Posted by: acheever19 | October 1, 2018

Sensation Novel & The Sensation Image

Victorian sensation novels thrilled the Victorian reader with plot twists and social scandals. They emerged as the “pulp fiction” of the time, especially popularized by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whose sensation writing strived to “electrify the nerves of the reader.” The sensation novel materialized from the fascinations of tabloid journalism (including notable criminal trials throughout England) and was also supported by an increasing accessibility to printing and readership. While subject to much criticism, Victorian sensation fiction allowed authors to explore various Victorian anxieties through plot tropes of identity-theft, adultery, madness, secrets, sickness, and murder, and usually involved strong female protagonists or criminals. The sensation novel as a genre plays into the broader visuality and sensationalism of Victorian England, especially through these questions of identity, scandal, and photographic exchange.

Rachel Teukolsky, a literary scholar with research on 19th century British media history and aesthetics, elaborates on how sensationalism was not limited to the literary sphere. The term was used to describe commotion across the cultural spectrum, which included everything from tightrope walkers to criminals to even paintings, photographs, and novels. According to Teukolsky, these mediums emerged “within the echo chamber of Victorian periodical writing, [wherein] ‘sensation’ was a fashionable insult hurled by critics and satirists at any spectacle or object that cultivated novelty.” In particular, cartes-de-visite became one of these “sensations,” overlaying an element of fantasy upon the visual photograph, in an obsession that Teukolsky refers to as “cartomania.” In one poignant example of carte-de-visite sensationalism, Teukolsky cites an 1864 poem titled “SENSATION! A SATIRE” which juxtaposes the social mixing of two cartes-de-visites sold side-by-side, one of a respectable British preacher and the other of Catherine Walters (nicknamed Skittles), a courtesan known for her impropriety and affairs with powerful British men:

“A sweet republic, where ’tis all the same— / Virtue or vice, or good, or doubtful fame. / . . . Coarse ‘Skittles’ hangs beside a Spurgeon ‘carte,’ / With stare, unblushing, makes the decent start. / These are thy freaks, SENSATION!” (lines 195–201).

While Teukolsky zooms in on the lines that reference carte photography, the entire poem layers a double meaning of visual sensation with the sensation novel. Implicating popular sensation writers and their characters, the poet ends, “No modest eye can see–nor mark the end!” In this one line, the moral criticism incriminates both the eye of the photo viewer and pen of the reader who marks its pages. Both literary and visual mediums affect a physiological bodily response in the viewer, which the poet condemns as a form of sensation. Teukolsky draws the conclusion from this poem and other cultural examples that “cartes-de-visite, like sensationalism itself, signified a complicated and mixed political legacy. Just as sensation novels were attacked for being read by both servants and their masters, so too were cartes-de-visite controversial for equalizing the images of politicians and prostitutes.” Ultimately, sensation novels and sensation images offer transgressive spaces in disrupting class, gender, and art divides.

Broadly speaking, sensation also initiates discourse on crime and identity in Victorian society, including photographic reproduction and identification, complicated by tropes of mistaken identity and legal identity, such as in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Collins was inspired by the 1858 case of Rosina Lytton who denounced her husband only to be confined in an asylum for several weeks; he also kept a cuttings book of other London newspaper reports that he used within this book’s sensation plot. Similarly, in Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret the mystery surrounds a hidden identity in our murderess. The plot mirrors the events of Constance Kent, a woman who murdered her half brother and later changed her name, and Braddon published her first installment almost exactly a year after the Kent murder charges. Lady Audley’s self-preservation depends on the deflection of scandal through identity change, although a portrait suggests her true identity in the plot. Both novels play on the sensationalism of Victorian visual culture, especially the “carte-de-visite” woman whose scandal becomes a novelty within the culture, in addition to the social anxiety regarding identity, gender roles, and the ability for a criminal “to blend in” to Victorian society.

Works Cited:

Allingham, Phillip V. “The Victorian Sensation Novel, 1860-1880.” Victorian Web,

Braddon, M. E., and Norman Donaldson. Lady Audley’s Secret. Dover Publications, Inc., 2018.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. N.p.: Pantianos Classics, 1859. Print.

