Contemporary Reviews and Responses
The following reviews of Victorian sensation fiction are arranged according to theme and author. The reviews included here are are only a small sampling of Victorian reaction to and enthusiasm for sensation fiction. In future, this collection will be more thorough and will feature full reviews rather than selected sections.
Table of Contents
At no age, so far as we are aware, has there yet existed anything resembling the extraordinary flood of novels which is now pouring over this land -- certainly with fertilising results, so far as the manufacture itself is concerned. There were days, halcyon days -- as one still may ascertain from the gossip of the seniors of society -- when an author was a natural curiosity, recognized and stared at as became the rarity of the phenomenon. No such thing is possible nowadays, when most people have been in print one way or other -- when stains of ink linger on the prettiest of fingers, and to write novels is the normal condition of a large section of society.
Margaret Oliphant, Blackwoods, 94 (August 1865): 168.
Margaret Oliphant on Count Fosco from The Woman in White:
The violent stimulant of serial publication -- of weekly publication, with its necessity for frequent and rapid recurrence of piquant situation and startling incident -- is the thing of all others most likely to develop the germ, and bring it to fuller and darker bearing. What Mr. Wilkie Collins has done with delicate care and laborious reticence, his followers will attempt without any such discretion.
Margaret Oliphant, Blackwoods, 90 (May 1862): 565 - 74.
No divine influence can be imagined as presiding over the birth of [the sensation writers] 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 manfactory and the shop. The public wants novels, and novels must be made -- so many yards of printed stuff, sensation-pattern, to be ready by the beginning of the season.
H.L. Mansel, Quarterly Review, 113 (April 1863): 495 - 6.
[Todays heroines in English novels include] Women driven wild with love for the man who leads them on to desperation before he accords that word of encouragement that carries them into the seventh heaven; women who marry their grooms in fits of sensual passion; women who pray their lovers to carry them off from the husbands and homes they hate; women ... who give and receive burning kisses and frantic embraces, and live in a voluptuous dream. ... the dreaming maiden ... waits now for flesh and muscles, for strong arms that seize her, and warm breath that thrills her through, and a host of other physical attractions which she indicates to the world with a charming frankness. On the other side of the picture, it is, of course, the amber hair and undulating form, the warm flesh and glowing colour, for which the youth sighs. ... this eagerness for physical sensation is represented as the natural sentiment of English girls.
* * * * * * *
[Lady Audleys Secret] brought in the rein of bigamy as an interesting and fashionable crime, which no doubt shows a certain deference to the British relish for law and order. It goes against the seventh commandment, no doubt, but it does it in a legitimate sort of way, and is an invention which could only have been possible to an Englishwoman knowing the attraction of impropriety, and yet loving the shelter of law.
Margaret Oliphant, Blackwood's, 102 (September 1867) 257 - 280.
There is nothing more violently opposed to our moral sense, in all the contradictions to custom they present to us, than the utter unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to expatiate and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters. We believe it is one chief among their many dangers to youthful readers that they open out a picture of life free from all the perhaps irksome checks that confine their own existence. ... The heroine of this class of novel is charming because she is undisciplined, and the victim of impulse; because she has never known restraint or has cast it aside, because in all these respects she is below the thoroughly trained and tried woman.
Our Sensation Novelists, The Living Age, 78 (22 August 1863): 353 - 354.
The Woman in White
Mr. Collins is an admirable story-teller, though he is not a great novelist. His plots are framed with artistic ingenuity -- he unfolds them bit by bit, clearly, and with great care -- and each chapter is a most skilful sequel to the chapter before. He does not attempt to paint character or passion. He is not in the least imaginative. He is not by any means a master of pathos. The fascination which he exercises over the mind of his reader consists in this -- that he is a good constructor. Each of his stories is a puzzle, the key to which is not handed to us till the third volume.
With him, accordingly, character, passion, and pathos are mere accessory colouring which he employs to set off the central situation in his narrative. ... Men and women he draws, not for the sake of illustrating human nature and lifes varied phases, or exercising his own powers of creation, but simply and solely with reference to the part it is necessary they should play in tangling or disentangling his argument.
He is, as we have said, a very ingenious constructor; but ingenious construction is not high art, just as cabinet-making and joining is not high art. Mechanical talent is what every great artist ought to possess. Mechanical talent, however, is not enough to entitle a man to rank as a great artist ... Nobody leaves one of his tales unfinished. This is a great compliment to his skill. But then very few feel at all inclined to read them a second time. Our curiosity once satisfied, the charm is gone. All that is left is to admire the art with which the curiosity was excited.
Unsigned Review, Saturday Review, 10, (25 August 1860): 249- 50.
In response to Saturday Review commentary above:
The Woman in White is the latest, and by many degrees the best work of an author who had already written so many singularly good ones. That mastery in the art of construction for which Mr. Wilkie Collins has long been pre-eminent among living writers of fiction is here exhibited upon the largest, and proportionately, the most difficult scale he has yet attempted. To keep the readers attention fairly and equably on the alert throughout a continuous story that fills three volumes of the ordinary novel form, is no common feat; but the author of the Woman in White has done much more than this. Every two of his thousand and odd pages contain as much printed matter as three or four of those to which the majority of Mr. Mudies subscribers are most accustomed, and from his first page to his last the interest is progressive, cumulative, and absorbing. If this be true -- and it appears to be universally admitted -- what becomes of the assertion made by some critics, that it is an interest of mere curiosity which holds the reader so fast and holds him so long? The thing is palpably absurd. Curiosity can do much, but it cannot singly accomplish all that is imputed to it by this theory, for it is impossible that its intensity should be sustained without intermission through so long a flight. If The Woman in White were indeed a protracted puzzle and nothing more, the readers attention would often grow languid over its pages; he would be free from the importunate desire that now possesses him to go through every line of it continuously; he would be content to take it up and lay it down at uncertain intervals, or be strongly tempted to skip to the end and find out the secret at once, without more tedious hunting through labyrinths devised only to retard his search, and not worth exploring for their own sake. But he yields to no such temptation, for the secret which is so wonderfully well kept to the end of the third volume is not the be-all and end-all of his interest in the story. Even Mr. Wilkie Collins himself, with all his constructive skill, would be at fault if he attempted to build as elaborate story on so narrow a basis...
Unsigned Review, Spectator, 33 (8 September 1860): 864.
Henry James on Wilkie Collins:
To Mr Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.
Henry James, Nation, 1 (9 November 1865) 593 - 5.
[M.E. Braddon] might not be aware how young women of good blood and good training feel.
Margaret Oliphant, Blackwood's, 102 (September 1867) 257 - 280.
Lady Audley is at once the heroine and the monstrosity of the novel. In drawing her, the authoress may have intended to portray a female Mephistopheles; but, if so, she would have known that a woman cannot fill such a part. The nerves with which Lady Audley could meet unmoved the friend of the man she had murdered, are the nerves of a Lady Macbeth who is half unsexed, and not those of the timid, gentle, innocent creature Lady Audley is represented as being. ... All this is very exciting; but is also very unnatural. The artistic faults of this novel are as grave as the ethical ones. Combined, they render it one of the most noxious books of the modern times.
"Our Sensation Novelists," The Living Age 78 (22 August 1863): 353 - 354.