Genre-Bending and Experimentation in Sensation Fiction: The Case of Mary Braddon and Ellen Wood

Peter Blake

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    Deborah Wynne has noted that from 1850 to 1860 there was a change in middle-class reading tastes. She describes how ‘the social problem and domestic novels of the 1850s were falling out of favour as readers sought more exciting plots which represented insecurity and danger temporarily disturbing the genteel home.’1 The new genre of literature that grew out of this desire for excitement came to be known as sensation fiction, a form of novel writing that preyed on the nerves of its readers with outrageous and scandalous plots that depicted graphic, startling episodes including murder, bigamy, madness and seduction. Two of its most successful and prolific authors were Ellen Wood and Mary Braddon, who wrote their most successful novels, East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret in 1861 and 1862 respectively.

    Wood and Braddon were truly experimental in a number of different ways. They positioned women at the centre of their novels, but not the women usually found in the nineteenth-century domestic novel. These women were fiery, passionate, uncaring about society’s strict moral codes and desperate to achieve fame and fortune, willing to literally kill in order to climb the social ladder. Wood and Braddon also used overtly sensational incidents, new technology and crime as a way to drive the narrative forward, creating a genre that appealed to both the leisured middle-class reader and the hard-working servant. In a new urban society the sensation novel appealed to this wide array of readers because it asked the question, do we ever really know the people we live next door to or the people we see on the streets of the city?

    Given all this it might be supposed that Wood and Braddon, were reacting against the realism of the domestic novel. But Wynne has also noted how Ellen Wood owed much of the domestic nature of her novels to popular authors of domestic realism like Charlotte M. Yonge and Margaret Oliphant. Wynne states that ‘Ellen Wood in particular promoted middle-class domesticity as an ideal to be protected, while even more radical sensationalists, …like Braddon…invariably resorted to closing their novels with a triumphant middle-class family surviving all attacks.’2 Although sensation fiction has been described as a radical breaking away from contemporary fiction, sensation novelists were actually working within the

    dominant discourses of realism while simultaneously challenging those discourses. In fact it is this marrying of the domestic and the sensational that makes these writers truly experimental and this essay will explore their subtle negotiations of genre as they analyse the pressures facing women in the 1860s.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationWomen Writers and Experimental Narratives
    Subtitle of host publicationEarly Modern to Contemporary
    EditorsKate Aughterson, Deborah Philips
    PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
    ISBN (Electronic)9783030496517
    ISBN (Print)9783030496500
    Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2021


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