Crossing Lines; Blurring Boundaries: The Gender and Social Disruptions of Nineteenth-Century Sensation

The present volume from Cambridge University Press, published two years ago, offers readers multiple perspectives on a new form that was both novel, short story, and melodrama. For example, the most popular form of the English novel in the 1860s, the Sensation Novel, excited a mania among English readers of all classes in the mid-Victorian period which lasted up to the end of the century. At the time, Dickens was criticized in the press for adopting Sensation strategies in his novels of the 60s, and Hardy's second novel, Desperate Remedies (1871) definitely falls within the subgenre, whose originator was Charles Dickens's protegé, Wilkie Collins. The new, racy form involved stylistically innovative strategies such as Collins's testamentary and epistolary narratives, highly plotted crime and detection fiction (often serialised and illustrated), and thrilling drama. The advent of Sensation may be dated to the 26 November 1859 edition of All the Year Round, when, followting the excitement generated by the Conductor's first serialised novel for the new weekly, A Tale of Two Cities, Wilkie Collins introduced the reading public to a sensational mystery involving a solitary young "Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry" (in Ch. 3 of The Woman in White). The setting is not the Apennines, as in Anne Radcliffe's Gothic novels, but the London pavement, ' Finchley Road near Hampstead Heath, in fact. This early Collins novel established the vogue for sensation fiction, and spawned a host of imitators, including works by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Price Wood (or "Mrs. Henry Wood," as she was known to her original readers), William Black, Charles Reade, Ouida (Marie Louise Ramé), James Payne, and Florence Marryat. However, these popular writers and their daring transgressions of Victorian class and gender boundaries and proprieties are only now being rediscovered after a century of neglect and indifference. Few readers today, even those who comprehend something of what the term "Sensation Fiction" signifies, are aware of its antecedents and enduring influences. This volume, consisting of an introduction and fifteen specially-commissioned essays, a chronology of leading works and developments in the subgenre from 1850 (the publication date of Wilkie Collins's journeyman novel, Antonia) through 1880 (the year of the publication of Collins's Jezebel's Daughter), and a guide to further reading, attempts to define the conventions of the form, explore its antecedents in the gothic novel, relate the fiction to sensation on stage, and demonstrate how Sensation novelists, both male and female, challenged conventional ideas about class, gender, identity, and responded to spiritualism, new medical knowledge, and the New Woman. Accessible yet rigorous, this Companion features thought-provoking and well documented essays by sixteen distinguished scholars who have written extensively about Sensation in short fiction and novel as well as plays from a variety of critical and literary perspectives. Like the other Companions in the Cambridge series, this is hardly an index or dictionary; indeed, it requires some persistence on the part of the reader to follow an extended argument, attending to multiple character analyses and plot synopses that each writer provides to support his or her thesis. Certainly the volume encourages modern readers to become more familiar with the form and realise that there is more to the Sensation Novel than the bigamy plot gambits of The Woman in White, East Lynne, and Lady Audley's Secret.

As Andrew Mangham, the volume’s editor, notes in his informative overview of the essays in the volume, whatever consistencies we have come to expect, such as the feminized villain Count Fosco and the deceptive, masculinized plotting female lead, disappear as we read more and more examples of the genre, including later works that today we might readily classify as crime and detection fiction, science fiction, and New Woman fiction. Responding to the exotic constituents of the Gothic Novel as established by Anne Radcliffe at the close of the eighteenth century, Sensation novelists brought Gothicism into the contemporary world of the railway carriage, the telegraph office, and the upper-middle-class drawing-room, often in instalments in weekly and monthly magazines and journals (some, like Belgravia, edited by Sensation writers themselves), and then translated these thrilling stories and their accompanying illustrations for the stage.

