Literary Reception after her Death

Felicia Skene’s Reception after her Death

The past thirty or so years have seen more and more attention paid to women Victorian authors, editors and journalists, mainly due to the increasing interest in women’s studies and feminism. Recent research into popular culture and popular literature has also brought many female writers to the fore in the area of Victorian Studies, with sensation novels and their authors becoming an important area of discussion. Felicia Skene, who we have seen has an impressive literary repertoire, was almost forgotten for the most part of the twentieth century (save the memoir written in 1902). Recently, however, a number of articles have either mentioned her, or have focused on her as the main target of investigation.

‘‘Serious’’ authors like Dickens have consistently been present in discussions in the literary world, yet many of the best-selling authors of the Victorian period have been written-off as low culture and not worthy of study, and therefore have become rather obscure. However, today more and more space is given to these forgotten authors in the Victorian Studies field, as Maunder (who refers specifically to sensation fiction) demonstrates:

‘‘These changes have partly been boosted by a growing interest in ‘popular’ culture and its various forms, in genre fiction, and also by the emergence, since the 1970s, of a generation of feminist critics, interested in retelling the history of the novel and in recovering ‘lost’ women writers whose position outside of the canon has been maintained by the difficulties of getting hold of their work. The recent publication of up-to-date critical editions of out-of-print novels by writers such as Florence Marryat, Rhoda Broughton, Felicia Skene and Eliza Lynn Linton has also helped consolidate the genre’s place in a revised, more diverse canon of nineteenth-century fiction, reflected in the regular appearance of sensation novels on undergraduate syllabuses, in postgraduate theses and in essay collections.’’ (3-4)

Felicia Skene then, who according to Maunder belongs to the corpus of sensation fiction writers, is no longer lost in the abyss, and her novels and texts have even been republished in recent years following an increasing demand for her work.

According to Nayder, who contributed a volume (about Hidden Depths) to Maunder’s Varieties of Women’s Sensation Fiction, Skene was a writer of sensation with a purpose who brought a religious and spiritual element to sensation fiction. Maunder’s collection is a reflection of how Victorian women’s sensation writing has gained more respect in the academic sphere because of the realisation that these novels and texts help form a more rounded picture of Victorian literature and culture. The fact that a whole section is devoted to Skene testifies to her importance to researchers in this field today. It is interesting to note that in a recent review of another book on sensation fiction, Allan writes that Skene is conspicuous in her absence. In present-day Victorian Studies, Skene is clearly not a marginal figure.

In an essay centred around the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill (1835-1907) and debate on this issue, Gruner uses Skene’s The Inheritence of Evil as an example of how this topic also permeated Victorian fiction. Felicia Skene’s passion for religion, justice and equality, and her consequent writings about these topics, provides researchers today with an interesting perspective on Victorian culture; her didactic novels with a purpose give valuable insights into society at that time.

Interestingly, Skene has also attracted attention from critics writing on Orientalism; Churnjeet Kaur Mahn’s chapter in Essays on Greece focused solely on Wayfaring Sketches and how Hellenic society is portrayed by the author. Mahn refers to some of the reviews looked at in the previous section of this essay and comments on how Wayfaring Sketches is a significant contribution to women’s writing on Greece despite a lukewarm reception. Skene, then, not only generates interest from Victorian Studies researchers, but from other fields of study too, again demonstrating that this author is far from obscure.

Hidden Depths lends itself to the title of an essay by Fryckstedt on the reception of novels in the periodical press in the year 1866.Reviews of Hidden Depths were looked at and compared with those of other publications that year, and, as we have seen in the previous section, Skene was competing with Elizabeth Gaskell for the most critical attention. In another essay by Fryckstedt, Hidden Depths is identified as being the third most reviewed novel of 1866. So, yet again, we see Felicia Skene and her works being approached from a different angle; evidence of her status as modest yet important target of recent investigations in Victorian Studies.

Another way of judging the recent resurgence of interest in Felicia Skene, in addition to looking at academic articles and book, is to search on the internet for new editions of novels being bought and sold, fan websites, blogs, and so on. This approach led to some intriguing discoveries. For example, Felicia Skene has an entry on Wikipedia and even has a Facebook page. Furthermore, when looking on the book selling section of the Amazon website, it becomes clear that there is a demand for Skene’s work, with one hundred and sixty publications listed; many of the editions of these books (the majority  written by the author, others being books about her) date from the 2000s. The sheer volume of information and material available on Felicia Skene is astounding. Moreover, the availability of Skene’s books on internet bookshops worldwide (a Google search showed Skene’s works being sold on Dutch, Indian and Australian websites) shows that this inconspicuous Victorian author even has an international appeal.

In 2002, a blue plaque was mounted on the house in which Felicia Skene lived in Oxford, a visible testament to a significant and member of the Victorian Oxford community. According to the criteria of Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board, an individual will only be considered for a plaque if they are considered as eminent in their field. It is, however, for her work as prison reformer and philanthropist that is principally recognised, for the plaque itself contains no mention of Skene having been a writer. The website for the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board mentions Hidden Depths only. Skene is reported to have said in old age ‘‘I am like the Martyrs’ Memorial: everyone knows me and no-one is interested in me’’ (qtd. in Symonds). This cannot be said of Felicia Skene today, who has evidently sparked much interested in a variety of people and places.

* All referenced sources can be found on the page “Useful Resources”.

    • Helen Talbot
    • Pauline Donders
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