Deadly secrets, dangerous homes: Living with sensation in the Victorian period

Frederick Louis De Naples, University of Pennsylvania


Sensation literature refuses to participate in the familiar construction of domesticity as a refuge from the outside world. Focusing on the detective, my thesis contextualizes the growing anxiety over the supposed sanctity of the domestic sphere, articulating the silent apprehensions embodied by this public figure whose purpose is to solve the mysteries within Victorian doors. My introduction centers on George Eliot's "The Lifted Veil," a sensation novella voicing a surprising range of Victorian domestic concerns, and sets up the detective as the invader of the domestic space, a public figure whose intimate knowledge of crime, violence, and concealment empowers her or him to disrupt domestic privacy, belying the popular belief that the home is a refuge from the corruption of public life. The first chapter mutually contextualizes Victorian sensation literature and Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, emphasizing the crossings between fiction and nonfiction that blurred many distinguishing features of the middle class. Three decades after London Labour, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde satirized middle-class double-standards, a critique not lost on journalists two years later, when they compared the murderer of prostitutes in Whitechapel to Stevenson's Hyde. My second chapter defines the detective's role in sensation fiction, showing how this transgressive figure opens a space for exploring the wider implications of domestic unrest, such as homoeroticism, domestic violence, and empowered women. In Chapter Three, I take up Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, an epic investigation of a failed Italian marriage that uses sensation fiction techniques to point directly to the ongoing debates in England about women's roles in marriage and the Married Women's Property Act of 1870. My thesis concludes with a chapter on Sherlock Holmes. Created as a reaction against the interests of sensation literature, Holmes refuses to indulge his emotions, preferring instead to reassure his readers that crime, while pervasive, is completely ordinary, routine. This move, however, backfires after Doyle suspends the Holmes adventures in 1893.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|European history|Journalism

Recommended Citation

De Naples, Frederick Louis, "Deadly secrets, dangerous homes: Living with sensation in the Victorian period" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9532161.