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Sensation novel

emotion - 1860s - feeling - novel - sensation - sensational - UK - Victorian era


The Sensation novel was a genre of fiction popular in Great Britain of the 1860s. Its main exponents were Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White), Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret) and Mrs Henry Wood (East Lynne). Unlike the Gothic novel, the setting was in Great Britain itself. The Sensation novel ushered in the mystery novel.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensation_novel

The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s (1980) - Winifred Hughes

The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s (1980) - Winifred Hughes [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

See also: maniac

The Sensation Novel: From the Woman in White to the Moonstone (1994) - Lyn Pykett

The Sensation Novel: From the Woman in White to the Moonstone (1994) - Lyn Pykett [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Collins’s novel [The Woman in White] was the beginning of a “Sensation Mania” in the domain of the novel, which would last about a decade. According to an anonymous critic in the Westminster Review this type of novel was like “a virus … spreading in all directions” (Nayder 1997: 71):
"Just as in the Middle Ages people were afflicted with the Dancing Mania and Lycanthropy, sometimes barking like dogs, and sometimes mewing like cats, so now we have a Sensational Mania. Just, too, as those diseases always occurred in seasons of dearth and poverty, and attacked only the poor, so does the Sensational Mania in Literature burst out only in times of mental poverty, and afflict only the most poverty-stricken minds." (O’Neill 1988: 4)
Margaret Oliphant, who, generally speaking, displayed a negative attitude towards the sensation phenomenon, nevertheless acknowledged Collins’s craftsmanship, but feared that he might have instigated a dangerous game with his novel because, she writes, his “disciples will exaggerate the faults of their leader, and choose his least pleasant peculiarities for special study” (Balée 1992: 198). H. L. Mansel, in 1863, reviewed sensation fiction in the Quarterly Review and came to the conclusion that the genre generally subverted female morality in order to shock its readers solely for the sake of shocking them.

The Sensation phenomenon was not confined to literature, but was an all-encompassing phenomenon in the 1860s. The decade of the 1860s was itself indeed characterized by excess on different levels: from sensational courtroom cases (e.g. Madeline Smith, Constance Kent), which were reported lavishly in the newspapers, to melodramas (especially Dion Boucicault), and novels, which even became the stake of numerous bets. Novelists that should be included are Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Reade, and Mrs Henry Wood, but even novelists like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope could not escape including ‘sensational’ elements in their work. These sensation novels, also known as ‘fast novels’, ‘bigamy novels’, or ‘adultery novels’, could perhaps best be described as “tales of modern life” (Pykett 1994: 4). Contemporary critics realized this, and this was indeed the main reason for their concern:
"The sensation novel, be it mere trash or something worse, is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation. It is necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by its explosion; and a tale which aims at electrifying the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting" (Hughes 1980: 18).

[...] The most shocking element of these novels was indeed the fact that they took place in the every-day domestic sphere of a modern middle-class or aristocratic household. In his review of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd Henry James acknowledged this fact:
"[…] those most mysterious of mysteries, [were] the mysteries which are at our own doors… Instead of the terrors of Udolpho, we [are] treated to the terrors of the cheerful country house, or the London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible." (Pykett 1994: 6)

In referring to Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho James points to the Gothic Novel, from whose ashes, amongst others, the Sensation Novel arose. However, he immediately indicates the main difference between the Sensation Novel and the Gothic Novel, namely the proximity of the Sensation Novel versus the remoteness (in time and place) of the Gothic Novel. Although the terror of the familiar was already manifesting itself in Anne Radcliffe’s ‘explained supernatural’, the threat to middle-class security was considerable lower than in the Sensation Novel.

[...] In reworking material from different genres, the Sensation Novel greedily borrowed from ‘lower-class’ genres, from penny dreadfuls, and especially from popular melodrama. Winifred Hughes sees in the Sensation Novel “for the first time in an age of increasing literacy, […] an undisputed example of “democratic art”” (Hughes 1980: 6). It had origins in lower-class literature and was read by all classes of society. Lyn Pykett analyses the Sensation Novel as both “the product and symptom of quite profound changes in fiction and the fiction market in the mid-Victorian period.” (Pykett 1994: 9)

[...] Indeed, in the Sensation Novel, the heroine is no longer the moral certainty (cf. Lady Audley) she used to be in the traditional romance:
"For whatever reasons, the heroine of the sensation novel has become enmeshed in a sordid tangle of crime, blackmail, and seduction; she has become a participant, however unwilling, as well as merely a victim." (Hughes 1980: 44)
In the most extreme case she is, like Lady Audley, not at all the domestic angel she appears to be:
"Social and moral chaos has spread even to the inner sanctum, infecting the emblem of domesticity. The one island of security and certitude remaining in a tumultuous age has been invaded and despoiled." (Hughes 1980: 45)

