Sensation novel  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The sensation novel was a literary genre of fiction popular in Great Britain in the 1860s and 1870s, following on from earlier melodramatic novels and the Newgate novels, which focused on tales woven around criminal biographies, also descend from the gothic and romantic genres of fiction. Ellen Wood's controversial East Lynne (1861) was the first novel to be critically dubbed "sensational" and began a trend whose main exponents also included Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1859; The Moonstone, 1868), Charles Reade, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, 1862).

Typically the sensation novel focused on shocking subject matter including adultery, theft, kidnapping, insanity, bigamy, forgery, seduction and murder. It distinguished itself from other contemporary genres, including the Gothic novel, by setting these themes in ordinary, familiar and often domestic settings, thereby undermining the common Victorian-era assumption that sensational events were something foreign and divorced from comfortable middle-class life. W. S. Gilbert satirised these works in his 1871 comic opera, A Sensation Novel.

When sensation novels burst upon a quiescent England these novels became immediate best sellers, surpassing all previous book sales records. However, high brow critics writing in academic journals of the day decried the phenomenon and criticized its practitioners (and readers) in the harshest terms. The added notoriety derived from reading the novels probably served only to contribute to their popularity.

Notable Sensation Novels

See also

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