Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

Understanding Sensation Fiction by Rheesa Lintag

            Sensation fiction existed for only a brief time in the Victorian era, having been created in approximately 1855, peaking in the 1860s and 1870s, only to completely die down about twenty years later, in roughly the year 1890. In a more generic sense, sensation fiction seemed to sell itself on the idea of shock value and thrilling the reader; it was not uncommon for the genre to consist of the supernatural or murder. Susan David Bernstein’s text, “Dirty Reading: Sensation Fiction, Women, and Primitivism”, comments on this concept, stating that "the narratives that were critically labelled ‘sensation fiction’ are studded with criminal acts within the home and rendered through tidal waves of suspense designed to put the reader's nerves on full alert—hence, the qualifier ‘sensation.’” (Bernstein 215) According to Bernstein, sensation novels tend to address narratives heavy on social advancement, especially in scenarios with underclass women who will do anything to improve their life. She suggests that the ‘sensation’ part of the genre’s name comes from the common theme of opposing traditional ideas of gender roles, in that the housewife often turns into the villain. Where the housewife is typically the “Victorian angel-in-the-house” (Bernstein 216), in the sensation genre, she is a monster who is never quite punished enough for the crimes she commits. 

             Interestingly, the sensation genre is fairly difficult to define, given its ability to borrow from a diverse range of other genres. Of course, during its reign in the Victorian era, it was only expected to contain elements from typical Victorian novels, such as romance and love, but what set it apart from this pastoral idea of living were its gothic and horror elements. It was partially due to the amount of tragedy that seemed to occur frequently in Victorian newspapers that caused such a spike in this craving for shock value; fiction had to be more exciting than reality for people to read it. An 1863 medical article addresses this taste for thrill, in the following quote, “a heroine who was not an adulteress and a poisoner would disgust a modern novel-reader, and would prevent him from following, even so far as the second volume, the fortunes of a person so uninteresting” (Anon 514). By examining the three sensation fiction texts, Henry James’s The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, Tom Hood’s The Shadow of a Shade, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Cold Embrace, Bernstein’s ideas on sensation fiction can be contextualized by how these stories fit into her definition of sensation fiction, as well as how they compare and contrast to one another. While the three texts seem to mainly be a simple mixture of romance and horror, it is important to examine just how the juxtaposition of these two polarizing genres not only work together, but also contradict each other to create its own genre. 

            True to Bernstein’s theory, sensation fiction appears to follow a simple theme of villainizing unexpected characters. Specifically, women in the sensation genre appear to be the evildoers. In Henry James’s The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, Bernstein’s idea is only reinforced in the characters of Rosalind and Perdita, who fight over the affections of the same man, Arthur Lloyd. Where Rosalind is the obvious villain in her jealousy, it is her greed for riches that leads to her downfall when she attempts to open her late sister’s chest of treasures. Meanwhile, Perdita’s villainy comes more unexpectedly; it is while she is in her deceased state that she truly becomes a villain, when she kills Rosalind out of jealousy and betrayal. Here, the reader can witness Bernstein’s idea of sensation fiction, where the women are villainized instead of the men. Additionally, Rosalind’s ambition and desire to marry into Arthur’s riches play into Bernstein’s theory of underclass women stopping at nothing to improve their social class-- however, it can be argued that the punishment inflicted between the two women was actually uncalled for, instead of insufficient. Although the villainy is correct to assume in the roles of the women, similar to Bernstein’s theory, Rosalind’s punishment by her sister’s hands is questionable. Perdita’s confidence in Arthur’s loyalty is questionable:

“She had not recovered from the shock which Arthur had given her by telling her that in the hour of her agony he had been with Rosalind. She trusted her husband very nearly as well as she loved him; but now that she was called away for ever she felt a cold horror of her sister.” (James).

In this quote, it is evident that Perdita has the right to be suspicious of her husband’s devotion to her. Earlier in the story, it is also mentioned that he had difficulty choosing between the two sisters in the first place, depicted in the following quote:

“That they were both very fine girls Arthur Lloyd was not slow to discover; but it took him some time to make up his mind whether he liked the big sister or the little sister best.” (James).