[...] As already indicated, formally speaking, the Sensation Novel tended to borrow from different genres:
"Formally sensation fiction was less a genre than a generic hybrid. The typical sensation novel was a catholic mixture of modes and forms, combining realism and melodrama, the journalistic and the fantastic, the domestic and the romantic or exotic." (Pykett 1994: 4)

[...] Winifred Hughes records a contemporary reviewer’s opinion:
"A sensation novel, as a matter of course, abounds in incident. Indeed, as a general rule, it consists of nothing else… . The human actors in the piece are, for the most part, but so many lay-figures on which to exhibit a drapery of incident. Allowing for the necessary division of all characters of a tale into male and female, old and young, virtuous and vicious, there is hardly anything said or done by any one specimen of a class which might not with equal fitness be said or done by any other specimen of the same class. Each game is played with the same pieces, differing only in the moves." (Hughes 1980: 23)

[...] Ultimately, the Sensation Novel did not survive the sensational sixties, mainly because it denotes a transitional model. The sensation novel looked for alternatives for the realistic mode, but did so by looking to past models (popular romance and melodrama), a strategy which ultimately failed because it was not adapted to the new context:
"[…] they were finally unable to detach themselves from the hoary conventions of an obsolescent mode, even though they were responding to a new situation for which they found realism inadequate. The old stereotypes, revived and decked out in modern, middle-class dress, could not quite contain the new meaning. Because of this tension between meaning and form, the sensation novel was discomfiting and controversial to the mid-Victorians." (Hughes 1980: 70) --http://www.guypetersreviews.com/sensation.php [Sept 2005]

See also: 1860s - 1870s - sensation - novel - UK

Lady Audley's Secret (1862) - Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Lady Audley's Secret (1862) - Mary Elizabeth Braddon [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Lady Audley's Secret is a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, written in 1862.

Lady Lucy Audley is a beautiful, doll-like blonde, who in the absence of her first husband George Talboys had been forced by poverty to desert her child and take on a new identity before marrying Lord Audley. When her first husband returns she apparently kills him by accident in a row. Lord Audley's nephew Robert, a barrister, happens to be a good friend of the old husband and decides to find out what happened to him. He does not know about his aunt's past, however, and thus does not connect her to the disappearance of his friend... at first.

Though the novel's content (crime, mostly bigamy and attempted murder) was considered fairly immoral at the time of publication, it was extremely successful. It has been in print ever since in the United Kingdom. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady Audley's Secret [Sept 2005]

See also: 1862 - sensation - novel - UK

East Lynne (1861) - Ellen Wood

East Lynne (1861) - Ellen Wood [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Lyn Pykett, University of Wales-Aberystwyth
"... a splendid edition. Its introduction is an authoritative and up to date guide to the novel and its context."--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

East Lynne is a novel of 1861 by Mrs. Henry Wood, sometimes performed as a drama. It is remembered chiefly for its ludicrous plot and for the much-quoted line: "Gone! And never called me mother!" --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Lynne [Sept 2005]

See also: 1861 - sensation - novel - UK

The Woman in White (1860) - Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White (1860) - Wilkie Collins [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Cover illustration: Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862).

The Woman in White is a novel written by Wilkie Collins and published in 1860. The Woman in White is widely regarded as the first in the genre of 'sensation novels' and the fist example of mystery fiction. It follows the story of two sisters living in Victorian England with their selfish, uninterested uncle as their guardian. Marian Halcombe is the elder of the two sisters, and a remarkably ugly woman, but with courage, strength and resourcefulness in abundance. The younger, her beautiful half-sister Laura Fairlie, is engaged to a rich man by the name of Sir Percival Glyde.

The story begins when the hero, art master Walter Hartright, arrives to tutor the two sisters, and he and Laura rapidly fall in love. As Walter and Marian together delve deeper into the mystery of a strange woman dressed all in white, uncover the secret history of Sir Percival Glyde, and engage in a battle of wits with the enigmatic 'Napoleon of Crime' Count Fosco, the plot threads combine to produce a fast, thrilling story, leading this particular type of fiction to be described as 'sensation'.

The Woman in White is also an early example of a particular type of Collins narrative, in which several characters in turn take up the narrative of the story, often hearing one incident told from several points of view. This creates a complex web, in which the readers are unsure of who can, and cannot be trusted, and features heavily in many of Collins's writings, including The Moonstone.

The Woman in White was first published as a serial in the magazine All the Year Round, created by Collins's close friend and literary mentor Charles Dickens. Following the success of the serialisation of The Woman in White, Collins also serialised The Moonstone, credited with being the first true detective story, in the same magazine.

See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woman_in_White [Sept 2005]

“Collins was a master craftsman, whom many modern mystery-mongers might imitate to their profit.” —Dorothy L. Sayers

See also: 1860 - sensation - novel - UK

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