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About this book

Since the establishment of sensation fiction in the 1860s, key trends have emerged in critical readings of these texts. From Victorian responses emphasising the 'lowbrow' or potentially dangerous qualities of the genre to the prolific critical attention of the present day, this Reader's Guide identifies the dominant approaches to sensation fiction and charts the critical trends of various scholarly evaluations and interpretations.

With coverage spanning empire, class, sexuality and adaptation, this is the ideal companion for students of Victorian Literature looking for an introduction to the key debates surrounding sensation fiction.

Table of Contents

Chapter One. Victorian Responses

Abstract
Sensation fiction has, for a long time, been associated primarily with the 1860s. Until relatively recently, critical assessments of the genre cited The Woman in White as the text which inaugurated the form, as though it had at ‘that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven’ (Collins, 2006, p. 63) in much the same manner as Collins’s titular woman herself. Winifred Hughes, in her important early study of sensation fiction, The Maniac in the Cellar (1980), suggests that ‘the sensation novel exploded onto the literary scene at the start of the 1860s’ (Hughes, 1980, p. 5). Richard Albright employs similar language, suggesting: ‘The decade of the 1860s was the decade of sensation fiction. The sensation novel seems to have burst onto the scene [and] experienced a brief, dizzying period of popularity’ (Albright, 2009, p. 168). Yet this association is misleading: Collins’s three novels prior to The Woman in WhiteBasil (1852), Hide and Seek (1854), and The Dead Secret (1857) – all fit broadly into a definition of sensation fiction, as does the work of several other authors associated with the genre who were writing before 1860, including Braddon. Indeed, the sensation novel, as several critics have noted, has its origins in various other nineteenth-century genres, including Gothic, melodrama, and the Newgate novel, whilst one of the most important intertexts for sensation writers is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). An article in The Argosy in 1874 cites Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) as the originator of the genre (E. B., 1874, p. 138), although this involves a problematic conflation of the sensation and the Gothic novel. Many key proponents of the genre, including Collins, Braddon, Marryat and Wood, published sensation novels for decades after the 1860s, as Andrew Maunder’s ‘Bibliography of Sensation Fiction’ (2004b) evidences. Victorian commentators were aware of the inaccuracy in the suggestion that the genre is unique to the 1860s – or indeed to Britain: Margaret Oliphant, a staunch critic of sensation fiction, writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, noted: ‘Mr Wilkie Collins is not the first man who has produced a sensation novel […] The higher class of American fiction, as represented by Hawthorne, attempts little else’ (Oliphant, 1862, p. 565). Recent critical work has acknowledged the earlier origins of the genre (see, for example, Mangham, 2013; Gilbert, 2011), but the notion of the 1860s as the decade of sensation continues to hold sway. Several recent works on sensation fiction, whilst acknowledging it extends beyond the 1860s, nonetheless focus primarily on this decade (see Mangham, 2007; Garrison, 2011; Steere, 2013).
Jessica Cox

Chapter Two. Genre and Form

Abstract
Victorian responses to the sensation novel established the terms of the critical debate, with questions of class, gender, and genre dominating critical discourses. Whilst class and gender are addressed in later chapters, this chapter focuses on genre: on definitions of sensation fiction, its relationship to other Victorian genres, and its role in the literary marketplace. All these issues – to varying degrees – preoccupied Victorian commentators, and have received substantial attention since the critical recovery of sensation fiction in the late twentieth century. The question of genre is crucial in so far as a discussion of the form necessitates an acknowledgement that these texts do indeed constitute a coherent genre. This chapter begins the process of mapping critical trends by focusing on this key issue, and the scholarship in this area to date.
Jessica Cox

