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(William) Wilkie Collins 1824-1889

English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, and playwright.

The following entry presents recent criticism of Collins.

A skillful manipulator of intricate plots, Collins is remembered as a principal founder of English detective fiction. His novels of intrigue and suspense, although as popular in Collins's day...

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(William) Wilkie Collins 1824-1889

English novelist, short story writer, travel writer, and playwright.

The following entry presents recent criticism of Collins.

A skillful manipulator of intricate plots, Collins is remembered as a principal founder of English detective fiction. His novels of intrigue and suspense, although as popular in Collins's day as the works of such Victorian luminaries as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and William Thackeray, were frequently dismissed by critics as sensationalist fiction. By the twentieth century, Collins began to receive recognition for his innovations in the detective genre, for his unconventional representation of female characters, and for his emphasis on careful plotting and revision, a practice that foreshadowed modern methods.

Biographical Information

Collins was named for his father, William, a landscape painter, and his godfather, the artist Sir David Wilkie. Raised among artists and writers in England, Collins rebelled against the routine at the tea-broker's firm where, at the age of seventeen, he'd been placed by his father. He subsequently studied at Lincoln's Inn and was called to the Bar in 1851, but was to use his legal expertise only when writing fiction. After his father's death in 1847, Collins wrote Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R. A. and two years later a lengthy novel, Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome. Soon after the publication of his first novel, Collins made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens, and the two became close friends, working together on Dickens's magazines, traveling together, and occasionally collaborating on stories. He achieved immense popularity after the publication of his sensation novel The Woman in White in 1860, which spawned a literary vogue for such fiction that peaked in 1868 with the appearance of his highly successful The Moonstone. Always a frustrated playwright, Collins made dramatic adaptations of these and several of his other works of fiction, which were produced in England and the United States with fair success. After rising to fame, Collins became the subject of considerable scrutiny due to his unconventional personal life. Collins lived with his mistress—said to have been the model for the “woman in white”—and supported, in addition, another woman by whom he had three illegitimate children. Although Collins was accepted by literary friends, he was often ostracized by society at large for his unorthodox way of life. His rage at hypocritical morals and perhaps his desire to emulate Dickens inspired Collins to compose the didactic novels of his later years. He died in London in September of 1889.

Major Works

Collins's first novel, Antonina, was an imitative, historical romance in the style of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii. His next work, Rambles Beyond Railways (1851), a personal travelogue, features glimpses from a walking tour in Cornwall. The novel Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852) is a tale of rebellion against paternal authority, sexual passion, and revenge. Featuring an intricate plot and told through a series of monologues, The Woman in White offers two very different heroines: the strong and passionate Marian Holcombe and the passive Laura Fairlie. The latter is manipulated by the novel's villain, Count Fosco, agrees to marry Fosco's henchman, and is subsequently robbed of her identity and forced into an asylum. No Name (1862) recounts the unusual response of a woman subjected to the loss of her inheritance following her husband's death. In Armadale (1866), Lydia Gwilt shifts from the role of melodramatic villainess to victim. Considered by T. S. Eliot to be “the first and greatest of detective novels,” The Moonstone presents an eccentric detective, Sergeant Cuff, assigned to recover a valuable and allegedly cursed diamond. After The Moonstone, Collins's novels generally present a didactic tone, with many serving to criticize stridently some element of Victorian society. Among them, Man and Wife (1870) features a desperate woman, Anne Vanborough, seduced and lured into marriage by a man who is her moral and intellectual inferior.

Critical Reception

Collins has been called “the father of the English detective novel” and many critics have observed that his principal strength lies in his expert maneuvering of characters through complex plots. Indeed, he is credited with having influenced Dickens in this area. While Collins has sometimes been criticized for his weak characters, scholars have acknowledged that he nevertheless provided the prototypes for many stock characters who were to people subsequent detective fiction—Sergeant Cuff of The Moonstone exhibits characteristics that have shown up in later generations of fictional detectives, and Count Fosco of The Woman in White is recognized as the model for the devilishly charming villain. Commentators have also noted that many devices that seem today to be tired clichés—from mistaken identities to cursed jewels—were introduced by Collins. In addition to assessments of Collins's influence on detective fiction, many modern critics have begun the process of examining issues of gender and culture in his gothic and sensation novels, noting the way Collins departed from the traditions of popular fiction to create an insightful and subtly critical portrait of Victorian society in his works.

Principal Works

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Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R. A. (biography) 1848

Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (novel) 1850

Rambles Beyond Railways (travelogue) 1851

Basil: A Story of Modern Life (novel) 1852

Hide and Seek (novel) 1854

After Dark (short stories) 1856

The Dead Secret (novel) 1857

*The New Magdalen (novel) 1857

The Queen of Hearts (short stories) 1859

The Woman in White (novel) 1860

No Name (novel) 1862

Armadale (novel) 1866

The Moonstone (novel) 1868

Man and Wife (novel) 1870

Poor Miss Finch (novel) 1872

The Frozen Deep and Other Stories (short stories) 1874

The Law and the Lady (novel) 1875

The Two Destinies (novel) 1876

A Rogue's Life: From His Birth to His Marriage (novel) 1879

The Fallen Leaves (novel) 1879

The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice (novella) 1879

Jezebel's Daughter (novel) 1880

The Black Robe (novel) 1881

Heart and Science (novel) 1883

I Say No (novel) 1884

The Evil Genius (novel) 1886

The Guilty River (novel) 1886

Little Novels (novellas) 1887

The Legacy of Cain (novel) 1889

Blind Love (unfinished novel) 1890

*This novel was rewritten as a play, The New Magdalen, in 1873.

Patricia Frick (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “The Fallen Angels of Wilkie Collins,” in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 7, No. 4, September/October, 1984, pp. 343-51.

[In the following essay, Frick discusses Collins's ambivalent treatment of fallen women in his novels.]


In her recent study of the Victorian heroine, Woman and the Demon, Nina Auerbach argues that the fallen woman, far more than the angelic one, galvanized the mid- and late-nineteenth-century imagination. This assertion is especially true when we examine the fiction of Wilkie Collins, friend and protegé of Dickens, sensation novelist par excellence, and grandfather of the modern English detective novel. While Collins at times upheld conventional notions of womanhood through pale-cheeked and fainthearted heroines, such as Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, his true emotional and intellectual affinities were with the fallen angels of his time—prostitutes, mistresses, murderesses, adulteresses, divorcées, and other female deviants from “respectable” society. While he sometimes resorted to stereotyping these women, he more frequently made them the center of his novels, endowed them with appealing or admirable traits, and rewarded them with morally upright husbands—much to the horror of his critics. In this paper I shall examine the roles of Collins's rebellious fallen heroines and demonstrate how, for the most part, they challenge common Victorian assumptions about “the one unpardonable sin”1 and its social, moral, and spiritual consequences.


Why was Collins so fascinated by fallen women? What factors contributed to his often sympathetic and unorthodox depictions of them? One answer lies in his own unconventional relationships with two women who dominated much of his life and writing. In her reminiscences, Mrs. Kate Perugini, Dickens's daughter, records that “Wilkie Collins had a mistress called Caroline, a young woman of gentle birth and the original of The Woman in White.2 This enigmatic figure was Caroline Elizabeth Graves. At the time of her first encounter with Collins (believed to be in the early part of 1859), she was the wife, perhaps the widow of George Robert Graves, about whom nothing is known. After living with Collins, unmarried, for about ten years, Caroline suddenly married the son of a distiller, Joseph Charles Clow, in 1868. Collins himself was reported to have attended the wedding. Nevertheless, in the early 1870s, Caroline appears to have left or to have been abandoned by Clow, for she returned to re-establish a household with Collins and remained with him until his death.

In the interval between Caroline's abrupt and mysterious marriage to Clow and her return to Collins, he began a relationship with a second woman, Martha Rudd, who later adopted the name of Mrs. Dawson. In the course of five years she bore Collins three illegitimate children, two daughters and a son, whom he later acknowledged as his own in his will. Little more is known of her, except that she sent a wreath to Collins's funeral in 1889.3

Undoubtedly, Collins's relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd made him especially sensitive to the problems of women who lived at odds with conventional society. For example, direct references to Caroline throughout his letters are infrequent or carefully guarded. As Sue Lonoff has pointed out in her recent study of Collins, he was not one to suffer Victorian hypocrisies lightly: “He knew too many men who publicly inveighed against impurity while they privately patronized mistresses and prostitutes, too many women who preached intolerance and failed to practice charity.”4

It would be imprudent, however, to insist exclusively on this biographical basis for Collins's favorable treatment of fallen women, for the impetus behind his concern for magdalens of all kinds was as much public and philanthropic as it was private and personal. At the time he launched his career, during the 1850s, there was a widespread display of interest in the lives of fallen women. As this excerpt from the Saturday Review of February 1, 1852, reveals, “Magdalen fever” was sweeping the nation:

The fast man makes love to them; the slow man discusses them; the fashionable young lady copies their dress; the Evangelical clergyman gives them tea, toast, and touching talks at midnight; and the devout young woman gives herself up to the task of tending them in some lovely and sequestered retreat, while they are resting between the acts of their exhausting lives.5

While traditional moralists continued to urge the view that prostitutes could only look forward to short, unhappy lives, painful, squalid deaths, and eternal damnation, other investigators and reformers supplied additional evidence about the lives of the fallen. William Acton's Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities (1857) provided concrete evidence which contradicted the myth that all seduced women became whores and that all whores soon died.6 Moreover, Acton was one of the first to call attention to the medical problems of fallen women, since he realistically deduced that their illnesses might be visited on the next generation of Englishmen.

