The Return of the Native as Sensation Fiction

Philip V. Allingham, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

In an April, 1863, Quarterly Review article condemning contemporary sensation novels, H. L. Manse castigates the kind of readers who patronize "periodicals, circulating libraries, and railway bookstalls" as having little "discrimination" (358) and "a diseased appetite" (357) for "excitement alone. . . ." In particular, Manse notes the tendency of early sensation novels to utilize bigamy as part of the plot: "Indeed, so popular has this crime become, as to give rise to an entire subclass in this branch of literature, which may be distinguished as that of Bigamy Novels" (361).

Another feature common to both Hardy's novels and the Sensation Novels is the misdirected letter. A third feature was the adoption of aliases by deceptive characters in order to heighten the atmosphere of secretiveness and deception in sensation novels, in which false identity and disguise are usually central features of the plot. The presence of exciting action in a novel of the 1860s and 1870s is further evidence of what H. L. Manse termed the "commercial atmosphere" of the sensation novel. As a novelist Hardy did occasionally pander to the general taste for suspense, melodrama, and extremes of behaviour in both serial and volume forms. However, Hardy never adopts wholly the conventions of the Sensation Novel for their own sake "apparatus of ruined heiresses, impossible wills, damning letters, skeletons in cupboard and the like. . ." (Terry 74). Early in his career as a writer, Hardy fell under the spell of the Sensation Novel, thanks in part to his first publisher, William Tinsley, who brought out the works of Braddon, Wood, Sala, Black, Ouida, and Payn, as well as Hardy's first published novel, Desperate Remedies [March 1871), which clearly falls within this genre. Hardy's Collected Letters document the nature of his friendships with Sensation Novelists James Payn (1830-98) and William Black (1841-98)Ņas well as his working for Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837-1915), who was not only editor of Belgravia but also the author of Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Throughout Hardy's works the features of the Sensation Novel are much in evidence: excitement, suspense, surprises, mysteries, instalment closings known as "curtains," strongly delineated characters, numerous coincidences, disguises, misdirected letters, overheard conversations, bigamous or secret marriages, and illegitimacy.

Selected References

Edwards, P. D. "Sensation Novel," Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia, ed. Sally Mitchell. New York and London: Garland, 1988. 703.

Manse, H. L. "Sensation Novels." Quarterly Review 113 (April 1896): 482-95, 501-6, 512-14; rpt. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 18: Victorian Novelists After 1885, ed. Ira B. Nadel and W. E. Fredeman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. 357.

Terry, Reginald C. Victorian Popular Fiction 1860-80. London: Macmillan, 1983.

A. What features of the narrative of The Return of the Native conform to the popular expectation for "excitement, suspense, surprises, [and] mysteries, [and cliff-hanging] instalment closings known as "curtains"?

B. How does the 1878 novel provide the kinds of characters and situations-- "strongly delineated characters, numerous coincidences, disguises, and misdirected letters"--that magazine readers had come to expect from the fiction of Sensation writers such M. E. Braddon and Wilkie Collins?

C. What other similarities, particularly in plot construction and female characters, do you see between The Return of the Native and the work of Collins?

D. Hardy was not merely a storyteller but a conscious artist who never used sensational incidents for their own sake. Take a particularly exciting or sensational incident in the novel, and then explain how Hardy avoids exploiting it merely for suspense.


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Last modified 18 September 2003