During the final quarter of the twentieth century both the nature and the supposed dominance of realism in Victorian fiction were interrogated by critics concerned to explore the non-realist or anti-realist aspects of canonical Victorian novels, and/or to redirect literary historical attention to the cultural significance of a range of bestselling and sometimes controversial nineteenth-century fiction texts, such as the sensation novel which emerged to dominate the bestseller lists and critical column in the 1860s and a number of fantastic narratives from the fin de siècle. Both the mid-century sensation novels, which were often criticized by contemporary reviewers for their fantastic plots, and the degenerationist fantasies and imperial and scientific romances which flowered in the late nineteenth century can be seen, in their different ways, as mutations, transformations, or modernizations of gothic, which, broadly defined, is perhaps the paradigmatic form of the fantastic in Victorian fiction.
The extent to which the sensational and fantastic pervaded Victorian fiction can be seen in the success of novelists such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Margaret Oliphant (like Gaskell, better known now as the author of realistic chronicles of family life) as writers of ghost stories and other tales of terror and the supernatural. Even George Eliot, the doyenne of realist fictional practice as well as one of the major nineteenth-century theorists of realism, produced a strange and disturbing occult novella, The Lifted Veil (1859), whose narrator and central protagonist develops clairvoyant powers following an illness, and is subsequently haunted by his ability to read the minds of others and by his (fore)knowledge of the fate that awaits him. Even more interesting than these forays into fantastic subgenres is the irruption of sensation and the fantastic into novels that cannot easily be assigned to a single generic category or mode of representation, including those that have been cited as examples of Victorian realism. Examples include the demonic characters, gothic scenes, and dreams in the novels of Emily and Charlotte Brontë; Dickens’s frequent use of gothic or ghostly scenes, interludes, or interpolated tales; the melodramatic excess and sensational plotting in Dickens’s fiction generally and in Gaskell’s social problem novels; the sensation plotting and sensation effects in George Eliot’s Felix Holt the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876); and some of the novels of Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy.