Gothic Traces and the Law in the Development of Sensation Fiction

Fern Pullan is nearing the end of the second year of her PhD at Leeds Beckett University, where her primary research interests lie in the relationships between gender and marriage and inheritance laws in Gothic and sensation fiction of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She is also interested in tracing the development of sensation fiction into the Golden Age fiction of Agatha Christie and onward to contemporary crime pastiches of the country house mysteries, and continues to research into crime fiction. She has given papers on the Bollywood adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the contemporary adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Golden Age fiction, marriage as an architectural commodity in Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, and Gothic elements of Christie’s Miss Marple novels. You can find her on Twitter @f_pullanphd.

I’ve long been fascinated by the evolution of different genres from one another, particularly how Golden Age detective fiction developed from Victorian sensation fiction, itself born out of the Gothic fiction popular in the late eighteenth century. I’m suggesting that there’s a persistence of certain tropes throughout this ancestral line connecting these genres, with each new literary mode reworking and adapting some of them in order to suit their own particular socio-historical contexts. Consequently, there are haunting traces of both Gothic and sensation in Golden Age novels, and in the contemporary crime pastiches of novelists like Carola Dunn and Catriona McPherson, through such things as a preoccupation with the law and the idea of the closed community. I often find it intriguing that a genre with ‘sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable clichés of method and construction’ [1] has continued to grow and develop, gathering increasing numbers of devoted readers rather than waning in popularity.

In tracing the evolution of this ‘endlessly reduplicated form’, [2] these popular forms of fiction perhaps reveal more of what is historically significant about their periods than the so-called “literary” fictions are said to do. Often, as much is revealed about their contexts by what is excluded or hidden than what is included. They reveal the tensions that lie beneath the surface of a genteel English society – but also ‘its insularity, its greed, the instability of identity, [and] its obsession with the hierarchies of class and gender.’ [3]

Such revelations are made possible by the inclusion of the closed community within a text, which becomes a microcosm of society at large throughout the genres in question. It begins with the idea of these same hidden tensions taking place behind both the metaphorically closed door of the family and the physically closed door of the family home in sensation fiction. Golden Age fiction extended this community to encompass things like the village, the hotel or the social gathering at a country-house. In doing so, the closed community becomes unstable, as the notion of the wholly knowable community becomes harder to sustain through the introduction of the new and unknown.

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In his monograph on crime fiction published in 2005, Julian Scaggs demonstrated that it’s possible to trace a connection between the popular Gothic novels and Golden Age fiction, thanks to a persistent infiltration of the past into the present. By investigating in crime fiction, the detective aims to restore the rightful order of things, and so undo this intrusion. Gothic fiction also features many examples of this, through the inclusion of ghosts and the focus on the correct execution of wills and the inheritance or ownership of property, amongst others. Moreover, it had a clear overlap and relationship with the French Revolution, which also posed questions about inheritance and ancestry due to the aristocracy it displaced. Botting observed that it was the inclusion of such themes that implied ‘how much a culture, like the heroine and the family, sensed itself to be under attack’. [4]

By questioning the origin and legitimacy of authority in challenging the social order, the Gothic demonstrates its continued relationship with the idea of law, and therefore with crime itself. This preoccupation with the law and its limits continued into the nineteenth century, where references to the political and legal reforms with regards to the inheritance of property were found in abundance, most obviously in sensation fiction, which erupted in popularity following the publication of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins in 1860. Like the Gothic, the sensation novel was preoccupied with legal matters, especially through its uses in organising and controlling the family, which we can see through its ‘obsession with complex legal plots to do with wills and the inheritance of property, with the laws of bigamy and divorce, and with issues arising from women’s lack of legal identity and rights’. [5]

We’re beginning to see how sensation fiction can be marked as an extension of the Gothic mode, an impression heightened by a consideration of the hereditary features that the former also adopts, such as the terror, mystery and superstitious expectations. There are also clear differences, though. By relocating itself to a setting such as the middle- or upper-class home, sensation fiction began to present a closed community that was a step away from the crumbling castles, priories and mysterious foreign islands that had dominated Gothic fiction; a closed community within which anything could happen – including criminal acts. Crime features prominently in sensation fiction, from the acts of fraud and wrongful incarceration in The Woman in White to those of bigamy and attempted murder in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, for example.

