I’ll be teaching a new MA course on Sensation and Gothic fiction at the University of Amsterdam next year, and I would love to hear suggestions about what Victorian novels I should include. I am also hoping the course will help me answer some of the questions I have about the differences between these two genres. A key difference seems to be setting, as sensation novels typically take place in England, with Gothic fiction more often adopting a foreign setting; yet the urban gothic novels of the late-nineteenth century (novels like Dracula, for instance) seem to blur these lines. Is it the element of the supernatural or fantastic that defines a novel as gothic vs. sensationalist?

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4 thoughts on “Sensation vs. Gothic

  1. I would say that the sensation novel proper (i.e. of the 1860s) contains only hints of the supernatural, whereas Gothic tends to explore actual forces of the supernatural in the diegetic world of fiction. The sensation novel is far more interested in exploring the morbidity of what Collins routinely called the “Actual.” In fact, Collins was quite insistent throughout his work that his fiction is a type of realism, despite what his critics said.

    When hints of the supernatural do appear in sensation fiction, they tend to be mood setters or theme inducers. They capture a reader’s attention and allow authors such as Braddon and Collins to explore the “sensations” of modern life, technology, politics, gender relations, class, race, crime, madness, espionage, intrigue, etc, etc, etc.

  2. Looks like another great course, Tara. There’s so much that draws these genres together, but I’m interested in hearing where others have found the significant differences between these two.

    For my part, I’d suggest looking at Anne Williams’ Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. It’s a wonderful study of Gothic that examines the divergent courses of the “male” and “female” gothic tradition. Williams is a good Gothicist who rarely loses sight of the difficulties of applying gendered distinctions to such a queer genre, while managing to clearly lay out the anti-patriarchal, domestic mode of Gothic that texts such as Wollstonecraft’s Maria helped to shape.

    In Maria, the protagonist finds herself unjustly confined in an insane asylum at her husband’s order. At one point, she asks herself: “Was not the world a vast prison, and all women born slaves?” Thinking about how Wollstonecraft extends the gothic topoi of the prison/asylum to encompass all of female experience, it’s pretty easy to trace the lines to sensation novels such as Lady Audley’s Secret (which I assume will be on the course?).

    When studying two genres so obsessed with legitimate and illegitimate inheritances, the question of matrilineal and patrilineal lines of literary tradition and transmission might be one interesting way of thinking through differences between Gothic and Sensation. How many Gothic novels concern themselves with male inheritance? How many Sensation novels explore female inheritance (or, in the absence of a material female “legacy” like “the moonstone,” concern themselves with the fidelity of a female protagonist and the legitimacy of her offspring)?

  3. Thank you both for your responses! This is really helpful. And thanks for the book suggestions, Gregory. You raise an important, and interesting, issue with respect to gender and inheritance. Will have to give that some thought. Even in the field of sensation fiction, the novels tend to be gendered: there is the female oriented and authored “domestic sensation novel” vs the male authored “newspaper sensationalism”, a distinction I haven’t found entirely accurate.

  4. I must say I haven’t dived into sensation fiction too much other than to distinguish it from the Newgate novel but to give a brief addition to the above replies: I find that a significant feature of sensation fiction, related to the English setting/domestic surroundings you mention, is the intrusion of privacy. They often seem to deal with topics concerning invasion of personal space. With the (later) Victorian age known for creating/stressing the private space it might be something to take into consideration.

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