The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Sensation Novel
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Sensation fiction was a popular genre of English fiction during the 1860s.
The 1850s in England has been seen as the “age of equipoise,”1 the decade of rapid economic growth and gradual calming of labor relations. This changed in the 1860s, beginning with the “cotton famine” (1861-1864), a drastic rise in the price of cotton due to the Union embargo of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The cotton famine hit the English textile industry particularly hard, and the depression brought on by the cotton famine spread to the general economy in mid-decade, with bad harvests in 1865 and 1866 and the bankruptcies of Overend and Gurney, two of London’s most powerful financial houses worsening matters significantly. Too, there were outbreaks of cholera and the bubonic plague in Bristol, London, and Liverpool in 1866 and an increase in activity by the Fenians (see: Anarchists).
This was the historical backdrop for the rise of the sensation genre. The calm of the previous decade had been replaced with economic uncertainty, and while parts of the middle and upper classes were benefitting from booming portions of the economy, other members of the middle and upper classes faced anxiety about their future. One of the most popular literary genres of the 1850s had been the domestic novel, but as Charles Reade (see: The Cloister and the Hearth) once noted, “domestic is Latin for tame.”2 Finally, the 1860s were a time when the literary marketplace grew hugely commercialized.
Sensation novels were the reaction of writers to their times. The economic uncertainty of the middle and upper classes was transformed into stories focusing on the security of the bourgeois family. The sensation novelists reacted against the resolute placidity of the domestic novel by writing novels of crime and passion. And the novelists took advantage of the new market for popular (that is, not “serious”) fiction by writing novels for that market.
The basic plot of the sensation novel is a threat posed to a middle-class family. The threat is a secret, usually from the family’s past, and what is threatened is the family’s legal freedom, money, and ultimately its status as members of the middle class. This was the central theme of the sensation novel: class anxiety and insecurity. The family’s ancestors or older members are gentry or aristocrats, but they are immoral or incompetent and no longer have any social power. The specific threats to the family include murder, violence, bigamy, adultery, the loss of a family fortune or legacy, impersonators, adventuresses, and social humiliation and rejection–the sensational elements which gave the genre its name. What saves the family is the appearance of young professionals, usually lawyers and doctors, who foil the threats, defeat the villains, and prove themselves as the replacement for the old aristocracy.
The sensation novel
was in many ways tethered to realism; its settings were no less domestic and, rather than any supernatural element, they turned more often to contemporary sciences, particularly physiology and psychological theories of various kinds. Sensation fiction reminded critics of the enduring power of subgenres and revealed an even wider reading public than had been suspected, a public for whom the elongated plots and epistemological complications of domestic realism was too slow.3
The earliest sensation novels appeared in the 1850s, particularly the early work of Wilkie Collins (see: “The Dream Woman”), but the genre became popular early in the 1860s, with Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-1860) generally accounted as the first bestselling sensation novel. Other popular sensation novels included Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne (1860-1861), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861) and Aurora Floyd (1863), Charles Reade’s Hard Cash (1863), and Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1864-1866) and The Moonstone (1868).
The sensation novels were popular, but they were critically scorned and condemned. Sensation novels were alleged to be immoral, badly written, and socially dangerous. Critics charged that they appealed to the emotions rather than to the mind and so corrupted rather than elevated. This charge was a repeat of the criticism leveled at the “male” Gothic novel, and in several ways the sensation novel was the modern Gothic. The sensation novelists used several aspects and motifs of the Gothic in their novels, including melodramatic plots, heightened emotion, characters faking their own deaths, false endings, and an emphasis on scandalous material. But the Gothic novel was set in a nebulous past and in remote cultures, while the sensation novel was set in the present and its characters were modern. Above all, the sensation novel was topical, the writers seizing on contemporary scandals and controversies and incorporating them into their novels’ plots.
Critics were not pleased at the use of the journalist sensations du jour. But what particularly appalled the critics and reviewers was the sensation novelists’ subject matter. Wilkie Collins’ second novel, Basil (1852), is an early version of the sensation novel, and includes a scene in which a husband hears through a hotel wall his fiancée having sex with another man. East Lynne features an adulteress as the main character. The protagonists of Lady Audley’s Secret and Armadale are bigamists and would-be murderers. Other sensation novels included sexual assaults and scenes in insane asylums.
That this material should appear in popular fiction was bad enough. That women should often be not only the villains of sensation fiction but the protagonists, performing the acts traditionally left to men, added to the critics’ horror. Completing the revulsion of the critics and reviewers, and thrilling the reader, was the presence of these crimes in middle-class settings. Gothic novels were remote in time and space. The sensation novel happened in ordinary cities and towns, to ordinary middle-class men and women. The most popular crime genre of the previous decade, the casebook genre, had portrayed crime as a working class affair, its criminals and its victims the poor and the working classes. The sensation novel, like the equally controversial and criticized Newgate novel (see: Proto-Mystery) before it, made crime a middle class affair, which the critics and reviewers (though not the audience) found objectionable both morally and on class grounds.
The decline in Wilkie Collins’ health, the refusal of the major lending libraries to carry scandalous novels, and the reading audience’s desire for less sensationalist and subversive material led to the end of the sensation genre. Its conventions reappeared in the work of authors like Thomas Hardy, while the crime elements would appear in mainstream fiction and then in detective fiction.
For Further Research
Pamela K. Gilbert, A Companion to Sensation Fiction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Lyn Pykett, The Nineteenth-Century Sensation Novel, second edition. Tavistock, UK: Northcote House Publishers, 2011.
1 W.L. Burn, The Age of Equipoise: A Study of the Mid-Victorian Generation (London: Routledge, 2016).
2 Qtd. in John Sutherland, The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, second edition (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 192.
3 Nicholas Dames, “British Isles (19th Century),” in Peter Melville Logan, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Novel (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 123.