ghostly female figures” (110) he sees as avatars of the 1858 Lourdes apparition. Chapter 1 focuses on Wilkie Collins’s best-selling The Woman in White (1860) in which, Daly explains, whiteness is closely connected to the notions of mystery, modernity, “the distracted consciousness of the modern subject” and the ways in which this attention can be engineered. Beyond the intricacies of its plot, Collins’s novel, Daly suggests, may also be read as a metaphor of the relationship between author and reader, the flâneur and the crowd, the individual and the masses. At a time when Ruskinian art discourse reasserted the interdependence of ethics and aesthetics, “Collins’s self-conscious preoccupation with the power of spectacle”, Daly remarks, “suggests a mission for the artist in the age of crowds” (32):

. . . Collins is not simply registering the fears of his own class; his novel is at once an experiment in capturing the attention of the masses, and a meditation on the place of the artist under the new dispensation (45).

4Running through these developments lies of course the question of the loss of social identity which, Daly insists, was all the more pressing in those days when class certainties seemed to collapse. The same approach prevails in Chapter 2, where Dion Boucicault’s 1860 melodrama is examined as yet another manifestation of the Lourdes apparition. In The Colleen Bawn, or the Brides of Garryowen, the same attention-engineering effects as in The Woman in White are at work, says Daly. Through this adaptation of Gerald Griffin’s The Collegians (1829), virtue—that of Eily, the Colleen Bawn—is “endangered and then saved, and we are given a tableau of virtue triumphant” (58). But Boucicault’s adaptation of Griffin’s original novel, his transition from a tragic tale into a romantic one is also revealing of the need to stage social harmony at a time when widespread popular discontent caused concern:

That the representative of the lower-classes is a delicate female beauty . . . suggests for one thing the wish-fulfilling substitution of a docile, female peasant for a less manageable, urban working-class; at the same time it indicates a high level of barely disguised hostility to even that attenuated version of an upwardly mobile lower class (70).

5Moreover, the repeated performance of a play set in a rural stage Ireland, at a time when, precisely, the post-Great Famine country was going through a series of radical—and potentially dangerous—transformations is also significant, Daly suggests, of the need to rework reality into “a comforting image of an organic society, though not a classless one” (72). Nicholas Daly’s threefold study of white figures closes with an analysis of James McNeil Whistler’s Symphony in White no1: The White Girl (1862) as an example of sensation painting. In this section devoted to “aestheticism as mesmerism” (81), the author discusses the American painter’s rejection of figurative art and his choice to address a select audience for a distinct visual experience. Here, sensation does not relate to the mass consuming Victorian public but to an elite spectatorship whose sensual confrontation to the very materiality of the work of art is described as a “shock effect” (83) comparable to those created by sensation novels and drama. In one of the most interesting developments of his book, Daly adds that beyond the aesthetic issues underlying Whistler’s depiction of The White Girl—the sensual confrontation of the spectator to the very materiality of the painting—lie other, even more disturbing and unresolved questions. “The whiteness of Hiffernan’s skin,” he convincingly argues, “evokes the science of race that increasingly defined European identity against a variety of others . . .” while her red hair “announces en English/Irish ethnic divide that also preoccupied racial scientists of the period” (93-94). Less convincing, however, is his reading of George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894)—Svengali’s intrumentalisation of Trilby in particular—as a metaphor of Whistler’s “exploitation of model and audience alike” (104).

6Daly’s interest then shifts from female figures to ethnic connotations and, in the next chapter, entitled “Black and White in the 1860s’, whiteness is examined as a category for national self-definition. His contention is that in spite of their subject, the very popular Victorian Minstrel shows were far more concerned with contemporary political debates than with black America. A “theatre of whiteness” (124) rather than one of blackness, they allowed a redefinition of a British identity which events such as the Morant Bay Rebellion (1865) or the Indian Mutiny (1857) had significantly altered:

As with the enormous body of Orientalist writing and representation, then, British blackface acts might in general terms be best read as species of projection of more local fears, anxieties and longings, as much or more than any real encounter with alterity (125).

7At a time when anthropologists were classifying Britain’s population into racial and social types, and when Darwin’s concept of evolution—The Origin of the Species had been published in 1859—was being extended to the social sphere (among others), comparisons were indeed recurrently drawn between the lower orders of society and the so-called “savages”, making otherness domestic as well as exotic. In such a context, which the American Civil War and the subsequent victory of the North rendered even more sensitive, the depiction of an undisturbed and reassuringly pyramidal society—the world of the plantation—allowed British audiences to defuse the threat represented by the working class.

8The last chapter of Sensation and Modernity is devoted not to the artist’s relationship to the crowd, but to a cultural form aimed at the crowd: illustrated sheet music. Clearly distinct from the preceding sections to which it only loosely connects—maybe the only weakness of the book—this fifth chapter mainly focuses on the work of Alfred Concanen (1835–86) whose colour illustrations, or chromolithographs, adorned the covers of Victorian comic songs. Beyond the journalistic interest of these images which offer a kaleidoscopic vision of the nineteenth-century street, what retains Daly’s attention is the self-reflexive aspect of Concanen’s art, his awareness “of being part of a particular culture industry, one that produced an avalanche of music that could be marketed by the use of bright chromolithographic illustrations . . .” (193). Sensation and Modernity closes on the importance of the self-consciousness of Victorian art which, in its extreme variety, endlessly commented upon its relationship to a changing British public.

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Bibliographical reference

Françoise Baillet, Nicholas Daly, Sensation and Modernity in the 1860sCahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 73 Printemps | 2011, 223-226.

Electronic reference

Françoise Baillet, Nicholas Daly, Sensation and Modernity in the 1860sCahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 73 Printemps | 2011, Online since 05 October 2015, connection on 14 April 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Françoise Baillet

Université de Cergy-Pontoise

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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