Victorian commentators saw the sensation novel—a short-lived sub-genre of the 1860s known for its fast-paced plots drawn from real life—as symptomatic of the newspapers’ growing influence on the reading public. In a famous 1860 review, H. L. Manse conflated this new novelistic form – which he called “The Newspaper Novel” – with crime news. By repackaging penny-dreadful melodrama for the middle-class reader, the sensation novel was characterized as realism’s opposite by many Victorian writers; it was “the product of a commodified literary marketplace” and a “mutant” hybrid form that blurred generic boundaries. This chapter argues, however, that the sensation novel draws out a tension shared by both journalistic and novelistic form: a reliance on the improbable alongside a claim to reality.
Through an analysis of novels by Wilkie Collins, this paper traces the conflict between the newspaper’s daily production and its emphasis on uncommon, “newsworthy” events. Although it claims to represent reality, the newspaper is drawn to people and events that flout the mundane everyday. I suggest that this parallels a similar tension within realist fiction of the period, which, according to Fredric Jameson, holds onto a melodramatic mode it simultaneously struggles to efface. Wilkie Collins’s Armadale amplifies this tension by transforming the newspaper into an agent of melodramatic fate, as its central female character – Lydia Gwilt – consults the newspaper for signs of her predetermined end. Because of her social marginality, Lydia cannot identify with the newspapers’ readers nor aspire towards a plot of bildung; as a result, she imagines herself in the place of what media theorist Niklas Luhmann calls the newspaper’s “norm violators.”