From here, it could be suggested that there could’ve been potential for Arthur to play a villain as well, in adultery. Yet, Perdita’s negative feelings of insecurity and jealousy appear to be directed towards her sister instead of Arthur, despite the fact that an affair between her husband and sister would be, at the very least, the fault of both parties. Here, then, Bernstein’s idea of punishment not being quite enough rings true halfway, in that instead of a woman seemingly not punished enough for her wrongdoing, it is a man, Arthur, who seems to not have received his proper punishment. What’s interesting about James’s particular story is the lack of thrill and suspense in the story-- while it exists, it is very subtle, with a slow buildup, leaving the better half of the the thrill and horror to the very end of the story, when the supernatural aspect comes out in Perdita’s vengeance against Rosalind.

​​​​​​​            The concept of jealousy and greed appear to be recurring themes in sensation fiction, particularly in the texts chosen to examine. Similar to James’s text, Tom Hood’s The Shadow of a Shade follows an identical structure, in that there is also reciprocated romance between two partners that is quickly thwarted by a greedy unrelated third party who murders half of the couple, only for said third party member to be murdered by the deceased half’s ghost. In Tom Hood’s text, the characters of George Mason and Lettie parallel Perdita and Arthur Lloyd in their reciprocated romance. They appeal to the romantic aspect of sensation fiction, addressing the pastoral ideas of literature that the Victorian era was accustomed to. Naturally, this fits into the idea of sensation fiction borrowing from aspects from the romance genre. Additionally, Vincent Grieve’s character corresponds with the visible villain from James’s story, Rosalind. The two stories, side by side, follow the same formula, but upon closer examination, it is how the tension is formulated throughout the story, as well as where the vengeance is placed that sets these two stories apart. While James’s text chose to leave the supernatural horror to the end of the story, allowing for the reader to get a better impression on the characters, Hood’s The Shadow of a Shade hinted at George’s ghostly self closer to the beginning of the story, even before the reader could even know he’d passed, when a sudden cold air sweeps through the room:

“Suddenly there swept into the room a chill. It was not a gust of cold wind, for the curtain by the open window did not swerve in the least. But the deathly cold pervaded the room--came, and was gone in an instant. Lettie shuddered, as I did, with the intense icy feeling.” (Hood).

Hood’s choice to create this eerie suspense early on in the story suggests a duality to sensation fiction; James’s story allowed for more character building in its almost belated introduction to the supernatural horror, while Hood’s story had recurring incidents of interactions with George’s ghost, suggesting that any amount of romance or horror could still create the air of sensation fiction. This concept of James’s text leaning less toward horror and focusing more on romantic aspects, and Hood’s text appearing to borrow more aspects from the horror genre can also be found in the titles of the text, where, at first impression, it appears The Romance of Certain Old Clothes gives the impression of a love story, while The Shadow of a Shade seems to be a horror story. Additionally, while the main characters of The Romance of Certain Old Clothes favoured women in ratio, Hood’s text is inverted, with men taking up the majority of the cast. With this in mind, Bernstein’s theories of women being the villain, as well as the trope of women desperately social climbing are dismissed; however, her idea of suspense within the home is still held true. 

