My exam committee (as they appear in my imagination): Can you articulate your argument for us?
Me: (rambling away…) Yes, but if I could position it a bit first…. I think that the critical work on sensation fiction tends to focus on three novels: The Woman in White, Lady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne. Especially in the 1980s, this is what “sensation fiction” meant. We can see this in Jonathan Loesberg’s “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction,” and we can see it in Winifred Hughes’s The Maniac in the Cellar. I think we can even see it in D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police, even though that’s not specifically about sensation fiction per se. But other than George Eliot, he only talks about male authors, and he has two entire chapters devoted to Wilkie Collins (even though Lady Audley’s Secret would have served his point just as well).
In the 1990s, I feel like scholars started branching out from this sensational trinity. Lyn Pykett, for example, positions sensation fiction in relation to the New Woman, and Nicholas Daly positions it in relation to realism and aestheticism. But even so, this continues to reinforce the normativity of novelistic discourse. My project seeks to branch out even further by reading sensation fiction in relation to the theater. I’m interested in arguing that sensation fiction is actually indebted to advances in theatrical technology for its portrayal of circumstantial evidence and material objects. There are at least two excellent studies (by Lynn Voskuil and Elaine Hadley) that examine the nineteenth-century theater (and the sensation theater specifically, in Voskuil’s case) in relation to its technological advances and material properties. These advances brought a whole new level of realism (or “detailism,” as G.H. Lewes would say) to the stage, and I argue that sensation novels capitalized on these details in their plots.