That "Sensation" is not necessarily a post-1859 form is exemplified by the success of Dickens's "sensationalised" Oliver Twist on stage throughout the nineteenth century, and then as a series of commercially successful film adaptations in the twentieth. Indeed, Andrew Maunder's “Sensation Fiction on Stage” in considering even the earliest stage adaptations (1837-39) of the picaresque or Newgate novel, with its lurid underworld scenes and graphic murder of a prostitute, challenges the notion that Sensation was the product of the genius of Collins. "Spectators faced with the murder of Nancy experienced an onslaught on the nerves that was deemed to be hard to withstand, and in many cases they had nothing to sustain them" (60). Fully twenty years ahead of The Woman in White, theatre patrons at The Old Vic were paying to see "Bill Sikes dragging Nancy round the stage" (58), responding vociferously and as one, if critic John Hollingshead's account is to be credited, with "one loud and fearful curse, yelled by the whole mass like a Handel Festival chorus" (recalled in the autobiographical My Lifetime in 1895) to the onstage murder of the Dickensian heroine.

Readers today might be surprised to learn that critics of the 1860s castigated no lesser a writer than Dickens for his use of Sensation gambits and characters in novels as esteemed and canonical as A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, although the powerful influence of Collins and Braddon remains for all to read in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, with the duplicitous, drug-addicted music master John Jasper and the dark, assertive, volatile, foreign-born Helena Landless. Given the rage for Sensation in the 1860s, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Hardy's initial entry into fiction was a novel with all the hallmarks of Sensation, Desperate Remedies, and that his Wessex Novels in their periodical versions betrayed the writer's penchant for Sensation plotting and New Woman female protagonists. And yet the proverbial wisdom (or, as Anne-Marie Beller would describe it, "genesis myth" [7]) about the genre remains that prescribed by Winifred Hughes in 1980: "it sprang, full-blown, nearly simultaneously, from the minds of Wilkie Collins, Mrs. Henry Wood, and M. E. Braddon" (The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s, p. 6). Clearly the writers of this volume are inclined to see the roots of the Sensation Novel in earlier works and writers, and regard the era of Sensation as extending well beyond the 1860s. Although Lyn Pykett glances cursorily at certain works by Conan Doyle, ​ Joseph Conrad​(at least, at Conrad's The Secret Agent), George Eliot​ (Middlemarch), and Thomas Hardy as part of the Sensation "legacy​"(Chapter 16), most of the critics in this volume merely allude to Dickens's ​ Bleak House ​as a "proto-detective"​(214) novel, and do not consider how the recently emerged subgenre informed Dickens's later novels. Dickens's​ novels, however, appear prominently in Andrew Maunder's "Sensation Fiction on Stage" (Chapter 5), although he discusses only Oliver Twist​​ and Great Expectations​in any detail. In connection with the latter serialised novel as it appeared in America (illustrated by John McLenan, Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge in "Illustrating the Sensation Novel"​(Chapter 4) discuss in convincing detail how Sensation fiction was thoroughly an extension of "Victorian visual culture,"​ under which heading the critical duo include British Sensation fiction published in the New York illustrated, large-format magazine​Harper's Weekly​, with well-reproduced illustrations from The Woman in White, The Moonstone​ (although technically its appearance preceded the 1859 "birth" of Sensation), and Great Expectations​. They note

Illustration's role in creating sensation fiction's effects of excitement and instability. A less obvious aspect of sensational illustrations lies in their contribution of the detailism that underpins the genre: unlike gothic novels, sensation fictions tantalized the reader with their realist underpinnings in contemporary everyday life. As Henry James remarked, 'those most mysterious of mysteries, are the mysteries which are at our own doors'. Indeed, the illustrations to [Braddon's] Eleanor's Victory [1863] offer realist details of nautical rigging as well as accurately rendered Paris street scenes; those for [Braddon's] Lady Audley’s Secret​embed the heroine in modern life as she receives telegrams (Part 3, 4 April 1863); and those for [Collins's] ​ No Name​ situate Magdalen Vanston in the mundane settings of the shop (Part 20, 26 July 1862) and Captain Wragge in the post office (Part 30, 4 October 1862). The chilling effects of turbulent smoke, wind-swept garments and unchaperoned nocturnal scenes, then, worked precisely because such frissons were combined with realist visual details of temporal and physical setting. [43]

The terms "Sensation fiction" and "Sensation Novel,"​are used almost interchangeably throughout the text, although the former is more ​useful as it encompasses numerous collections of short fiction and novellas on the one hand, and dramas of various types (including original and those adapted for the stage) on the other. Three critics simply use "Sensation" without limiting the phenomenon to a particular genre, and only two use "Sensation Novel" in their chapter titles — and yet surprisingly few short stories are mentioned in the volume. Necessarily, the works of the Sensation Triumvirate of Collins, Braddon, and Wood are the most thoroughly canvassed in the fifteen essays since theirs are the works ​"rediscovered"​ in university undergraduate and graduate courses since the 1980s, when the challenge that their fiction posed to our received notions the Victorian verities of class, gender, and empire made their novels of particular interest to feminist and queer constructions. This editorial decision to limit the texts covered to the period after 1859 (except in the second chapter), however, has resulted in the exclusion of such writers as James Payne, Rider Haggard, Mary Shelley, and Sheridan Le Fanu ​(other than his Uncle Silas, admittedly covered at some length in the Swedenborgian discussion of "Sensation Fiction, Spiritualism and the Supernatural"​in Chapter 11), and the contributions of ​ Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Moreover, the relationship between the New Gothic of the Brontës and the updating of the conventions of the Gothic by novelists of the 60s and 70s has been neglected. The discussions of the commercial publishing context and contemporary responses to the new form are, however, particularly effective in showing how the marketplace impelled the form to new excesses and fresh subjects​ — consider Wilkie Collins's 1883 anti-vivisection treatise in Heart and Science: A Story of the Present Time ​(a novel not actually mentioned, even in Chapter 14, "Sensation Fiction and the Medical Context,"​ possibly because it appeared after 1880). That the term "Sensation" bore the taint of the colonial and the outlandish or foreign has long been established, but that the term originated abroad has not been so well known.

The evidence in fact points unmistakably towards the United States as the source of the attributive use of 'sensation', with the earliest instances found in the later 1850s in notices of stage melodramas. The Oxford English Dictionary​ finds its earliest example in an 1860 journal entry by Emilie Cowell, during her concert tour of America, where at Cincinnati she attended a 'new "sensation Drama"' which she found 'full of strong and immoral situations'. [Graham Law, "Sensation Fiction and the Publishing Industry," 169, citing a diary entry not published until 1934]

Since the term "Sensation,"​ then, began with the stage (admittedly, in America rather than in Britain) and continued well past the seventies as a stage direction suggesting general consternation and amazement, it is only fitting that the relationship between Sensation fiction and the stage be the subject of one of the fifteen essays. Indeed, as Andrew Maunder contends, one might readily classify Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret ​in its dramatic form as far more influential than its serial and volume forms of 1862 as the melodrama "conquered the London stage in February 1863" (52), appearing in several theatres simultaneously, reaching a much broader audience than its textual original.

We know more about nineteenth-century stage adaptations than we do about other popular forms of entertainment which flourished in the period. We have prints, photographs, prompt copies, posters, reviews and reminiscences, even some silent films. If stage adaptations of novels remain neglected, it is not because of a shortage of evidence but because the practice remains essentially denigrated: melodramatic and sentimental, the plays seem to represent much that is antithetical to what we admire in the novels from which they were taken. [Maunder, "Sensation Fiction on Stage,"​ 52]

Since the only way that a novelist could secure copyright for the stage adaptation of his work was to write and register a copy with the Office of the Lord Chamberlain, and since few novelists chose to undertake such time-consuming work in a genre in which they were generally amateurs, the appearance of sensation novels on stage penned by adapters was inevitable. But the relationship between the original and the stage version was, in fact, rather more complicated as, for example, a novelist such as Dickens or Collins might act as adviser and consultant in an "authorized"​or at least "author-sanctioned" stage adaptation. The writer briefly alludes to the sensation[al] death of Jules Obenreizer in the Dickens-Collins collaborative drama No Thoroughfare​(1867), but omits the far more significant Dickens-Collins' collaboration of ​The Frozen Deep​(1856), a play that, despite its appearing ahead of The Woman in White,​ reveals the contemporary influence of the emerging form on a canonical writer and the contemporary stage, for, whether the audience was middle-brow or high-brow, this arctic melodrama​ with a host of Sensation qualities pleased all who saw it, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

In the chapter that deals with Sensation as an emerging form in the 1850s, Anne-Marie Beller concedes that Bulwer Lytton's ​Eugene Aram​ ​(1832), the Newgate Novels, and even Dickens’s ​David Copperfield ​(1849-50) clearly contain "sensational elements" ​in blending realism ​and melodrama, focussing on "sexually transgressive women, the inclusion of seduction, adultery and dramatic 'sensation scenes'" (8). Further, she notes that Victorian critic Margaret Oliphant in 1862 included Dickens's Great Expectations ​in her denigration of Sensation novels. Moreover, Beller classifies Charles Reade's It is Never Too Late to Mend (1856), with its "fervent critique of the English prison system" (18) as a novel with a purpose of the sort that Collins would be writing in the 1870s. Thus, she effectively undermines the conventional wisdom that the first true "Sensation Novel" was Collins's The Woman in White​(1859-60). Indeed, Sergio Tomaiuolo in "Sensation Fiction, Empire and the Indian Mutiny"​ includes ​the Dickens-Collins collaboration The Perils of Certain English Prisoners ​(in the extra Christmas number of ​Household Words for 1857) as operating within the conventions of the emerging genre, although it appeared at the same time that Dickens was headlining in his own production of The Frozen Deep ​as Richard Wardour, a dramatic work excluded from the volume solely on chronological grounds, apparently. Somewhat manic and physically intimidating, Wardour is hardly a hero typical of a sensation text, nor is the play's heroine particularly "Sensational."

The heroine of Wilkie Collins's The Law and the Lady (1875), Valeria Macallan, is in many ways a typical sensation heroine. She is resilient, independent and determined to get what she wants. What she wants, however, is not to marry rich, hide her bigamous past or inherit a fortune that is rightfully hers [plot gambits that Collins has deployed in other novels], but to prove her husband's innocence. . . . .

The example of Valeria Macallan gestures to a number of themes characteristic of sensation fiction: false appearances, wilful female characters and cautious men. . . . .

After Valeria is transformed, she remarks: 'I seemed in some strange way to have lost my ordinary identity — to have stepped out of my own character' (58). In sensation novels, the ability to 'step out of one's character' is often figured as a particularly feminine act. That is, sensation fiction frequently suggests that women's identities are more fragmented than those of their male counterparts, and that women are more skilled in the art of performance. Embodying a false identity can reveal possibilities of empowerment for female characters. However, sensation fiction also shows how false female identities are often the result of a desperate need for concealment, a need that lays bare women's precarious social position. [Macdonald, 127-28]

Richard Nemesvari's "Queering the Sensation Novel," which connects the Sensation Novel with the Postmodern Novel, is perhaps the most important chapter in the volume, in part because ​it moves beyond the feminist critique of Tara Macdonald's well-reasoned "Sensation Fiction, Gender and Identity" and Greta Depledge's "Sensation Fiction and The New Woman," arguing that the new form specifically appealed to female readers of all classes with a heroine who was often "the destroyer and/or self-destructive seeker after truth, personal fulfilment and a measure of social and sexual equality with men" (p. 196, which cites Pykett, p. 7). Nemesvari focuses on​"non-normative gender performance . . . along with the 'perverse' sexualities this type of performance implies"​ (83) in Lucy and Robert Audley, Cornelia Carlyle in East Lynne, and in particular in the "gender inversion" ​(72) of the effeminate Count Fosco and the mannish Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White. Heteronormativity reasserts itself at the close of a Sensation novel, Nemesvari notes, when these characters who have engaged so much of the reader's attention receive censure and punishment:

