Vous êtes ici : Accueil / Littérature / Littérature britannique / L'époque victorienne / The Victorian Sensation Novel

The Victorian Sensation Novel

Par David Amigoni : Professeur de Littérature Victorienne - Keele University , Sophie Lemercier-Goddard : Maître de conférences - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 05/02/2008
The sensation novel developed in Britain in the 1860s with Wilkie Collins as its most famous representative and has been increasingly presented as a sub-genre revealing the cultural anxiety of the Victorian period. Its complex narrative which relies on a tangle of mysteries and secrets introduces the character of the detective while heavily resorting to the Gothic machinery with the figure of the persecuted maiden and that of the villain.
dossier préparé par Sophie Lemercier-Goddard

The Sensation Novel: Interview with David Amigoni

David Amigoni analyses the specificity of the Sensation Novel and explains how gothic elements inherited from the Gothic novel (from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto [1764] to Maturin's Malmoth the Wanderer [1820]) are integrated into a narrative which relies on the contemporary medical discourse, the law and on the fast developing newspaper culture, to explore the deep cultural anxiety of the period.



Excerpts from Charles Dickens's "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" (1848), Bleak House (1853) and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (1860).

Charles Dickens, "The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain" (1848)

In the last of Dickens's five Christmas Books, the figure of the ghost is both a döppelganger - a double of Redlaw the chemist - and a Faustian figure who offers the haunted man to erase all his painful memories. Redlaw agrees to the pact but progressively finds out that without memory he is but 'a man turned to stone' (ch.3). Eventually he will beg to have the gift reversed.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)

In the last part of his preface to the first edition, Dickens justifies his treatment of his character Mr Krook who dies of spontaneous combustion. But his final words can be understood as a larger comment on the nature of what soon would become known as the sensation novel:

"In Bleak House, I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things. I believe I have never had so many readers as in this book. May we meet again!".

The page numbers refer to the 1985 Penguin Classics edition (ed. Norman Page).

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860)

In his preface to the first edition of The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins prides himself on experimenting for the first time the device of multiple first-person viewpoints. Though Emily Brontë preceded him in 1847 with Wuthering Heights, Collins links the structure of his multiple narrative, each character taking up in turn the telling of the story, to the nature of his novel, forcing him "to keep the story constantly moving forward":

An experiment is attempted in this novel, which has not (so far as I know) been hitherto tried in fiction. The story of the book is told throughout by the characters of the book. They are all placed in different positions along the chain of events; and they all take the chain up in turn, and carry it on to the end.

If the execution of this idea had left to nothing more than the attainment of mere novelty of form, I should not have claimed a moment's attention for it in this place. But the substance of the book, as well as the form, has profited by it. It has forced me to keep the story constantly moveing forward; and it has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves, through the medium of the written contributions which they are supposed to make to the progress of the narrative. (1860 Preface).

 The page numbers refer to the 1992 OUP edition (ed. H.P. Sucksmith)

Further reading


E-texts of The Woman in White and Bleak House are both available from the Gutenberg project:

Online ressources

"The Victorian Sensation Novel, 1860-1880 - 'preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment'", Philip V. Allingham, Associate Professor of English, Lakehead University (Canada): http://www.victorianweb.org/genre/sensation.html

The Victorian Web: a huge selection of articles, extracts and images on Victorian literature, history and culture

The Wilkie Collins Website: with links to e-texts of Wilkie Collins's fiction; biographical material and discussion of his relationship with Dickens.

Selected bibliography

A selection of books and essay on the sensation novel and victorian literature.

Pour citer cette ressource :

David Amigoni, Sophie Lemercier-Goddard, "The Victorian Sensation Novel", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2008. Consulté le 13/11/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/epoque-victorienne/the-victorian-sensation-novel