Neo-Victorianism and Sensation Fiction (2019)

Apr 15, 2021 | Reviews

Neo-Victorianism and Sensation Fiction (2019) by Jessica Cox

Lydia Craig

A provocative claim initiates the self-described first-ever study of the Victorian sensation novel and its neo-Victorian descendants. Previous investigations into Victorian sensation fiction, notably by Lyn Pykett, Winifred Hughes, Andrew Radford, and, more recently, Elizabeth Steere, have acknowledged long-standing prejudice towards a genre considered to be evidence of poor moral and literary taste and the province of women and social inferiors; consequently, they have established the cultural history that can be gleaned through exploring nineteenth-century responses to such guilty pleasures. Now, Jessica Cox contends that this dangerously attractive and morally suspect fictional genre never actually “died” with the beginning of the twentieth century as is commonly thought. Nor did it only resurrect a century later with the advent of Neo-Victorianism, a genre that engages with and revises various narrative strategies and cultural debates of the nineteenth century. According to Cox, neo-sensation fiction has been lurking amongst us all along, albeit through diversified forms of writing, performance, and drama appearing in both intellectual and popular culture, its conventions appropriated and adapted by radio, film, and television. After all, a similar genealogy of literary influence occurred when eighteenth-century Gothic tropes were incorporated into nineteenth-century domestic settings, resulting in a Victorian Neo-Gothic.

Consequently, a key focus of this work is to redefine and expand “neo-sensationalism” to be more inclusive and encompassing. In her conclusion, Chapter 8, Cox suggests that the Victorians themselves invented Neo-Victorianism, by satirizing, adapting, and revamping previous sensation novels near the end of the century. She makes the valid point that, despite attempts at greater inclusion, academic criticism of modern neo-Victorian works actually mimics the high- and low-brow categorizations of Victorian literature, with popular fiction largely excluded. Moreover, those works that explicitly engage with Victorian realist themes and conventions receive a larger share of attention, while those that borrow from conventions of the sensation novel are often overlooked.

Even though twentieth-century authors believed they had successfully divorced themselves from the Victorian past in form, style, and content, Cox reveals in several studies that they certainly did not, and nor have we. As Cox explains in “Part I: Reinventing Victorian Popular Fiction: Genre and Neo-Sensationalism,” Chapter 2, neo-Victorian descendants, by questioning the sensation novel and engaging with its similar themes of ghosts and dark secrets, haunt our re-readings. One example I found particularly instructive was Cox’s comparison of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1951), which reveals that both plots incorporate the domestic sphere as suspenseful setting and end by restoring patriarchal order, among other similarities. However, the latter novel reworks or “haunts” the previous narrative by highlighting the misogynistic fear of, and “dangerous” urge to control, powerful and materialistic women, enabling another interpretation of events.

Chapter 3 outlines how detective fiction replaced sensation fiction in the late nineteenth century, a literary phenomenon continued by twentieth-century detective thrillers from the likes of Agatha Christie. As Cox points out, neo-sensation incorporates Victorian conventions such as amateur detectives with unexpected social backgrounds, the home as crime scene, and investigation of past events. Modern “neo-sensation detectives” progress further towards liberating characters from gender norms and enabling the crossing of social boundaries. In “Part II: Neo-Sensational Tropes,” Chapter 5, Cox resumes this theme of past influence upon the present, by exploring the trauma narratives of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne (1861), among others. Cox sees marital, sexual, and physical trauma as integral to the plot of both the sensation novel and, more explicitly, in neo-sensation counterparts such as The Thirteenth Tale (2006) by Diane Setterfield or deliberate sequels like The Dark Clue (2003) by James Wilson. Exposing modern interest in nineteenth-century paleontology and archeology, Cox posits in Chapter 6 that neo-Victorian novels seek to “excavate” and better understand the Victorians by referencing these pursuits and utilizing similar language. Chapter 7 traces continuing literary “(re)imaginings” of the inheritance motif favored by Collins, Braddon, Dickens, and countless sensation authors, to depict anxiety over the impact of ancestral legacies on identity and origin.

As a popular form of fiction and site of neo-Victorian re-envisioning, young-adult fiction shares much with Victorian sensation fiction, in terms of being largely overlooked by academic discourse focused on “serious literature,” as Cox establishes in Chapter 4, a connection which I found particularly illuminating. Ostensibly intended for younger readers, young-adult fiction such as Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree (2015) attracts an increasingly wide demographic of readers by incorporating both Gothic and Victorian tropes and challenging societal norms and expectations, similar to the nineteenth-century sensation novel’s role in relation to “good literature.” Key differences include the addition of magical and fantasy elements, as in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997-2007), and the superior ability of young-adult fiction to describe the adventures of diverse racial and cultural characters. Seen as harmful, rebellious, and culturally relevant, the young-adult genre, Cox announces, is “in some respects a more legitimate descendant of the Victorian sensation novel than neo-Victorian literary fiction which, in multiple ways, departs from many of the conventions of the original genre” (114). Its impact is most visible on Internet sites such as Goodreads, where reading for pleasure alone is not stigmatized.

Despite the excellent connections they make between neo-Victorian inheritances of sensation fiction’s tropes, forms, and cultural responses, the chapters of this study tend to list multiple novels by a variety of authors in what sometimes feels like extremely bewildering succession. Occasionally, the full names and publication dates are not provided when the author already listed them in the introduction, a place where I would more naturally expect to find a general view of literature. Besides these minor issues, when each chapter reaches its particular contrast and focus between a Victorian novel and its neo-Victorian novel as respondent or descendant, the discussion is thorough and provokes reevaluation of the boundaries academic discourse has placed upon ever-evolving literature. Exposing the nineteenth-century debt of both neo-Victorian and young-adult fiction as continuing legacies of Victorian sensation novels, Cox’s study represents a valuable step in moving the conversation forward.