Review: The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction

Posted by Fern Pullan on October 09, 2014 in Blog, Fern Pullan, Reviews tagged with , , , , ,

Cover imageMangham, Andrew (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013 first edition paperback. 978-0-521-15709-4, 253pp. £18.99

Mangham’s Companion of fifteen essays is a highly refreshing study of the sensation fiction genre, highlighted by his introduction to the volume and his unwillingness to commit to a concrete time frame for the genre. He demonstrates the difficulties in defining sensation fiction at the same time as acknowledging the text that is generally accepted as being the progenitor of the genre:

What is sensation fiction? The truth is, it is difficult to say with any certainty. Literary scholars agree generally that, in or about November 1859, Victorian literature changed and that the definitive moment came when a ghostly woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, laid a cold, thin hand on the shoulder of a young man as he walked home late one evening (Mangham, 2013, p.1).

One can see how Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (the text from which this description of events is taken) ostensibly brought about the birth of a new literary genre, as it seemingly changed Victorian fiction so definitively. Mangham immediately takes issue with this projected argument by suggesting that if we are to examine the sensation fiction genre in view of a set of predetermined conventions and limitations, our grasp on the genre as something that can be clearly defined begins to melt away. Sensation fiction has long been described as relying heavily on the Gothic literary tradition of the late eighteenth century – indeed, one need only look to Henry James’ comments in his review of Collins’s work in Nation in 1865 in order to appreciate the elements shared by the two genres:

To Mr Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors… Instead of the terrors of ‘Udolpho’, we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible (James cited in Bernstein, 1993).

Mangham’s description of the opening pages of The Woman in White has a clearly apparent Gothic inflection, with its focus on the figure of the ‘ghostly’ woman garbed completely in white. Consequently, it seems difficult to categorise sensation fiction as a genre that emerged with the publication of this flagship novel when so many of the conventions are inherited from an earlier genre. Indeed, Mangham seems to be suggesting the same thing with his observation that ‘literary genres do not emerge in a vacuum’ (Mangham, 2013, p.1) – the sensation tradition did not begin overnight in 1859-60, then, but instead had been developing for some time.

Anne-Marie Beller then picks up this argument with her chapter ‘Sensation Fiction in the 1850s’, which references several contemporary cases, articles and reviews in order to demonstrate that the genre had been developing throughout the earlier decades and had not, as Hughes suggested in 1980, ‘[sprung] full-blown, nearly simultaneously, from the minds of Wilkie Collins, Mrs Henry Wood, and M.E. Braddon’ (Hughes, 1980, p.6). Beller acknowledges the popular opinion that The Woman in White (1859-60), East Lynne (1861) and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) were the originating texts of the sensation genre, but builds upon Mangham’s hypothesis by arguing that ‘the genre’s “infancy” is clearly perceptible in the 1850s’ (Beller, 2013, p.8). She goes on to observe that the raw material that formed the basis of many sensation novel plots of the following decade was developed earlier, with concerns about the changes that were taking place in the novel form being aired repeatedly by various critics. Indeed, Walter Bagehot commented in 1856 that ‘reading [was] about to become a series of collisions against aggravated breakers, of beatings with imaginary surf’ (Bagehot, 1856, p.381) – an impression that is certainly supported by the reception that sensation novels received in the 1860s. The fact that Mangham and Beller’s opinions are supported by a contemporary observation surely strengthens their arguments.

Laurence Talairach-Vielmas also builds upon an idea suggested by Mangham in his introduction in his explorations of the sensation genre’s connections to the Gothic literary tradition of the preceding century. After highlighting some of the key conventions of the earlier genre, Talairach-Vielmas draws comparisons between how these same themes are adapted and reworked in sensation fiction:

Secrets and mysteries abound, villains and villainesses plot murders, and characters are resurrected as if by magic. The new ‘spectrality’ of sensational characters…re-adapts gothic conventions to a…materialistic modern world, using multiple identities, fake death and science to re-animate the dead (Talairach-Vielmas, 2013, p.21).

It is possible to draw parallels between the situations being described here, and specific textual examples – in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), secrets and mysteries are the order of the day. Spectral and gigantic pieces of armour appear in mid-air and crush the heir to the kingdom, the prince wants to divorce his wife and marry his potential daughter-in-law in order to beget a new heir, and the ghost of Alfonso appears to reveal the true heir to Otranto. Such fantastic occurrences are rare in sensation novels, however – or, if they are hinted at, Talairach-Vielmas suggests, they are rapidly explained away by such devices as those presented above. Multiple identities can cover a character’s various misdeeds without resorting to supernatural reflections – indeed, one need only look to Isabelle Vane and Lucy Graham, those central sensation heroines, to demonstrate this. Talairach-Vielmas goes on to interrogate the manner in which sensation fiction depicted public fears of the issues surrounding the marital institution, itself another key gothic convention.

Mangham’s Companion is extremely comprehensive in the various facets regarding the sensation genre that it explores, making forays into dramatisations of sensation fiction, the publishing industry and the genre, and the medical context. By including such unusual contributions alongside more mainstream examinations of the issues of class, gender and identity, and the Gothic, Mangham has achieved a Companion that is both refreshing in its outlook on a field loaded with pre-existing criticism and that pushes the boundaries of existing and accepted beliefs regarding a scandalous genre. It does much to cast aside the notion that sensation fiction emerged literally overnight, coinciding with the appearance of a woman in ghostly white on Hampstead Heath, and yet one of its few weaknesses is its neglecting to interrogate the issue of place and setting in many of its chapters. Setting is a vital element to the sensation novel, as Henry James demonstrated in an early quotation in this review, and yet it is barely interrogated in the Companion. Another is the slight tendency to refer readers to novels that are considered classic sensation texts instead of perhaps widening the net to non-canonised novels. However, this constant referral to literary examples (regardless of their canonised position) is one of the book’s main strengths as it helps demonstrate specific points, thus making a densely-packed genre much more accessible in this well-researched and highly recommended introduction to sensation fiction.




Bagehot, Walter (1856) ‘Essay on Mr Macauley’. National Review 2, pp.357-387.

Beller, Anne-Marie (2013) ‘Sensation Fiction in the 1850s’. In Mangham, A. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.7-20

Bernstein, Stephen (1993) ‘Reading Blackwater Park: Gothicism, Narrative and Ideology in The Woman in White’. Studies in the Novel, 25 (3). Retrieved from Academic Search Complete, EBSCO host [accessed November 5, 2010].

Hughes, Winifred (1980) The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. Princeton and Guildford: Princeton University Press.

Mangham, Andrew (2013) ‘Introduction’. In Mangham, A. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.1-6.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence (2013) ‘Sensation Fiction and the Gothic’. In Mangham, A. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, pp.21-33.

Walpole, Horace (1764; 2004) The Castle of Otranto. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.




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