The disjunction between professed narrative/textual disapproval, and the pleasure queer characters take in their constructed perversity, makes the machinations of plot required to suppress and punish them appear excessive and unconvincing, resulting not in the undercutting of the non-normative, but in a questioning of the normative instead. [71]

Nonetheless, the Sensation Novel disrupted conventional notions of male and female identity as discrete and absolute. Differences in class the form presented as legal rather than psychological as major characters such as Lady Isabel Vane in​ East Lynne ​transform themselves by rising or falling in social status.

There is, nonetheless, another Victorian cultural concern that has the potential to unite the dominant sensationalist elements of secrecy and identity even more tightly. Each of these foundational novels [The Woman in White, East Lynne, and Lady Audley's Secret] explores as a significant subtext of the issue of sexual identity by providing characters whose deviation from acceptably gendered heteronormativity introduces the sensational possibility of queer alterities but without ever explicitly acknowledging what is being suggested. In other words, Collins, Wood, and Braddon bring into play the mysterious fluidity of sexuality while at the same time ensuring that the potentialities on display dare not speak their name. By focusing on acts of transgression both overt and covert such texts were ideally positioned to explore the problematics of gender performance even as their plots attempted, through their restoration of the status quo, to reassure their audience that cultural norms were secure. [70-71]

In conclusion, the student of Victorian fiction will find in The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction comprehensive discussions of various aspects of the subgenre, including its influence on the stage and the English novel as a whole, the publishing industry, social, imperial, colonial, religious, scientific, and even medical contexts. The collection's chief focus remains the blurring of class and gender boundaries, expanding our understanding of this important development in English fiction in the second half of the nineteenth century — and beyond.


​Allan, Janice M." Chapter Seven: The Contemporary Response to Sensation Fiction." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 85-98.

Beller, Anne-Marie. "Chapter Two: Sensation ​Fiction n the 1850s." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 7-20.

​Constanti, Mariaconcetta. "Chapter Eight: Sensation​, Class and the Rising Professionals." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 99-112.

Depledge, Greta. "Chapter Fifteen: Sensation Fiction and the New Woman." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 196-209.

Gilbert, Pamela K. "Chapter Fourteen: Sensation Fiction and the Medical Context." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 182-195.

Kontou, Tatiana. "Chapter​Eleven: Sensation Fiction, Spiritualism and the Supernatural." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 141-153.

Law, Graham. "Chapter Thirteen: Sensation Fiction and the Publishing Industry." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 168-181.

Leighton, Mary Elizabeth, and Lisa Surridge. "Chapter Four: Illustrating the Sensation Novel." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 34-51.

Macdonald, Tara. "Chapter Ten: Sensation​Fiction, Gender, and Identity." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 127-140.

​Mangham,​Andrew. "Chapter One: Introduction." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 1-6.

​Maunder, Andrew. "Chapter Five: Sensation ​Fiction on Stage." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 52-69.

​Nayder, Lilian. "Chapter Twelve: Science and Sensation." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 154-167.

​Nemesvari, Richard. "Chapter Six: Queering the Sensation Novel." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 70-84.

​Pykett, Lyn. "Chapter Sixteen: The Sensation Legacy." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. ​210-223.

Talairach-Vielmas, ​Laurence. "Chapter Three: Sensation ​Fiction and the Gothic." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 21-33.

Tomaiuolo, Saverio. "Chapter​Nine: Sensation Fiction, Empire and the Indian Mutiny." The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction, ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2013. Pp. 113-126.


Review. The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction. Ed. Andrew Mangham. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P. (Oct.) 2013. Pp. xvi + 234, inc. index. Paper. ISBN 978-0-521-15709-4. Canadian $15.73 (Kindle), $83.95 (hard cover), Cdn $28.95, UK £18.99, USD $27.99 (paper).

Last modified 13 October 2015