A Companion to Sensation Fiction

A collection of essays on Victorian sensation fiction should be, like the genre itself, an entertaining read, and Pamela K. Gilbert’s A Companion to Sensation Fiction does not disappoint, proving to be a fascinating and scholarly collection of essays. The volume forms part of the Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture series, the subjects of which include crime fiction, Romantic poetry and the British and Irish short story; with the publication of this volume, sensation fiction takes its rightful place as an important and recognised genre within Victorian studies. The collection seeks to place sensation fiction within an historical and cultural framework, introducing the reader to key authors and texts, major themes inherent within the genre, and bringing together for the first the most recent critical scholarship.

A Companion to Sensation Fiction comprises a wide range of essays, organised into four sections. “Before Sensation, 1830-1860” introduces the reader to the significant genres that preceded sensation fiction and includes Andrew King’s interesting chapter on “Cheap Serial Fiction of the 1840s and 1850s”. Gathered in the weighty “Reading Individual Authors and Texts, 1860-1880” is a “large army of novelists” (453), from the familiar faces of the genre, such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, to the less well-known names of Florence Marryat, Dora Russell, Charlotte M. Brame and Mary Cecil Hay. However, as the widely recognised “founders of the sensation novel” (574), Collins and Braddon are the subjects of a significant number of these chapters, with three dedicated to Collins and five to Braddon. “Topics in Scholarship” addresses current thematic concerns, and includes Deborah Wynne’s particularly useful chapter on “Critical Responses” to the genre. The volume closes with five essays addressing “After Sensation: Legacies”, and includes some unexpected subjects, such as Talia Schaffer’s “Aestheticism and Sensation”. Glancing through the table of contents, it is apparent how diverse the study of sensation fiction has now become: subjects addressed include the theatre, medicine and science, detection and crime, commodity culture and queer theory. It is particularly pleasing to see illustration well represented, as well as poetry and short fiction; these are significant areas of research that are not readily associated with sensation fiction, a genre still very much linked to the novel.

Gilbert’s introduction acts as a comprehensive overview of the genre. Her discussion of the difficulties inherent in close reading sensation fiction is particularly interesting and relevant for readers of The Wilkie Collins Journal. Collins’s novels, like many sensation novels, were usually serialised in magazines and then adapted for publication as a volume or for the theatre, and Gilbert rightly notes that our “traditional commitment to close reading” (3) is particularly problematic when researching popular texts such as these that had many different versions, and so sensation fiction forces us to reconsider how we research all Victorian fiction. Like the genre itself, which is defined by its sense of immediacy, this collection is particularly interested in current criticism; Gilbert stresses that a significant aim of the volume is to inspire future research, and to this end there is an emphasis on showcasing pioneering scholarship.

Readers of Wilkie Collins will find much food for thought in the section that Gilbert refers to as the “heart” of the volume, “Reading Individual Authors and Texts”. Daniel Martin’s chapter on “Wilkie Collins and Risk” acts as an introduction to Collins, however the biography and critical history are brief; in-keeping with the focus of the collection, Martin’s interest is not in retelling this material, but rather developing our understanding of Collins as a key figure within sensation fiction. Using as his examples No Name (1862) and Armadale (1866), Martin argues that Collins’s writing is defined by “risk” and “accident” – the very “building-blocks” upon which the sensation novel is founded (185). It is a convincing argument, and Martin’s chapter usefully explores these themes, which are in turn raised elsewhere in the collection. Elizabeth Langland builds upon Martin’s introduction, taking as her subject The Woman in White (1859-60). As one of the cornerstone novels of the genre, this may well be familiar territory to readers ofTWCJ, however, Langland’s chapter offers a thorough and detailed discussion of the novel, covering tone and technique, as well as gender, mystery and plotting, class and violence. The final chapter dedicated to Collins is Susan Zieger’s discussion of a novel more readily associated with detective fiction, The Moonstone (1868). In one of the most engagingly written chapters of the collection (Zieger begins promisingly with “[s]ex, drugs and bling” (209)), the author explores Collins’s use of opium, alcohol and tobacco as the “substances of memory” (209); these drugs, she suggests, are key to The Moonstone’s mystery and sensation.

As mentioned earlier, Collins is discussed in detail not only in the three chapters dedicated to his life and work but throughout the collection; Lillian Nayder’s “The Empire and Sensation”, part of the impressive “Topics in Scholarship” section, discusses the “imperial frameworks” of Collins’s novels (including The Moonstone and Poor Miss Finch (1871-2)) and her argument links neatly to the ideas raised in Zieger’s chapter. Likewise, Collins appears as a significant figure in Martha Stoddard Holmes and Mark Mossman’s discussion of disability and sensation. Disability is increasingly recognised within Victorian studies as significant as gender, race, class and sexuality, yet it is still a neglected subject within sensation scholarship. In this chapter, the authors suggest that while critics have paid attention to bodies in sensation fiction (such as the shocking touch of Anne Catherick at the start of The Woman in White), little attention has been paid to disabled bodies and the mentally impaired. They suggest that disability is “most striking in the works of Wilkie Collins” (495), due in part to his “ambiguous and inconsistent discourse of mental disability” in texts such as The Woman in White (494). Interestingly, Stoddard Holmes and Mossman suggest that Collins does not focus on disability to shock (as in the moment of an accident) but rather engages with life after the event, the experience of living with a disability (as in Madonna Blyth’s fall from a horse in Hide and Seek (1854)). There is also an interesting discussion of Collins’s evasion of diagnosis (what exactly is wrong with Anne Catherick and should we attempt to “categorise” her?). Medicine, physical and mental health are a preoccupation in Collins’s novels, and Meegan Kennedy’s chapter on medicine looks at Collins’s “medical villains”, suggesting that his suspicion of “new scientific medicine” was expressed through villainous characters such as Dr. Benjulia in Heart and Science (1883), who philosophises that ‘[k]nowledge sanctifies cruelty’ (488-9).

As one of the giants of the sensation genre, it is not surprising that Collins features so heavily throughout this volume and there are many more chapters that warrant attention than space allows here: Kimberly Harrison’s fascinating discussion of consumer and commodity culture in The Woman in White and Ross G. Forman’s queer reading of the same novel; Mary Elizabeth Leighton and Lisa Surridge’s important research into “Sensation and Illustration” and Sophia Anders’s detailed discussion of Pre-Raphaelite realism; the evident influence of Collins’s work as discussed in Grace Moore’s “Neo-Victorian Pastiche”, not to mention the other authors given significant consideration here, such as Ouida, Rhoda Broughton and Charles Reade. Gilbert writes that she set out to inspire future research, and she has certainly achieved her aim in this impressive collection; A Companion to Sensation Fiction is a volume that readers will turn to repeatedly for sources and inspiration. Readers of Wilkie Collins will be particularly rewarded with the rich material on offer here, and above all, they will be entertained.

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