Sensation novel

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The sensation novel was a literary genre of fiction popular in Great Britain in the 1860s and 1870s,1 following on from earlier melodramatic novels and the Newgate novels, which focused on tales woven around criminal biographies. It also drew on the gothic and romantic genres of fiction.

Ellen Wood's controversial East Lynne (1861) was the first novel to be critically dubbed "sensational" and began a trend whose main exponents also included Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1859; The Moonstone, 1868), Charles Reade, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, 1862).

Themes and reception

Typically the sensation novel focused on shocking subject matter including adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder.2 It distinguished itself from other contemporary genres, including the Gothic novel, by setting these themes in ordinary, familiar and often domestic settings, thereby undermining the common Victorian-era assumption that sensational events were something foreign and divorced from comfortable middle-class life. W. S. Gilbert satirised these works in his 1871 comic opera, A Sensation Novel. For Anthony Trollope, however, the best novels should be "at the same time realistic and sensational...and both in the highest degree".3

When sensation novels burst upon a quiescent England these novels became immediate best sellers, surpassing all previous book sales records. However, high brow critics writing in academic journals of the day decried the phenomenon and criticized its practitioners (and readers) in the harshest terms - Ruskin perhaps providing the most thoughtful criticism in his 'Fiction - Fair and Foul'.4 The added notoriety derived from reading the novels probably served only to contribute to their popularity.5

Notable examples

Contemporary tributes

Award-winning writer Sarah Waters stated that her third, critically acclaimed novel Fingersmith (Virago Press, 2002) is meant as a tribute to the sensational novel genre.67

See also


  1. ^ I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 844
  2. ^ See Allingham, Philip V. The Victorian Sensation Novel, 1860-1880 — "preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment." Victorian Web. [1] (last updated) 4 May 2006. Web. 15 May 2009.
  3. ^ Quoted in H. Bloom ed., The Victorian Novel (2004) p. 113
  4. ^ I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 844
  5. ^ See Hughes, Winifred The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.
  6. ^ Sarah Waters discusses Fingersmith. BBC Radio 4 Bookclub - 07 March 2004.
  7. ^ Sensational stories - Sarah Waters on the echoes of 'sensation novels' in Fingersmith. The Guardian - 17 June 2006.

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