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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.