In a review of The Woman in White, Henry James credited Wilkie Collins with having ‘introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors’. Instead of the terrors of the usual Gothic locations, the reader is ‘treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible’. [6] Here we find an echo of the idea of the past infiltrating the present that I outlined above. The attention of polite society, then, had moved away from the streets and into the home, from the unruly general population to people of apparent respectability. The Woman in White does not relinquish its Gothic roots altogether (the spectral apparition of the title character is one of the earliest moments in the novel), but Collins marks his genre’s shift by explaining away the supernatural elements of his text by presenting it as if it were a legal case, with Walter Hartright playing the role of main detective.

John Leech's 1861 cartoon for Punch of a man reading from Collins's book. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

John Leech’s 1861 cartoon for Punch of a man reading from Collins’s book. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

By considering this alongside some of the novel’s other crimes (such as Laura’s wrongful incarceration in a lunatic asylum and Sir Percival Glyde’s falsification of his parents’ marriage certificate to ensure he inherits Blackwater Park and his title), we can again see how the genre adopts both the emerging ‘white-collar’ crimes of its social context and the conventions of the Gothic into its own tropes. For example, this same confinement within the asylum is a clear modernisation – and, notably, a more realistic representation – of the Gothic imprisonment within a castle or monastery. Anne and Laura are not incarcerated in a disreputable madhouse – they are both confined ‘within a modern lunatic asylum run according to the new humane, non-restraint methods of moral management’. [7] The novel does not just use the incarceration as  a typical plot device, then, it also makes subtle commentary on contemporary definitions and treatment of the insane. Sensation fiction presents crimes amongst the heretofore respectable middle classes and, thanks to developments in the legal system that occur simultaneously, these crimes are often made public despite their private nature.

As a result of such deliberations (and others – the novel’s treatment of married women’s property, for example), the question of whether or not the novel ultimately conforms to the legal and social expectations surrounding the issue of familial crimes could be asked. Brantlinger suggested that the sensation novel was such partly because of content. It ‘deals with crime…in apparently proper, bourgeois, domestic settings… [T]here is a strong interest in sexual irregularities, adultery, forced marriages, and marriages formed under false pretenses. But rather than striking forthright blows in favour of divorce law reform and greater sexual freedom, sensation novels usually tend merely to exploit public interest in these issues’. [8]

I hope this all too brief journey through the development of the sensation novel’s preoccupation with the law and crime has helped demonstrate the footholds a particular genre can have within the foundations of another, while adapting its conventions to suit its own particular context. In this case, then, is adaptation both form and content?


[1] Grella, George (1970) ‘Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel’. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 4 (1), pp.30­-38; p.31.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Horsley, Lee (2005) Twentieth­-Century Crime Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., p.19.

[4] Botting, Fred (1996) Gothic. London and New York: Routledge, p.63.

[5] Pykett, Lyn (1994) The Sensation Novel from The Woman in White to The Moonstone. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., p.10.

[6] James, Henry (1865). Cited in Bernstein, Stephen (1993) ‘Reading Blackwater Park: Gothicism, Narrative and Ideology in The Woman in White’. Studies in the Novel 25 (3). Retrieved from Academic Search Complete, EBSCO host.

[7] Pykett, Lyn (1995) Wilkie Collins: Authors in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.149.

[8] Brantlinger, Patrick (1982) ‘What is “Sensational” About the “Sensation Novel”?’ Nineteenth­ Century Fiction 37 (1), pp.1-­28; pp.1­-6.

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