Sensation novels were a scandal of the 1860’s. The term, poorly defined then, as now, was used to condemn fiction by such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Charles Reade, as well as that by M. E. Braddon and many lesser figures. Condemnation focused on the novelists’ preoccupation with crimes, mostly murder, arson, and bigamy. Much of the criticism was thinly concealed class snobbery: Sensation novels spread the values of the working class, not of the governing classes. They were not genteel. In these novels, crime was not confined to the poor. In the stately homes of England, the novels suggested, there was considerable crime, but these criminals, unlike the poor, were often protected by their wealth and power. Then, too, sensation novelists often presented psychologically motivated, even sympathetic, people as criminals; their criminals were not stereotypical representatives of evil that had been found in the earlier gothic, romantic, and Newgate fiction from which these novels sprang. Also, critics perceptively observed, and objected to, female characters who successfully defied Victorian proprieties and challenged masculine authority.
By these criteria, Braddon was the most sensational of them all, and her reputation, too, was tainted by the scandals of her personal life. Lady Audley’s Secret was notorious. It was also widely read. It appeared in October, 1862; by the end of that year, eight editions...
(The entire section is 1881 words.)
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