Introduction to Sensation Fiction

Although sensation fiction has been widely ignored in the modern academic field, a closer examination of these kinds of works should be considered in that it provides a wider scope of the discourse involving topics such as sexuality, gender, race, class, and violence in 19th century America.

Dangerous Woman in Sensation Fiction

Dangerous Woman in Sensation Fiction

Sensation fiction was a popular genre in the nineteenth century because of its cheap cost and disposable nature. This kind of literature reached a wide audience, including both men and women, and various classes. However, this kind of literature was most influential on the working-class, and authors focused on this group as their main demographic:  “city mysteries novels were an important part of antebellum working-class culture: a large number of their readers were workers; many of their authors became involved in working-class politics; and the texts themselves are a valuable source of popular conceptions of class identity and class relations in this period” (Reynolds Venus in Boston ix). Because of the intended audience of this literature, authors of sensation fiction included ideologies in their work that fell in line with those of the working class. This sort of literature often subverted notions upheld by the middle and upper class: “[sensation literature often] subvert much that is associated with bourgeois ideals: domesticity and Christian nurture, the cult of true womanhood, institutional power structures such as the church and big business; white supremacy…the notion that literature must teach a clear moral lesson” (Reynolds Venus xxx). This literature was regarded as dangerous because of its widespread popularity, and was ultimately censored by the Comstock Law in the United States in 1873.

However about thirty years prior to the Comstock Law, the United States government inadvertently fostered an atmosphere where erotic and pornographic American literature flourished. In an attempt to get this kind of written texts out of the United States, the government passed a law in 1842 that banned the importation of erotic material. So of course, this only spurned American pornography to be written instead: it was in the 1840s that the burgeoning American erotic imagination at last came to full flower. After federal statutes banning the importation of erotic material were passed in 1842, American publishers redoubled their efforts to satisfy readers by publishing a far greater amount of native erotic literature than before” (Reynolds renaissance 214).

From this new plethora of erotic sensational fiction comes many notions of a woman’s sexuality and deviance—precisely the focus of this study. Sensation literature popularly featured a woman’s insatiable sexual avarice as the driving force for its stories: “several other popular novelists of the period were also intrigued by woman’s sexual nature. Much of the crime fiction of the 1840s featured heroines who fearlessly indulge in the excesses of perverse passion” (Reynolds renaissance). However, this kind of pulp fiction did not end with just showing a woman with sexual lust. Sensation literature pushed the sexual boundaries and combined sexuality with violence: the distinguishing feature of the American erotic writing of the 1840s was its unique combination of prurient sexuality and grisly gore. Sadomasochism has, of course, been a common feature of all erotic literature. But the same forces that produced unusual violence in America’s sensational writings also contributed to the excessive bloodiness in its erotic literature (Reynolds renaissance 212). This literature was replete with perverse sexual fantasies and titillation, which allowed the deviant woman of my study to be created and circulated on a mass scale.

Dawn Keetley writes that considering many of the women in sensation fiction are violent and sexually repressed married women, ” pamphlets’ representations of victimizing wives are freighted with an emerging cultural unease over the stability of marriage–an unease paradoxically contemporaneous with what has generally been considered the height of the domestic feminine ideal. In other words, in the same two decades that other popular cultural forms–like ladies’ magazines, sentimental fiction, and advice manuals–were thoroughly engaged in solidifying the ideology of domesticity, a strand of sensational fiction was imaginatively playing out what would only later (in the 1870s and 1880s) emerge as a vehement cultural conflict over the drawbacks of indissoluble marriage and its potential for breeding violence” (Keetley). Through this study, I show that Keetley is right in her assertions, and that the Victorian age isn’t as domesticated as we had once thought.

George Thompson

George Thompson
George Thompson

“‘I have written a sufficient quantity of tales, sketches, poetry, essays and other literary stock of every description, to constitute half a dozen cartloads’’’ (Reynolds quoting Thompson Venus in Boston xi)

The Nature of Women: A Woman’s (Dangerous?) Insatiable Desire

Thompson was quite well-versed in the fact that women were in possession of sexual desires and he took part in a group of small progressive thinkers, which included those such as Walt Whitman and Lorenzo Fowler (popular phrenologist) that wanted to propagate the idea of an amorous woman:“Many other women in Thompson’s fiction are unapologetic and open in their declarations of sexual desire. Unrepentantly ‘fallen,” these women take pleasure in promiscuity” (Reynolds Venus xxxix). Thompson used the character of a woman who is sexually unsatisfied by her cold husband in several of his works.

Women: Good or Bad?
Answer: A little bit of both

“Ultimately, Thompson’s women are figures of both fantasy and nightmare” (Reynolds Venus xxxix)

The women in Thompson’s novels are progressive in that they wield much feminine strength, assert their sexual autonomy, and intelligently go about getting their goals. However, as these women are also the source of gratuitous violence at times, they can also be deemed as malicious.

“On the one hand, his works contain characters, plotlines, and images that could serve as fodder for female erotic fantasy and quasi-feminist meditation. Many women in his work are portrayed as victims of patriarchal oppression and especially of the sexual double standard, and a woman’s right to sexual pleasure is frequently affirmed. On the other hand, not all of his women characters are sympathetic, and many of those who find erotic fulfillment also become terrifyingly violent” (Reynolds Venus xxxviii).

“They enact rejection, and even inversion, of the maternal and nurturing female roles promoted by the cult of true womanhood, a middle-class ideology which held that women were naturally chaste and good beings with a weak sex drive. In doing so, they explore both the sexual and the aggressive potential that ideology repressed” (Reynolds Venus xxxix).

Breaking with Family:

Thompson

Thompson

“Domestic bliss is repeatedly revealed as ephemeral. Families are constantly shattered as a result of the perverse, often adulterous activities of one or both spouses. The novels end not with detailed paeans to marital togetherness, like most domestic novels, but with highly disturbing, sensational images” (Reynolds Venus xxxiv).

Thompson as Groundbreaking and Innovative

“To say that Thompson’s pornography is suggestive rather than explicit, however, is not to diminish its adventurousness and transgressiveness, given the era in which it appeared. On the contrary, his fiction constantly surprises with the risks it takes. Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, rape, and gay sex” (Reynolds Venus xxxvii).

“In addition to giving zest and variety to the topic of woman’s sexuality, Thompson introduced more unusual themes as well. He was, as far as I know, the first American novelist to deal openly with homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestism, group sex, and child pornography. In his autobiography he reports having witnessed a lesbian relationship, which provokes the exclamation: ‘The idea of a woman falling in love with one of her own sex, is rather rich!’” (reynolds renaissance).

Thompson

Thompson

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