Browse Exhibits (2 total)

The Transatlantic Moonstone: Part V


Sensation Fiction and the Common Reader: How Increased Readership Shaped Literary Material in the Victorian Era

As Loesberg describes it, sensation fiction is “something extraordinary, exaggerated, shocking” (125). It is these very traits that attracted what Richard Altick names “the common reader” during the Victorian era. This common reader came to be for several reasons; notably, the increase of industrial work which required some ability to read, the cheapness and disposability of printed matter such as newspapers and periodicals, and a sharp increase of literacy rates from 1841 to 1900, which jumped from 50 percent to nearly 100 percent literacy of the English population, respectively. A growing middle-lower class demanding cheap readership meant a growing demand of a genre that could cater to them. It was authors such as Wilkie Collins that did so, providing numerous serialized sensation novels such as The Moonstone. As Collins writes in A Rogue’s Life concerning the common reader: “where is the man who can get them to amuse themselves? Anybody may cram their poor heads; but who will lighten their grave faces?” (97). To delight and shock was precisely the intention of Collins in many of his works, which would cater to the enjoyment of new, common readers. According to Altick, the common reader had now “extra pennies and shillings” that translated into “a wider consumers’ market for printed matter… stimulating the quest for cheaper materials” (306). These cheaper materials manifested themselves into periodicals and newspapers, such as Harper’s Weekly in the United States and All the Year Round in England. These materials were successful in the middle-lower classes because of their universal nature; periodicals and newspapers appealed to those who found a whole book “too formidable a task” (Altick, 318) and catered to curiosities concerning the happenings of other places in the world (Altick, 318). Therefore, the political, compact nature of these materials made them readable for members of all classes, notably the middle-lower, or “the new reader.” “Less serious students” says Altick, were “confined to penny shockers and sensational weekly papers” (240).

Sensation fiction in itself, I will argue, also catered to the themes and familiarities of the middle-lower class reader. Firstly, appealing to the emotional or “shocking” side of things, they provided newer readers with relatively straightforward plot to follow. Secondly, use of working class narrators, as well as the theme loss or change in identity throughout many of these novels- particularly in The Moonstone- may have also catered to similar, relatable feelings middle-lower class readers experienced during the era. Overall, in a rapidly changing world, Victorian sensation fiction in newspaper periodicals and journals alike catered to a shift in class identity and uniquely accommodated the “new reader” in the Victorian era.

Alitck, Richard. The English Common Reader : A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1957. Print.
Collins, Wilkie. A Rogue's Life. Sutton, 1984. 96-97. Print.

Loesberg, Jonathan. "The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction." Representations 13 (1986): 115-38. Print.


The Transatlantic Moonstone Part IIX


This Exhibit will focus on the emphasis of the epistolary as seen in Harper's Weekly, The American serialisation of Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone", and how it aids the audience's reading of the text while simultaneously promoting a pro-epistolary lifestyle. In comparison there will also be images centrering on the lack of emphasis on the epistolary as seen in the British serialization All the Year Round, which chooses instead to focus solely on Collins' text. At the time of printing, as noted by David M Henkin in his book The Postal Age, The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth Century America epistles were becoming a "broadly acknowledged utility of everyday life" (37). Soon they were used not just for special ocassions or for foreign correspondences but also to play an "intensely modern function in everyday life" (Henkin IX). From the invention of the stamp to the "Valentine Mania" (Henkin 149) that would sweep the nation, to the carelessness and confusion that would result in the Dead Letter Office, the importance of the Postal System coud no't be ignored, and as this exhbit will show, you couldn't pick up a Harper's magazine without being forced to acknowledge it's prominence. Whether that promininence was fictional, as seen through Wilkie Collins' novel "The Moonstone" or in real life practics of correspondence as depicted througout Harper's Weekly. Furthermore by promoting the idea of the sending and receiving of letters, Harper's Weekly strives, in a greater fashion than All The Year Round, to promote the idea of serialization, which could be argued to be a one way correspondence between a publication and it's reader's. This can be seen in both the American and British publication, though the emphasis is obvoius in Harper's as seen in the photos that comprise this exhibit, through the repeated imagery and use of text that revolve around the physical depiction of the letter and the impact is had on American culture. 

 Works Cited:

All The Year Round. 22 February 1868. 241-256. Print.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. 

Harper's Weekly: A Journal of Civilization. 22 February 1868. Print.

Henkin, David M. The Postal Age, The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Web. 

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