- The Nineteenth-Century Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett
This guide provides a helpful introduction for graduates and general readers to the popular genre of Victorian sensation fiction, describing its continuing influence on contemporary fiction and media. Updating the 1994 edition, Pykett reappraises five rediscovered women writers and summarizes the work of key novelists Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Ellen Wood.
Pykett’s introductory chapter sketches the principal plots and themes of the genre, noting the parallels with Victorian melodrama; impersonation, insanity, scheming, jealousy, blackmail, inheritance, conspiracy, deceit, forgery, and abduction are found between the covers of these proto-detective narratives. In such “quintessential novel[s] with a secret,” sensation writers developed “techniques of narrative concealment and delay or deferral” (5) to achieve their effects. Pykett historicizes the sensation novel in the context of the 1860s, “a decade of sensational events and sensational writing” (1). Condemning these novels as immoral, contemporary reviewers objected to the blurred roles of heroine and villainess and the display of female passion and rebellion. The appetite for reading sensation fiction was perceived as “evidence of a cultural disease,” fostered by the growing availability of print culture for consumption. This anxiety reflected a wider range of “interrelated social tensions” (13), including legal changes to property, inheritance, [End Page 206] and divorce laws; contested ideas about the family and social mobility; and changing notions of Victorian femininity.
Although Pykett agrees with the received wisdom that Wilkie Collins popularized sensation fiction in the 1860s, she identifies the emergence of sensational elements as early as 1846, with Edward Bulwer Lytton’s Lucretia, and traces sensational features in the fiction of the 1850s. In Basil (1852), for instance, Collins introduces “the modern nervous subject” (29) and questions orthodox gender and class identities. The plots and narrative techniques of Collins’s key novels of the 1860s—The Woman in White (1859–60), No Name (1862), Armadale (1864–66), and The Moonstone (1868)—are structured around a series of binaries repeatedly deconstructed by Collins, such as sanity/insanity, legitimacy/illegitimacy, and genteel femininity/fallenness. What unites these novels is their narrative inventiveness, particularly Collins’s use of multiple viewpoints and narrative forms (diaries, letters, and “real” documents) that probe “problems of subjectivity and perception” and “the instability of modern identity” (25). These instabilities cohere around the domestic bourgeois family, “feminine duplicity,” secrets, and the “mercenary” marriage, alongside “the social, psychological, moral and legal institutions that sustain these cornerstones of respectable Victorian society” (32). Significantly, Collins’s fiction often interrogates gender conventions, employing the motifs of double and mistaken identity and reversing feminine/masculine positions to question how gender is constructed as “just ways of seeing” (38). Ultimately, however, Collins’s gender politics are ambivalent, if not conservative; his fiction embodies “the respectable middle-class novel” (73).
As Pykett observes, “women played an extremely important part in putting sensation, in all its various meanings and forms, into the sensation novel” (66)—and none more so than Braddon and Wood. Both prolific authors, they wrote at a time of “panic about the nature of the feminine” (71), encapsulated by contemporary discourse on the “Girl of the Period” and the “New Woman.” Indeed, “deviance and transgressiveness” (76) are the hallmarks of the sensational heroine/villainess. One way that women writers negotiate conventional images of Victorian femininity is through the figures of the mother and the motherless girl. Braddon thus reworks Collins’s angel in the house, Laura Fairlie from The Woman in White, through her most deceptive and conniving heroine, Lucy Graham, in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). A self-conscious critique of the femme fatale figure also features in Braddon’s later novels. Moreover, the repeated plots of “accidental” bigamy and adultery both shape and reflect recent social changes, such as the Divorce Act of 1857.
In contrast to Braddon’s spectacle of the “racy, assertive woman, or the calculating dangerous woman in disguise,” Wood’s best-selling East Lynne (1860–61) “makes a spectacle of maternal suffering” (98), while St. Martin’s Eve (1866) shows the dangers of maternal love taken to...