Wilkie Collins and the Rise of Sensation Fiction

Wilkie Collins is often considered the creator of Sensation Fiction in the 1860s. But who was Collins and what is Sensation Fiction? Read on to find out!

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Light-brown caricature drawing of author Wilkie Collins. He holds a giant candle in his left hand. A bird and a man stand to his left. A moon and ring are placed to his right.

Victorian England, named after Queen Victoria, was a time of opulence and British colonization. Beneath its shimmery surface lied a culture that was obsessed with death, highly superstitious, and proud of its prim and proper society. However, in the mid-1800’s, several changes began to emerge that brought Sensation Fiction to fruition, including an increase in printing, increased literacy rates as a result of circulating libraries, periodicals beginning to publish serialized versions of novels, and an interest in notorious court trials such as that of William Palmer in 1856. Wilkie Collins is frequently cited as being the first author of the genre, but due to the genre fading out by the 1870s, Collins and the genre are frequently overlooked in the larger literary canon.

Who Was Wilkie Collins?

Wilkie Collins was born on January 8th, 1824, in London, England to William Collins, a celebrated landscape artist and portrait painter and his wife, Harriet Geddes. Collins introduction to storytelling was less than inspiring as he recounted that when he was 14, a bully at Cole’s Boarding School forced him to tell stories every night before allowing him to go to bed. However, he did claim that “it was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power of which but for him I might never have been aware.”

Tintype of author Wilkie Collins. He sits in a chair and stares to the left of the camera. Includes Wilkie's signature

After leaving the school in 1840, Collins became an apprentice at Antrobus & Co., a tea shop. It was here, at “the prison on the Strand,” that he began to write what would become his first novel, The Last Stage Coachmen, which first appeared in Douglas Jerrold’s Illuminated Magazine in August 1843.

Title page to Wilkie Collins short story "The Last Stage Coachman". The skeleton of a cow lies scattered in a field of grass. White page with black text.

Before settling into a career as an author, Collins began studying law at Lincoln’s Inn in May 1846. While he was called to the bar or permitted to argue in court, he never took up the practice and continued to publish books. With The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq;, R.A., a biography of his father, in 1848, Basil (1852), Hide and Seek (1854), and The Dead Secret (1857) appearing in the market. His novels explored the plight of women and social and domestic issues of the time. Hide and Seek, for example, featured one of the first portrayals of a deaf character.

Birth of Sensation Fiction

While Collins previous works had received relatively good reviews, it was during the 1860s that he achieved enduring fame, publishing four major novels: The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone (1868), which were published by Charles Dickens journal All the Year Round from November 1859 to August 1868 in serialized form (one chapter at a time).

The Moonstone is often considered the first detective novel and established several ground rules for the detective fiction genre, such as an English country house robbery, an “inside job,” red herrings, a celebrated investigator, a bungling local constabulary, false suspects, the least likely suspect, and a final plot twist.

A woman in a white dress against a black backdrop faces the viewer with a white banner reading "Penguin Classics" in black text. The bottom of the image is a large black box with "Wilkie Collins" in orange above "The Woman in White"

But it was the publication of The Woman in White that kickstarted the sensation fiction genre. Telling the story of Walter Hartright’s encounter and investigation into a mysterious woman in white, who is revealed to have escaped from an insane asylum, the novel uses the theme of substituted identity, the misuse of insane asylums, and marriage is presented as a risk to women. Armadale served as a continuation of this, as Lydia Gwitt, the novel’s villainess, was met with strong criticism as she was found to be transgressive.

Later Sensation Fiction

As the name implies, the genre “preached to the nerves instead of the judgment,” meaning that the content was often scandalous by contemporary standards. Some common tropes are:

  • Bigamous Marriages
  • Misdirected letters
  • Romantic triangles
  • Heroines placed in physical danger
  • Drugs, potions, and or poisons
  • Characters adopt disguises
  • Trained coincidences
  • Aristocratic villains
  • Women in “villainous” or transgressive positions

Just as Collins established tenants of detective fiction, so too did he establish the basis for later sensational texts that furthered the tropes found in The Woman in White. Other authors and texts credited with increasing the genre’s popularity were:

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862)

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1862) book cover.

Called the “Queen of Circulating Libraries,” Braddon’s novel tackles class, madness, bigamy, murder, and blackmail as it follows Robert Audley’s investigation into the mysterious disappearance of his friend George Talboys, who had recently learned of his wife’s death. His quest for answers tangles his investigation into the mysterious and unknown past of his uncle’s new wife, Lady Audley.

The Mysteries of London by George William MacArthur Reynolds (1845)

"The Mysteries of London" in white text placed on a black block against a background with a desk covered in books and papers as a window overlooks the scene.

The Mysteries of London was the most widely read work of mid-nineteenth century Britain. The stories were an early form of Sensation Fiction called “urban mysteries,” which used elements of the Gothic genre to emphasize poverty and crime in metropolises. Throughout the original 52 installments, the works explore London’s seedy underbelly to the overindulgent aristocrats. Also called “penny blood.” The stories were essentially city mysteries set in London and follow Richard Markham as he hunts the Resurrection Man, a serial killer, through all levels of Victorian society.

East Lynne by Ellen Wood (1861)

Remembered for its elaborate and implausible plot, centering on infidelity and double identities, East Lynne plays on fears of the Victorian middle class who feared a breakdown in order following the increased accessibility of divorce and promiscuity’s threat to the household.

"East Lynne" in black text, Ellen Wood in red text in a white block against a background of a woman with her head lying on her arm on a table in a library.

Devoured by the Prince of Wales and Joseph Conrad, the novel follows Lady Isabel Vane as she runs away with Captain Francis Levison, who wrongly convinced her that her husband was having an affair, only to discover that he had no plans of marrying her even though she is expecting their child. Isabel then learns that her husband had never been unfaithful, and she plans to return, but the train crashes, killing several of the passengers, including Levison’s child, and injuring Isabel, who is declared dead as well. Under this news, Isabel disguises herself as a governess in her former husband’s household with his new wife, allowing her to be close to her children.

Sensation Fiction isn’t extensively looked at in the literary canon. Many of the stories started as one-chapter serializations in magazines before getting bound into a book, so many have been lost to the archives. What stories are accessible provide a contradicting view of Victorian society, introducing readers of then and now to the less-than-opulent lives of the aristocracy. Recently, neo-Victorian novels have begun to revive the genre, embodying the mystery that left Victorian readers on the edge of their seats but highlighting underrepresented groups who existed in the Victorian era but were never given a voice.

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