Gothic and sensation fiction

Gothic fiction

Gothic fiction emerged in the late eighteenth century as a sub-genre within the larger field of the novel. It was initiated by Horace Walpole with The Castle of Otranto (1764) and reached the height of its popularity towards the end of the century with such novels as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1796):

  • it was called Gothic because it employed settings and / or plots that were associated with the medieval period, when the Gothic style of art and architecture developed. Gothic fiction is notable for its use of historical or remote settings to dramatise the ways in which events in the past may affect individuals in the present

  • it was usually set in a remote country and in the past.  As the genre developed, it began to employ more modern settings, as in The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) by Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin

  • it described events that were often fantastic or supernatural.  However, as in Godwin's novel and in Frankenstein, the Gothic genre began to explore contemporary philosophical, political and scientific preoccupations

  • its heroines were usually young women threatened by tyrants, rescued from their fate by determined and brave men, its heroes usually acting alone against overwhelming odds

  • in some Gothic novels, the heroine is responsible for her own fate and these books include some of the earliest autonomous female characters in English fiction

  • the villains were usually powerful men: cruel and tyrannical aristocrats or corrupt priests

  • the novels were set in castles or large houses full of dungeons and secret passages (many of the devices of the modern horror genre), and often involves stories of torture and persecution. The authors deliberately set out to create tension, fear and the anticipation of violence or horror

  • the atmosphere of the novels was gloomy and claustrophobic and the action often included physical and sexual violence

  • the plots usually revolved around issues concerning wills, inheritance and dynastic marriages

  • such novels were often seen as providing readers with a kind of thrill, a delight in being frightened that is perhaps similar to that derived from contemporary horror films. As well as evoking anticipation and fear in its readers, Gothic fiction to explore the psychology of terror, guilt and the divided self.

  • Jane Austen, who enjoyed reading Gothic novels, satirises them in Northanger Abbey (1818).

Sensation fiction

Sensation fiction was a literary sub-genre of Gothic literature, which was at the height of its popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. The Woman in White (1860) by Wilkie Collins is usually regarded as the first sensation novel:

  • sensation fiction is sometimes regarded as domesticated Gothic in that it uses many of the devices of the Gothic novel, but places them in a contemporary English setting

  • they dispense with the supernatural element of Gothic fiction and even their most extraordinary events are given a rational and natural explanation

  • women (usually wives) suffer at the hands of men (usually husbands); the heroes are young men who are sometimes helped by resourceful women

  • their plots concern issues of identity and inheritance

  • insanity (real or supposed) plays a large partin the plot, with the private lunatic asylum taking the place of the locked room or dungeon in a Gothic novel, and the use of drugs taking the place of physical cruelty

  • they often have complex narratives making use of first person statements, diaries and letters, so that the stories are seen from more than one point of view

  • as with Gothic novels, sensation fiction aims to thrill and frighten the reader.


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