Teukolsky, Rachel. “Cartomania: Sensation, Celebrity, and the Democratized Portrait.” Victorian Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 2015, pp. 462–475. JSTOR,


  1. Your mention of the transgressive nature of sensation drew my attention back to the transgression of photography, and images in general. When thinking about the advent of Victorian photography, it is clear that the rapid democratisation of the medium acted as a kind of levelling, as photography became swiftly available across class divisions. This in itself is a transgression of social status in a way, modifying the means by which people could present themselves to society. Today, everyone has images of themselves, either taken by their own hand or by others. But photography still has this same ability to transgress into sensationalism.

    Perhaps the modern version of cartes-de-visite is celebrity imagery, in photography and film. In our society, we have an overwhelming prevalence of these types of images. Some are on social media, controlled by the celebrity themselves (or an associate/assistant), while others come in magazines, newspapers, articles and on TV. Given all these mediums, it’s obvious that the reproduction of images has changed a lot. But what are the ways in which it has stayed the same?

    Cartes-de-visite were controlled, in at least a general way, by the person who sat for them. A celebrity elected to have their portrait taken, and had some say in its distribution. And if that distribution went outside of their control, the image still remained the same; if they only sat once, that photos was the image of them that circulated. Today, the circulation of images is much more murky. Almost everyone has the capacity to take a photo, and upload it to any number of public platforms.Celebrities in particular are documented almost everywhere they go, cameras and film transgressing into their private lives with and without their consent.

    Within their own control is social media, which they have the power to alter and post whenever they like. But the development of paparazzi means that we also have images that celebrities did not choose to have taken of them, images that are free from posturing, filters, retouching, and other alterations (so far as we, the public, are aware). Even if alterations are made, it is important to note that these are not run past the celebrity, and are therefore outside of their control, and possibly also contrary to their idea of how they wish to be presented to the public.

    While social media creates a desired self, it still has a note of artificiality. Celebrities choose which photos to post, and they may pose for those that are taken (by themselves or by others, with their consent). Again, this is a type of tailoring of image, a posturing of the self. In this way, these types of images are both faithful to the intentions of the subject, while simultaneously existing as constructions of popular image. For this reason, they can be seen as both artificial and “true”.

    In contrast, paparazzi photography can catch a celebrity off-guard. If such images are not staged, then they can be said to be more “truthful” representations of the person behind the persona. Assuming such photos aren’t altered after being taken, it is tempting to say they are the “truest” form of photography, with no staging or posturing at work.

    However, in a world filled with cameras and images, it is important to ask the question: are we ever behaving as a true articulation of ourselves, or are we always posturing, conscious of outward appearance–lest we be documented in some way?

  2. Your piece on Victorian sensational novels and carte-de-visite photographs reminded me of Laura Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

    One line from your post that I found particularly striking connects how a change in a medium’s form impacts its effect: “Ultimately, sensation novels and sensation images offer transgressive spaces in disrupting class, gender, and art divides.” You write about sensational novels engaging the reader’s sensations, to “thrill” and ‘electrify the nerves of the reader.’ In Victorian times evoking a bodily response seems transgressive, no matter the content of the work. Mulvey discusses how film engages a sensation (sight) to experience visual pleasure. In her article, Mulvey explores the “way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (833. One of the results of this patriarchy originated images is women act as “ bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning” (834). One form of viewing pleasure that Mulvey outlines is scopophilia, pleasure from “subjecting” an objectified other to one’s gaze. Here, the male viewer uses his sense of sight to control, objectify and fetishize images of women (834).

    It seems that the sensationalism of the novels and carte-de-visite images was not just the cause of the increase in appearance of women and other formerly marginalized groups, but in how they were depicted. Sensational novels and the carte-de-visite images offer an active role to formerly marginalized subjects. In Victorian sensational novels, the authorial gaze shifted to “strong female protagonists or criminals.” Mulvey outline that while a woman’s image is “an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film” it does not mean that the representation is substantive as “her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (837).

    You discuss how sensation novels and cartes-de-visite photographs had an “equalizing” quality, as they were read across gender and class barrier-laden Victorian society. It is interesting that the equality of this new genre and photography (the cartes-de-visite) regresses in motion pictures, with cast as women as passive objects and men as active heroes.

    In the case of Victorian visual culture, the evocation of sensation in novels and photographs led to challenging social conventions. This seems to be a mark evolution in representation. Mulvey’s argument about film’s employment of sensation, however, appears less “disruptive” and more affirming towards gender divides in a patriarchal society.

    The contrast between Victorian visual culture sensational literature and images and film reminds me of our class discussion about the pitfalls of imposing a teleological framework on history; visual culture did not follow a linear narrative progression in terms of technology or representation.

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