Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Neo-Sensation Novel: A Contemporary Genre in the Victorian Tradition

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Neo-Sensation Novel: A Contemporary Genre in the Victorian Tradition

Article excerpt

The sensation novel, popularized in the 1860s by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and their contemporaries, has recently reappeared in fiction of the kind generally considered "serious literature." Graham Swift's Waterland (1983), Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way (1987) and A Natural Curiosit2 (1989), A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance (1990), Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (1991), and Richard Powers. The Gold Bug Variations (1991) can be considered exemplars of a new genre: the neo-sensation novel. Conspicuous in the midst of a literary scene dominated by novelists using highly experimental narrative techniques, these novels recreate an established, somewhat obscure, Victorian form. This recrudescent genre has proved remarkably popular, but recognizing these novels as a genre raises some critical questions. What end is served by the revival of these conventions? How should we understand this new genre in relation to the literary phenomenon we call postmodernism?

In attempting to answer these questions I shall concentrate on the-six novels named above, drawing connections among them that help clarify the problems of reading them both singly and as a group. I will start by detailing the characteristics of the sensation novel, and trace those characteristics in the neo-sensation novel, since the contemporary novelists often adapt the conventions of the sensation novel in ways that are not immediately obvious. The effect of these formal elements on readings of the particular novels must then be made explicit; I will argue that the notion of pastiche, as it is defined by Fredric Jameson, makes possible revised readings of the neo-sensation novels that may enrich our understanding of them. Finally, I will argue that the ideological ramifications of this particular variety of pastiche includes an implicit attack on a particular strain of "postmodern" epistemology.

Sensation novels are "novels with a secret."[1] The sensation novel begins by portraying a model community of seemingly unrelated and apparently upstanding citizens, and the business of the novel is to uncover the scandalous secrets and illicit connections that exist under that thin veneer of respectability. The characters attempt to keep hidden a reality that usually includes adultery, bigamy, madness, and murder. Much of the interest of these novels lies in what happens when the secrets are uncovered, and the characters are revealed in the light of a hitherto hidden network of relationships. Often these revelations involve significant rearrangements of the family and of the social order, and always they involve a satisfying surprise for the reader.

The term "sensation novel" was first used to designate a particular literary genre in 1861, as Thomas Boyle explains in his detailed etymology of the term? In September of that year, the same month that W. M. Thackeray first noted that the term was current in the theater for violent and surprising scenes, a writer for The Sixpenny Magazine applied it specifically to the novels of Braddon, Collins, and Dickens. The term was used by reviewers and critics such as Margaret Oliphant, E. S. Dallas, and Henry Mansel throughout the 1860s, often pejoratively, to describe a wildly popular genre that was seen by many Victorian critics as an indicator of a general decline in literary taste and in moral discrimination.

Despite its resoundingly negative critical reception, the sensation novel has found a place in literary history as a small but significant Victorian genre. The sensation novel was at the peak of its popularity in the 1860s, but Jane Eyre (1847) was among tile first exemplars of the genre (as Margaret Oliphant implies in her essay "Novels" in 1867).[3] Charles Dickens is often cited as an influence on the development of the sensation novel with the reservation that his own fiction is of a higher order, but Walter Phillips, in Dickens, Reade, and Collins: Sensation Novelists, places the work of Dickens firmly within the genre, especially such novels as Bleak House (1853) and Great Expectations (1860). …

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