victoriansensationorthesp48102_fWell, where to start with this one? Victorian Sensation is packed full of interesting detail about what our Victorian forebears found sensational, the role of the press and what all of this tells us about their society and our own. As the author says (and I full agree) when we talk about Victorians we often really mean middle-class Victorians, but they of course were only one social layer in a complicated world.

The book covers a whole variety of topics that Victorians found sensational (I really am going to have to find another word for this!) and it’s not so very different from the kinds of topics that the tabloid press in particular covers these days, namely the Royal Family, political scandals, sex scandals, morality, murders and celebrities from sport and entertainment. The area that seems to me to be different is the sensation novel and the sensation drama, but I suppose if you substitute soap operas and reality TV for those then again the similarities are obvious.

These days, when it seems there is nothing that can’t be discussed, it’s interesting to look back at a period where so many subjects were off-limits, and shocking in a way to see how people who raised some of these difficult issues (child prostitution, the indignities heaped on women under the enforcement of the Contagious Diseases Acts), were vilified, especially if they were women themselves. There was definitely, again among the middle class, a tendency not to want to face up to many of the things that were happening around them.

One of the great joys of this book are the quotes from the press, this being my absolute favourite: “the particulars published in several daily papers have been so broadly stated that it has been impossible to leave copies of these papers within reach of young people or anyone having the faintest pretension to be considered an honest woman.” Lovely stuff.

There is a very good chapter on the impact of the sensation novel, looking particularly at Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon, well worth reading, and if you are at all interested in the Victorian period you should certainly give this book a try.

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