Ladies’ maids, governesses, and companions: serving women in the great houses of sensation literature

Eros, Cassandra
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Delaware
Sensation fiction was a genre that emerged in England in the 1860’s and gained immense popularity among a diverse readership. Novels in the genre featured dramatic plots and “sensational” subject matter, including bigamy, madness, and murder, which led scholars to dismiss sensation as lowbrow pop-fiction from the nineteenth century onward. Only recently has sensation come under scrutiny as a genre that commented in radical ways on Victorian institutions—particularly that of gender, and a woman’s place in public and in the home. Many feminist academics have reapproached sensation, regarding it as a bellwether for the changing role of women in literature; and most have confined their investigation to middle-class women in sensation literature, whose concerns are represented most obviously. This project, however, seeks to refocus the gendered critique on figures of serving women in three iconic sensation novels: Wilkie Collins’s "The Woman in White and The Moonstone," and M. E. Braddon’s "Lady Audley’s Secret." Examining this figure complicates the idea of “women’s concerns” in the genre by adding the issues of working-class women to those of the middle and upper-class. It also reveals the complex ways in which sensational authors use the serving woman to explore and, in some cases, subvert Victorian class anxieties.
Braddon, Mary Elizabeth, 1837-1915. Lady Audley's secret