What Makes A Modern Sensation?

When I first set out to originally have a ‘Sensation September’ one of the reasons it swiftly became a ‘Sensation Season’ instead was that there were not only too many sensation novels from the original era that I wanted to read, but also too many what I would deem ‘modern sensation’ novels too. But what on earth makes a modern sensation novel, I hear you cry. 

Well as I am not Wikipedia I can’t give you the official definition of a modern sensation novel because there isn’t one… as yet! However I can happily make one up instead, maybe the Savidge Reads guide for modern sensation fiction could catch on? So here are what I deem the rules for modern sensation fiction… 

  • It must be set in the Victorian era or if modern be set in a spooky old house (preferable a manor or bigger and also maybe with a spooky old wood near by).
  • There must be much secrets and intrigue.
  • There must be plenty of plot twists and quite a few red herrings.
  • There need to be a lot of coincidences.
  • It needs to contain adultery, theft, bigamy, kidnapping, insanity, forgery, abduction or murder. Or even better all of these ingredients.
  • It can have a ghost or two in it… at a push!

Now taking all this into account I think that you could actually have quite a lot of ‘modern sensation’ novels. Half of the current (and past classics, such as Agatha Christie) crime fiction could be linked back to sensation fiction with just the murder part! I think the modern sensations need to have all of the above and a little ‘sensation magic’ which isn’t easy to describe, so instead here are the first five books I could think of that have all of these elements but were written recently. I have read one, am going to re-read another and read the other three for the first time over the next few weeks…

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – ‘We were all more or less thieves at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck – one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage – one thing that never had a price put to it. I mean of course, Me.’ Sue Trinder, orphaned at birth, is born among petty thieves – fingersmiths – in London’s Borough. From the moment she draws breath, her fate is linked to another orphan, growing up in a gloomy mansion not too many miles away.

The Observations by Jane Harris – So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slice of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere. Except as it turned out it wasn’t quite the end …Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of “The Observations” – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances. Then, a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realise that she has not quite landed on her feet.

The Séance by John Harwood – ‘Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’ London, the 1880s. A young girl grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for the child she lost. Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance Langton takes her to a seance. Perhaps they will find comfort from beyond the grave. But that seance has tragic consequences.Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest will blight her life. So begins “The Seance”, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late Victorian England. It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains – and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house, and a mystery. Years before a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a terrifying stately home near the Suffolk coast. Now Constance must find the truth behind the mystery, even at the cost of her life. Because without the truth, she is lost.

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams – From her lookout on the first floor, Ginny watches and waits for her adored younger sister to return to the crumbling mansion that was once their idyllic childhood home. Vivien has not stepped foot in the house since she left, forty seven years ago; Ginny, the reclusive lepidopterist, has rarely ventured outside it. The remembrance of their youth, of loss, and of old rivalries plays across Ginny’s mind. Why is Vivi coming home? Ginny has been selling off the family furniture over the years, gradually shutting off each wing of the house and retreating into the precise routines and isolation that define her days. Only the attic remains untouched. There, collected over several generations, are walls lined with pinned and preserved Bordered Beauties and Rusty Waves, Feathered Footmen and Great Brocades, Purple Cloud, Angle Shades, the Gothic and the Stranger …

The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling – This work is set in Lambeth, London, in the year 1859. By the time Dora Damage discovers that there is something wrong with her husband, Peter, it is too late. His arthritic hands are crippled, putting his book-binding business into huge debt and his family in danger of entering the poorhouse. Summoning her courage, Dora proves that she is more than just a housewife and mother. Taking to the streets, she resolves to rescue her family at any price – and finds herself illegally binding expensive volumes of pornography commissioned by aristocrats. Then, when a mysterious fugitive slave arrives at her door, Dora realizes she’s entangled in a web of sex, money, deceit and the law. Now the very family she fought so hard for is under threat from a host of new, more dangerous foes. Belinda Starling’s debut novel is a startling vision of Victorian London, juxtaposing its filth and poverty with its affluence. In “Dora Damage” we meet a daring young heroine, struggling in a very modern way against the constraints of the day, and whose resourcefulness and bravery have us rooting for her all the way.

What do you think… about all of it?


Filed under Book Thoughts, Sensation Novels

30 responses to “What Makes A Modern Sensation?

