Sensation novels were the drama TV shows of the Victorian Era. They were published in serial format, usually in "penny dreadfuls" or cheap magazines, and relied on sensationalistic plot elements to keep their readers coming back for more every week. Murder? Check. Greed? Yes. Scandalous love affairs? You know it. In 1863 H. L. Mansel said Sensation novels "preach[ed] to the nerves instead of the judgment." Suffice it to say they were pretty low-brow.
Because Victorian Sensation novels were all about cheap thrills, they can be some of the most fun classics to read--as long as you don't mind chunksters and pot-boilers. Below is a list some of the most famous Sensation novelists of their time. Please tell us what Sensation novels you've enjoyed in the comments!
- The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)--Arguably the first Sensation novel, or at the very least the one that started a craze for Sensational fiction. Collins' combination of realism and romanticism, normally antithetical in literature, captured the Victorian public's imagination.
- East Lynne by Ellen Wood (1861)--A woman leaves her husband and child for an aristocratic luvarh, only to be abandoned by him and bear an illegitimate child.
- The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade (1861)--This is a historical novel set in the 15th century that follows the life of an illustrator and scribe named Gerard. The Sensational aspect comes from Gerard's star-crossed love for his wife, Margaret. This one actually looks pretty good.
- Lady Audley's Secret by ME Braddon (1862)--This is an insanely fun, soapy novel about a woman with a dark past who may be Up To Something. Having read this one, I 100% recommend it; it has a surprisingly modern sensibility to it.
Other authors you might want to try:
- Ouida, aka Marie Louise de la Ramée--Ouida's novels have been described as a hybrid of Victorian Sensation and proto-adventure novels. Jack London cited her as a major influence.
- William Black--Black's works are often compared to that of Anthony Trollope. He was very popular during his lifetime and instrumental in fighting for copyright protection for authors in the US.
- Edmund Yates--Yates was very good friends with Charles Dickens (Dickens' letter about the Ellen Ternan "scandal" was published in Household Words, the newspaper Yates edited). He also wrote stuff.
- Henry Kingsley--Immigrated to Australia from England in the early 1860s and wrote adventure novels set in the bush.