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Little reviews on little (and big!) books

What is Sensation Fiction?

on April 24, 2014

Before I started 3rd year at University, I didn’t have a clue what Sensation Fiction was! I just considered it to be some sort of fantasy writing that really wouldn’t interest me. How wrong I was! 🙂 After reading Collins’s The Woman in White, I was hooked on the genre and have been ever since. I love how different it is to the expected Victorian novel where everything is happy and light and occasionally love wins through. These novels are gritty, tense, and sometimes haunting. I’ve already written on some of my favourite Sensation reads, so in this post I’d like to give a fairly comprehensive background for those of you who are just starting to venture into the great world of Sensational writing – I hope it also makes a couple of points that experienced Sensation readers will enjoy as well! 🙂 So, let’s start with what we can all expect from a Sensation novel. I’ll be using a fair amount of secondary sources here so if you have any questions about any of them, just ask 🙂

Victorian Sensation literature, which grabbed the public’s attention from around 1855-1890, caused a massive amount of controversy. The sensation novel was considered to be a mystery the reader had to solve and was often described as ‘the quintessential novel-with-a-secret,’ leading Thomas Hardy to regard the narrative form as ‘a long and intricately inwrought chain of circumstance.’ The novels were loved by many readers, but they also forced many critics to voice their utter detestation of the literature produced during this time. What was so terrible about this genre, you might ask. Lyn Pykett believed that the reason it was seen as potentially dangerous to the readership was the fact that it tended to contain ‘passionate, devious, dangerous, and not infrequently deranged heroines,’ alongside ‘complicated, mysterious plots – involving crime, bigamy, adultery, arson, and arsenic.’ Sounds exciting, right? 😛 Well, not to everyone.

Critics worried about the ‘vulgarisation of literature,’ and claimed that these novels were ‘creeping upwards from the gutter into the drawing room.’ Most of us will have read at least one Sensation novel, whether it be Collins, Braddon or anyone else, so it really is surprising that these classic and brilliant texts were actually treated with so much disdain upon their publication. The introduction of the genre divided society and was a great topic of debate during the Victorian period. Winifred Hughes believed that one only had to engage with one of these novels in order to ‘find himself plunged into a turbulent universe far removed from mid-Victorian stodginess and respectability,’ showing the complete contrast to reality the readers were introduced to. For Hughes, sensation fiction offered an alternative to Victorian realism. Despite Gothic texts featuring dark plots and characters being in circulation, it would appear that the Victorians wanted a little bit more of a shock. An editorial from The Times in 1864 made the point that ‘this life of ours is too business-like and matter-of-fact to satisfy the cravings of imagination… To fill this void is the aim of sensation writers.’ Upon opening one of these new novels, the readers found themselves transported to a world far from daily life, which resulted in the genre gaining popularity extremely quickly. The novels functioned as a form of escapism from the monotony of the age, but also caused major anxiety as they ‘fed on… fears that one’s respectable-looking neighbours concealed some awful secret.’ (See Lydia Gwilt from Armadale, and Lucy Audley from Lady Audley’s Secret for excellent examples of this concealment).

Heroines seemed to be the main focus of attention in these novels as they were frequently decidedly different from the submissiveness expected of them. The readership was considered to be heavily female so there was also the worry for some critics that these women should not be reading of adulteresses, bigamists, and poisoners, of the total antithesis of, to use Natalie and Ronald Schroeder’s term, ‘the ornamental Angel in the House.’ Deborah Wynne states that ‘as women were presumed to be the principal consumers of novels, the popularity of the sensation novel suggested to some reviewers that the moral sanctity of the middle-class home itself was under attack,’ something that Margaret Oliphant suggested through her ‘concern about the moral effects of novel reading on impressionable (women) readers.’ Women had to read novels that were prescribed as acceptable for them to read; they had to contain proper values that women should aspire to embrace within their own lives. This was an extremely common conception amongst critics. An anonymous critic for St James’s Magazine claimed that women make up four-fifths of novel readers. Therefore, ‘we think that too much care cannot be taken that the entertainment provided for them should be unobjectionable in sentiment, as well as in impression.’

Looking at two main critics of the genre during the Victorian period, Jonathan Loesberg and Henry Mansel, we can easily observe the sheer and utter contempt for everything Sensation stood for. Loesberg found the novels included a ‘narrative of inevitable sequence,’ and were simply ‘novels of plot rather than novels of character.’ It would seem that the Sensation novel does not stop to develop in-depth connections with characters. Instead, it aims to shock the reader right from the beginning. Similarly, Mansel expressed his hatred for the genre in the same line. He concluded that ‘excitement, and excitement alone, seems to be the great end at which they aim.’ The novels do not develop character, but ‘abound in incident.’ He believed that these novels had been ‘called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite,’ and in part blamed the new interests of society for the production and publication of such texts. He acknowledged perhaps one of the reasons that the plots were so popular was the proximity of society to such people as were described in these novels. It was important to the sensation novel for the plot to appear as if it could potentially be happening right next door to the reader. The scenes are effective because of the type of people involved within them, people one may pass in the street without a second glance. He claimed that ‘we are thrilled with horror, even in fiction, by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us,’ but then goes on to judge that there is ‘something unspeakably disgusting in this ravenous appetite…this vulture-like instinct which smells out the newest mass of social corruption.’ It seems that he is saying it is the reader’s fault for demanding such novels that has corrupted society. This is in some ways backed up by the critic Alfred Austin who, writing in 1870, claimed that these novels are ‘the worst form of mental food,’ and that ‘the world may congratulate itself when the last sensational novel has been written and forgotten.’