Among those especially concerned with the plight of the fallen woman were also some of Collins's closest friends. While he privately indulged in liaisons outside his marriage, Dickens publicly directed his energies towards Urania Cottage, a refuge for homeless women, and urged compassion and pity for “the daughters of the streets” through his sentimental portraits of prostitutes such as Martha Endell and Little Emily in David Copperfield. Additionally, the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Collins's brother, Charley, actively campaigned for the rescue and reform of fallen women, and in works such as Millais's “Virtue and Vice,” Rossetti's “Found,” and Hunt's “the Awakened Conscience,” revealed not only their tragic destinies but also their disturbing beauty.

With so many portraits of the fallen placed before the public eye, and with such a supply of causes, motivations and consequences for their actions being proposed, Collins could hardly have avoided writing about female outcasts. For one thing, the lives of fallen women were inherently more interesting than the lives of conventional heroines, and therefore had stronger sensational appeal to his readers. Secondly, as one committed to literary realism, he could hardly overlook this important aspect of contemporary Victorian life. Still, he faced the difficult task of reconciling his own more liberal notions of female sexual behavior with the conservative expectations of much of his audience.7


In approaching this problem, Collins occasionally fell back on two standard conceptions of the magdalen: the man-trapping jezebel and the madonna-whore. Significantly, even these stereotypes reveal important departures from tradition. Sensual, coldhearted, and sinister, the jezebels slither across the pages of his novels like vipers, infecting the virtuous characters with their corruption and depravity. Margaret Sherwin, the linen-draper's daughter who secretly marries the hero of Basil (1852), only to betray him by having an affair with her tutor, is cast in the role of the conventional siren whose appearance signals domestic chaos and prolonged suffering. With her “olive cheeks,” “large dark eyes,” and “full lips,” she evokes all the swarthy, voluptuous, and non-English sensuality of a Pre-Raphaelite stunner like Jane Morris, and is deliberately contrasted with Basil's fair-skinned and pure-minded sister, Clara. Despite the protagonist's idealistic speculation that Margaret's dark face “would shine forth in the full luxury of its beauty when she first heard the words, received the first kiss from the man she loved,”8 Collins emphasizes that Margaret has little to do with love. Her appeal is blatantly sexual, as Basil's dream vision of her as The Dark Lady of the Wood underscores:

Her eyes were lustrous and fascinating as the eyes of a serpent—large, dark, and soft as the eyes of the wild doe. Her lips were parted with a languid smile; and she drew back the long hair, which lay over her cheeks, her neck, her bosom, while I was gazing on her. … I touched her hand, and in an instant, the touch ran through me like fire from head to foot. Then, still looking intently on me with her wild, bright eyes, she clasped her supple arms round my neck, and drew me a few paces away with her towards the dark wood.

(Basil, p. 51)

In the same way, Lydia Gwilt, the scheming governess of Armadale (1866), is yet another “one of those beautiful women of elegant figure and golden locks whose fascinating exterior only hides a subtle brain and a pitiless heart.”9 “Fouler than the sinks and sewers,”10 as one reviewer described her, Miss Gwilt has lived to the ripe age of thirty-five having committed forgery, theft, bigamy, having served a jail sentence, and having attempted suicide. Her sordid life, however, has taken no toll on her beauty, and her delight in her own sexuality is frankly undisguised, as she suggests in this account of her latest attempt to ensnare her Prey:

She sighed, and walking back to the glass, wearily loosened the fastenings of her dress; wearily removed the studs from the chemisette beneath it, and put them on the chimney piece. She looked indolently at the reflected beauties of her neck and bosom, as she unplaited her hair and threw it back in one great mass over her shoulders. “Fancy,” she thought, “if he saw me now.”

(Armadale, pp. 382-83)

While Collins's response to these seductive sirens is on the whole traditional and punitive, it also reflects his uneasiness with some of the myths surrounding them. After her infidelity has been discovered, Margaret Sherwin becomes fatally ill (from the small pox, which she has appropriately contracted from her lover). Her death is prolonged, remorseful, and painful, so much so that Basil can hardly recognize her:

The smouldering fever in her cheeks; the glare of the bloodshot eyes; the distortion of the parched lips; the hideous clutching of the outstretched fingers at the empty air—the agony of the sight was more than I could endure.

(Basil, p. 292)

Yet at the same time that Collins crushes Margaret for her brazen behavior, he also makes her his mouthpiece for criticism of those “decent” people who publicly denounce fallen women and privately indulge in their own transgressions. In the height of her delirium, she remarks to Basil:

Put roses in my coffin—scarlet roses if you can find any, because that stands for Scarlet Women. … Scarlet? What do I care! It's the boldest color in the world. … How many women are as scarlet as I am—virtue wears it at home in secret, and vice wears it abroad in public.

(Basil, p. 289)

Similarly, Lydia Gwilt receives another traditionally sanctioned punishment for her impurity: she commits suicide when she realizes that she has fallen in love with the very man she has set out to deceive. Her suicide note confirms the myth that a woman's departure from propriety can never furnish real rewards, for she confesses to her victim, “I have never been a happy woman.” Her death and her remorseful clichés, however, are sharply undercut by the attractive and appealing portrait of her that Collins has skillfully woven into the novel. Charming, cultivated (she appreciates Beethoven, Byron, and Dickens), and, of course, strikingly beautiful, she clearly outranks any of the good women who compete with her. Her frankness, humor, and intelligence are hardly diminished by her penchant for self-destruction and deception.

Collins's use of other stereotypes also reveals his concession to and challenge of conventional portraits of the fallen woman. In The Fallen Leaves (1879), the child-prostitute Simple Sally continued the tradition of the madonna-whore which was popularized in novels such as Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth, or Mrs. Browning's Aurora Leigh. Small, frail, and victimized by poverty and social indifference, Sally seems entirely incapable of understanding the moral implications of her prostitution. To the hero of the novel, and to Collins, she remains miraculously pure, in spite of her fall:

But for the words in which she had accosted him, it would have been impossible to associate her with the lamentable life that she led. The appearance of the girl was artlessly virginal and innocent; she looked as if she had passed through the contamination of the streets without being touched by it, without fearing it, or understanding it. Robed in pure white, with her gentle blue eyes raised to heaven, a painter might have shown her on his canvas as a saint or an angel: and the critical world would have said, Here is the true ideal—Raphael himself might have painted this!

(The Fallen Leaves, p. 275)

According to formula, Sally faced three basic patterns of destiny as an idealized magdalen: she could remain a spectral and pitiful outcast; she could temporarily find work in a refuge, where she would die a deserved but penitent death; or she could commit suicide with edifying pathos. Significantly, Collins rejects all of these traditional solutions to Sally's dilemma and rewards her with marriage to Claude Amelius Goldenheart, a Socialist reformer who spirits her away to the New World and, presumably, to a happy life.

In exonerating Sally from all blame and in rewarding her with respectability in spite of her fall, Collins makes a bold departure from tradition. Nevertheless, Sally remains too pale, self-denouncing and lifeless to constitute a real threat to public morality, and the reader, along with Collins, is more likely to forgive and forget her than to condemn her.11 By contrast, the heroines of No Name (1862), Man and Wife (1870), and The New Magdalen (1873) represent a much more radical break with conventional notions of the magdalen, for not only are they rewarded with respectable husbands after their falls, but they also grow in power, self-possession, and magnetism because of their errors.

Magdalen Vanstone, the protagonist of No Name, is herself the daughter of a fallen woman. When she cannot marry Magdalen's father because he has already been led into marriage by a cruel and vicious adventuress, Mrs. Vanstone consents to live with him, but only after she has taken every necessary precaution to create the illusion of their having been married:

She set herself from the first, to accomplish the one foremost purpose of so living with him, in the world's eyes, as never to raise the suspicion that she was not his lawful wife. … She took all the needful precautions, in those early days, which her husband's less ready capacity had not the art to devise—precautions to which they were largely indebted for the preservation of their secret in later times.

(No Name, p. 115)

But it is the heroine of the novel, not her mother, who receives the name Magdalen and who most truly lives up to it. When her parents suddenly die, Magdalen and her sister, Norah, must face two gruesome revelations: they are illegitimate and, because of this, they are not legally entitled to their parents' inheritance. While Norah passively submits to her fate, Magdalen is openly and admirably defiant. Drawing on her “born talent as an actress,” she launches a campaign of treachery, disguise, and deception to dupe the hier-at-law into marrying her so that she may win back the legacy that is morally, if not legally, hers. Although her plan eventually fails, she derives strength, mobility and power from her fall in ways that her clinging and conventional sister can scarcely comprehend. Despite Collins's statement in the “Preface” to No Name that he aimed to make Magdalen “pathetic … even in her perversity and error,” she remains the strong-willed center of her own universe—patient, firm, and scheming.

Like Magdalen, Anne Silvester, the protagonist of Man and Wife, discovers freedom, self-assertion, and self-knowledge when she is seduced by a caddish young athlete, Geoffrey Delamyn. Unlike traditional models of the fallen woman, Anne refuses to see herself as a helpless victim of male bestiality. In reviewing the events which lead up to her fall, she admits frankly that her participation in the act was willing, that her attraction to Delamyn was primarily physical:

She has seen him … the hero of the river-race, the first and foremost man in a trial of strength and skill which had roused the interest of a nation; the idol of the popular worship and the popular applause. … A woman in an atmosphere of red-hot enthusiasm, witnesses the apotheosis of Physical Strength. Is it reasonable—is it just—to expect her to ask herself, in cold blood, “What morally and intellectually” is all this worth?—and that, when the man … notices her, is presented to her, finds her to his taste, and singles her out from the rest? No. While humanity is humanity, the woman is not utterly without excuse.

(Man and Wife, p. 62)

When Delamyn refuses to marry her and be a father to their unborn child, Anne rejects the role of meek martyr to her own folly. She insists that Delamyn marry her, consults a lawyer to see if their Scottish marriage is legitimate in England, and fights to protect the reputation of her brother-in-law, who has innocently tried to help her resolve her difficulties.

