Blogging Braddon in the Online Classroom

Blogging Braddon in the Online Classroom

By Jennifer Phegley, University of Missouri-Kansas City

In the fall of 2015 I taught a course on Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the Origins of Detective Fiction. It was my first single-author course and I was a bit nervous about choosing a writer who would be unfamiliar to my students, but I hoped that the focus on detection would attract those who had never heard of Braddon. The course would juxtapose early detective narratives with Braddon’s novels and explore the ways in which her sensation fiction laid the groundwork for Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes stories. This was a “blended” course in more ways than one: it included advanced undergraduates as well as graduate students and it met both face-to-face and online. With weekly opportunities for spontaneous in-class discussions and more in-depth virtual interactions via discussion boards, wikis, and blogs, the course aimed to foster a highly engaged classroom experience.[1]

I began the class with background readings on Braddon’s life, work, and critical reception as well as on sensation novels, stage melodramas, Newgate novels, and detective fiction. We defined these genres with the understanding that the distinctions we were making did not always hold true as the forms were constantly evolving. The idea of generic fluidity allowed us to think about sensation and detection on a continuum. With this in mind, we examined early examples of writing about detectives to determine how they may have influenced Braddon’s characters and plots. The London Metropolitan Police Detective Division was established in1842 and in 1856 it was instituted across England, spurring a nation-wide interest in sleuthing. We started exploring Victorian attitudes toward detectives with some selections from Household Words, including Charles Dickens’s “A Detective Police Party” (July 27, 1850) and “Three ‘Detective’ Anecdotes” (September 14, 1850) and Wilkie Collins’s “The Diary of Anne Rodway” (July19 and July 26, 1856). We also read selections from the fascinating fictional memoir Recollections of a Policeman by Thomas Waters (aka William Howard Russell) (1859) as well as stories from The Female Detective (1864) by Andrew Forrester (aka James Redding Ware) and Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward (1864).

In large part, these narratives worked to make detectives palatable to the public. As one student argued in a discussion board post, Dickens takes care to humanize the new detective police force and distance these officers from the older Bow Street Runners who were considered corrupt bounty hunters rewarded for capturing criminals. In contrast, Dickens depicts the officers “sitting around a comfortable table, with drinks and cigars, while he listens to their stories from a sofa. This setting evokes a familiar image to the Victorian public, one of middle class men discussing matters after dinner.” Yet, detectives were still seen as a threat. Another student noted that: “Despite better training and their practice of preventive patrol, London’s police force created an intrusive presence in the Victorians’ personal lives, and they were not comfortable with the invasion.”

While most of these detectives nabbed their criminals, sometimes they were unable or unwilling to do so. In fact, students found it interesting that so many culprits were let off if they were considered to have learned their lesson or in order to protect their family’s reputation. We found that women detectives were more likely to be shown discreetly letting criminals off the hook. While this humanized them as characters, it also reinforced the stereotype that women were ill-suited to the profession. Women were also plagued by disapproving friends and family, barred from some public spaces, and challenged by physical impediments, such as large crinoline skirts, that prevented them from sneaking around. The class determined that female sleuths had some advantages, however. These included easier access to private spaces, the ability to gain trust and to thereby find out crucial information via gossip, and a kind of invisibility that allowed them to eavesdrop in public places. Whether male or female, these new detectives were a source of never-ending interest to readers and they appeared regularly in the news at midcentury, just as sensation fiction was developing and Braddon’s career as a writer was taking off.

Our inquiry into these early depictions of detectives provided the context for exploring the Illustrated Police News (included in Gale’s the 19th Century British Newspaper Database) in order to identify one compelling article about detection to report on in our class wiki. I asked students to considered how gender, class, age, and race were at play in conceptions of criminality and to examine the ways in which their examples were similar to or different from our ideas about crime and detection today. In a follow-up wiki assignment, they wrote about depictions of nineteenth-century detection in twenty-first century media, analyzing television series such as Sherlock, Penny Dreadful, and Ripper Street, as well as popular fiction series, comic books, and films. These short research assignments worked well to generate discussion about the intersections between Victorian culture and our own and set the stage for our exploration of how Braddon’s characters embodied or challenged contemporary attitudes.

By this time students were aware that decades before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story, Braddon, Dickens, and others were exploring the complexities of crime solving. Braddon’s murderers, forgerers, arsonists, and con artists were often seemingly respectable middle-class men and women who defied Victorian stereotypes of the criminal. Her detectives could be bumbling and intrusive meddlers or remarkably clever interpreters of evidence and behavior. They were sometimes paid professionals, but were just as likely to be amateurs driven by personal motivations. Among Braddon’s professional detectives are Joseph Peters, the mute policemen in The Trail of the Serpent (1860) and John Faunce, the retired inspector featured in Rough Justice (1898). Braddon’s amateur detectives include hapless barrister Robert Audley, who is obsessed with his friend George Talboys’s disappearance in Lady Audley’s Secret (1861), and Eleanor Vane, who seeks to avenge her father’s death in Eleanor’s Victory (1863). In this course, we examined each of these detectives, along with the criminals they pursued, in order to trace Braddon’s contribution to the development of detective fiction.

Given the recent popularity of using academic blogs to publicize and get feedback on one’s research, and the increasing number of collective blogs seeking submissions from professors and graduate students alike, I decided in this class to teach blogging as a legitimate, scholarly form of writing and to encourage students to submit their work for publication on a Victorian studies site such as those hosted by the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Association, the Journal of Victorian Culture online, and the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals. To this end, I devoted plenty of class time to analyzing academic blogging as a merging of public and professional discourse. We reviewed advice for writing blogs from professional organizations and individual bloggers, read blog entries from Victorian websites, and discussed the ways in which a personal voice could be used in conjunction with scholarly research. I encouraged students to transform the standard research paper into a more interesting and accessible form of writing by developing an academic argument supported by textual details and research but written in a natural, accessible way.[2] Several of these blog entries have been published on this site and indicate the range of subjects students engaged with including the periodical publication context of Braddon’s novels, the changing critical reception of her work over the decades, and the influence of real-life criminal cases as inspiration for her plots.[3]

The class blog became a key form of communication in the course and one that counted for the majority of students’ grades. The format encouraged students to take risks, to think in creative ways, and to practice constructing coherent arguments about Braddon’s work on a weekly basis. Often the entries succeeded and generated many responses; other times they fell flat. Either way, students learned something about how to construct a better entry and worked hard to engage their peers. Given that Braddon was a new figure to all but one or two of my class of twelve, their ability to quickly grasp the scope of her work and to make convincing claims about it was truly remarkable. The single-author course certainly helped with this as students were steeped in Braddon’s life and works. But they were also able to bring their previous knowledge of the detective genre to the table. Braddon’s writing was, in a sense, already familiar to them, but she also challenged their assumptions. They identified elements that they expected in her detective fiction such as following a series of clues to the inevitable apprehension of the criminal or an ending in which virtue was rewarded and villainy punished. They also encountered things they did not anticipate, including a deaf detective who uses his disability to deceive and triumph, an assertive woman sleuth obsessed with avenging her father’s death, and a pervasive understanding of the forces that could, seemingly, drive anyone to criminality.

Students were impressed with the range of professional and amateur detectives Braddon created as well as with her interest in the lives of struggling working-class characters, particularly in The Trail of the Serpent. They were fascinated by her subtle sympathy for those who deceived or swindled others to gain wealth or status in a system in which the odds were stacked against them: Lucy Graham in Lady Audley’s Secret, Lancelot Darrell in Eleanor’s Victory, or even the murderous philanthropist Oliver Greswold in Rough Justice. As one student concluded in her blog, “I would consider Braddon’s complex characters . . . a testament to her ability to shake up the expectation of criminality. It shows readers that people are not all-good or all-bad, that no physical indicator or criminality exists, and that even those who have some good in them can be criminals given the right circumstances.” If an understanding of Braddon’s complex world-view is the only thing students took away from the class, I’d call it a success. But exploring Braddon’s detectives through blogging produced many more insights, sophisticated arguments, and original contributions to scholarly conversations than I’ve seen in more traditional paper assignments. Reading the class blog was always entertaining and I usually learned something new in the process.

Appendix: Braddon Blog Assignment

Blogs (50%): Starting week 5, we will meet in person on Tuesdays and virtually through the Blackboard Blog on Thursdays and Fridays.  Each of you will write a total of 5 blog posts (due Thursdays at 7 p.m. on your assigned dates) and a minimum of 15 blog responses or 3 per week during weeks when you do not write a blog (due Fridays at 7 p.m.).  The blogs are an opportunity to demonstrate your engagement with the readings and to spark interesting exchanges with your peers about the subject matter. You are expected to review all blog entries and responses as a part of your weekly reading assignment. You will write 2 assigned blogs and 3 open topic blogs (10% each).  Blog entries should range between 500-750 words, but the quality is more important than the word count.

In the two assigned blog entries, you should:

  1. Write a review of a scholarly article. I will provide a list of articles and you will sign up for one. Explain the key arguments of the article and explore the questions it raises. Your entry should consider how the article influences your understanding of the assigned reading and pose further questions for discussion.
  2. Write an analysis of the Periodical Context of Braddon’s Fiction. You will sign up for one novel and develop your topic in relation to it, examining a single serial part of a novel in its original publication context, exploring reviews of the novel published in newspapers or magazines, or identifying and analyzing articles from Victorian periodicals about Braddon herself. Here are a few specific examples to guide you:
  • Lady Audley’s Secret was serialized in three different magazines, two of which can be accessed through the British Periodicals Database (The Sixpenny Journal and the London Journal) and one that can be found on Google Books (Robin Goodfellow). Likewise, Eleanor’s Victory was serialized in Once a Week, which is also found in the BP database. Read about these magazines in the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism (in the C19 database) so that you have a sense of their editorial goals, audience, and history. Then, analyze the contents of a single issue of the magazine in which the novel was serialized and see if you can identify any connections to the novel. What interests you about the contents of the magazine? How might those contexts have appealed to the readers of the novel? How might the articles, poems, and short stories surrounding the serial part influenced readers’ interpretations of the novel?
  • Alternatively, you could conduct a keyword search for Braddon or one of the novels or a theme or issue relevant to our reading within a periodical database such as British Periodicals, 19th Century British Newspapers, the Illustrated London News, or the London Times Explain your chosen article, pose a series of questions about it, or provide an argument about how it provides insights into our course reading.