Chapter Three. Class Debates

Abstract
At the forefront of anxieties provoked and reflected by sensation fiction are those relating to class and social status. For many Victorians, the idea of a fixed class hierarchy was an appealing one: it represented a means of ordering the world, and was intrinsically linked to notions of selfhood. It was deeply rooted in British history and identity, and often justified by reference to divine will. But the nineteenth century was a time of immense change and development: seemingly ‘fixed’ social structures were gradually shifting, and this hierarchy – insofar as it represented reality and not just an ideal – was coming under threat. The Industrial Revolution, the rapid expansion of the population, and the move from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society all contributed to this shifting ground. Industrialisation gave rise to a wealthy middle class and vastly increased the working-class population. Organised working-class protest movements emerged, demanding better working conditions and increased pay, and, at times, threatening violent rebellion. The French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, the Luddite disturbances in the 1810s, and the Chartist movement of the 1840s all fuelled fears of a working-class revolution which would overthrow the ruling powers and seek to establish a democratic republic. Even without the violent revolution many feared, the influence of the aristocracy waned, as political power was gradually distributed to a wider demographic. Stereotypes of working-class brutality, epitomised by figures such as Bill Sykes in Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838), and sensational newspaper reports, gave rise to middle-class fears of crime, and a perceived need to protect that sanctity of Victorian respectability: the home. However, these respectable homes were already occupied by the poorer classes in the form of domestic servants, and ideas of dishonest, criminal servants, perpetuated by both the press and the sensation novel, further fuelled these anxieties.
Jessica Cox

Chapter Four. Feminist Criticism

Abstract
The sensation novel is closely aligned with feminist movements: its appearance in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the rise of the Victorian women’s movement, and, as Chapter 1 makes clear, the emergence and development of feminist literary criticism in the 1970s and 1980s marked a pivotal moment in the critical recovery of the genre. These alignments are not merely coincidental: if the sensation novel is not explicitly feminist, it is nonetheless engaged with several of the issues which concerned Victorian feminists, including the rights and roles of women, particularly within marriage. It was this focus which led early feminist literary critics, including Elaine Showalter, to reconsider the critical significance of the genre. Dismissed for many years as insignificant and of poor literary quality, feminist and cultural critics now recognise the genre as an important reflection of contemporary attitudes towards women, a significant parallel to the nineteenth-century women’s movement, and indeed a form of (proto-)feminist rebellion. This chapter considers feminist critical responses to the sensation novel in relation to four key issues: women writers, women readers, representations of subversive and transgressive women, and readings of the sensation novel as anti-feminist. These were central to Victorian debates on sensation fiction, and gained new significance in light of feminist critical investigations into women’s history and women’s writing. As Showalter observes in her early examination of the form, ‘The prominence of women, not just as consumers but also as creators of sensation fiction, was one of its most disturbing elements’ (1976, p. 3).
Jessica Cox

Chapter Five. Sensational Bodies

Abstract
As the preceding chapter evidences, the figure of the (anti-)heroine is central to both the sensation novel and its critical afterlife. The significance of the genre’s protagonists lies not only in their actions and fates, but also in their corporeality – the manner in which these narratives represent their physical bodies. Indeed, in many respects, sensation fiction is about the female body: narratives frequently trace the journey of that body through illness, marriage, and death, and the central concern of women’s identity is closely bound up with physical representations of the female form. In The Woman in White, women’s bodies become literally interchangeable, when the body of Anne Catherick is buried in a grave marked with the name of Laura Fairlie. A similar exchange occurs in Lady Audley’s Secret, when Matilda Plowson is buried under the name of Helen Talboys. In East Lynne, the heroine’s fall and subsequent punishment can be traced upon her body: the once-beautiful Isabel Vane is disfigured in a train crash, and later falls ill and dies. Women’s bodies are construed as potentially dangerous, because they are too easily disguised, and thus suggest the performativity of femininity, as in Collins’s representations of Magdalen Vanstone (No Name) and Lydia Gwilt (Armadale). Inevitably, then, significant critical attention has been paid to this issue, from Victorian reviewers outraged that the crimes of villainous women were not rendered visible in their appearance, through to contemporary critics concerned with sensation fiction’s corporeal representations of the female form. This chapter examines some of these key issues, focusing in particular on responses to the appearances of sensation heroines, critical discussions of sensational bodies, portrayals of disability, and representations of illness and death.
Jessica Cox