The victim of an evil man and an evil legal system, Anne emerges from her struggles self-sacrificing, but also strong and admirable.

Finally, in discussing Collins's fallen heroines who have special appeal, it is important to look at Mercy Merrick, the protagonist of The New Magdalen. The illegitimate child of a gentleman and an actress, left to support herself at the age of ten, raped while fainting from starvation, and driven into prostitution, Mercy reforms through penitence and self-discipline and, at the outset of the novel, appears as a nurse on the front lines during the Franco-Prussian War. Despite her past, Mercy's demeanour and bearing are heroic, elegant: there is an “innate nobility in the carriage of … her head, an innate grandeur in the gaze of her large gray eyes.”12 Like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, she seems to glow with a mysterious energy which has resulted from her fall:

The sick kissed the hem of her black dress; they called her their guardian angel, as the beautiful creature moved among them, and bent over their pillows her gentle compassionate face.

(The New Magdalen, p. 51)

At the front, Mercy meets a young gentlewoman, Grace Roseberry, who is on her way to England to meet a distant relative, Lady Janet Roy, whom she has never seen before. The two women exchange life stories, and Grace's petty, cruel and hypocritical nature becomes apparent when she refuses to take Mercy's hand in friendship. When a burst of cannon fire leaves Grace apparently dead, Mercy sees the way to abandon her past life permanently. Taking Grace's name, clothing and papers, she leaves for England and Lady Janet's household, where she passes herself off successfully, wins Lady Janet's love, and even acquires a respectable fiancé. Her basic integrity and heroic nobility resurface, however, when the real Grace, very much alive, shows up. Mercy confesses all, loses her fiancé, and once again faces the possibility of loneliness and ostracism.

In all of these novels, Collins rewards his fallen angels with conventional respectability. Broken and exhausted from her efforts to win back her inheritance, Magdalen Vanstone is rescued by Captain Kirke. When Geoffrey Delamyn dies while trying to murder her, Anne Silvester is rescued by her mature and charming family solicitor, who offers her marriage and security. Mercy Merrick receives perhaps the most shocking award—she is married to Julian Gray, an Evangelical minister.

These happy endings suggest that Collins deliberately challenged his readers' restrictive notions of the fate of fallen women. When we look at them more closely, however, they also suggest a certain degree of ambivalence, for in restoring his fallen heroines to the traditional refuges of marriage and respectability, Collins simultaneously strips them of much of their power, independence and magnetism. As a mistress of disguise and deception, Magdalen Vanstone towers over her opponents, in charge of her own destiny. As the chastised wife of Captain Kirke, however, she is merely a shadow of her former self. Similarly, Anne Silvester and Mercy Merrick sacrifice much of their power and independence to conventional marriages. In Mercy's case, Collins indicates that the respect that she regains through marrying Julian Gray definitely has its limitations. At their post-nuptial ball, the couple discovers to their disillusionment that only married ladies are present; their single daughters shall not suffer the risk of contamination through contact with a former prostitute.13

It would be easy to condemn Collins for this subtle ambivalence and for continuing to promote, on whatever level, some of the same restrictive values which he purports to challenge. However, it would be fairer to commend him for his bold attempts to treat the whole subject of fallen women with courage, frankness, and open-mindedness, if not with absolute consistency. Unlike most other writers of his time, he never blames any of his heroines for their sexual lapses per se and suggests that “the one unpardonable sin” may carry special rewards, as well as dangers.


  1. Wilkie Collins, The Evil Genius (New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1902), p. 228. This novel, like the others discussed in the body of the paper, also illustrates Collins's tendency to overlook his fallen heroines' sexual lapses and to reward them with promising futures. Sydney Westerfield, a sensitive and ingenuous young governess, is seduced by her employer, Rodney Linley. When the affair is made public, Linley leaves his wife and daughter to live with Sydney. When she realizes, however, how much suffering her relationship with him has caused the child, Sydney repents and gives him up, dedicating her life to hard work and the service of others. At the end of the novel, Collins intimates that she will be rescued and reintegrated into respectable society by the noble Captain Bennydeck. While Collins does not completely overlook her fall, he resists the temptation to condemn her for it, and even suggests that the fault may not lie either with her or her seducer, but with the society of which they are both products.

  2. Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins (London: David-Poynter, 1974), pp. 121-22.

  3. Ibid., pp. 123-25.

  4. Sue Lonoff, Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers (New York: AMS Press, 1982), p. 152. Lonoff additionally suggests that Collins's preoccupation with fallen women may also be prompted by “an element of fantasy, obsession, or wish-fulfillment.”

  5. Eric Trudghill, Madonnas and Magdalens: The Origins and Development of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (London: Heinemann, 1976), pp. 286-89, passim.

  6. Sally Mitchell, The Fallen Angel: Chastity, Class and Women's Reading 1835-1880 (Bowling Green: Bowling Green Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 53-54.

  7. For other discussions of Collins's ambivalence towards his heroines see Lonoff, and Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 135-43, 205-06.

  8. Wilkie Collins, Basil (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1902), p. 37. All subsequent references to Collins's novels will be taken from this 17 volume Illustrated Library edition by Harper and Brothers (1873-1916), and will be cited in the body of the paper.

  9. “Recent Novels: Their Moral and Religious Teaching,” London Quarterly, 27 (1866), 104, as cited in Mitchell, p. 74.

  10. H. F. Chorley, unsigned review, Athenaeum (2 June 1866), 723-33, as cited in Norman Page, ed., Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), p. 147.

  11. Other examples of the idealized fallen woman include Sarah Leeson, the timorous servant in The Dead Secret (1857), who gives up her unborn baby when her fiancé is killed in a mining accident.

  12. Wilkie Collins, The New Magdalen (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1902), pp. 12-13.

  13. Another one of Collins's heroines who receives nominal respectability is Mrs. Catherick, the grim mother of Anne Catherick in The Woman in White. When faced with disgrace and social ostracism because of her alleged affair with Sir Percival Glyde, Mrs. Catherick remains in her village, sternly enduring the rebukes of her neighbors until they eventually stop, and she is “accepted” once again (“The clergyman tips his hat to me”). Collins emphasizes, however, the purely mechanical way in which others acknowledge her, and stresses the real source of her disgrace—her absence of compassion—which sets her apart from the human race.

Nick Rance (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: “Wilkie Collins in the 1860s: The Sensation Novel and Self-Help,” in Nineteenth-Century Suspense: From Poe to Conan Doyle, edited by Clive Bloom, Brian Docherty, Jane Gibb, and Keith Shand, Macmillan Press, 1988, pp. 46-63.

[In the following essay, Rance investigates Collins's sensation novels in relation to the historical mood of 1860s England.]

Recent manifestations of critical interest in Collins have not tended to impugn his traditional status as a minor novelist, to be mentioned in the same breath as Reade. Feminist criticism has played off a male and reactionary Collins against enlightened female sensation novelists. Elaine Showalter pronounces the novels of Collins in the 1860s to be ‘relatively conventional in terms of their social and sexual attitudes.’1 A misreading is first adduced in evidence. ‘The first sentence of The Woman in White announced Collins' endorsement of Victorian sex roles: “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.”2 The first sentence, however, is Walter Hartright's as editor of the various narratives, including his own, and announces Hartright's endorsement of Victorian sex roles, but not that of Collins. That Collins was conventional in his sexual attitudes might seem a curious charge to lay against the creator of Marian Halcombe and Lydia Gwilt. Admittedly, the spirited Marian in The Woman in White has on her upper lip down which to Hartright is ‘almost a moustache.’ (p. 58) But no less objectionable to Hartright because no less suggestive of an aura of manliness are the qualities revealed in her expression, qualities which Hartright would find admirable in a man. Hartright is incited to assert what has been affronted, his own and the conventional ideal of femininity:

Her expression—bright, frank and intelligent—appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.

(pp. 58-9)3

The Italian, Count Fosco, conceives a passion for precisely the attributes which repulse the English drawing-master. Sue Lonoff in her recent book is not intent on exalting female sensation novelists at the expense of Collins, but can still state that ‘Collins had no greater ambition than to be a popular novelist—popular in the double sense of selling widely and of appealing to middle-brow, middle-class readers.’4 The undoubted appeal of the novels to middle-brow, middle-class readers, though not exclusively to such readers, did not stop Collins from being master of a suspense in which what for the reader was suspended was faith in the validity of successive aspects of mid-Victorian orthodoxy. I shall be concerned here not with sexual attitudes in the fiction, which have been the focus of much of the new critical interest in Collins, but rather with the fictional project of undermining the traditional bourgeois ethic of self-help.

Serialized from November 1859 to August 1860 in All the Year Round, The Woman in White inaugurated a decade of literary sensationalism. In the 1860s, Collins is a historical novelist preoccupied by the very recent past. All four of the novels published in the 1860s, The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale and The Moonstone, are set in England in the late 1840s and, except for No Name, the early 1850s. At the beginning of his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of George Augustus Sala (1895), Sala, who knew Collins from Household Words days, wrote of the International Exhibition of 1862 that

the display presented two conspicuous departures from the lines laid down in 1851. In that year, no modern weapon of war was to be seen in the palace of glass and iron. In 1862 section after section showed cannon, gun, muskets, rifles, pistols, swords, daggers, and other munitions of warfare. The promoters of the First Exhibition had thought, good souls! that the thousand years of war were over, and that the thousand years of peace were to be inaugurated; but they had awakened from that dulcet dream in 1862. Solferino and Magenta had been fought, and the great American Civil War was impending.

