Victorian Popular Fictions 2.2 3 Roberts

Plotting Sensation Stories:

Affect and Intuition in Short Sensation Fiction

Brittany Roberts

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The British short story is still an understudied form in Victorian studies, and particularly so in studies of sensation fiction. Despite rich and growing scholarship on sensation fiction and its relationship with literary markets and commodity culture, scholars have a had a difficult time shaking off its enduring brand “the novel with a secret,” which has problematically discounted an incredible body of periodical fiction that falls “short” of our expectations about what this kind of fiction looks like. Short periodical works, however, are crucial if we are to understand the nexus of consumerism, mass marketing, social anxiety, and literary production that first peaked in the 1860s, things which have largely come to organise our understanding of what was so sensational about this historical moment in time. This essay compares short and long works from Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Ellen Wood, and J.S. Le Fanu to explore how short stories could take up common themes and features of sensation novels (mistaken identity, unchecked passion, family secrets, shocking revelations, etc.) while also considering how formal considerations of length encouraged greater reliance on impressions and feelings to resolve conflicts in the text. These sensation stories so often suggest that deviance is best discerned through the body rather than the mind, and they create a path to pleasurable revelation where trusting one’s gut offers the most effective form of policing. These supposedly “unimportant” periodical works – sensational not only in the way they glutted periodicals with their sheer volume – could in turn promote suspicion and distrust in readers that were capable of damaging real-life bonds and relationships. Although short fiction could provoke anxieties about shifting roles and hierarchies in an increasingly fast-paced, automated British society, the tremendous visibility of the novel effectively shielded them from comparable criticism.  

Key Words

short stories; sensation fiction; affect; intuition; Wilkie Collins; J. S. Le Fanu; Ellen Wood; periodicals.

Date of Acceptance: 1 October 2020

Date of Publication: 25 October 2020

Double Blind Peer Reviewed

Recommended Citation

Roberts, Brittany. 2020. “Plotting Sensation Stories: Affect and Intuition in Short Sensation Fiction.” Victorian Popular Fictions  2.2:  41-58.

ISSN: 2632-4253 (online). DOI:


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