Personation Plots

Identity Fraud in Victorian Sensation Fiction

Expected to ship: 2022-11-01

Examines the fascination with identity fraud in sensation fiction and Victorian culture more broadly.


The first full-length study of identity fraud in literature, Personation Plots argues that concerns about identity and the body gripped the Victorian consciousness. The mid-nineteenth century was marked by extensive medico-legal efforts to understand the body as the sole signifier of identity. The sensation genre, which enjoyed remarkable popularity in the 1860s and 1870s, at once reflected and challenged this discourse. In their frequent representations of identity fraud, sensation writers demonstrated that the body could never guarantee a person's identity. The body is malleable and untrustworthy, and the identity it is supposed to signify is governed by the caprices of the human mind and the growing authority of paper matter. Both a wide-ranging literary analysis and a portrait of the age, Personation Plots reads canonical texts by Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Charles Dickens alongside several lesser-known sensation novels. The study, which anticipates debates over biometric identification practices in our own time, also features brief criminal biographies of two of the nineteenth century's greatest impostors, Alice Grey and Mary Jane Furneaux, and concludes with an afterword on imposture in the late-Victorian Gothic, and anticipates debates over biometric identification practices in our own time.

Clayton Carlyle Tarr is Lecturer in English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.


"Personation Plots demonstrates a comprehensive grounding in nineteenth-century conceptions of identity, the self, and subjectivity, to say nothing of the requisite historical knowledge to write intelligently, as Tarr does, about things such as plastic surgery, transfusion, and the census. No less comprehensive is Tarr's knowledge of sensation fiction, from seminal texts like The Woman in White and Lady Audley's Secret to more obscure ones such as Blood, Checkmate, and Verner's Pride. Personation Plots is a unique and notable study, valuable not only for its key arguments but also for introducing readers to less familiar works by Le Fanu, Braddon, Reade, and others." — Sean C. Grass, author of The Commodification of Identity in Victorian Narrative: Autobiography, Sensation, and the Literary Marketplace