Margaret Oliphant, whose essay ‘Sensation Novels’ appeared in Blackwood's Magazine in May 1862, explained the new literary school in terms of the Zeitgeist: ‘it is natural that art and literature should, in an age which has turned out to be one of events, attempt a kindred depth of effect and shock of incident.’ Like Sala, Oliphant was impressed by the contrast between the mood of the 1860s and the optimism of 1851: ‘We who once did, and made, and declared ourselves masters of all things, have relapsed into the natural size of humanity before the great events which have given a new character to the age.’ Margaret Oliphant was thinking of wars abroad and particularly the American Civil War:

That distant roar has come to form a thrilling accompaniment to the safe life we lead at home. On the other side of the Atlantic, a race blasé and lost in universal ennui has bethought itself of the grandest expedient for procuring a new sensation; and albeit we follow at a humble distance, we too begin to feel the need of a supply of new shocks and wonders.

Oliphant may be suspected of being disingenuous in contrasting thrilling America with safe England. The English fascination with events in America was because the war seemed provoked by something more urgent than ennui. As did the English monied classes generally, The Times supported the South, because it was assumed to be rebelling against democracy. In the 1860s, with the emergence of an organized union movement and vigorous campaigns for reform of the franchise, democracy was a prospect much contemplated in England. The Civil War was a terrible warning which English democrats would do well to heed: it certainly encouraged their opponents to think that the triumph of democracy was not inevitable. Reviewers stressed the contemporaneity of setting of sensation novels as a distinctive feature of the school, and H. L. Mansel, in a marathon review of sensation literature, explained that it was necessary to be near a mine to be blown up by the explosion (Quarterly Review, April 1963). Unlike most of his emulators, however, whose opening chapters are indeed set three or four years back to allow the plot to culminate in the present, Collins was exploring the prehistory of the mood of crisis in the 1860s. The sensational plots of The Woman in White and Armadale culminate in what Lydia Gwilt in Armadale sacrilegiously refers to as ‘the worn-out old year eighteen hundred and fifty one’ (p. 496). Like some recent historians of his age, Collins was denying even the briefest period of mid-Victorian ‘calm.’

Margaret Oliphant commented in her review on the completeness with which the domestic saga had been superseded in public favour by the sensation novel. She complimented Collins on being the first novelist since Scott to keep readers up all night over a novel:

Domestic histories, however virtuous and charming, do not often attain the result—nor, indeed, would an occurrence so irregular and destructive of all domestic proprieties be at all a fitting homage to the virtuous chronicles which have lately furnished the larger part of our light literature.

Oliphant not only shared a London house with Dinah Mulock, author of the bestseller John Halifax, Gentleman, than which no domestic saga is more virtuous, but also during the vogue for the saga herself produced five domestic novels between 1854 and 1860. The Athelings was published in 1857. The heroine, Marian, ‘had heard of bad men and women,’ but nevertheless, ‘safe as in a citadel, dwelt in her father's house, untempted, untroubled, in the most complete and thorough security.’ Meredith wryly reflected on what constituted the appeal to the public of The Athelings. ‘The secret is that the novel is addressed to the British Home, and it seems that we may prose everlastingly to the republic of the fireside. …’ The first domestic saga, Bulwer's The Caxtons, was serialized in 1848 and 1849, and the vogue ran through the 1850s. This was also the period of the acme of popularity of Martin Tupper's versified edification. Originally published in 1838, Proverbial Philosophy in the tenth edition appeared in 1850, and in the thirty-eighth in 1860. There was no thirty-ninth edition until 1865. According to Gladstone, Tupper was ‘slain’ by an article in the National Review in July 1858, calling him ‘a kind of poetical Pecksniff’ with the ‘motto, “my friends, let us be moral”’. The placidity which Oliphant suggests as characterizing domestic sagas would imply them to be the literature of an age of equipoise. Superficial placidity, however, is at odds with the underlying neuroticism of the sagas. E. J. Hobsbawm has remarked how ‘the structure of the bourgeois family flatly contradicted that of bourgeois society. Within it freedom, opportunity, the cash nexus and the pursuit of individual profit did not rule.’5 Domestic moralism has its counterpart in the public sphere in Smilesian moralism, and the virtuous practices inculcated in the home are alleged to be a recipe for social success, but the felt inadequacy of the home as a social model keeps breaking through in the sagas. However idyllic the British Home, to emerge from the portals is dangerous, even if only for children to marry and launch another domestic idyll. The principle is grudgingly conceded in John Halifax, Gentleman: ‘it was but right that Nature's holy law should be fulfilled—that children, in their turn, should love, and marry, and be happy, like their parents.’ But the plots of the domestic sagas show that the concession is indeed grudging. There is a prevalence of marrying cousins and thereby not disrupting the original family circle, of daughters who stay at home and never marry, and of children who escape the horns of the dilemma by dying young, like Muriel in John Halifax, Gentleman. Ethel May, in Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain, excels in virtue by cheerfully relinquishing a romance with a cousin, Norman May, who has, however, a ‘brilliant public career,’ which is suspect in itself.

The agoraphobia of John Halifax, Gentleman is the more extraordinary since Halifax is supposed to be exemplary Smilesian man. Having arrived in Norton Bury a penniless urchin, Halifax is employed in Mr Fletcher's tanner's yard. Eventually, he is refusing nominations as a parliamentary candidate and living in Beechwood Hall, though the moral is obscured by his persistently hinting at his gentle birth. This subverts the propaganda mission of the novel, since it is not clear whether his virtues are those which any working man may emulate or whether they derive from the birth which gives the title ‘gentleman,’ traditional rather than Smilesian connotations. Other working men in the novel are presented as a confused mob. When debating Halifax's status, however—‘No, he be a real gentleman’—‘No, he comed here as poor as us’—the mob is precisely as confused as the novel. Mulock's ideological tangle extends to the Fletchers, Phineas's father anticipated Halifax by arriving in Norton Bury ‘without a shilling in his pocket’ and rising to become a large employer. Fletcher, however, is invariably conscious that he ‘originally came of a good stock’: he names his son ‘after one of our forefathers, not unknown—Phineas Fletcher, who wrote the “Purple Island.”’

Mulock palpably lacks confidence in the Smilesian ethic which her novel was famous for celebrating. Like nearly all Smiles's encouraging examples in Self-Help, John Halifax, Gentleman is backdated to the ‘heroic age’ of self-help, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Rather than being imperialistic, however, on behalf of domestic moralism, the novel is neurotically defensive; desiderata are quietness, passivity and staying at home—even dying at home, which is a permanent staying. Whereas Smiles himself included ‘energy’ in his list of cardinal virtues, merely to be adult in John Halifax, Gentleman is to be in crisis. The devotion between John and his wife proceeds from childhood and remains childlike. Their sons, Edwin and Guy, are less fortunate. They simultaneously fall in love with the governess, who has suppressed her French paternity and more specifically that her father was ‘D'Argent the Jacobin—D'Argent the Bonnet Rouge.’ The Jacobinical aura of the governess reflects her status as ardent young woman in the house. She is not romantically culpable and respectably marries Edwin. Guy, however, whom she has not encouraged, moves ‘away into the wide, dangerous world.’

In 1867, reviewing fiction by the second generation of female sensation novelists, Margaret Oliphant remarked that ‘the last wave but one of female novelists was very feminine. Their stories were all family stories, their troubles domestic, their women womanly to the last degree, and their men not much less so.’ The male characters in Bulwer's domestic sagas, it may be remarked, are no less ‘womanish’ than those of Mulock or Yonge. Female sensation novelists, Oliphant complained, had so far erred in the other direction as to mould their ‘women on the model of men, just as the former school moulded its men on the model of women.’ Halifax's youthful yearning for Ursula reduces him to the sickbed, though his suit is so far from unpromising that Ursula promptly consents to marry the invalid. The highest compliment Phineas can pay to the blind Muriel Halifax, who dies as a child, is that ‘she was better than Joy—she was an embodied Peace.’ The eulogy continues, ‘everywhere and always, Muriel was the same. … The soft dark calm in which she lived seemed never broken by the troubles of this our troublous world.’ Muriel's death then prompts Halifax's temporary failure to fulfil his early promise: ‘all the active energies and noble ambitions which especially belong to the prime of manhood, in him had been, not dead perhaps, but sleeping.’ Halifax himself dies at the early age of fifty-four.

As a sensation novelist, Collins was both conscious of and scathing about the preceding fashion in popular fiction. Lydia Gwilt in Armadale abuses ‘nauseous domestic sentimentalists.’ Having engaged to impart her full story to Midwinter before their wedding, she readily invents her ‘little domestic romance.’ ‘There was nothing new in what I told him,’ she admits in her diary: ‘it was the commonplace rubbish of the circulating libraries.’ Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, the cult of which in domestic circles was rivalled only by that of John Halifax, Gentleman, provoked a virulent though belated review by Collins. ‘The characters by whose aid the story is worked out, are simply impossible. They have no types in nature, they never did have types in nature, and they never will have types in nature. …’ Setting his sensation novels in the period in which the domestic sagas flourished, Collins foregrounds the sense of unease which disrupts the pose of complacency of the sagas. The moral of the sagas generally, as it is pronounced by Pisistratus Caxton to be that of Bulwer's My Novel, might be that ‘Conduct is Fate’. The sagas are evidently less than confident about this, since they turn away from the world to which domestic morality is supposed to hold the key. There is a telling compliment to the poetical Leonard Fairfield's wife in My Novel that, ‘if the man's genius made the home a temple, the woman's wisdom gave to the temple the security of a fortress.’ At least in so far as ‘conduct’ has the intended moral connotations, the sensation novels of Collins obdurately dispute the premise that ‘Conduct is Fate.’

