What Is Sensation Fiction?

As an avid reader and fan of Victorian Sensation fiction, it surprises me that the genre is still relatively unheard of or discussed. Granted, we hear time and time again of famous novels associated with this controversial period of literature, but I feel that attention should also be paid to this short-lived but highly influential shift in writing. I would like to briefly examine what exactly could be seen to constitute Sensation fiction with a mention being given to some of the more well-known pieces of fiction produced therein before moving on to explain why it was seen to be so troublesome by influential critics of the period.

What I love most about the genre is how different it is to the typical Victorian novel. No longer do we see love or marriage take center stage; instead, we have murderers, murderesses, bigamists, adultery, poisonings, and real villainy. You could never be bored reading a Sensation novel! It is this welcome addition of controversial material that I believe makes the genre so distinctive. Sensation writers filled the void in a business-like life with tales of murderous women, the supernatural, and disasters like train crashes. Newspapers contained stories of murder, accidents, and bigamy, a far cry from domestic novels and conduct books. Therefore, authors had to start writing with an added shock factor to supply this craving for more exciting literature. This, unfortunately, is where influential critics of the period stepped in and voiced their distaste.

Illustration from Max Ernst's "A Week of Kindness"

What is Sensation fiction? Sensation fiction was a relatively short-lived genre, only really gaining popularity from 1855-1890 after which it seemed to simply fade into the background for no real reason. I have taken great pains to discover exactly why it suffered such a demise, but unfortunately I am at a loss to offer a definitive answer. Despite this short span, it produced some of the greatest literature of the Victorian period. The Sensation fiction boom gave us such classics as Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, and Aurora Floyd; Ellen Wood’s East Lynne; several novels by Wilkie Collins such as Armadale, No Name, Poor Miss Finch, The Moonstone (often cited as the first detective story), The Law and the Lady (featuring one of literature’s first female sleuths), his bestseller, The Woman in White, and many more.

What can we expect from such notable novels? These novels were designed to grip, shock, and sometimes haunt the reader. 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” (Pykett. The Sensation Novel, 1994). Lyn Pykett believed that the “complicated, mysterious plots – involving crime, bigamy, adultery, arson, and arsenic” (Pykett. The Improper Feminine, 1992) were one of the main reasons they generated such controversy. This led critics such as Henry Mansel, Margaret Oliphant, and others to worry about this vulgar literature and claimed these novels were “creeping upwards from the gutter into the drawing room.” (Maunder. Varieties of women’s sensation fiction, 2004). These novels were deemed to be as far removed as possible from what was considered acceptable reading material, especially for women who were thought to be extremely impressionable and as such, should be protected from such filth and disobedience in novels. Mansel believed that these novels had been “called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite,” (Mansel. “Sensation Novels,” 1863) and in part blamed the new interests of society in real-life criminals for the publication of such texts. The scenes in these novels were effective because of the recognizable characters – people one may pass in the street without a second glance. This is what enticed the readership – these stories could be going on around us all the time, but without our notice. 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 neighbors concealed some awful secret,” (Pykett. Collins and the sensation novel, 2006) resulting in a sense of mass paranoia.

Salieri Pours Poison into Mozart's Glass

However, despite damning criticism from many during its rise, sensation novels became fascinating. Many critics acknowledged the place the genre held in the period, and it was seen to be a sign of the times. A writer for The Christian Remembrancer believed that the plots and agency contained within showed “an impatience of old restraints, and a craving for some fundamental change in the working of society” (Anon. Our Female Sensation Novelists, 1864). Many saw the move toward darker and intense literature as a cry from the public that they wanted literature 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,” (Anon. “Sensation Novels,” Medical Critic and Psychological Journal, 1863) showing just how quickly reading tastes had changed.

“Portrait of a Woman—The White Dress”,  William Merritt Chase

Controversial plots, transgressive heroines, escapist adventures – all compellingly contained in one book. I really would ask everyone reading this piece to try at least one of the novels mentioned earlier in order to experience some of the most exciting stories ever written – they are definitely some of my personal favorites! One of the biggest shifts in literature was all about shock value, keeping us gripped until we closed the back cover. Shock value that transcends over nearly 150 years is something pretty impressive to me. 

Follow Emma on Twitter @bookwormchatter.

If you like this piece, you might also enjoy "The Great Emancipators."

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Emma Sellar holds an M.A. (Hons) in English Literature and Philosophy (2012), and a Postgraduate M.Litt in Victorian Literature (2013) from the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Emma Sellar holds an M.A. (Hons) in English Literature and Philosophy (2012), and a Postgraduate M.Litt in Victorian Literature (2013) from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Her work at disserta-tion level  has focused on the restriction of woman’s agency within Victorian Sensation fiction, and more recently, the analysis of the creation and rise of the female detective in literature from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. She writes an online book review blog under the name bookwormchatterbox.