Psychological Fiction: The Origins of a Genre

I had recently decided to read something completely different to what I’d normally choose, and picked up a copy of Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, which I highly recommend. First published in 1862, it became widely known in Victorian England as a piece of ‘sensation fiction’ and helped to launch a new genre. This new genre, full of tales of crime and sexual transgression, dominated the market for years, even though critics of the time didn’t favour it. Braddon herself wanted people to look deeper into the genre, asking, ‘Can the sensation be elevated by art?’

Mary Elizabeth Braddon


The book covers topics that all go against the norms and values of the time and Victorian womanhood. On one hand a young wife and mother is abandoned by her husband, exploited by her father and has to ensure the safety of her son – thus gaining the readers sympathy. On the other hand, this same woman covers her tracks, attempts murder, is defiant and shows no remorse – losing the sympathy the reader had for her.

The term ‘sensation fiction’ was chosen for this type of novel as it was seen as shocking, exaggerated or scandalous. Such novels also had an effect on the senses as the authors aim was to produce physical reactions in their readers. One critic of the time, W. Fraser Rae, described Lady Audley’s Secret as ‘one of the abominations of the age,’ because of it’s goal to make reader’s hearts race. (Quotes taken from the introduction to the novel in the Wordsworth Classics edition.)

The commercialism of the new genre was on a different scale from any previously seen in literature. Many authors were women who were making money from their writing like never before. Common plot elements would include arson, murder, insanity, sexual affairs and their concealment and/or revelation – elements that still frequently have a place in psychological fiction today.

Since Victorian times the popularity of so-called ‘sensation fiction’ grew. No longer seen as immoral or an attempt to change social order, readers have continued to choose these books in large numbers. A large part of the appeal was the enjoyment of being able to look inside the mind of the characters, sympathise for them in some cases, or be scared and disturbed by them in others.

Now known as psychological fiction, it’s a genre that not only allows the reader to examine a character’s decisions and actions, but also encourages them to ask themselves, what would I do in the same situation? Going by the increasing popularity of the genre I think that Braddon’s question about sensation being elevated by art has been answered positively. There’s still an element of sensationalism in the genre, but it’s readers are appreciative of the art within the plot.

In my next novel I move away from supernatural thrillers to a more straight psychological thriller. You Belong to Me will hopefully get it’s readers asking themselves, what would I do differently? It’s four main characters find themselves in some very difficult situations that impact on them for a long time afterwards. I hope their decisions throughout the story elicit emotional responses and gain the readers sympathy.


Here’s the blurb for You Belong To Me:

Can two wrongs ever make a right?
The police never found fifteen-year-old Ellie Hutton. She vanished ten years ago after walking home from school along a disused railway track. But Danny Sheppard knows exactly what happened to her. She is dead and buried in a field near Lassiter’s Brook. Now Cassie Rafferty has gone missing. Same age. Similar circumstances. And Danny also knows what has happened to her.
Can Danny fight his demons and tell the truth this time?
Or will history repeat itself and leave another innocent girl dead?

If you like the sound of the book, you can add it to your Goodreads TBR list here.


As always, thank you for your continued support.

Best wishes,


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