I’ve been on a belated summer holiday, and finally got stuck into some reading.
And the first few books on my reading (or re-reading) pile were some nineteenth century Sensation novels including The Moonstone and The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.
Sleepless nights ensued. I am so easily affected by page-turning, pot-boiling, gasp-a-chapter books like these (and that’s why I don’t watch too many thrillers on TV or I’d never sleep at all – I used to get insomnia just from watching The Bill). I’ve also read a whole stack of early detective stories (this is for an upcoming conference paper and article on female detectives in historical fiction), which were fascinating, but not quite so disturbing.
What’s a sensation novel?
So glad you asked.
Here’s a little snippet of the background section of the paper:
The sensation novels of the 1860s were not framed as historical fiction, but they were, like their Gothic predecessors, often set in an uncanny, out-of-time misty moment where the past – and the secrets of the past – influenced the present. The detective stories of the 1880s and 1890s were intentionally modern. Both genres combined elements of the Gothic novel with contemporary realism, presented new approaches to their female characters, and have been enormously influential in mystery, thriller and historical fiction ever since. […]
Early mysteries often unfold so slowly that the crime itself is not committed until well into the plot, and in some cases revenge rather than detection is the goal after discovery. ‘The mystery,’ Patrick Brantlinger suggests, ‘acts like a story which the narrator refuses or has forgotten how to tell’ (1982, p 18). The stories are often told through the eyes of someone other than the protagonist – Doctor Watson being the most famous. Sensation novels such as The Woman in White feature a constantly changing narrative voice, as legal advisors, butlers and housekeepers, apparently objective or clearly biased observers, even the sleuth herself, take on the role of unravelling or bearing witness to a complex web of clues and disasters.
There is a crime or scandal of some kind, and often several layers of secrets which threaten or act as motive – a stolen letter or jewel, a confusion of identities, someone incarcerated or kidnapped or thought missing but returned. The secret or scandal motif is particularly common in the sensation novel, a phenomenon that flourished briefly in the late nineteenth-century, and drove millions of readers crazy waiting for the next serialised episode or melodramatic chapter – for Australian readers, books like Bleak House were ‘despatched at intervals from England, arriving on faraway docks with the expectation that they would be seized by feverish readers, burning with curiosity about the fate of their favourite characters’ (Martin & Mirmohamadi 2011, p 37 ).
Still from 1996 TV adaptation of ‘The Moonstone’
Why are they sensational?
If you’ve ever read one, you’d know – whether the 1860s originals or some of their descendants such as Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith? They can be, quite simply, excruciating – sometimes in the knowledge of a character’s depravity or deceit, while the heroine remains oblivious; sometimes because the suspense is so acute and masterful, engendering a miserable pleasure in the agony.
Sometimes it’s the full Gothic experience: entrapment, menace, isolation in a country house, dark secrets to be uncovered, the possibility of the supernatural or the uncanny (usually proven to be quite human and explicable), the irrational, the sublime, the subversive. There’s that sense that familiar boundaries – of humanity, of the law, of fiction, of the psyche – are being transgressed, that what is hidden and possibly unmentionable is about to be revealed. But not quite yet.
We fear for the innocence or the safety of the heroine – she will survive, we feel fairly sure, but at what cost? The mystery eludes us. The characters appal. In the later historical novels, particularly when the author is trying for a sense of heightened affect, you desperately want it to end so you feel the mystery has been solved, but also you don’t ever want it to be over, because once you know what happens in the end, something is lost.
The first time I read Fingersmith, for example, Waters lulled me into false sense of security – although aware it was a reimagining of The Woman in White, I had no idea such fiendish twists awaited me, and was happily revelling in its neo-Victorian ventriloquism. Until … gasp!
Mrs Sucksby acting innocent in the 2005 TV adaptation of ‘Fingersmith’
I can’t say any more because spoilers. Also I have to get back to reading my book. It’s sensational!