A Perfect Eel

Elaine Showalter

‘There is no accounting for tastes,’ the Westminster Review declared in 1866. ‘Blubber for the Esquimaux, half-hatched eggs for the Chinese and Sensational novels for the English.’ The extraordinary popularity in the 1860s of sensation fiction, or ‘bigamy novels’, as these books were sometimes known, led critics to conclude that the genre was ‘a sign of the times – the evidence of … a craving for some fundamental change in the workings of society’. Sensation novelists seemed especially interested in the consequences of the divorce reform act of 1857; in ‘monogamous countries’, the Oxford philosophy professor Henry Mansel noted in a review of 24 sensation novels in an 1863 issue of the Quarterly Review, the obsession with bigamy served as ‘a vehicle of mysterious interest or poetic justice’.

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