Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Drug of Sensation Fiction

In their time, Victorian sensation novels were deemed dangerous, morally poisonous and corrupting to the extent that they would destroy entire lives and drive whole sections of the reading public into perdition. But can they still give a thrill today? Are they still powerful or are they just material for heritage-porn in period dramas? Today we have gritty crime fiction with gruesome violence and we have erotic novels with detailed depictions of all manner of fetishisms. Is the modern reader too jaded, too been-there-done-that-and-have-50-Shades-of-Grey to show it, to get any kind of a kick out Victorian sensation fiction? I will not attempt a scholarly analysis of the merits of Victorian popular fiction. This is a project to assess how Victorian sensation fiction works in the mind of an average 21st-century reader.

The criticism of stories of sensation in the 1860s took on a strangely pharmaceutical terminology. Contemporary critics commented on the large amount of poisons employed in sensational novels and soon this association with drugs was extended to characterize the whole genre. Articles like “The Perils of Sensation” (Saturday Review, 1864), where the name of this blog comes from, and “Novel Reading” (Ibid., 1867) warned of the “most dangerous influence upon the minds of the readers” by sensational stories laced with crime and mystery which were “the medium through which moral poison is frequently administered.” H. L. Mansel’s essay “Sensation Novels” in Quarterly Review (113, April 1863, pp481-514) illustrates the general alarm about the intoxicating and addictive power of mystery stories: they belong “to the morbid phenomena of literature – indications of wide-spread corruption, of which they are both effect and the cause; called into existence to supply the cravings of a diseased appetite, and contributing themselves to foster the disease and to stimulate the want which they supply.” Sensational stories strive “to act as the dram or the dose, rather than as the solid food, because the effect is more immediately perceptible.”

Like those brave Victorian medical men who drank poisons and electrocuted themselves in the name of science, I will conduct a self-experiment and dose myself with sensation fiction to see whether this particular drug still has potency. I will start with that great feminist manifesto, Lady Audley's Secret published in 1862.

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