Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Seeing into "The Life of Things": Nature and Commodification in Phantom Fortune

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Seeing into "The Life of Things": Nature and Commodification in Phantom Fortune

Article excerpt

The fairy Do-nothing was gorgeously dressed with a wreath of flaming gas round her head ... Her cheeks were rouged to the very eyes,--her teeth were set in gold, and her hair was of a most brilliant purple.

The fairy Teach-all, who followed next, was simply dressed in white muslin, with bunches of natural flowers in her light brown hair, and she carried in her hand a few neat small books. (1)

In reviewing Phantom Fortune, a novel based on a series of contrasts--nature, society: freedom, decorum; sublimity, materialism-a London Times critic wrote in 1884, "`Phantom Fortune' is in Miss Braddon's best and worst styles, but it is an extremely readable novel, notwithstanding." (2) This polarity of style, which extends to polarity of theme, is an expression of Braddon's social and political reformism in this novel, in which she juxtaposes the Wordsworthian sublime to societal materialism. While Braddon makes use of the hackneyed lunatic-immured-in-an-abandoned-house device, she extends the trope of prison to a serious cultural and existential critique, thereby participating in a larger, ongoing discussion about the tension between authentic and inauthentic lifestyles for women. In centering the novel on a polarity between Nature and society, Braddon looks to the past for a mediating influence, which she finds in an explicitly Wordsworthian experience that resolves the tension between freedom and servitude. The polarity, and, ultimately, its synthesis, is expressed by a host of references to Nature on the one hand and to dress, behavior, art, and social constructs on the other. A critique of women's place in the social scene is, for Braddon, neither new nor startling: by now it is a critical commonplace that sensation novels presented a disturbing picture of women as victims of imprisoning domestic situations, even while proposing that such women powerfully shaped their environments by subverting the "angel in the home" model. In her groundbreaking A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter pointed to the "covert solidarity" between the novelists and their readers based on their shared understanding of the frustrations and limitations of the social context. (3) Lynn Pykett surveys the way this idea was developed by later critics like Winifred Hughes and Ellen Miller Casey in her discussion of the sensation novel as "a radical critique of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture" (4) and also as a response to the 1880s discussion over defining the feminine, as the New Woman controversy grew to gargantuan proportions. (5) Likewise, Braddon repeatedly presents marriage--the classically comedic synthesis--as problematic: like the society it mirrors, marriage is an inescapable prison, a form of freely-willed detention in the private panopticon of the home. (6) From that perspective, the argument that Braddon effectively capitulates at the end of her early novels to present a picture of domestic serenity or to show the "proper feminisation of the heroine" (7) through marriage points to her effort to mediate the complex relationship between societal and personal expectations. In 1883, Braddon's accommodation is expressed in Wordsworthian terms. The "proper" feminine and the "proper" masculine are developed by immersion in nature, which becomes the appropriate education for marriage, a social contract.

In Braddon's novel, three children--Mary, Lesbia, and the young Maulevrier--are reared by their imperious grandmother, who has secretly imprisoned her ailing husband to protect family honor and fortune from the repercussions of his scandalous behavior as Governor of Madras. Mary, fond of dogs and horses, is allowed to run wild in the hills near the family estate, located equidistant from Wordsworth's house and grave. Lesbia, the acknowledged beauty, is given an expensive wardrobe and brought up to marry Lord Hartfield, the only scion in the peerage who meets Lady Maulevrier's exacting specifications of lineage and wealth. …

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