Creating character

Theories of nature and nurture in Victorian sensation fiction

By Helena Ifill

Creating character


  • eBook

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-7849-9513-3
  • Pages: 240
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £80.00
  • Published Date: February 2018
  • BIC Category: Literature, LITERARY CRITICISM / General, Literature & literary studies / Literary theory, Literature & literary studies / Literary studies: fiction, novelists & prose writers, Literature & literary studies / Literary studies: c 1800 to c 1900, United Kingdom, Great Britain, Literature: history & criticism, Literary theory, Literary studies: fiction, novelists & prose writers, Literary studies: c 1800 to c 1900, Ireland, LITERARY CRITICISM / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
  • Series: Interventions: Rethinking the Nineteenth Century


This book explores the ways in which the two leading sensation authors of the 1860s, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Wilkie Collins, engaged with nineteenth-century ideas about personality formation and the extent to which it can be influenced either by the subject or by others. Innovative readings of seven sensation novels explore how they employ and challenge Victorian theories of heredity, degeneration, inherent constitution, education, upbringing and social circumstance. Far from presenting a reductive depiction of 'nature' versus 'nurture', Braddon and Collins show the creation of character to be a complex interplay of internal and external factors. Drawing on material ranging from medical textbooks, to sociological treatises, to popular periodicals, Creating character shows how sensation authors situated themselves at the intersections of established and developing, conservative and radical, learned and sensationalist thought about how identity could be made and modified.


'There is much to admire about Ifill's project and its execution. The archival work that grounds it is extensive and thorough. The contexts within which she places these novels are well-chosen and deftly depicted; her study of the theories of mind and personhood to which Braddon and Collins respond amounts to a small intellectual history of its own. Ifill's close readings are careful and attentive.'
Marta Figlerowicz is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University, Review 19

'The 'Queen of the Circulating Library', Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and her 'literary father', Wilkie Collins, conquered the 1860s reading public in Britain and beyond with novels that defined sensation fiction: a genre concerned with 'current and provocative issues [ . such as] class relations, gender roles, the diagnosis and treatment of insanity, educational reform, and the ethos of self-help' [offering ] . a convincing account of Braddon and Collins's engagement with the multifarious notions of character formation in the Victorian period, Ifill's monograph is a valuable addition to the study of sensation fiction.'
James Green, University of Exeter, British Society for Literature and Science

'By drawing on serialized novels as well as many journal articles from the period, Ifill contextualizes the various iterations of determinism found in popular culture and deftly links Collins's and Braddon's works to this larger cultural conversation.'
Ashton Foley-Schramm, Victorian Periodicals Review, Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 2019

'I have found Creating Character to be a very interesting read, one which would be a great addition to the bookshelves of its intended audience: those interested in nineteenth-century society and literature. Ifill's secondary sources are incredibly thorough and may be used as a handy tool for those looking to explore and study sensation fiction and its relationship with science and psychology further.'
The Wilkie Collins Journal


Part I: Self-control, willpower and monomania
1. Basil and No Name
2. John Marchmont's Legacy
Part II: Heredity and degeneration
3. The Lady Lisle
4. Armadale
Part III: Education, environment and circumstance
5. Man and Wife
6. Lost for Love


Helena Ifill is a member of the School of English at the University of Sheffield

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