The Sensation Novel
Corpses, secrets, adultery, insanity, prostitution—all are key elements of the sensation novels of the 1800s. Called sensation novels because they are designed to make the reader feel basic sensations—shock, disbelief, horror, suspense, sexual excitement, and fear—these novels offer unexpected twists and turns within a framework of predictable conventions. These recurring conventions include deathbed confessions, family secrets, mistaken identity, inheritance, bigamy, and female villains. This combination of the predictable and the chaotic is representative of the clash between rigid Victorian society and the changing societal and gender roles that accompanied the emergence of industry and capitalism in England and America. With their exciting plot lines and easily readable format, sensation novels explored unspoken fears and anxieties in a rapidly changing world.
In the mid- 1800s, women had few rights and were expected to be subservient to men. Not only were women denied the vote, they were denied the right to own property. Cultural expectations required that women refrain from expressing themselves openly in the presence of men. Rather they were expected to be pure, pleasant, and supportive of men at all times. But, as reflected by the controversial sensation novels, these rigid roles were changing. Feminist critics of the 1980s and 1990s are quick to point out the unusual prevalence of strong female characters in sensation novels, and the way their independent and often sexual behavior was harshly criticized by contemporaries of the novels. Modern critics also point out the way in which female sexuality was often used to denote strength, rebelliousness, and evil. Appearing as nefarious seductresses, female characters were often villains who were punished or made to see the error of their ways at the story's end. Feminist critics also claim that while women in earlier novels had been portrayed as victims waiting to be rescued, in sensation novels the roles were often reversed and the male characters were victimized. Other scholars see the validation of marriage as a common theme of sensation novels and still others argue that the genre allowed women readers of the mid-1800s to enjoy independence vicariously through the actions of the female characters.
With the urbanization that accompanied the industrial boom of the mid-1800s, the big city also played a central role in many sensation novels. Some critics assert that the city provides the setting where men were tempted by villains and seduced by fallen women. These critics also argue that the urban sensation novel celebrated domesticity and the home as sources of renewal, faith, and morality. Female characters were, more often than not, encouraged to remain at the center of home life while men ventured out into the dangerous city with all of its temptations. The city was also the setting wherein shocking secrets about one or more of the characters were revealed. These secrets commonly involved murder, bigamy, or adultery and often came to light in a deathbed confession scene. This motif arose directly out of the breakdown of rigid Victorian social mores and attitudes toward social class—a breakdown caused in part by the growth of capitalism and urbanization, which offered a variety of new attitudes and opportunities for class mobility.
Major authors of the genre include Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Charles Reade, George Meredith, Mrs. Henry Wood, Susan Warner and Caroline Norton. There seem to be differences not only between the styles of male and female writers of the genre, but also in how the work of each was received. For example, Dickens and Reade wrote novels in which elements of detective and crime fiction predominate, while Braddon and the other female novelists most often wrote about strong independent heroines. Some modern critics argue that women novelists were central to the genre while male writers like Dickens merely anticipated it, employing elements that would eventually become associated with sensation fiction. Others argue that Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860) was the first genuine sensation novel although that distinction has also been claimed for Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862). In addition, critics contemporary to the sensation genre held male novelists in higher esteem than their female counterparts, possibly because women novelists often wrote unconventional plots that featured women as main characters and were more likely to be socially unsettling while male novelists wrote more conventional mysteries. Another reason for this difference may be that in general women in the mid-1800s were not expected to succeed at serious literary endeavors. In any case, male and female novelists were generally categorized into two distinctly separate groups. Wilkie Collins, who was often associated with the female novelists, is the exception. This association was probably due to the strong presence of female heroines in Collins's work. Collins's reaction to being grouped with female novelists and associated with the "feminine" category of sensationalism is explored in Tamar Heller's essay, "Writing After Dark: Collins and Victorian Literary Culture."
Sensation novels were closely tied to the melodramatic theater of the same period. In fact, such writers as Charles Reade and Wilkie Collins wrote drama as well as novels and many of the most well-known sensation novels were written for or adapted to the stage. While conventional dramas were often set in distant castles or far-away lands, sensation theater was set in the present day and location, giving it a proximity and reality that was new to theater-goers.
This sense of reality and proximity was also heightened in the sensation novel by its origins in journalism. Many scholars claim that sensation novels grew out of newspaper stories involving murder, assault, and other crimes that people found especially shocking in Victorian times. Often, these stories revealed the involvement of upstanding, even well-known, citizens in dangerous or immoral behavior. In a culture that valued appearances, revelations of crime among the upper class disrupted idyllic Victorian ideas about society. Failure to be shocked by these events was considered in bad taste—and to write about them was even worse. But the relationship between the new style of fiction writing and the new style of journalism went both ways. Because many of the sensation novelists claimed to get their material straight from the newspaper, they felt justified in writing about it. Meanwhile, newspaper stories suggested that, like the characters in sensation novels, anyone's nextdoor neighbor could turn out to be a murderer or an adulterer, or to have some other scandalous secret. Reading about crimes in the newspaper brought fictional crimes closer to home, made the improbable events of sensation novels seem more real, and made everyday life a little more exciting—all of which helped to make sensation novels immensely popular. Marketed cheaply, sensation novels sold very well at train stations, small stores, kiosks, and newspaper stands and were widely discussed in magazines and newspapers and among ordinary citizens.
Although sensation novels were widely read, they were often criticized by literary critics of the day on the grounds that they were conducive to immorality and vice. Often, the same critics claimed that sensation novels were poorly written. Many believe this reaction was due to the novels' indirect challenge of rigid Victorian social roles and modes of thinking which were well established in the 1860s. In the oncoming industrial age, this play on the undercurring fear of the unknown in the face of change made the sensation novel popular among the masses and unacceptable to high-minded critics. While nineteenth-century critics attacked the genre on moral grounds, later critics found it too common to warrant scholarly attention. In fact, with the exception of T. S. Eliot's well known essay, "Wilkie Collins and Dickens" written in the 1930s, sensation novels were largely ignored by the critics until the 1970s. Although many scholars agree this lack of criticism results from the genre's close relationship with popular culture, critics today are interested for the same reason that critics in the 1960s were indifferent. Focusing on how these novels reflect Victorian thought and social change, modern critics have resurrected the sensation novel and reinstated it as a valuable part of literary history.