​​​​​​​            While both Henry James’s text, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, and Tom Hood’s, The Shadow of a Shade share many similarities in their formula to fit into the idea of sensation fiction, it is important to examine their details closely to find where they differentiate from each other. At first glance, it appears that Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Cold Embrace also follows the same formula of a love triangle, but Braddon’s text deviates more from James’s and Hood’s structure of sensation fiction more obviously. Indeed, there is the parallel in the reciprocated love aspect of the formula in Braddon’s text, between the German artist and Gertrude, with the third party love interest who makes things harder for this relationship. While Gertrude is in love with the German artist, she is betrothed to someone else whom her father approves of, making the romance between her and the German artist not nearly as simple as the romances depicted in James’s or Hood’s texts. Additionally, instead of death preventing the lovers from succeeding in their relationships like in James’s and Hood’s stories, Braddon utilizes the theme of betrayal instead of jealousy to create discord and horror in her story. Due to the German artist’s overconfidence in Gertude’s love for him, he does not come back in time to prevent Gertrude’s wedding. Here, Braddon deviates from the other two texts, as, instead of the third party member of the love triangle being haunted and eventually killed, it is a member of the romantic aspect of the story who is punished. Additionally, Bernstein’s theory of social climbing women fits somewhat in this context, as Gertrude was willing to do anything, including suicide, to reach her goals, or in this case, to get out of the undesirable situation of marrying someone she found no attraction to, as well as to deal with the rejection from the German artist. Bernstein’s idea of malevolence existing in the least expected character exists in this story as well, given that Gertrude’s character was introduced as the half of a romantic couple, playing on the pastoral aspect borrowed from the romantic genre. It is worth examining the title of the story as well, The Cold Embrace-- where James and Hood leaned too heavily on either the romantic or horror genre for their titles, according to Jennifer Bann in her article, “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter”:

“The cold embrace of the story’s title is more possessive than affectionate, the physical enforcement of an emotional claim; the lover kept permanently beyond Gertrude’s reach in life is literally held within it in death.” (Bann 677).

Here, in Braddon’s title alone, the reader can witness the fine juxtaposition of horror and romance at play, in that, the title appears to be romantic, in regards to the ‘embrace’ aspect of it, but upon closer inspection, also provokes feelings of unease, due to the ‘cold’ placed before.

​​​​​​​            After examining the three texts, Henry James’s The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, Tom Hood’s The Shadow of a Shade, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Cold Embrace, it is evident that while Susan David Bernstein’s ideas of sensation fiction from her article, “Dirty Reading: Sensation Fiction, Women, and Primitivism” are not always accurate, but they do hold some merit to them. While her concepts were not necessarily present consistently in each of the texts examined, they were still present in some way or another. The differences between each text, whether mild or obvious only suggests that sensation fiction is, indeed, difficult to define. The combination of genres, specifically romance and horror, seem to be frameworks for how sensation fiction was developed, based on the amount of borrowed aspects from these two genres. Indeed, Henry James’s The Romance of Certain Old Clothes followed Bernstein’s idea of sensation fiction the best; it had horror aspects in domesticity, in Rosalind’s death by her deceased sister’s clothes, narratives in social advancement, in Rosalind’s jealous ambitions to marry Perdita’s ex husband, and an unsuspecting villain by the end of the story, in the character of Perdita. Meanwhile, Tom Hood’s The Shadow of a Shade, although very similar to James’s text, did not consist of all of Bernstein’s claims to sensation fiction. While most of Bernstein’s aspects fit into Hood’s story similarly to James’s, it is in the details that they differed. Instead of the supernatural appearing only at the end of the story, Hood’s text had recurring supernatural elements throughout the whole text, subscribing more to Bernstein’s idea of suspense being distributed in waves rather than in one go. Additionally, the gender switch in Hood’s story to James’s story dismissed the concept of the unsuspecting villain always being a woman-- in Hood’s case, the villain was Vincent Grieve, a man. Lastly, in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Cold Embrace, the focus of betrayal in place of greed set it apart from the previous two texts. This slight difference in theme allows for Bernstein’s idea of the villain existing in the least expected character to appear, as the villain is found in the romantic aspect of the story. Bernstein’s other idea of ambition striking underclass women desperately surfaces in this story as well, due to Gertrude’s impulse to commit suicide to get out of situations she deems undesirable. While the three stories, The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, The Shadow of a Shade, and The Cold Embrace subscribe to Susan David Bernstein’s definition of sensation fiction, it is actually how they deviate from Bernstein’s interpretations that demonstrates how diverse and difficult sensation fiction can be to define.

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