19th Century Gothic and Sensation Literature

by Veronica

Gothic Literature or Sensation Literature? What is the difference between these 19th Century Literature genres?

In the last 4 yrs, I've studied 19th C English Literature. I love it so much that whilst I do read modern books, for me, there's nothing like 19th Century Literature, especially Sensation Literation.

What is 19th Century Sensation Literature? For the purpose of definition, we define 19th Century Literature as " The Long 19th Century " which runs from the late 1700s to 1914, the onset of the Great War. Everything changed after that event!

In my 19th Century studies, I have covered Traditional Tales, Gothic Literature, Fallen Women, Sensation Literature, Female Authors and Early Detective Fiction. I have found it all personally empowering and enhancing.

Here we are looking at Gothic and Sensation Literature.

The genre that I have enjoyed the most has been 19th Century English Sensation Literature.

What classes as Gothic Literature ?

 Gothic Literature developed in the late 18th Century so "THE LONG 19th " in English LIterature terms. 

In my opinion, there are 2 types of Gothic Literature;-

a/ The melodramatic type of story for young ladies of the era, castles, vulnerable females, bad villains and handsome heroes. Jane Austen, a  New Romantic authoress satirised this type of Gothic writing in her witty tale, Northanger Abbey.

b/ The genuinely disturbing type of Gothic tale which may include some of the following ;

  • the supernatural
  • characters who are the polarity of good and evil 
  • a curse, which may be generational 
  • isolation - which could be weather, time of day, location, emotional
  • a trapped or vulnerable female
  • an ordinary companion to the trapped woman
  • going against nature 

Bran Castle- home of the Dracula story

Bran Castle is the classic Gothic castle
Bran Castle is the classic Gothic castle
c/w Go way Travel

Gothic isolation

Dracula s castle

Bran Castle in Romania is the perfect isolated Gothic setting.

Gothic Literature Authors and Books

These are some authors and some books from my b/ category of Gothic Literature. These feature throughout The Long 19th Century. 

  * Mary Shelley - Frankenstein

  *  Matthew Lewis- The Monk 

  * James Hogg  - Confessions of a justified sinner 

  * Ann Radcliff - The Mysteries of Udolpho 

  * Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights

  * Horace Walpole - Castle of Otranto 

  * Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray 

  * Elizabeth Gaskell - The Grey Woman ( a novella ) 

What is Sensation Literature?

Sensation fiction was a 19th Century genre that developed from Gothic Literature which was losing its appeal by 1860.

Sensation Literature became popular during the 1860s in England.  My favourite Sensation Literature author is Wilkie Collins but there were several others. This type of literature was intended to shock and was a departure from the usual Gothic or Romantic style. The plots of these novels usually involved a scandalous woman which was in itself a departure.

In Sensation Literature the villain is usually female!  These Victorian plots usually involved, drug addiction, illegitimate children, a secret, a misdirected letter,  murder, adultery, bigamy, theft,  insanity but in a seemingly proper domestic situation. This is contrary to the isolation aspects of Gothic Literature. 

The authorities at the time were disturbed by its portrayal of bad women and saw it as inciting trouble, bad behaviour and discontent. To have females behaving very badly was concerning and "Sensational " as it went against the " balance of nature " which kept women subservient. 

Armadale - my book


Sensation Literature, Authors and Books

These are some authors and some books from the Sensation genre of 19th Century Literature. These books differ from the Gothic in their " normal domestic " settings. 

  •  Wilkie Collins  - was a famous Sensation Literature author and is believed to have created the most wicked woman in English Literature - Lydia Gwilt- in his masterpiece Armadale. ( my favourite Sensation Book ) 


  • Wilkie Collins -  No Name
  •  Wilkie Collins - The Woman in  White 
  • Mary  Elizabeth Braddon - Lady Audley's Secret. This villainess had me tugging at my heartstrings and I quite sympathised with the heroine. 
  • Charles Dickens - Great Expectations
  • Mrs Henry Wood - East Lynne 
  • Thomas Hardy - Desperate Remedies 

Gothic and Sensation Literature

Both these genres of 19th Century Literature take some reading and getting used to the 19th Century style. Authors were often paid by the word so they made their books as wordy as possible. But if you do persevere, as I did, I think you will have a great sense of achievement upon completion. 

Updated: 08/25/2022, Veronica
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Veronica on 02/17/2022

Good Evening Derdriu, You make several finely drawn points.

The Moonstone is one of Wilkie Collins " Big 4 " books, - Armadale, No Name, Woman in White and The Moonstone. I have read all of these. You make an excellent point in that there is an overlap between the different genres.

Another interesting point is that Characters names at this time are often significant. Think of Dorian Gray and his other self - Doppleganger - DG Dopple ganger D for Dorian G for Gray. Dr Jeckyl / Mr Hyde - Hyde being his hidden self.

As I say, 19th Century Literature is so different that it takes a while but I read mostly 19th C now. I find there are more subplots, well-drawn characters and descriptions than in modern literature.

I agree that the link between Sensation Literature and opera is an interesting and probable one. I can see that in its time, Sensation was quite a departure and therefore shock to the middle-class readers.

So many points to pick up on, thank you for your input.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/17/2022

Veronica, Thank you for practical information, pretty pictures and product lines.
On this side of the pond, Wilkie Collins perhaps attracts attention most as author of The Moonstone. Is that novel known on your side of the pond, and was it perhaps covered in early detective literature?

It's interesting that the villainess of Armadale has the name Lydia Gwuilt, the last perhaps alerting readers to the fact that she's guilty (gwilt-y ;-D) of villainy.

It's completely understandable from what you write why sensation literature has its appeal. But how easy is it to find it to read?

In a somewhat related direction, may not one say in a way that opera is sensation music what with some of its plots overlapping with the ones that you mention and with some of its "bad guys" really being such "bad girls" as Amneris and Carmen?

Veronica on 02/16/2022

BSG, Great point
Yes, and we are looking at the near ending European Mini Ace Age too which could be an entire article in itself.

blackspanielgallery on 02/16/2022

I like the reason behind Frankenstein being penned, the cold, wet summer due to ash reflecting sunlight following a volcanic eruption caused three vacationing friends (the Shelleys and Lord Byron) to have a writing contest. The year 1816 is known as the year without a summer, because there was no last freeze, hence no crops.

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