From [H.L. Mansel] ‘Sensation Novels,’ Quarterly Review, April 1863, pp. 483-491
Not so the sensation novelist. No divine influence can be imagined as presiding over the birth of his work, beyond the market-law of demand and supply; no more immortality is dreamed of for it than for the fashions of the current season. A commercial atmosphere floats around works of this class, redolent of the manufactory and the shop. The public want novels, and novels must be made—so many yards of printed stuff, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season. And if the demands of the novel-reading public were to increase to the amount of a thousand per season, no difficulty would be found in producing a thousand works of the average merit. They rank with the verses of which “Lord Fanny spins a thousand such a day;” and spinning-machines of the Lord Fanny kind may be multiplied without limit.
Various causes have been at work to produce this phenomenon of our literature. Three principal ones may be named as having had a large share in it—periodicals, circulating libraries, and railway bookstalls. A periodical, from its very nature, must contain many articles of an ephemeral interest, and of the character of goods made to order. The material part of it is a fixed quantity, determined by rigid boundaries of space and time; and on this Procrustean bed the spiritual part must needs be stretched to fit. A given number of sheets of print, containing so many lines per sheet, must be produced weekly or monthly, and the diviner element must accommodate itself to these conditions. A periodical, moreover, belongs to the class of works which most men borrow and do not buy, and in which, therefore, they take only a transitory interest. Few men will burden their shelves with a series of volumes which have no coherence in their parts, and no limit in their number, whose articles of personal interest may be as one halfpennyworth of bread to an intolerable quantity of sack, and which have no other termination to their issue than the point at which they cease to be profitable. Under these circumstances, no small stimulus is given to the production of tales of the marketable stamp, which after appearing piecemeal in weekly or monthly installments, generally enter upon a second stage of their insect-life in the form of a handsome reprint under the auspices of the circulating library.
This last-named institution is the oldest offender of the three; but age has neither diminished the energy nor subdued the faults of its youth. It is more active now than at any former period of its existence, and its activity is much of the same kind as it was described in the pages of this Review more than fifty years ago. The manner of its action is indeed inseparable from the nature of the institution, varying only in the production of larger quantities to meet the demand of a more reading generation. From the days of the “Minerva Press” (that synonym for the dullest specimens of the light reading of our grandmothers) to those of the thousand and one tales of the current season, the circulating library has been the chief hot-bed for forcing a crop of writers without talent and readers without discrimination…. Subscription, as compared with purchase, produces no doubt a great increase in the quantity of books procurable, but with a corresponding deterioration in the quality. The buyer of books is generally careful to select what for his own purposes is worth buying; the subscriber is often content to take the good the gods provide him, glancing lazily down the library catalogue, and picking out some title which promises amusement or excitement….
The railway stall, like the circulating library, consists partly of books written expressly for its use, partly of reprints in a new phase of their existence—a phase internally that of the grub, with small print and cheap paper, externally that of the butterfly, with a tawdry cover, ornamented with a highly-coloured picture, hung out like a signboard, to give promise of the entertainment to be had within. The picture, like the book, is generally of the sensation kind, announcing some exciting scene to follow. A pale young lady in a white dress, with a dagger in her hand, evidently prepared for some desperate deed; or a couple of ruffians engaged in a deadly struggle; or a Red Indian in his war-paint; or, if the plot turns on smooth instead of violent villany, a priest persuading a dying man to sign a paper, or a disappointed heir burning a will; or a treacherous lover telling his flattering tale to some deluded maid or wife. The exigencies of railway travelling do not allow much time for examining the merits of a book before purchasing it; and keepers of bookstalls, as well as of refreshment-rooms, find an advantage in offering their customers something hot and strong, something that may catch the eye of the hurried passenger, and promise temporary excitement to relieve the dulness of a journey.
These circumstances of production naturally have their effect on the quality of the articles produced. Written to meet an ephemeral demand, aspiring only to an ephemeral existence, it is natural that they should have recourse to rapid and ephemeral methods of awakening the interest of their readers, striving to act as the dram or the dose, rather than as the solid food, because the effect is more immediately perceptible. And as the perpetual cravings of the dramdrinker or the valetudinarian for spirits or physic are hardly intelligible to the man of sound health and regular appetites, so, to one called from more wholesome studies to survey the wide field of sensational literature, it is difficult to realise the idea which its multifarious contents necessarily suggest, that these books must form the staple mental food of a very large class of readers….