Chapter Six. Sexuality

Abstract
The parallels between the sensation novel and the women’s movement in terms of the anxieties they generated were in part due to the fact that both addressed deeply embedded Victorian concerns about female sexuality and the role of women, resulting in a degree of moral panic. That both attracted increasing attention in the 1860s is no coincidence: the decade witnessed mounting concerns about the role of women, and the issue of sexuality became a public one with the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts and the campaign, led by Josephine Butler, to abolish them. The heroines of sensation fiction are frequently far more expressive in terms of their sexuality and sexual desire than the heroines of earlier Victorian fiction, and are often prepared to use their sexual allure for their own gains, recognising the limitations placed on the Victorian woman which make this one of her only means of improving her social standing. This was not entirely new: William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (1848) is an earlier example of the type. The sensation heroine, however, frequently displayed her sexuality – and her willingness to employ it for her own benefit – in a manner which offended censorious critics. Victorian (mainstream) literature, including medical texts, on the whole promoted the view that, as preeminent doctor William Acton put it, ‘the majority of women (happily for society) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind’ (1871, p. 162). The barely concealed subtext of many sensation novels would seem directly to contradict this widespread view, and led Oliphant to condemn their portrayals of heroines who ‘pant for indiscriminate kisses or go mad for unattainable men’ (1867, p. 260).
Jessica Cox

Chapter Seven. Legal Issues

Abstract
The popularity of sensation fiction coincided not only with the development of the women’s rights movement, but also with changes in policing, campaigns for workers’ rights, and an increased focus on the role of the state in relation to its duties to its citizens. Many of these developments are reflected in the Victorian legal system, and in particular in new legislation passed in response to ongoing public debates. As we have seen, the sensation novel responds in multiple and varied ways to the broader social and cultural context in which it appeared, and this is clearly reflected in its engagement with the various legal issues of the day. Key events and developments in this area, which exerted a significant influence on the genre, include legislation related to women’s rights and to marriage law more generally (custody and property laws; the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which rendered divorce more accessible to the general populace; Scottish marriage law); the Lunacy and County Asylums Acts of 1845, which brought to the fore questions about the care of the mentally ill; high-profile crimes (including the Yelverton bigamy case, the Road Hill House murder, and the Madeleine Smith trial); the 1856 Police Act, which led to the establishment of police forces in every borough; and a rise in the number of private detectives. In addition, at the heart of the sensation genre are issues of identity, which are frequently framed around questions of (il)legal identity – in particular, illegitimacy and fraudulent identities. Lawyers and detectives (both amateur and professional) feature heavily in the sensation novel, and, in some instances, narrative structure is built around a pseudo-legal framework (in both The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret, the narrative is structured around the collection of evidence in order to prove that a crime has been committed). The solution to the mysteries presented in the sensation novel is often found in some form of legal document, with wills in particular playing a key role, although marriage and birth registers also feature heavily. Given this intense focus on law and crime, it is unsurprising that much critical scholarship examines the genre’s response to these issues. This chapter maps out some of those responses, focusing in particular on three key areas: marriage law; questions of identity; and crime and policing.
Jessica Cox

