This article pairs Francis Paget’s satirical invocation of epistolarity in Lucretia (1868) with Wilkie Collins’s redeployment of this revived narrative mode in the fully-fledged detective plot of Man and Wife (1870). While Paget draws on the newly developed sensational potential of epistolary narrative in order to parody current trends in popular fiction in general, Collins takes precisely letters’ changing narrative functions as the underpinning structure of a detective novel that doubles up as a critical dissection of Victorian conceptualisations of interconnected forms of violence. Collins’s novel hinges on a violation of private papers that metonymically stands in for privacy’s violent exposure as a sellable spectacle in popular culture. Throughout sensational detective fiction of the time, in fact, interpolated letters feature both as (at times misleading) clues and as a structuring device that frequently involves violence on more than one level. Often presented only as—violently mistreated—fragments, letters play a multiple narrative role in their various stages of composition, delivery, and potential misuse, with each stage lending itself to new forms of exploitation. These forms of violent misappropriation range from blackmail, extortion, and public exposure in the press to physical manifestations of violence in the withholding or forceful appropriation of private papers. Yet as their exposed content serves to reveal titillating secrets to the reader (as a main appeal of sensation fiction), the narrative significance of letters’ violation becomes essentially twofold: while describing instances of violence, the very disclosure of these descriptions involves a violation in which even well-meaning detective figures (as well as the reader) become implicated. Violated privacy as a newly pertinent issue at the time can thus be seen to shape nineteenth-century fiction structurally and thematically.
KEY WORDS: violence, privacy, Victorian fiction, epistolarity, Sensationalism, genre