For an example of this criticism addressed to Lady Audley’s Secret, we can look at an anonymous article written in the London Review in March 1863 which analysed and critiqued both the genre and the novel itself. He or she claimed that the magazine had ‘already expressed some dislike on grounds of morality and good taste, for this class of novels,’ and comments that ‘these narratives of unredeemed depravity, while pandering to the morbid thirst for violent ‘sensation,’ can neither chasten, refine, nor invigorate the mind.’ There can be no moral worth in accepting this new genre, and the viewpoint, which this critic shares with many others of the Victorian period, is that the genre has ‘an unwholesome moral tendency.’ Sensation writers recognised that the Victorian public were faced with reading newspaper stories of murder and bigamy, so had to include a certain shock factor in their novels in order to keep readers engaged. The critic realises this but does not see it as the most wholesome way of providing literature. He or she claims that the genre ‘is an appeal to that low taste for criminal horrors.’ However, it must be acknowledged that the Victorian readership would perhaps have been used to such criminal activity in the newspapers, so any fictional depiction of a woman married bigamously, or committing arson, would still have been shocking, but perhaps not quite ground-breaking. Simply put, the article concludes with the acknowledgement that ‘we cannot approve its success.’ It seems shocking to read this now we know just how successful the novel has been!

On the other hand, comments on the genre weren’t all bad. Many saw the move towards darker and more intense literature as simply a sign of times, a cry from the public that they no longer want tales where nothing really happens and the heroine only stays at home. Despite extremely damning criticism from many during its rise to popularity, many critics acknowledged the place the genre held in the period. A writer for The Christian Remembrancer believed that the plots and character agency contained within showed ‘an impatience of old restraints, and a craving for some fundamental change in the working of society.’ Readers wanted something to get their teeth into and excite them. In fact, an influential medical journal in 1863 claimed that ‘a heroine who was not an adulteress and a poisoner would disgust a modern novel-reader, and would prevent him from following, even so far as the second volume, the fortunes of a person so uninteresting,’ showing just how quickly reading tastes had changed.

Take the chance if you can to settle down with a couple of classic Sensation novels, and try to put yourself in the place of a Victorian reading it for the very first time – it must have been shocking and captivating! Controversial plots, transgressive heroines, escapist adventures – all contained in one book. For readers today, we just see it as a great and intriguing story, but for the Victorians, Sensation fiction was more than that. It was one of the biggest genre shifts in literature that is amazingly just as popular today as it was in the 1800s! Sensation is all about shock value, keeping us gripped until we close the back cover. Shock value that transcends over nearly 150 years is something special, and I hope you agree 🙂

Do you have any favourite Sensation novels? What was the first one you ever read?

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9 responses to “What is Sensation Fiction?

  1. I guess I have read only one – Moonstone by Collins. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it – “haunting” describes it well.

  2. Like you, I think my first was The Woman in White. I have the Moonstone ready to go as a summer read. I am really looking forward to it. I know you’ve written about your favorite selections, but you should also make a list (this suggestion is entirely selfish on my part, I know!).

  3. Kristen M. says:

    I love this genre! My favorite is probably Armadale. It was just so meaty and so heartstopping in parts. I also really loved East Lynne. I’m always on the lookout for a new favorite though!

  4. My first sensation novel was The Woman in White, too. 🙂 I first heard about it because I had been listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Woman in White.” It was interesting, though, because apparently Webber felt the need to make the musical even more sensational than the book by adding rape and child murder and unrequited love.

    I read The Phantom of the Opera, too, because of the musical. I was wondering if that was considered a sensation novel and if France had a corresponding interest in sensation novels when the British did?

    • emma says:

      Wow, I never knew there was a musical! Although, the book seemed pretty sensational enough for me without the addition of all those extras. I’ve never really thought about Phantom being classed as sensational – I suppose it could be in some ways because of the characters!

      I know that the French definitely responded more to the naturalistic/realism writing of men like Zola during the same time period. Perhaps that was considered to be more ‘sensational’ to them – someone writing of real life problems using fictional characters.

  5. mariaawrites says:

    Great post! I’d love to explore how feminism and sensation fiction intermingle. 🙂 As for my first novel of this genre, hard to say because at the time of reading I would not have identified it as a sensation novel, but probably “The Moonstone”. I would love to see a list of your favourites!

  6. Fascinating post, I had never heard of the term Sensation Fiction before, but it would seem I’ve read a few! The Woman in White is an all time favourite though.

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