SENSATION Fiction and the Emergence of the Victorian Literary Field

  • Richard Fantina


Often maligned by critics, sensation fiction was a controversial genre that emerged primarily in England in the mid-nineteenth century, and much of Charles Reade’s work fits comfortably into its often vaguely defined parameters. The widespread critical abuse of sensation fiction often took an ideological turn as the genre presented stark challenges to Victorian notions of propriety. A review in the Christian Remembrancer typifies what many contemporary critics felt: “The one indispensable point in a sensation novel is that it should contain something abnormal and unnatural” (qtd. in Phillips 26). The increasing popularity of the genre led an anonymous critic in the Westminster Review to warn that “a virus is spreading in all directions” (October 1866: 269). Commenting on reviews such as these, Walter C. Phillips remarks that “the increase in the reading public, combined with a reform in national manners led to almost incredible smugness and prudery” in the comments of establishment critics (93). Writing in 1919, Phillips adds that there is “something ludicrous” in the intensity of the critical reaction to the sensation novel that “is only comprehensible when one bears in mind the smugness and sanctimoniousness of the Victorian middle-class public” (34).


Late Eighteenth Century Negative Review Reading Public Mass Public Contemporary Critic 
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  2. Catherine Golden, Images of the Woman Reader in Victorian British and American Fiction (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003)Google Scholar
  3. Guinevere L. Griest, Mudie’s Circulating Library and the Victorian Novel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970)Google Scholar
  4. Lewis Roberts, “Trafficking in Literary Authority: Mudie’s Select Library and the Commodification of the Victorian Novel” (Victorian Literature and Culture, 34, 2006:1–25).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Richard Fantina 2010

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  • Richard Fantina

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