Personation Plots

Identity Fraud in Victorian Sensation Fiction

By Clayton Carlyle Tarr

Subjects: Literary Criticism, Nineteenth-century Studies, Criminology, Cultural Studies, History Of Science
Series: SUNY series, Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Hardcover : 9781438490830, 266 pages, November 2022
Paperback : 9781438490847, 266 pages, May 2023

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Part I. Body

1. Skins to Jump Into
Clothes in A Woman in Spite of Herself
Cosmetics in No Name

2. Altered beyond Chance of Recognition
Surgery in Checkmate
Blood Transfusion in Blood

First Interlude: Alice Grey

Part II. Mind

3. That Lost Personality
Madness in Lady Audley’s Secret
Epilepsy in Thou Art the Man

4. This Unclean Spirit of Imitation
Mesmerism in The Notting Hill Mystery
Opium in The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Second Interlude: Mary Jane Furneaux

Part III. Matter

5. A Daring Imposture
Registers in The Woman in White
Wills in Verner’s Pride

6. That Mysterious Paper Currency
Refuse in Our Mutual Friend
Photographs in Unconventional

Afterword: Reverse Personation

Works Cited

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.

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