Chapter Eight. Science

Abstract
In recent years, increased critical attention has been paid to representations of science in Victorian fiction, and the sensation novel is no exception. The nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented scientific progress. Natural theology, which for years had kept science within the domain of religion, was gradually usurped by scientific naturalism, championed by Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, and their ilk. New scientific disciplines, including social sciences and sciences of the mind, sprang up with startling rapidity, whilst other areas, such as medicine, witnessed rapid and transformative developments. The rise of evolutionary theory coincided with the emergence of the sensation novel, with Darwin’s Origin of Species published in 1859. As with the women’s rights movement and changes to legislation around marriage and the family, these developments exerted an important influence on the genre. Contemporary interest in the sciences of the mind is reflected in the sensation novel’s repeated portrayals of madness, its causes and treatments, as well as in the burgeoning interest in various psychological states. Indeed, the genre’s interest in science is evident in its address to the nervous systems of its readers, a characteristic noted by several Victorian and subsequent critics, including Miller, who suggests that it targets ‘the sympathetic nervous system, where it grounds its characteristic adrenalin effects’ (1988, p. 146). Doctors appear almost as regularly as lawyers, and illness, death, and medical treatments are all common features. The genre’s prevailing interest in crime and detection means the developing science of toxicology and forensics also plays a role, whilst pseudo-sciences including physiognomy and race science similarly exert an influence. In the late nineteenth century, both Collins and Marryat published novels dealing with the subject of vivisection (Heart and Science and An Angel of Pity [1898]), and critical examinations of the Victorian vivisection debates frequently explore these texts. The late Victorian period witnessed the development of psychoanalysis, and subsequent critics have employed psychoanalytic theory in their analysis of the genre, with The Moonstone attracting particular attention in this respect. This chapter examines some of the critical responses to science and sensation fiction, focusing on three of these key areas: madness, medicine, and toxicology and forensics.
Jessica Cox

Chapter Nine. Race, Empire, Nationhood

Abstract
The sensation novel’s emphasis on the familiar space of the Victorian home means that its focus is predominantly on British middle- and upper-class life. Nevertheless, questions of race, nationality, empire, and colonialism are a recurrent, if not dominant, feature, reflecting the period in which it was produced: the height of the genre’s popularity coincided with the growth of empire, and emerging and developing discourses on race and identity. The Great Exhibition of 1851 reinforced the notion of Britain’s greatness in the areas of science and technology, but also showcased exhibits from around the globe. The empire was marked by tensions and conflicts, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857 exerted a powerful influence on the Victorian (literary) imagination. The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 led to heated debates over different ethnic identities, and influenced developments in ‘race science’ (Robert Knox’s The Races of Men was published in 1850). The scramble for Africa was some way off, but public interest in the continent was sparked by British explorers searching for the source of the Nile in the mid-nineteenth century. Britain’s relationship with Europe was also key at this time, with simmering tensions with and suspicions of the French, a hangover from the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century, reinforced by the disturbances of 1848 which saw the establishment of the Second French Republic. Brantlinger notes several other contemporary events which form the backdrop to the sensation novel in terms of its engagement with race and empire: the abolition movement, the American Civil War (1862–65), the Irish question, and the Jamaican insurrection of 1865 (2011, p. 430). Significantly, though, his important study of imperialism in nineteenth-century literature, Rule of Darkness (1988), does not focus in any detail on the sensation genre’s response to these issues, perhaps reflecting critical trends of the 1980s, as well as the fact that the central focus of the form lies elsewhere.
Jessica Cox

Chapter Ten. Adapting Sensation Fiction

Abstract
The sensation novel’s cultural legacy has been subject to increasing critical debate in recent years, and is, as several critics have pointed out, complex. The genre exerted significant influence on other forms of popular fiction, some of which (such as the New Woman novel) were themselves relatively short-lived, and others (such as detective fiction) which continue to flourish. Its influence can also be seen in forms as diverse as the soap opera, which in some ways has occupied the place of Victorian serialised fiction in the modern world, period drama, and contemporary historical fiction. Phillips, writing in the early twentieth century, argued that ‘to-day moving pictures are feeding the same demand [for sensation] on a scale and with an energy of which only the twentieth century is capable’ (1919, p. 35), thus positing cinema as a descendent of the genre. Several sensation novels (particularly the works of Collins) have been adapted for a variety of media: theatre, film, television, radio, and fiction. In recent years, the internet has given rise to a number of new cultural engagements with the genre, including reading projects aimed at providing the modern reader with the experience of Victorian serialised fiction. All of these have received significant scholarly attention as part of both the critical recovery of the sensation novel, and the emergence of neo-Victorianism as an expanding field of scholarship. This final chapter explores some of the critical responses to adaptations of the form, from the Victorian to the contemporary, focusing on three key areas: theatrical adaptations, the neo-sensation novel, and sensation fiction on screen.
Jessica Cox
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