What one might call with Margaret Oliphant the first ‘sensation scene’ of The Woman in White (Oliphant borrows the term from the contemporary theatre's ‘sensation drama,’ after which ‘sensation novels’ were named) is that of Hartright's meeting with Anne Catherick on the Finchley Road. Henry Dickens remembered his father's referring to the episode as one of the ‘two scenes in literature which he regarded as being the most dramatic descriptions he could recall,’ the other being Carlyle's account in The French Revolution of the march of the women to Versailles. Remarking about some of the later scenes in The Woman in White that ‘the excitement of the situation has a certain reality which makes the author's task easier,’ Margaret Oliphant shrewdly praised this scene and that of Hartright's dawning consciousness of a resemblance between Anne and Laura Fairlie as having a dramatic interest that was inward and psychological. As much as Carlyle, Collins captures a historical moment. Hartright has praised his late father's social orthodoxy. ‘Thanks to his admirable prudence and self-denial my mother and sister were left, after his death, as independent of the world as they had been during his lifetime.’ Prudence, self-denial, independence: these were the characteristic bourgeois virtues. While praising the characterization of Marian and Count Fosco, admirers of The Woman in White have often complained that Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie are a standard hero and heroine. The complaint is misconceived: the hero and heroine are conventional; their characterization is not. There is a neat irony to the naming of Collins's hero. Hartright sounds like a character in a morality play, and as such in mid-nineteenth-century society was conventionally perceived. Those with a right heart succeeded, while others failed. Hartright has to adjust to the more complex social reality. By the late 1840s it was becoming increasingly difficult to believe in the validity of the moral ethic which was derived from laissez-faire economics, though the ethic was preached all the more sternly in the face of doubt. Laissez-faire capitalism recommended itself as tending towards social equality: apart from inevitable cases of hardship which were the province of charity and the Poor Laws, poverty was consequent upon the vices of individuals, who were intemperate, imprudent or idle. Further, it was assumed that such poverty and inequality as existed were more than adequately compensated by the chances of rising in an open society. In the mid nineteenth century, inequality was greater than ever before, within as well as between classes, while the chances of rising socially were slight and dwindling. Recommending self-help to the poor, remarks a modern historian of the period, J. F. C. Harrison, was like telling them to ‘lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.’6 Collins shows a cynicism beginning to attach to the inculcation of respectable values. In The Woman in White, Mrs. Catherick is praised for her ‘independence of feeling’ (p. 154) in consigning at Sir Percival Glyde's expense her daughter, Anne, to a private asylum. Enunciating the principle that ‘a truly wise Mouse is a truly good Mouse’ (p. 254), Fosco parodies the naïveté of Laura without being himself more worldly wise than other contemporary moralists.

There is a real-life equivalent to the progress towards enlightenment of Hartright in The Woman in White. ‘To Mr Collins,’ wrote Henry James, ‘belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors.’ During the years in which The Woman in White is set, Henry Mayhew was introducing readers of the Morning Chronicle to mysteries at their own doors. Douglas Jerrold asked a correspondent, Mrs Cowden Clarke, in 1850,

Do you devour those marvellous revelations of the inferno of misery, of wretchedness, that is smouldering under our feet? We live in a mockery of Christianity that, with the thought of its hypocrisy, makes us sick. We know nothing of this terrible life that is about us—us, in our smug respectability.

Writing contemporaneously with the first flowering of the domestic sagas, Mayhew shares in the creed of the literature. Introducing an account of the London costermongers, he remarked ruefully that ‘the hearth, which is so sacred a symbol to all civilized races as being the spot where the virtues of each succeeding generation are taught and encouraged, has no charms to them.’ Mayhew's report on the costermongers, however, showed that they spurned the hearth with impunity: although they rarely married, social chaos did not result and family and community life continued.7 Mayhew came to appreciate that, so far from bad morals causing poverty, poverty caused the bad morals. Burlesquing the language of orthodoxy, he wrote of the casual dock-labourer's improvidence that it was

due, therefore, not to any particular malformation of his moral constitution, but to the precarious character of his calling. His vices are the vices of ordinary human nature. … If the very winds could whistle away the food and firing of wife and children, I doubt much whether, after a week's or a month's privation, we should many of us be able to prevent ourselves from falling into the very same excesses.

In his novel set in the period of which Mayhew was conducting his researches, Collins, too, presented the moral invalids of conventional myth to his respectable audience (‘we’) as ‘they’ really were.

‘This extraordinary apparition’ (p. 47), Hartright calls Anne: she is dressed in white from head to foot. The conventional signification of female purity has in her case subversive implications. Apparitions abounded in Gothic fiction, the preceding literary sensationalism, and Collins often alludes to Gothic props to imply the contrasting realism and preoccupation with the present of his own sensation fiction. To Hartright, however, the unfortunate innocent whose existence orthodoxy denies must necessarily seem ghostly. Hartright simultaneously denies and conveys his reflex suspicion of Anne:

The one thing of which I felt certain was, that the grossest of mankind could not have misconstrued her motive in speaking, even at that suspiciously late hour and in that suspiciously lonely place.

(p. 48)

Though one might assume that Hartright, in his capacity as narrator, is expanding on momentary misgivings, these have engrossed the time that they take to communicate, and the reader in sympathy with Hartright is made a party to keeping Anne in suspense. She has asked merely whether the road leads to London and wonders whether Hartright heard her question. Aware of his persisting mistrust, she protests her innocence:

You don't suspect me of doing anything wrong, do you? I have done nothing wrong. I have met with an accident—I am very unfortunate in being here alone so late. Why do you suspect me of doing wrong?

(pp. 48-9)

Alert to Hartright's compulsion to associate misfortune with guilt, Anne stresses the fortuity of her condition: she has ‘met with an accident;’ she is ‘very unfortunate.’

Anne poses the crucial question: ‘You don't think the worse of me because I have met with an accident?’ At this point, Hartright's humanity would appear to have overridden his conditioning:

The natural impulse to assist her and to spare her got the better of his judgement, the caution, the worldly tact, which an older, wiser and colder man might have summoned to help him in this strange emergency.

(p. 49)

The natural impulse takes Hartright only so far, and he continues to prevaricate, instead of showing Anne where to find a cab. ‘What I did do, was to try and gain time by questioning her’ (p. 50). The aftermath of his eventual acquiescence is traumatic:

It was like a dream. Was I Walter Hartright? Was this the well-known, uneventful road, where holiday people strolled on Sundays? Had I really left, little more than an hour since, the quiet, decent, conventionally-domestic atmosphere of my mother's cottage?

(p. 50)

The conventionally domestic version of society, stressing the sufficiency of prudence and self-help, turns out to be the dream. Hartright is worried by ‘a vague sense of something like self-reproach’ (p. 51), without being able further to define this premonition of the immorality of conventional morality. He finds Anne a cab, but remains perplexed. The open conflict between benevolent impulse and the moral code in which he has been raised is still dreamlike:

I hardly knew where I was going, or what I meant to do next; I was conscious of nothing but the confusion of my own thoughts, when I was abruptly recalled to myself—awakened, I might almost say—by the sound of rapidly approaching wheels close behind me.

(p. 54)

Significantly, Hartright does not commit himself to the metaphor. He is ‘awakened,’ almost, by the police, pursuing Anne at the instigation of Sir Percival Glyde. Hartright's confidence in the sweetness and light of the established form of society of which the police are guardians has been undermined.

Hartright, however, is yet the standard hero when he next meets Anne in Cumberland. Scrubbing the tomb of her late benefactress, Mrs Fairlie, Anne finds that convincing Hartright that her reputation is spotless is similarly hard work:

It ought to be kept as white as snow, for her sake. I was tempted to begin cleaning it yesterday, and I can't help coming back to go on with it today. Is there anything wrong in that? I hope not. Surely nothing can be wrong that I do for Mrs Fairlie's sake?

(p. 121)

Hartright's suspicions are as compulsive as Anne's scrubbing:

Her ‘misfortune’. In what sense was she using that word? In a sense which might explain her motive in writing the anonymous letter? In a sense which might show it to be the too common and too customary motive that has led many a woman to interpose anonymous hindrances to the marriage of the man who has ruined her?

(p. 124)

Eventually in the novel, Hartright has no option but to extend in a manner which neither his own earlier self nor his father could have foreseen the principle of self-help. Having attributed to paranoia Anne Catherick's mistrust of ‘men of rank and title’ (p. 51), Hartright himself now senses a conspiracy of rank and power in England. Bent on hiding from his enemies the location of the lodgings which he shares with Laura and Marian in the East End of London, Hartright goes home by a lonely route to establish whether he is being followed:

I had first learnt to use this stratagem against suspected treachery in the wilds of Central America—and now I was practising it again, with the same purpose and with even greater caution, in the heart of civilized London!

(p. 474)

If the wilds of Central America and civilized London seem curiously associated, so might civilized London and the Italy of the Risorgimento. Two Italian characters are prominent in the novel. Count Fosco combines his machinations against Laura with spying, on behalf of the Austrains who occupy his country, on fellow Italians in England. Walking from his house in St John's Wood, he stops by an Italian organ-grinder with his monkey. Mocking Mazzini's rhapsodic rhetoric, Fosco ignores the organ-grinder and presents a tart to the monkey. ‘In the sacred name of humanity, I offer you some lunch!’ (p. 587). The sensational plot culminates in 1851, the year, as Hartright remarks, ‘of the famous Crystal Palace Exhibition’ (p. 584). There are many foreigners in London. Fosco is attacked by Hartright through an Italian friend, Pesca, who found Hartright his appointment as drawing-master in Cumberland and still inescapably belongs to an Italian revolutionary society, ‘the Brotherhood,’ which Fosco has betrayed. Pesca now regrets committing himself to revolution, but is yet prepared to defend his youthful decision:

It is not for you to say—you Englishmen, who have conquered your freedom so long ago, that you have conveniently forgotten what blood you shed, and what extremities you proceeded to in the conquering—it is not for you to say how far the worst of all exasperations may, or may not, carry the maddened men of an enslaved nation.

