Victorian Literature Sensation Fiction
by
Matthew Rubery
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0062

Introduction

Sensation fiction was a literary genre that achieved enormous popularity during the 1860s in Britain. The first and best known sensation novels were Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861), and Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). The genre derived its name from the contemporary theater’s “sensation drama” noted for spectacular effects and displays of intense emotion. Sensation fiction drew on a variety of popular forms including melodrama, domestic realism, newspaper reports, Newgate novels, and gothic tales. The gripping plots of these novels involved scandalous events including murder, adultery, bigamy, fraud, madness, and sexual deviance often perpetrated by seemingly moral and upright individuals in familiar domestic settings. The genre’s popularity provoked alarm and hostility on the part of literary, political, and religious authorities who denounced sensation novels for eliciting intense physical responses from their readers. The broad appeal of sensation fiction made it suspect as serious writing for nearly a century until its critical reevaluation beginning in the 1970s. Sensation fiction has since moved beyond its scandalous origins to become an integral part of Victorian literary history.

General Overviews

Renewed scholarly interest in sensation fiction since the 1970s has resulted in a number of useful critical introductions to the genre. One of the best book-length introductions to sensation fiction is Pykett 1994, an accessible overview to the genre’s distinctive features appropriate for both the general and specialist reader. Hughes 2005 provides the most informative short introduction to the genre. Several works document the critical reception of the major sensation novels since their initial publication. The most comprehensive book-length introduction to the genre’s critical history is Radford 2009, which assesses a range of critical responses organized into thematic categories. The most instructive short introduction is Maunder 2005, which delivers a detailed assessment of the genre’s reception by contemporary reviewers and recent scholars. Knight 2009 focuses on critical trends from the past decade that presuppose some familiarity with the genre’s critical history. Diamond 2003 offers a general, nonscholarly survey of the 19th century’s major scandals that provides useful historical context in which to situate sensation novels. Maunder 2004 is a six-volume reference work that reprints many of the original contemporary reviews from periodicals otherwise difficult to locate. The Sensation Press is one of the few electronic resources devoted to sensation fiction.

  • Diamond, Michael. Victorian Sensation, or, the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain. London: Anthem, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A wide-ranging survey of sensational incidents from murder to sex scandals in the 19th century. Includes a section focused specifically on the sensation novel, although the broad appeal of this study often overlooks the complexity of Victorian reading practices.

  • Hughes, Winifred. “The Sensation Novel.” In A Companion to the Victorian Novel. Edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing, 260–278. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405132916.2005.00017.xE-mail Citation »

    One of the most accessible short introductions to themes, conventions, and contexts of the genre by one of the field’s pioneering scholars. Includes plot summaries of key novels by Collins, Wood, and Braddon as well as a brief sketch of the genre’s critical reception from the earliest scholarly treatments to the 1990s.

  • Knight, Mark. “Figuring Out the Fascination: Recent Trends in Criticism on Victorian Sensation and Crime Fiction.” Victorian Literature and Culture 37.1 (2009): 323–333.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1060150309090214E-mail Citation »

    A review of recent critical trends from the past decade. Best suited for researchers already familiar with the genre since it assumes some prior knowledge of the field’s critical history.

  • Maunder, Andrew. “Mapping the Victorian Sensation Novel: Some Recent and Future Trends.” Literature Compass 2.1 (2005): 1–33.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short introduction to the critical history of sensation fiction is one of the best starting points. Cogent and accessible, Maunder’s study presents an overview of the critical reception of sensation fiction since its inception, an outline of key features of the genre, and suggestions for research.

  • Maunder, Andrew, ed. Varieties of Women’s Sensation Fiction, 1855–1890. 6 vol. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    A valuable reference for anyone interested in sensation fiction beyond the canonical texts of the 1860s. The first volume of this six-volume series brings together extracts from influential contemporary articles on all aspects of the sensation debate by literary critics, moralists, psychologists, and the clergy. Subsequent volumes include reissues of six novels by Wood, Florence Marryat, Felicia Skene, Rhoda Broughton, Mary Cecil Hay, and Dora Russell.

  • Pykett, Lyn. The Sensation Novel: From The Woman in White to The Moonstone. Plymouth, UK: Northcote House/British Council, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    This accessible book-length introduction to the main features of the sensation genre examines the work of Collins, Braddon, Wood, and Rhoda Broughton in their cultural contexts. Appropriate for both the general and specialist reader, this overview recounts how the sensation novel became an object deemed worthy of critical interest during the previous three decades.

  • Radford, Andrew. Victorian Sensation Fiction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best book-length introduction to scholarship on sensation fiction. Clear and concise, this guide assesses a wide array of critical responses to sensation fiction from the early reviews to the critical engagements of the 21st century. The guide’s thematic approach ensures in-depth coverage of key issues, topics, and debates relevant to the study of the genre.

  • The Sensation Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the few electronic resources devoted to sensation fiction. Includes catalogue of titles published by the Sensation Press, news updates, and recommended web links.

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