‘The amount of crime, treachery, murder and slow poisoning, & general infamy required by the halfpenny reader is something terrible,’ complained Mary Elizabeth Braddon in a letter to a friend in 1860. And yet by selling her work in serial form for a half-penny at a time, Braddon became hugely rich and famous, later being called ‘The Queen of Sensation Fiction’. The Black Band’s plot more than lives up to its sensational billing, featuring as it does a seductive lady murderer who happens to run a Europe-wide network of other murderers.
Braddon’s singular contribution to the development of the ‘halfpenny’ novel was, however, to domesticate it. Instead of the highwaymen and pirates who thronged the cheap serial novels of previous decades, Braddon tended to concentrate first and foremost on middle-class families perhaps only a shade richer than the people likely to read her work. No matter how many unlikely events occurred in her plots (mistaken identities, people returning from the dead, etc.), the spine of most of her work was recognisably in the English domestic tradition. Along with novels such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Braddon’s work took the sensation-seeking atmosphere of early ‘halfpenny’ novels and introduced realism to it.
- Article by:
- Roger Luckhurst
- The Gothic, The novel 1832–1880
The Woman in White was the first great sensation novel. Roger Luckhurst considers how Wilkie Collins's intricately plotted novel borrows elements from realist and Gothic fiction, and combines suspense and stimulation.
- Article by:
- Judith Flanders
- Crime and crime fiction, Popular culture, Reading and print culture
The penny dreadful was a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. Judith Flanders explains what made these cheap, sensational, highly illustrated stories so popular with the Victorian public.