(p. 595)

Besides being diminutive, Pesca is ‘still further distinguished among the rank and file of mankind by the harmless eccentricity of his character’ (p. 35). Recommending in On Liberty eccentricity of a good in itself, John Stuart Mill remarked that, ‘precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric.’ Pesca irritates Hartright's straitlaced sister by breaking a teacup. ‘Very provoking: it spoils the Set’ (p. 38). Paradoxically, Pesca's eccentricity is manifested in his emulating English respectability. He adopts athleticism and is to be seen ‘invariably carrying an umbrella, and invariably wearing gaiters and a white hat’ (p. 35). His Whiggish perspective on English history, which would imply that what the Italians were fighting for in the nineteenth century the English had won in the seventeenth, is not the last word in The Woman in White on the affinity between English and Italian history. If there were two nations in Italy, there might also be said to be, as Disraeli did say, two nations in England. Hartright follows the example of the Italian nationalists by taking the law into his own hands.

The action of No Name, Collins's next sensational novel, is dated with characteristic precision. The novel is set between the years 1846 and 1848. 1846 was the year of the significant middle-class triumph over aristocratic vested interests, the repeal of the Corn Laws. There is in Vauxhall Walk, where Noel Vanstone lives in Lambeth, a memorial of an aristocratic order which has vanished:

And here—most striking object of all—on the site where thousands of lights once sparkled; where sweet sounds of music made night tuneful till morning dawned; where the beauty and fashion of London feasted and danced through the summer seasons of a century—spreads, at this day, an awful wilderness of mud and rubbish—the deserted dead body of Vauxhall Gardens mouldering in the open air.

(p. 219)

If the revolutions of 1848 generally established the sway of the middle classes in the various countries, the ‘June Days’ in Paris, like Chartism in England, were a portent that the class which had triumphed might itself be eclipsed. The proletarian rising which began on 22 June 1848 in Paris was described by Marx as ‘a gigantic insurrection, in which the first great battle was fought between the two great classes which divide modern society’. Those sceptical whether Collins's dating will bear the significance being attributed to it may be reminded that the eighteenth birthday of Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone falls on 21 June 1848, and the moonstone is removed in the early hours of the 22nd, a day which ‘wore on to its end drearily and miserably enough, I can tell you’ (p. 218), remarks Betteredge. In No Name, Collins described ‘the hideous London vagabond’, lounging at the street-corners of Lambeth,

the public disgrace of his country, the unheeded warning of social troubles that are yet to come. … Here, while the national prosperity feasts, like another Belshazzar, on the spectacle of its own magnificence, is the Writing on the Wall, which warns the monarch, Money, that his glory is weighed in the balance, and his power found wanting.

(p. 218)

In No Name, from within as well as without the dominant class, its ideology is derided: Noel Vanstone, in the interview with his disguised cousin, Magdalen, is bored by bourgeois moralism: ‘Lecount, there, takes a high moral point of view—don't you, Lecount? I do nothing of the sort. I have lived too long in the continental atmosphere to trouble myself about moral points of view’. He states his position, minus the moral dressing. ‘I have got the money, and I should be born idiot if I parted with it’ (p. 242). Noel's father, Michael Vanstone, has invoked providence in defence of the same line of conduct. ‘Let them understand that I consider those circumstances to be a Providential interposition, which has restored to me the inheritance that ought always to have been mine’ (p. 134). Michael Vanstone is a man of 1846, ‘the famous year’ (p. 134), as Collins calls it, whose Zeitgeist is manifested in Andrew Vanstone's being killed in a railway accident. Michael is a speculator, who does well out of the railway boom of 1846 without being caught in the subsequent crash: it is his willingness to speculate on which Magdalen's plot to milk him of his fortune is founded. It is a blow to Magdalen when her uncle dies, since his son, Noel, a valetudinarian in his thirties, is bent merely on maintaining intact his inherited capital. As a speculator, who has been initially funded by his mother and a canny marriage, Michael is no Smilesian hero, but, having made his fortune, he can conceive of the rewards of his enterprise as a blessing. His son has no incentive to take ‘a high moral point of view’ about money. Like Mr Fairlie in The Woman in White, he is a character who signifies, in the face of the moralists, the decreasing opportunities in mid-Victorian society of linking material well-being with any conceivable merit.

If Collins had been killed off by gout or laudanum in 1870, he might be more in repute today. Sensation novels, Margaret Oliphant suggested, were the characteristic literature of ‘an age of events’, the 1860s. The literary decline of Collins seems to be related at least as much the changed social climate in which he was writing in the 1870s as to gout, laudanum or the baneful influence of Reade. This is not to deny that personal factors were involved, but what should be stressed is the inadequacy of invoking gout to explain the peculiar social vision of the late fiction. One distressing feature of the later novels is the absence of irony. The basis of Collins's irony had been to play off the orthodoxy concerning social conventions, roles and institutions—that they were eternally and providentially ordained—against his own perception that they were historically relative and therefore transient. In Man and Wife, however, the present is represented, as Carlyle accused historians of representing the Reign of Terror, in hysterics. This particularly applies to the treatment of what from Man and Wife one might suppose, leaving aside the threat of unwary English tourists posed by the marriage laws in Scotland, to be the great social evil of the day, undergraduate athleticism. The athlete Geoffrey Delamayn has ideas ‘of the devil's own’. ‘A hideous cunning leered at his mouth and peeped out of his eyes’ (p. 78). Collins claims that those who cultivate the body at the expense of the mind will be morally corrupted: Geoffrey Delamayn accordingly attempts to murder his wife. Collins also insists that physical cultivation is physically ruinous. Geoffrey fails to murder his wife because his athleticism induces a stroke. This is luridly described:

Even as he raised the arm, a frightful distortion seized on his face. As if with an invisible hand, it dragged down the brow and the eyelid, on the right; it dragged down the mouth, on the same side. His arm fell helpless; his whole body, on the side under the arm, gave way. He dropped to the floor like a man shot dead.

(p. 237)

Dr Benjulia, the heartless vivisectionist in Heart and Science, will commit suicide in his laboratory. Geoffrey has ignored urgent medical advice to stop running foot-races and his own death is a kind of suicide. Collins fictionally fulfils his own wishes, but actually he is paying tribute to what he senses is the durability of the present generation. ‘The Rough with the clean skin and the good coat on his back’, he remarks in the Preface to Man and Wife, ‘is easily traced through the various grades of English society, in the middle and upper classes’. In the 1860s, these classes had seemed threatened from below. In the more placid atmosphere of the 1870s, Collins resorts to spontaneous combustion as the nemesis of the middle and upper classes.

Swinburne blamed the novelist's perdition on having missions. Paradoxically, the missionary impulse was linked to a newly pessimistic social perception. With the seemingly eternal middle-class back in apparent control of the wider world of facts, the words of George Eliot's Felix Holt seem oddly appropriate, for ‘where great things can't happen I care [he tells us] for very small things’.

Royden Harrison has argued against the assimilation of the 1860s by historians of the Victorian period into an era of Victorian ‘calm’:

In the 1860s the British working class exhibited certain ‘contradictory’ characteristics. If it was increasingly ‘respectable’, it was increasingly well organised. If it had abandoned its revolutionary ambitions, it had not wholly lost its revolutionary potentialities. It left no doubt that these potentialities might be speedily developed if it was too long thwarted in its desire to secure political equality. In short, it had attained precisely that level of development at which it was safe to concede its enfranchisement and dangerous to withhold it. It was this circumstance, rather than the death of Palmerston, which determined the timing of reform.8

The safety of the concession was not universally appreciated. The middle class imbued with the ‘alarmed conservative feeling’ detected by Matthew Arnold in 1866 was haunted no less by the spectre of what might amount to a legislative resolution than by that of violent revolution. Collins was a politically radical novelist, and George Eliot a very conservative one, but the shift in political attitude between the late 1860s and the early 1870s that is registered in her novels bears on the decline of Collins. In Felix Holt the Radical, published in 1866, Eliot is transparently nervous of the consequences of an extension of the franchise. Through her hero, she preaches the irrelevance of politics. To Felix Holt, as to Herbert Spencer, while men remain morally corrupt, corrupt statues will be corruptly administered. If men were not corrupt, there would be no need for legislation. The hysterical treatment of the Treby election riot, however, which is made to exemplify popular politics in action, implies that Eliot's deepest dread is not of politically motivated workers wasting their time. In 1868, after the Reform Act but before a reformed election, Eliot is still fraught. Felix Holt steps out of the novel into Blackwood's Magazine to address the workers, warning them, or pleading with them, neither to emulate the Fenians in Ireland nor to destroy the culture of which the rich are custodians. In Middlemarch, however, which appeared in four parts between 1871 and 1872, there is a placidity in Eliot's demonstration of the futility of Reform Acts. The brief appearances made in the novel by workers show them as less morally evolved but not exactly brutish.

Others, Engels included, were disappointed by the tranquil aftermath to the 1868 Reform Act. He wrote to Marx of the election that year that is was

a disastrous certificate of poverty for the English proletariat. … The parson has shown unexpected power, and so has the cringing to respectability. Not a single working-class candidate had a ghost of a chance, but my Lord Tumnoddy or any parvenu snob could have the workers' votes with pleasure.

The political headiness and surmise of the preceding years had been conducive to a minor renaissance of the historical novel, with Elizabeth Gaskell and Meredith treating the past both on its own terms and with a sense of the continuity between past and present which was reminiscent of Scott. By the end of the decade, historical novels had been superseded by historical romances such as Lorna Doone, which were announced as having no designs on the reader but to help him pass an idle hour. The major fiction of Collins must itself be seen as historical, notwithstanding that the history is recent. A sense of expanding options and possibilities in the future inspired the investigation into the past. By the early 1870s, that sense had vanished. The analogue in the fiction of Collins to the placidity of tone of Middlemarch is having missions. Both Eliot and Collins believe that ‘great things can't happen’.


