Steere, Elizabeth Lee
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This project considers how the sensation fiction genre popular in the 1860s fits into the canon of nineteenth-century literature and considers how its depiction of gender and class reflects its context of social change. Contemporary critics derided the genre as “Kitchen Literature” because of its popularity among the newly literate servant classes, but this term also reflects the prominence of the genre’s influential servant characters. I demonstrate how the female servant in particular is a key figure who embodies the most “sensational” aspects contemporary critics identified in sensation fiction in her subversion of the Victorian boundaries of class and gender. Through the lens of the female servant, I trace the origins of the sensation fiction genre to the more canonical novels Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and argue to broaden the genre’s definition to include the sensation short story. I consider how, among the more well-known sensation titles, distinct character patterns emerge: the criminal servant, the actress-qua-servant, and the servant as spouse. Ultimately, my research suggests that, far from a fad of a single decade, sensation fiction has remained influential and its tropes are still found today in Neo-Victorian literature and popular culture.