Dickens and the novel

Dickens was certainly one of the first novelists to benefit from the enhanced status of the novel and its authors, and he also drew fruitfully on the traditions of fiction to create his own novels:

  • his sources included fairy stories and folk tales, so that at one level his appeal was to a love of story-telling that might re-connect readers with their childhood
  • he was much influenced by the eighteenth-century novelists, which he read as a child, and drew on both the form and tone of their picaresque comic narratives
  • he added to this style of writing a concern with social issues that gave his novels an added urgency and contemporary relevance
  • he developed the complexity of his plots and the new links and relationships formed by a changing urban society
  • his use of serialization answered to the needs of his readership
  • as a result of all this, he acquired enormous popularity and moral status.

Gothic fiction

Horace WalpoleGothic fiction emerged in the late eighteenth century as a sub-genre within the larger field of the novel. Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764) is usually regarded as the first Gothic novel:

  • 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
  • it was usually set in a remote country and in the past
  • it described events that were often fantastic or supernatural
  • 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
  • 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
  • Jane Austen, who enjoyed reading Gothic novels, satirises them in Northanger Abbey (1818).

Sensation fiction

Sensation fictionwas 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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