  1. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of their Own (London: Virago, 1982) p. 162.

  2. Ibid.

  3. There is no standard edition of the work of Wilkie Collins. Editions cited are as follows: The Woman in White (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974); The Moonstone (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983); Armadale (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975); No Name (New York: Dover, 1983); Man and Wife (New York: Dover, 1983). Page references are given in brackets.

  4. Sue Lonoff, Wilkie Collins and his Victorian Readers (New York: AMS Press, 1982) p. 1.

  5. E. J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital (London: Sphere, 1977) p. 280.

  6. J. F. C. Harrison, The Early Victorians, 1832-51 (London: Fontana, 1973) p. 172. See also Harold Perkin, The Origins of Modern English Society, 1780-1880 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969) esp. ch. 10: ‘Entrepreneurial Society: Ideal and Reality’.

  7. Eileen Yeo makes this point in her essay, to which I am generally grateful, ‘Mayhew as a Social Investigator’, in E. P. Thompson and Eileen Yeo (eds), The Unknown Mayhew (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).

  8. Royden Harrison, Before the Socialists (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965) p. 133.

Pamela Perkins and Mary Donaghy (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “A Man's Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 392-402.

[In the following essay, Perkins and Donaghy examine the subtle critique of Victorian gender conventions in The Woman in White.]

The unsuspecting reader of Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White1 may well be tempted to dismiss the novel as little more than a meticulously-plotted melodrama. Certainly, Collins' Victorian critics focussed almost exclusively on the novel's entertainment value.2 Influenced by these earlier critics, many twentieth-century scholars have persistently regarded Collins as a lightweight novelist. Lately, some studies have attacked these assumptions about Collins and have begun to recognize his genuine desire to expose the inequities of Victorian gender and social conventions.3 Yet even those who argue that Collins is more than a shadow of Dickens conclude that his novels ultimately back away from the serious issues they raise. Most readers of The Woman in White, lulled by the apparent objectivity of Walter Hartright's version of events, lose sight of the fact that Walter's voice and opinions are not identical to those of his creator.

A more attentive reading of the text, one informed by the very hermeneutics of suspicion and surveillance characteristic of every narrative in the novel, raises the possibility that Walter, far from being objective, is in fact manipulating the narrative for his own ends. Neither Walter's increasing dominance nor his corresponding repression of the unconventional Marian Halcombe mar the construction of the text or indicate a fundamental conservatism in its author. Instead, taken together they constitute a subtle critique of Victorian society, a critique which, in its own way, is as compelling as the melodrama at the forefront of the novel.

Closer examination of The Woman in White reveals that one cannot accept Walter as a “bland and colourless” character who speaks with a completely objective voice.4 Although he claims a social and legal sanction for his narrative, the novel itself provides ample clues that the defence of this authority is a hidden agenda in Walter's narrative. There are unexpected and often overlooked indications that this authority is not as firm as Walter wishes to believe it is. Perhaps most importantly, the structure of the novel subverts Walter's claim that the narratives he has collected “present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect” (p. 1). Quite naturally, the reader assumes that the truth Walter means to tell concerns Laura and that the “infamous wrong” (p. 398) he intends to redress is that of her having been robbed of her legitimate identity. However, both assumptions are proven false by Walter's long-delayed revelation that he is telling the “story under feigned names” (p. 503). This startling disclosure is significant, indicating as it does that Walter's aim is not simply to re-establish Laura's identity. Ironically, “Laura's” true identity only becomes increasingly confused when we learn that Walter, somewhat like the Count and Sir Percival, is deliberately concealing it. Far from being a paragon of chivalry, protecting the woman he loves for her sake alone, Walter is also defending what he believes is a harmonious and enduring social order. It is not inconsequential that this orthodox social order serves him very well, leaving him at the novel's conclusion in possession of both Laura and Limmeridge House.

Walter's early emphasis on Laura's lack of individuality is further evidence that he is interested in more than establishing her true identity. When Laura first appears, Walter refuses to describe her directly; instead, he describes a watercolour portrait painted some time after their first meeting.5 As this passage follows very shortly after his meticulous and arresting description of Marian, its vagueness is all the more striking. Walter proceeds to make Laura even more hazy and less individualized by instructing his [male] readers to

Think of her, as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir. Let the kind, candid blue eyes meet yours, as they met mine, with the one matchless look which we both remember so well. Let her footstep, as she comes and goes, in these pages, be like that other footstep to whose airy fall your own heart once beat time. Take her as the visionary nursling of your own fancy; and she will grow upon you, all the more clearly, as the living woman who dwells in mine.

(p. 42)

Laura thus functions from her first appearance in the story merely as a heroine to be loved, a blank to be filled by male desire. Her identity, Walter implies, can be summed up by nothing more than a water colour portrait of her; her ability to fit into the role of a charming and innocent young girl is more important than the individuality he is supposedly reclaiming.

As the reader becomes aware that Walter's motives are more complex than they seem, the structure of his narratives elicits closer attention. Both his reliability and the objective authority of the social order he endorses become questionable. Admittedly, these doubts about Walter's trustworthiness can be accounted for to some degree. In part, they arise from that narrative secrecy which is an inevitable feature of the relationship between the reader and the narrator of suspense or mystery novels. Readers of The Woman in White willingly tolerate a degree of intentional obfuscation; they understand and accept that Walter cannot reveal his true position fully without revealing the end of the novel. In “What is ‘Sensational’ about the Sensation Novel?”6 Patrick Brantlinger suggests that this aspect of the sensation novel works both for and against its narrator:

At the same time that a narrator of a sensation novel seems to acquire authority by withholding the solution to a mystery, he or she also loses authority or at least innocence, becoming a figure no longer to be trusted.

(p. 15)

Brantlinger contends that the role of the primary narrator or detective in such fiction is

largely dictated by the central structural ambiguity upon which all mystery and detective fiction is based, an ambiguity suggested by the idea of “telling a secret”—you must first be party to holding the secret in order to tell it.

(p. 20)

This ambiguity, which informs both of Walter's longer narratives, is already present in the Preamble, where Walter, speaking from a perspective his reader cannot share, anticipates “the course of one complete series of events,” and sees the action “from the beginning to the end of the disclosure” (p. 1).

This convention of the suspense novel accounts for some of the reader's reluctance to accept any of the narratives, even Walter's, as entirely honest. However, it does not wholly alleviate the discomfort readers experience when they realize that Walter has overtly deceived them about his motives. Surely not all of Walter's dishonesty stems from what Brantlinger calls a “central structural ambiguity” (p. 20). Moreover, the Walter who emerges from his First Narrative is complicated by the discrepancy between what the reader has been led to expect by the Preamble and what the reader is given.

In the novel's opening lines, Walter invokes gender conventions which force women into subordinate roles and which he attempts to uphold: “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure and what a Man's resolution can achieve” (p. 1).7 Yet these sexual stereotypes collapse almost immediately, when Marian is described as having “prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes” (p. 25) and a “resolute, downright way” (p. 43). And Marian is not the only woman whose resolution Walter remarks upon. Mrs. Clements confronts Walter “resolutely” when she believes he has frightened Anne Catherick (p. 92), and even Laura's fingers do not falter in “their resolution to play” Mozart during Walter's last evening at Limmeridge (p. 109).

On the other hand, far from being the conventional striding hero of Collins' satirical essay “A Petition to the Novel-Writers,”8 Walter is anything but resolute. Despite his discomfort with the very idea of going to Limmeridge when the position is first offered to him, Walter is persuaded to do so by his mother, his sister, and his friend Pesca. Once there, he is chastised by Marian for his lack of resolution in discovering Anne Catherick's name.

Walter does, however, make and keep several resolutions during his stay at Limmeridge. The first is to “turn [his] steps no more in the direction of the apartments occupied by the master of the house” (p. 37). Later, Walter is “resolute enough to resist the temptation of sitting in solitary grandeur” after dinner (p. 46); instead, he joins the female company in the drawing-room. Neither act, one suspects, demands great willpower! In a third equally ironic instance, Walter records that despite the suspicions he entertained about the authorship of the anonymous letter, he was “resolved … to turn [his] back resolutely on everything that tempted [him] in the shape of a surmise” (p. 69). Among the reader's final glimpses of the hero of the First Narrative, in fact, is one of Walter waiting “irresolutely” to be told “where to go [and] what to do next” (p. 107). Walter's sexual stereotypes collapse, exposing the inadequacy of the conventional interpretation he is trying to impose on his experience. The limitations of Walter's perspective are reflected in this disjunction between what he anticipates will be the nature of the narrative and what it actually is.

Even as Collins' novel distances the reader from Walter by establishing the absurdity of the gender conventions to which he clings,9 it subtly criticizes those conventional Victorian gender roles in other ways. Laura, who is the model of feminine virtue and who accepts the social system as wholeheartedly as does Walter, is both weakened and rendered comparatively uninteresting by it. One feels pity for rather than empathy with her; by the middle of the novel she has become hopelessly dependent. Of course, her incarceration in the mental hospital contributes to her state;10 yet when Walter asserts that she is recovering from her ordeal, and Laura herself insists that she wants to be treated as an adult, Walter continues to suggest her basic childishness. Notably, Laura does not even notice Walter's painfully obvious condescension as he tells her that

Now you have taken such pains, now you are so much improved [at drawing], you shall begin to work and get money too. Try to finish this little sketch as nicely and prettily as you can. When it is done I will take it away with me, and the same person will buy it who buys all that I do. You shall keep your own earnings in your own purse, and Marian shall come to you to help us, as often as she comes to me. Think how useful you are going to make yourself to both of us, and you will soon be as happy, Laura, as the day is long.

