Saturday 2 November 2019
The novel of sensation, that mid-Victorian phenomenon typified in the novels of Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and, to an extent, Dickens (Great Expectations) and Trollope (The Eustace Diamonds), grew out of the earlier success of the Gothic novel, though now the terror and disruption are domesticated, rooted in the modern world of the 1860s: railways, the telegraph, suburbs, the anxious middle classes and the rising lower orders.
East Lynne, Wood's breathless blockbuster of 1860, tells a story of murder, jealousy and unwise alliances. There are aristocrats, but they're on the way out. Like Collins, Ellen Wood knows better the grimy world of the middle classes, of anonymous uncertain suburbia. The novel is fast, slangy, sloppy, trashy - quintessentially 'sensational'.
Anita Brookner, a regular reviewer in the highbrow journals, once in a way was given a little something to tickle her fancy. Can we believe she was asked to write about Catherine Cookson (see post here) or The Thorn Birds (here)? She read them with a sort of fascinated awe, praising both for their innocence.