Sensation fiction and the publishing industry

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In considering the perils to which our language is exposed, the constant influence of corruption from colonial sources must not be overlooked … There seems … to be an unhealthy passion for adoption on the part of the public. Two or three years ago nobody would have known what was meant by a Sensation Novel; yet now the term has already passed through the stage of jocular use … and has been adopted as the regular commercial name for a particular product of industry for which there is just now a brisk demand. A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop. The public want novels, and novels must be made – so many yards of printed stuff, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season … Various causes have been at work to produce this phenomenon of our literature. Three principal ones may be named as having had a large share in it – periodicals, circulating libraries, and railway bookstalls. The two quotations above are both taken from unsigned articles in prestigious intellectual quarterly magazines, which, despite their different ideological platforms, were united in the mid 1860s in mounting a reactionary critical assault on the fiction of sensation. The first, from the Edinburgh Review with its pronounced Whig tendencies, was merely a passing gibe in the course of a denunciation of current abuses of the English language penned by the barrister Matthew Brickdale, who nevertheless implied that the enjoyment of sensation fiction itself should be treated as an ‘unhealthy passion’. The second appeared in the Tory Quarterly Review and was by Henry Mansel, then a Cambridge don and shortly to be appointed Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral; though formally a review of two dozen novels, including works by Braddon, Collins and Wood, it in fact constituted a broadside attack on the febrile, ephemeral nature of sensation fiction. Both centre on provocative comments on developments in the mid-Victorian publishing industry, which are nevertheless prone to distortion on account of the elitist ideological position each periodical espoused.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Sensation Fiction
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9780511675744
ISBN (Print)9780521760744
Publication statusPublished - 2011 Jan 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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