The Maniac in the Cellar: The Sensation Novel and Victorian Theories of Fiction

This is a great chapter, and I think I can put it into an interesting conversation with other books like The Melodramatic Imagination, by Peter Brooks, and Elaine Hadley’s book on the melodramatic mode. Essentially, this chapter distinguishes between sensation fiction and its antecedent genres (stage melodrama, romance, and the Gothic) and between sensation fiction and other contemporary genres, like realism and idealism.

The first point that interested me was that the sensation craze happened at a time when prose fiction had become more serious: “It is no wonder that the sensation vogue appeared all the more formidable at a time when prose fiction could no longer be disregarded, when it had finally established its right to be taken seriously” (Hughes 39). This immediately sets it apart from it immediate predecessors, since the 18th century and the Romantic period–on a very general level–still privileged poetry above prose. This was no longer true in the age of Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope. So right from the beginning, sensation fiction offended because of its ostensible “trashiness.” However, Hughes also points out that this period of sensation was “certainly a time for minor novelists to flourish, and a rare opportunity for authentically popular fiction to make its influence felt in the higher reaches of major literature” (68). I think this is a nice distinguishing factor of this particular decade, and this is one of the things that I think is wonderful about this period.

At this point, I’d like to work through some of the distinctions I see Hughes making in this chapter, between stage melodrama, sensation, and realism–since I’m not sure how I feel about these distinctions yet. The first thing that became increasingly apparent as I got further into this chapter is that Hughes draws very thick lines between sensation and other genres. In Hughes’s account, the universe of the sensation novel is strongly opposed to the universe of a realist novel, and vice versa. But are they really this distinct? I’m interested to see what Hadley will say to this, or what Brooks has to say. Just from glancing over these two other books, I feel like Hadley would be uncomfortable with demarcating a genre so specifically, since she seems to see melodrama as a “mode” rather than a genre. And Brooks seems to see melodrama as the foundation for modernism, just as Hughes sees sensation as the foundation for naturalism–so I don’t know if he would portray sensation’s antecedents as quite as distinct from sensation as Hughes does. So… let me work through some of the broad terms that Hughes employs:

Stage Melodrama:

  • the heroine is the “moral and emotional center of traditional melodrama. It might be said that her sole function on the nineteenth-century stage is to defend her honor against the violence or blandishments of the villain: the core of the dramatic action lies in the conflict between them” (44).
  • characters’ dominant feature is “a self-righteous sense of personal wholeness” (60).

Romance (vs. Sensation Fiction):

  • The Temple Bar: “When before did it ever enter the head of the writer of romance to find a field for the exercise of his more awful powers just at his own door or round the corner? With a due sense of the fitness of things, rather did he travel far afield, and seek, in remote and somewhat obscure¬† regions, for a reasonable arena wherein to make men and women act outrageously. Outrageous their actions did not seem, happening in places where personal experience had not gone before, and set the boundaries of the probably and the improbable” (qtd. in Hughes 55).
  • “A ‘novel without a hero,’ using Victorian terminology, is hardly paradoxical; character and circumstance belong to the same vision of reality–a reality that is limited but not utterly meaningless. What the Victorian critics find hard to accept, in the case of the sensation novel, is romance without a hero” (62).

Sensation Fiction:

