During the 1860s and 1870s, the literary genre called sensation novels gained popularity in England. The genre combined elements from melodramatic novels (with themes of proving a moral universe existed) and Newgate novels (crime biographies popular in the 1830s-1840s). The industrialization of the book making process created books of good quality in greater numbers, which led to a huge increase in the number of readers. Because the sensation novel combined realism and romance, two elements previously considered to be in opposition, the title appealed to a wide audience.
Another societal event that influenced these stories was increased recordkeeping, which included proof of identity. Almost always present in a sensation novel was the question of the permanence or establishment of identity. In British society, loss of identity (or status) was a shared anxiety. These novels, often labeled as a novel-with-a-secret, capitalized on that fear by including provocative events of questionable wills, forged documents, secret marriages, and illegitimate offspring. Two examples of the questioning of identity are: The Woman in White (1859-60) by Wilkie Collins and Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. These two novels, as well as East Lynne by Ellen Wood, are credited as the titles that launched the genre. (Free copies of these novels can be found on Amazon or Google’s Gutenberg Project)
All of these elements coexisted with events of normal Victorian society. Authors of this genre often used police reports printed in newspapers as inspiration, although the plots did not center on the solving of the crime but how the crime affected the characters. Shocking events like bigamy, adultery, theft, forgery, seduction, and murder were often included. One of the attractions of the sensation novel was that readers were getting a peek at the secrets behind the veil of an upstanding family and were titillated (their senses were aroused) about what was revealed.
When the books were published, they became immediate bestsellers. The fact they were panned by high-brow critics made them even more sought-after because of the illicit nature. One critic at the time, Henry Longueville Mansel, writing in the Quarterly described the novels as “extremely provocative of that sensation in the palate and throat which is a premonitory symptom of nausea.” See the similarity with how the romance genre has been treated for decades?
My next release, A Match for Althia, includes a heroine who loves reading sensation novels and thinks she wants to write one, only to discover her life has been too genteel to know her subject matter.