  1. I like your definition! I’m going to be exploring the concept of “modern grotesque” soon, so it’s fun to see someone else making up their own definitions, too! 🙂


  2. Nice list! I read The Behaviour of Moths (The Sister on this side of the pond) and enjoyed it. An even better, IMO, modern sensation novel is The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (and its sequel, The Glass of Time).

  3. Amy

    Ithink your definition of modern sensation is wonderful! I haven’t read any of the books you listed but really like few of them from the summaries posted, Fingersmith really intrigues me, so many wonderful, mysterious elements there and The Behavior of Moths is a fantastic title and attics are simply spooky and strange as are sisters who haven’t been home in years & years. I have read many Agatha Christie books and they’re great but these books sound like they have a little more mystery and spookiness to them.
    Fantastic post, thanks!

    • Thank you Amy!

      Fingersmith I think I might make a start on after Armadale which should be cracking (not literally – cant bear cracked spines) open this evening. I will keep you all updated over the coming weeks.

  4. kimbofo

    I reckon Deanna Raybourne’s Silent in the Grave probably qualifies as a modern sensation novel


  5. I really loved the Sarah Waters, the Poppy Adams and the jane Harris, so you have persuaded me to order The Journal of Dora Damage. I am so very much enjoying reading about your Sensation Season.

    • Oh thats pleasing to know you loved the first two. I will be re-reading The Observations (am desperate for her next book to come out) over the next few weeks and am hoping I love it just as much the second time around.

      • Simon, I just read The Journal of Dora Damage over the weekend – not hugely taxing which was good but incredibly gripping, especially the scary bit towards the end! As I work with rare books some of the time, I really enjoyed reading all about the bookbinding in London. So many thanks for the wonderful recommendation.

      • Oh you have read that swiftly, I havent even read that one yet hahahaha. I am having a day off today and am going through my TBR boxes in search of all books that could be counted as ‘Modern Sensations’.

        Glad you liked it, that gives me a lot of hope!

  6. The Thirteenth Tale is apparently modern gothic…haven’t got around to that yet. I think your depiction is spot on! I love a good modern sensation, though there’s nothing like the originals…they are so melodramatic!

    I have read Fingersmith and have Dora Damage on my shelf to read, and The Behaviour of Moths and The Seance are on my wish list. I have never heard of The Observations, sounds very interesting!!!

    • I have read the Thirteenth Tale and though its gothic in its way I wouldnt quite call it a sensation novel. Though I could be very very wrong. I liked it a lot but think the hype killed it for me slightly, if you know what I mean?

  7. A lot of these new books are no doubt inspired by sensational novels, but are influenced by a modern sensibility. I wonder if Joyce Carol Oates’ brilliant novel Mysteries of Winterthurn would count as a sensational novel, though she described it as a modern detective/gothic novel. It’s set in the late 1800s, lots of mystery, murders and intrigue with dead babies rising up to suckle and demand attention from a woman trapped in a room with them. Creepy, vividly described, philosophically-informed, nail-biting stuff.

  8. I think I love modern sensational novels! I loved The Fingersmith, The Seance and The Meaning of the Night. I also enjoyed The Behaviour of Moths and The Thirteenth Tale. I hadn’t heard of Dora Damage before, but am tempted to order it! I have The Observations here – I must read it soon – great list!

    • The Observations is a corker am really looking forward to re-reading it. Dora Damage just sits on the cusp of sensation I think, though that could just be an excuse because I want to read it so much!

  9. Great list. The Seance is on my wishlist. Thanks for mentioning The Observations by Jane Harris, I’ll also add it to my wishlist:)

  10. I am just getting into my first “original” sensation novel, so I am not sure I am ready to contemplate a modern sensation. My gut tells me it isn’t my thing.

    However, I am 393 glorious pages into The Woman in White and am loving it. I would never have picked up, or even noticed this book, if I hadn’t have read about it on your blog. Major thanks to you.

    • Hmmm how is the sensation reading going Thomas? You have to give them a while to creep up on you. I wasnt entralled with Armadale at the start (as you can see today) but then it swiftly became my favourite read of the last few weeks. Its interesting how they start slowly and draw you in.

  11. I think the British cover of The Seance is about fifty times better than the American one, and if I end up liking it well enough to buy it, I’m buying it from the UK. 😛

    But seriously, those all look wonderful, and all but one are on my TBR list.

  12. justicejenniferreads

    Great definition and thanks for the examples. Reading about all the fun that you’re having with your sensation novels definitely makes me want to pick some up.

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