Shock horror: Sensation Fiction

01:00 Fri 29th Mar 2002 |

Q. What, horror, sex, crime, violence and the like

A. Exactly that, but we're not talking Stephen King or Jake Arnott here. Sensation Fiction or Sensation Novels were a genre rooted firmly in the mid-19th century, at the very height of the Victorian Era.

Q. Victorian

A. Oh yes. Don't forget that muck-raking scandal sheets were enormously popular in the 19th century - in fact that repository of celebrity tat, the News of the World, first reared its ugly head as long ago as 1 October 1843. Belying their image today, there was nothing that many Victorians liked more than to dip into the lives of those less 'morally fortunate' than themselves - so what's changed - and as the century progressed and public behaviour became increasingly restrained, the need for a private outlet for 'natural urges' - and curiosity - just grew and grew.

Q. So, what was sensational about these books

A. Sensational here means 'causing a state of excitement or intense interest' - the plots and twists of the tale should leave the reader's jaw firmly glued to the floor - rather than 'brilliant', though many of them were pretty good. Much 20th-century criticism suggested that, though the genre enjoyed tremendous market success, it was considered to have little or no literary acclaim during the height of its popularity. However, a study of the literary and popular magazines of the day shows that Sensation writing was taken very seriously, prompting much debate as to the moral fallout of its themes and concerns - and the effect it had on the behaviour of its readership, particularly women.

Q. You still haven't told us what they are. So...

A. OK. With the rise of Realist fiction from the 1850s onwards in the novels of the likes of George Meredith and Anthony Trollope, there was a parallel return to the concerns of Romantic or Gothic fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is what became known as Sensation Fiction, and it concerned itself with dramatic or thrilling events and conspiracies, secrets and villainous schemers, very often in the form of mystery stories. Principal themes included: secrets from the past, often involving people's identities; well-to-do women with secrets; quite socially advanced views of the generally accepted role of women in society; criminal conspiracies; doppelgangers; and drugs.

Much of this grew out of the work of earlier writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Emily and Charlotte Bront�, but it is unquestionably a genre in its own right.

Q. And who were the principal peddlers of the genre

A. Wilkie Collins, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Mrs Henry Wood, Richard Dowling, Sir Gilbert Campbell and W.S. Gilbert, and a little later Robert Louis Stephenson and Oscar Wilde, were the main British exponents of the style - and it was largely a Brit thing - while in the USA Louisa May Alcott (yes, she of Little Women) and Seeley Regester both incorporated some of the themes into their work.

Q. Hang on, W.S. Gilbert as in Gilbert and Sullivan

A. Indeed. William Schwenk Gilbert was already a published playwright, novelist, critic and illustrator before he teamed up with Arthur Sullivan, following his review in the 1860s of one of Sullivan's light operas in which he praised the music but was less keen on the libretto.

Q. And the definitive Sensation work

Wilkie Collins's The Woman In White (1860) must take the gold for this, though The Moonstone (1868) is also highly rated.

Q. And the story

A. It's got all the requisite themes. The Woman in White is a mystery narrated by one Walter Hartwright and a number other characters within the tale, all of whom are to varying degrees unreliable. The story begins with Hartwright's late-night meeting of the eponymous woman in white, who he rescues from a gang of pursuers. Walter goes to work in the service of the nasty Mr Fairlie and soon meets his niece Laura, who strongly resembles the mysterious woman he had rescued. Walter - natch - falls in love with Laura, but there's a hitch - did you doubt it - in that, though Laura loves Walter in return, she is already engaged to Sir Percival Glyde. Deceit, love and various unmaskings ensue that explain the strange confinement within an asylum of Anne Catherick. Adventures, villainy and gloriously fitting retributions follow.

Q. Has there been any lasting influence of this kind of stuff

A. It is now seen as a precursor to modern-day genre fiction, especially to the detective novel and some elements of early science fiction. Feminist critics have also given it some attention in recent years, remarking upon its subversiveness in foregrounding women as morally ambiguous - though not necessarily immoral - central characters.

For a more detailed discussion on the genre of Sensation Fiction take a look at

See also the answerbank articles on science fiction and pulp fiction

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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