The sensation novel, be it mere trash or something worse, is usually a tale of our own times. Proximity is, indeed, one great element of sensation. It is necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by its explosion; and a tale which aims at electrifying the nerves of the reader is never thoroughly effective unless the scene be laid in our own days and among the people we are in the habit of meeting. We read with little emotion, though it comes in the form of history, Livy’s narrative of the secret poisonings carried on by nearly two hundred Roman ladies; we feel but a feeble interest in an authentic record of the crimes of a Borgia or a Brinvilliers; but we are thrilled with horror, even in fiction, by the thought that such things may be going on around us and among us. The man who shook our hand with a hearty English grasp half an hour ago—the woman whose beauty and grace were the charm of last night, and whose gentle words sent us home better pleased with the world and with ourselves—how exciting to think that under these pleasing outsides may be concealed some demon in human shape, a Count Fosco or a Lady Audley! He may have assumed all that heartiness to conceal some dark plot against our life or honour, or against the life or honour of one yet dearer: she may have left that gay scene to muffle herself in a thick veil and steal to a midnight meeting with some villanous accomplice. He may have a mysterious female, immured in a solitary tower or a private lunatic asylum, destined to come forth hereafter to menace the name and position of the excellent lady whom the world acknowledges as his wife: she may have a husband lying dead at the bottom of a well, and a fatherless child nobody knows where. All this is no doubt very exciting; but even excitement may be purchased too dearly; and we may be permitted to doubt whether the pleasure of a nervous shock is worth the cost of so much morbid anatomy if the picture is true, or so much slanderous misrepresentation if it be false….
Of particular offences, which are almost always contemporary and sometimes personal, undoubtedly the first place must be given to Bigamy. Indeed, so popular has this crime become, as to give rise to an entire sub-class in this branch of literature, which may be distinguished as that of Bigamy Novels. It is astonishing how many of our modern writers have selected this interesting breach of morality and law as the peg on which to hang a mystery and a dénouement. Of the tales on our list, no less than eight are bigamy stories:—“Lady Audley’s Secret,” “Aurora Floyd,” “Clinton Maynyard,” “Recommended to Mercy,” “The Law of Divorce,” “The Daily Governess,” “Only a Woman,” “The Woman of Spirit,” all hang their narrative, wholly or in part, on bigamy in act, or bigamy in intention, on the existence or supposed existence of two wives to the same husband, or two husbands to the same wife…. The two first-named claim a notice as bigamy novels par excellence, the whole interest of the story turning on this circumstance. Though both exaggerated specimens of the sensational type, they are the works of an author of real power, who is capable of better things than drawing highly-coloured portraits of beautiful fiends and fast young ladies burdened with superfluous husbands. Lady Audley, alias Mrs. George Talboys, is a Vittoria Corombona¹ transferred to the nineteenth century and to an English drawing-room. But the romantic wickedness of the “White Devil of Italy” suffers by being transplanted to home scenes and modern associations. The English White Devil, however, if not quite so romantic and interesting, is more than the rival of her prototype in boldness and guilt. She does with her own hand what Vittoria does by means of others. She has married a second husband, knowing or suspecting her first one to be still living; and the desperate means to which she has recourse to avoid discovery furnish an abundance of incidents of various degrees of ingenuity and villany. She advertises her own death in the newspapers, having previously procured a young woman who resembles her in person to die and be buried in her stead; she throws her first husband down a well, whence he finally emerges, we are not told how, with a broken arm; she breaks into a lawyer’s chambers during his absence, and destroys his papers; she burns down a house to get rid of a dangerous witness, having locked the door of his room to prevent his escape. Yet, notwithstanding all the horrors of the story—and there are enough of them to furnish a full supper for a Macbeth—notwithstanding the glaring improbability of the incidents, the superhuman wickedness of the principal character and the incongruities of others; notwithstanding the transparent nature of the “secret” from the very beginning; the author has succeeded in constructing a narrative the interest of which is sustained to the end. The skill of the builder deserves to be employed on better materials.