In the three open topic blog entries you could do any of the following:

  1. Analyze specific passages from the day’s reading.
  2. Pose questions that arise for you or that you think will interest others.
  3. Reflect upon the themes, characters, or plot points of the novel.
  4. Make connections with other texts we’ve read in the course.
  5. Build on comments made by classmates in their blog entries.
  6. Explore the historical and cultural contexts of detection, crime, and sensation.
  7. Research and write about some aspect of Braddon’s life, authorial identity, readership, or publishing history.

Blog Responses (10%)

You are encouraged to respond to your peers’ blog posts every week but you must respond in weeks when you are not writing your own entries. Overall, you should have a minimum of 15 substantial responses, or 3 per week during weeks when you are not writing a blog entry.  Your responses should engage whatever issues your peers have raised and try to advance the discussion, incorporating textual evidence to support your views. Your blog participation will be graded at the end of the semester.

Publishable Academic Blog Entry (20%): Our ultimate goal is to write and submit a publishable entry to a relevant scholarly blog. Drawing on your work throughout the semester, write a final blog entry of 1,500 words illuminating some topic related to Braddon and the history of detective fiction. Here are some examples of communally constructed academic blogs to which that you could submit your work:

Each blog entry should present a thoughtful and compelling argument or set of arguments set forth in an engaging manner. It should build on ongoing scholarly research and incorporate relevant images to engage your readers. You should strive to provide:

  1. Some background or historical context for your chosen subject.
  2. A brief acknowledgement of scholarly conversations surrounding the topic.
  3. Close readings of relevant texts.
  4. A clear purpose that illuminates something new or interesting about the subject.

You are encouraged to revise and expand upon a previous blog entry, but you will be expected to conduct additional research that will substantially improve your understanding of the subject and allow you to make a strong argument. Remember that this is intended to be read by an academic audience and should demonstrate an original idea that will spark conversations.

The Blog will be built in stages as follows:

  1. Proposal with Annotated Bibliography. Open with a 1-2 paragraph description of your proposed topic supported by a 3-4 item annotated bibliography. The bibliography will feature MLA-style bibliographic citations of your sources as well as a brief (100-250 word) analysis of how you might use each source. You may include both primary (nineteenth century) documents not assigned in class as well as contemporary scholarly articles or books. Due Tuesday 12/8 at 7 p.m.
  2. List of Images. Compile a list of 3-4 images that you could use to enhance your blog. I recommend using Wikimedia Commons or one of the many new open source library image databases to find copyright free images. Explain the relevance of each illustration to your blog in a few sentences. Due Thursday 12/10 at 7 p.m.
  3. Draft and Peer Response. You will post a first draft of your blog for the class by Monday 12/14 at 7 p.m. In class on Tuesday 5/15 from 5:45-7:45 (our final exam time) we will conduct a peer response workshop.
  4. Publication-Ready Blog Due Friday 12/18 at 7 p.m.


[1] The distinctions among these online forums are important if subtle. Early in the semester I used the discussion board to pose specific questions about the readings that students discussed in groups. After the introductory period, we turned to wikis so that students could pose their own questions and more easily include images and video clips from their research in the Illustrated Police News and from popular media depictions of criminals and detectives. Finally, we shifted to blogs, which were the focus of most of the online portion of the course. Using the blogs allowed students to write brief, but in-depth essays on topics of their choice.

[2] See my blog assignment for the course in the Appendix.

[3] See “Queen’s Gambit: M.E. Braddon, Inspector F., and the Sixpenny Magazine” by Mary Monnin; “Rough Reviews: The Evolution of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Critical Reception” by Amy Steffan; “Rough Justice: From Victorian Police Narrative to 1920s Hard Boiled Detective Fiction” by Anna Toms; and “I Love You Mary Elizabeth Braddon” by Michael Wexler. As you’ll see from these blog entries, students were allowed a range of possible ways to engage with Braddon from the purely academic to the highly whimsical.

One Reply to “Blogging Braddon in the Online Classroom”

  1. I was a student in this star-studded Victorian environ. Dr. Phegley is the bomb – let’s get that on the table straight off – and her willingness to let students use terms like “bomb” in their more colloquial and “I” situated blogs contributed to what I believe is the progressive, inevitable future of modern pedagogy.

    M.E.B was a brilliant choice for a “single author course,” exemplifying the prismatic panoply of theme, era, context, history, and print culture. I wish I would take this class again…oh, wait there’s another one in the Fall! Kudos to our heroes – Dr. P & M.E.B.

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