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Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes

Black Bess: popular penny dreadful.

Book Review
The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s
by Winifred Hughes
Princeton University Press 1981

  I have a list of a few hundred books on my Amazon wish list, all books that were too expensive to acquire when I was interested.  Thought I might use my new library card to address that situation.  The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s has been on the list for half a decade- it is out of print and will run you at least 30 bucks on Amazon.  The hardcover edition I checked out from the San Diego Public Library will run you one hundred and twenty.  Hard to believe it has gone out of print like that- but the says that there is a new paperback edition coming out next month.

  In the 1001 Books project, the Sensation Novels of the 1860s are represented by two titles, both by Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone and The Woman in White.   According to Hughes, The Woman in White is the quintessential Sensation Novel, and The Moonstone is the main link between the sensation novel and it's successors: the detective novel and the thriller.   The Sensation novel is significant because it happened at a time when the over-all Audience for novels expanded greatly as a result of increases in the literacy rate.  The Sensation Novel was preceded by the Penny Dreadful, shorter descriptions of horrific "real life" events in fictionalized form.

   In addition Hughes runs through some of the lesser remembered exponents of the genre with separate chapters on Charles Reade and a shared chapter on M.E. Braddon (female author) and Mrs. Henry Wood.  To Hughes, the primary characteristic of the Sensation Novels of the 1860s is the melding of "Romantic fantasy" with "realism."   The Sensation Novel was also notable in how it evoked a tremendously serious (and negative) response, largely because they were so popular with Audiences.  This critical dynamic of "highbrow" critics looking down on "lowbrow" popular arts would hold for two generations, virtually unopposed until after the first World War. 

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