Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 14, No 2 (2009)

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Sensate Detection in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady

Judith Johnston

Abstract


Despite Graham Law’s assertion that The Woman in White (1861) “launched the fashion for ‘sensation fiction’” (97), that novel’s narrative mode has always more strongly suggested the detective genre rather than Sensation per se. Even one of its earliest critics, Margaret Oliphant, in her Blackwood's review “Sensation Novels”, could pronounce with assurance:

What Mr. Wilkie Collins has done with delicate care and laborious reticence, his followers will attempt without any such discretion. We have already had specimens, as many as are desirable, of what the detective policeman can do for the enlivenment of literature: and it is into the hands of the literary Detective that this school of story-telling must inevitably fall at last (568).

And this is the core issue to be addressed in this article: not the sudden giving way of Sensation to Detection, but the degree to which the two genres, Sensation and Detection, intersect, using Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady as a template. The same intersection was occurring in other novels of the 1860s and 1870s and the arguments offered here might well be applied to other titles in this timeframe.

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