  • The sensational heroine begins to represent “a moral ambivalence rather than a moral certainty. Although the reader is still expected to feel for her, if anything even more intensely, she is no longer invulnerable, but likely to emerge as weak, foolish, impetuous, or vengeful” (44).
  • The heroine of the sensation novel is a participant in crime, blackmail, intrigue, etc, as well as a victim.
  • judged by the mimetic standard of Realism, sensation is often critiqued as “unnatural,” “artificial,” “false,” “grotesque,” etc.
  • “Reade and Collins, in particular, profess to challenge the realists on their own ground and to surpass them according to their own standards. What, after all, could be more ‘real’ than literal fact? When the sensationalists begin to brandish their documentation and their expert testimony, it is time for the critics, perforce, to clarify their concept of verisimilitude” (50).
  • “It is sensationalism, however, that disrupts this comfortable outlook: in mingling elements of both realism and idealism, the sensation novelists create something that belongs to neither. In fact, it is this mixture itself, this disregard of fundamental categories of art, that becomes the focus of the aesthetic objections to the sensation novel” (52).
  • “The sensation novel, however rude in execution, at least recognizes heightening, exaggeration, and foreshortening as legitimate narrative techniques; it scorns the realist values of apparent artlessness and unobtrusive manipulation of effect” (53).
  • “The methodical, predictable ‘reality’ of the Victorian consciousness breaks down under the new order of the sensation novel, with its unsettling distortions and juxtapositions of material that is all too recognizably drawn from the context of modern urban experience” (53).
  • Characters are the victims of circumstances, overwhelmed by plot: this paves the way for naturalism.
  • “When the sensation novelists undertake to restore the exceptional to human life–the terrible, the mysterious, the intense–they find it impossible to do so in terms of character. Instead they rely on external circumstance, which must be stupendous enough in itself to elevate the most commonplace of dramatis personae, to ignite aspects of their being that would otherwise remain dormant. In the sensation novel, character does not resist plot or create it, but is plunged headlong into its turbulent depths. Heroes and villains alike are at the mercy of accident, of external caprice” (57).
  • “Because they are ruled by circumstance, the characters in a sensation novel tend to be weak, vacillating, and inconsistent; they lack wholeness; they lack an integrating central core” (58).
  • “In order to provide some justification for the erratic behavior of their murderers, bigamists, and adulteresses, the sensation novelists are driven to exploit the irrational elements of the psyche” (58).
  • “Evil or antisocial action is no longer the direct result and expression of evil character, as in conventional melodrama, but derives from combinations of circumstances, weakness, insanity, impulse, ‘sensation’ at its most basic” (58).
  • The sensational universe: “Not only are its workings beyond individual control, as in the realist novel, they are equivocal and arbitrary. There are the same limits on human will and significance, but no limit at all on events, as long as they proceed by extremes. Events dwarf character without making any larger sense in themselves; the patterns may be intricate and astonishing, but they offer no clue to the fundamental pattern or meaning of existence” (63).
  • “Destiny, however piously invoked, has no moral content in the sensation novel. […] In the world of the sensation novel, where accident has been canonized in the place of system, anything can happen, while the characters have no chance of learning the rules, whether to play along with them or simply to comprehend” (63).
  • “The ‘plotting’ novelists, in their revolt against realism, assert the primacy of accident […] And they use it not only as a means of harrowing their readers’ nerves but also as a measure of a certain kind of experience that the realists prefer to overlook” (65).
  • sensation novel as absurd: it “begins to combine the absurdity of childish exaggeration with the less familiar absurdity of disorientation, the nonhero’s loss of moorings in a universe where he does not belong. Because it is in touch with the deepest, subconscious anxieties of its age, in spite of its reliance on outworn convention, the sensation novel becomes absurd in a more sinister and disturbing way” (65).
  • Sensation “registers a new uncertainty about the sources of violence and passion, an uneasy feeling that they are close to home and no longer so easily accommodated by conventional morality and religion” (66).
  • “For the critics, the supreme absurdity of the sensation novel lies in its implausible mixture of the contrary modes of perception: romance and realism” (66).
  • “Whether it has bestowed arbitrary suffering or arbitrary happiness, the sensation novel is moving toward an absurdist perspective, in which both the universe and human conduct are irrational and frequently determined by accident. For both heroes and villains, the final nightmare is a loss of control, not only over external events but even over their own actions” (72).


  • G.H. Lewes: “Art always aims at the representation of Reality, i.e. of Truth” (qtd. in Hughes 48).
  • focuses on life “as it actually is,” historically, psychologically, etc. (48)
  • adheres to the mimetic standard of “truth to life”
  • “indeed all nineteenth-century realism is dependent on an instinctive belief in the order and significance of the universe and of ‘life-as-it-is.’ The realist vision is essentially a moral one; the issues are moral ones in this kind of universe, where ‘reality’ itself is moral” (51).
  • “For the Victorians, unlike their twentieth-century successors, ‘truth’ and ‘human nature’ are constants; not only do they have an objective existence that can be observed and imitated by the artist, they obey certain innate laws, predictable and immutable” (51).
  • OBJECTS! “For Thackeray, the archrealist, the province of the novel, as distinguished from drama or poetry, is inherently restricted to the ‘drawing-room’–to the levels of reality where ‘a coat is a coat and a poker a poker; and must be nothing else according to my ethics, not an embroidered tunic, nor a great red-hot instrument like the Pantomime weapon” (Hughes 53-54).
  • “the realists are always willing to lavish their art and their concern on the average man in his average faults and frustrations. The Amos Bartons of realist fiction, however far removed from the center of their universe, still command the aesthetic and moral focus of the novels themselves; they matter in terms of the narrative structure, if not in terms of the reality it proposes to represent” (62).
  • reality “is pervaded by a sense of limitation on the scope and effectuality of human actions; it is ultimately impervious to human will and chicanery” (62).


  • This is also about the representation of Reality and Truth, but it’s a different way of perceiving truth. This perception depends on “some suggestion snatched from nature, in one or other of her uttermost moments, and then carried away and developed in the void” (David Masson, qtd. in Hughes 48).
  • “Although the Victorian concept of Idealism is always susceptible to tinges of utopianism or even simple escapism, its main impetus is toward artistic generalization, toward the portrayal of ‘types’ and universal passions” (Hughes 48).
  • Dickens is often classified as either a successful or an unsuccessful Idealist.


  • According to Lewes, “detailism” “confounds truth with familiarity, and predominance of unessential details. There are other truths besides coats and waistcoats, pots and pans, drawing-rooms and suburban villas” (qtd. in Hughes 48).

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