It achieved peak popularity in the 1860s and 1870s in England. The writers of sensation novels were inspired by gothic literature as well as Newgate novels. The latter refers to books that used criminals as their main characters and romanticized their lives, lies, and misdeeds. The genre was quite popular during this period of time, especially among the working class. These novels helped to inspire other works that followed, for example, the modern detective novel, the horror and romance genres, and more.
Explore the Sensation Novel
Sensation Novel Definition
Sensation novels were popular in the 1860s and 1870s in Great Britain. They explored themes of identity and romance. They were written with the intention of thrilling readers.
Sensation novels are defined as novels that combine “romance and realism” in a way that strains both, according to A Companion to the Victorian Novel. These novels played off of readers’ fears for their futures, ideas about their pasts, and interests in different kinds of lives. The sensation novel, and those who wrote them, were often also involved in theatre. Melodrama was a significant influence.
Novelists of this genre wrote stories that were allegorical and allowed them to explore various scenarios that conveyed messages. Often, they tapped into a fear of losing one’s identity. This can be seen in one of the examples below, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. His work, in addition to Mary Elizabeth’s Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, are often cited as prime examples of the genre. Later novels were inspired by the peak of sensation novels, dating to today’s thriller, romance, and horror genres.
Examples of Sensation Novels
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Collins is sometimes referred to as the “grandfather of English detective fiction.” His novel The Woman in White falls under the genre of both a mystery novel and detective novel. It is also often described as a sensation novel. Here is a quote from the novel:
I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath.
The protagonist, Walter Hartright, uses various detective techniques, many of which are seen throughout later novels. He encounters a woman dressed entirely in white in the middle of the night. She’s lost in the streets of London, and he gives her directions. He later learns that she escaped from an asylum.
“Green Tea” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fans
This short story is a great example of how sensation novelists altered the traditional gothic and horror genres. The main character, Jennings, goes through the remarkable experience of opening an inner eye and being able to see into the spirit world, all as a result of having had too much green tea. Here is a quote from the short story:
I have not, I repeat, the slightest doubt that I should have first dimmed and ultimately sealed that inner eye which Mr. Jennings had inadvertently opened. The same senses are opened in delirium tremens, and entirely shut up again when the overaction of the cerebral heart, and the prodigious nervous congestions that attend it, are terminated by a decided change in the state of the body.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations is Dickens’s thirteenth novel and one of his best-known. It is also his second to last completed novel. The book features the protagonist Pip, an orphan who grows up throughout the pages. It can be described as a bildungsroman or a coming-of-age novel. It is also often referred to as a sensation novel as it delves into themes of identity. Specifically, Pip’s understanding of his upbringing and who he wants to be. Here is a quote from Ms. Havisham in regard to Estella and Pip:
Love her, love her, love her! If she favours you, love her. If she wounds you, love her. If she tears your heart to pieces – and as it gets older and stronger, it will tear deeper – love her, love her, love her!
It was published as a serial starting in December of 1860 and ending in August of 1861. The book is set in London and features Magwitch, Estella, Joe the blacksmith, and Miss. Havisham. Other Dickens novels, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood, are also sensation novels.
Discover more Charles Dickens novels and poems.
A sensation novel is defined by speck themes, like identity and the ability to play on a reader’s fear. These novels should trigger readers’ senses as well, inspiring them to imagine different scenarios.
Some readers may consider Sherlock Holmes’s stories as sensation novels. They share many of the same attributes as classic sensation novels. Other detective novels, like The Woman in White, are considered sensation novels.
Related Literary Terms
- Gothic: literature that deals with themes of death, the supernatural, sorrow, fear, loss, and more.
- Antinovel: any novel that disregards traditional conventions of novel-writing. These books push the limits of what a novel can be.
- Chronicle Novel: a long novel, or one in a series of novels, that follows at least two generations of a family or group.
- Coming-of-Age Novel: a book that tells the story of a character growing up and going through a series of important life-defining changes.
- Dime Novel: a form of short, cheap fiction popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States.
- Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
- Read: “Green Tea” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fans
- Watch: Sensation and Convention in the Victorian Novel
- Listen: Features of Gothic Literature