(p. 442)

This speech is particularly disturbing because as Laura draws “poor, faint, valueless sketches” (p. 442) while others support her, she is engaging in precisely the same activity as filled her days at Limmeridge. Her childishness and helplessness in this scene are not merely the result of illness. An exaggerated reflection, a parodic continuation of her former role, they help to point out the limitations of her seemingly more adult behavior at the beginning of the book.

Collins thus implicitly asserts that the social codes which Walter upholds damage women, thereby further distancing the reader from his values. It is clear, too, that Collins does not intend to suggest that women benefit by remaining in a permanent state of childishness and by assuming that men will defend their interests. While Laura is “rewarded” at the end of the novel with marriage to the hero, Collins undercuts the value of that reward. Certainly, the success of Laura's marriage to Walter is open to question. Not only does Walter continue to turn to Marian for help and for intellectual companionship, but also the relationship between Marian and Laura remains far stronger than that between Walter and Laura.11 And it is when Laura's unconventional opposite, Marian, places herself under (Walter's) male authority that she becomes shadowy and less interesting.

Of course, there seems to be an obvious problem with our emphasis on Walter's hidden motives and Collins' use of them to construct an implicit social criticism. Walter himself disappears during the central section of the novel and the dark heroine, Marian, takes over the narrative. Yet Walter's activities are recorded in the narratives which follow his, keeping his memory alive and preparing for his return. A “pale and haggard” Walter is seen in London (p. 139); later, through Walter's letters to Marian, who conscientiously records their contents in her diary, the reader learns that Walter has joined an expedition to Central America. Despite Walter's silence in the months after he and his companions are “seen entering a wild primeval forest, each man with his rifle on his shoulder and his baggage at his back” (p. 178), Marian's vivid dreams, substantiated later, keep track of him.

Much more important than the frequent reminders of Walter's fate is the shadow Walter casts, in his editorial capacity, over the accounts framed by his first and second narratives. Walter's editorial presence is indicated both through the explicit acknowledgement of the various narrators and through Walter's “extra-textual” comments, spoken in a voice which is seemingly impersonal, disinterested and objective. This is exactly the voice heard in the Preamble, a voice which is in fact Walter's. And, as already indicated, his voice is far from reliable despite its pretense of objectivity. Strangely unidentified, except by Vincent Gilmore, the imprint of Walter's editorial hand lies on each account of the action which occurred during his absence.

With the exception of Marian's diary, the death certificate, and the tombstone, every narrative openly acknowledges that it is intended for a particular listener, even if he remains unnamed. The narratives of Hester Pinhorn, Jane Gould, Mrs. Michelson, and Frederick Fairlie all provide evidence of the directive influence of, presumably, Walter. Yet the identity of the person asking, telling, informing, ordering, and even, in one case, threatening, is designedly uncertain throughout this section of the novel. While most readers would hypothesize on the basis of Mr. Gilmore's narrative that it is Walter, the latter remains curiously reluctant to show his hand.

An explanation of how the narratives were obtained does eventually appear in Walter's Second Narrative. When he decides to attempt to uncover the Count's plot, Walter amasses evidence from every source he can think of, beginning with “the journal kept at Blackwater Park by Marian Halcombe” (p. 401). Marian reads to Walter from the manuscript, omitting those “passages … which she [thinks] it best that [he] should not see” and Walter takes notes (p. 401). Yet the detail of Marian's retention of editorial control over her own writing raises more questions than it answers. It seems highly unlikely that the journal reproduced for the reader consists of notes taken from an abridged version. Does Marian later agree to submit her journal in its entirety for inclusion in Walter's narrative? Are her scruples allayed when Walter becomes head of the family? In any case, the ambiguities which surround the inclusion of Marian's journal aggravate the difficulties in determining what Walter, never forward about claiming his editorial responsibility, is concealing from his reader.12

The extent and significance of Walter's editorial authority becomes more evident in the discrepancies between the version of the story he gives the villagers at Limmeridge and the one he gives his reader. The two versions show how “the same facts or events will bear opposing interpretation” not only “according to the different perspectives from which they are evaluated,”13 but also according to the different purposes for which they are told. The version the villagers hear is intended to prove Laura's identity. That it succeeds in doing so, despite the fact that the narrative is falsified by the omission of Sir Percival's Secret and offers only the monetary motive as an explanation for the plot, suggests that Walter's longer version is not intended solely to convince the reader of Laura's identity. To some extent, the contrast between the two versions reassures the reader that the more complete, more truthful account is his (as noted above, Walter assumes a male reader). Yet with a peculiar doubleness, it ironically implies that our text too may be limited in ways neither Walter nor his reader can identify. The source of the more complete version of the truth—Walter—becomes suspect with his admission that the truth may have different guises; its nature depends, in part at least, upon its teller's and editor's intent.

Walter's intent becomes more apparent in his Second Narrative. There, he reinforces the sexual dichotomies he articulates in the Preamble. In doing so, he attempts to establish his own heroic stature. Returning from the South American expedition which, according to his own testimony, has left him strong of will, resolute of heart, and mentally self-reliant (p. 373), Walter declares in a newly lofty voice

[Lady Glyde] has been cast out as a stranger from the house in which she was born—a lie which records her death has been written on her mother's tomb—and there are two men, alive and unpunished, who are responsible for it. That house shall open again to receive her, in the presence of every soul who followed the false funeral to the grave; that lie shall be publically erased from the tombstone by the authority of the head of the family; and those two men shall answer for their crime to ME, though the justice that sits in tribunals is powerless to pursue them. I have given my life to that purpose; and, alone as I stand, if God spares me, I will accomplish it.

(p. 410)

Walter is successful at last. He deserves credit for his shrewdness in identifying and exploiting the weak spot of the conspiracy and for his perspicacity in using the association of Pesca and Fosco to his advantage. However, Walter's heroism is undermined both by the mistakes he makes and, more subtly, by his self-consciousness about how he is being perceived by other characters and by the reader. In blithely narrating his blunders, Walter seems aware only that the circumstances in which they occur reveal how desperate and how dangerous are his opponents. When he leaves the offices of Gilmore and Kyrle, Walter is preoccupied by the fact that the menacing Sir Percival is having him followed and by his conviction that he can outsmart his pursuers. The reader who is amused by the image of Walter resorting to the stratagems “against suspected treachery [learnt] in the wilds of Central America” (p. 418) in the streets of nineteenth-century London is given even more reason to laugh when Marian informs Walter that, despite his efforts, he was followed. In spite of his determination not to be tricked again, Walter later falls into the trap set for him on the Knowlesbury-Welmingham road (p. 466).

His own ineptitude shakes neither Walter's persistence in seeking retribution against Sir Percival and Count Fosco, nor his absolute confidence that his narrative will persuade his readers that his investigative skills are unequalled. Unfortunately, Walter's concern with how he is being perceived by other characters detracts further from the credibility of his heroic posture. He asks Marian, “Are you beginning to doubt whether Sir Percival Glyde may not, in the end, be more than a match for me?” (p. 443) and wonders as he leaves Mrs. Catherick's home, “Was she speculating, in the secrecy of her own heart, on my youth and strength, on the force of my sense of injury, and the limits of my self-control?” (p. 453). Even in the midst of his desperate, and sincere, efforts to save Sir Percival from the fire, Walter's glaring self-consciousness reinforces the reader's impression that his heroism is empty.

Walter's shortcomings as a detective are even more evident in the contrast between his actions and Marian's. To the end of her narrative, she proves herself to be a strong and capable figure. At Limmeridge, she is undoubtedly in control of herself and others. While the estate nominally belongs to Mr. Fairlie, he remains out of sight, allowing Marian to take on all the responsibilities and privileges of running the property. As Fairlie himself observes, in an unintentional testimony to Marian's influence in his home, “The moment I heard Miss Halcombe's name, I gave up. It is a habit of mine always to give up to Miss Halcombe. I find, by experience, that it saves noise” (p. 311). Walter himself defers to Marian here, following her suggestions in his treatment of Anne Catherick and obeying without question her instructions concerning Laura. Later, at Blackwater Park, Marian becomes very much like the daring, capable detective Walter fancies himself, as she lies, spies, and even crawls over a roof to overhear a vital conversation. She is certainly not content merely to wait and see what a woman's patience might achieve,14 and thus her behavior implies that the sexual differentiation which Walter insists upon is far from being as absolute as he tries to pretend it is.

Marian at least equals and possibly outshines Walter as a detective. In her own narrative, she “claims our attention as a superior, chosen being” (Auerbach, p. 137). Thus, the serious flaws in Walter's gender-based idea of heroism become apparent and provide a pressing motive for the increasingly heavy-handed editorial control he exerts in his Second Narrative. As mentioned, Walter does exercise some editorial control over Marian's journal, the extent of which is never clear. In Walter's Second Narrative, however, his newly-fortified confidence in his heroism is paralleled by his refusal to allow other speakers, notably Marian, to use their own voices. Despite his declaration in the Preamble that the person most “closely connected … with the incidents to be recorded” (p. 1) will be the narrator, Walter permits no such diversity after his reunion with Marian and Laura. The “story of Marian and the story of Laura” are related “not in the words (often interrupted, often inevitably confused) of the speakers themselves” (p. 381) but in Walter's own words. Clearly, Laura's inability to tell the story of her experience lucidly emphasizes the lasting effects of the trauma she has undergone. But is this rationale as credible in Marian's case? Because Walter similarly judges Mrs. Clements unable to organize her ideas and so takes it upon himself to summarize the information she provides, one might suggest that Walter is no longer willing to let other characters speak entirely for themselves. The power Marian displays in her narrative suggests a reason for this change; it directly threatens the assumptions informing his own.

At this point in the novel, Walter must suppress Marian's power in order to bolster his authority. Throughout his Second Narrative, he attempts to imply that Marian is increasingly passive. He keeps her in the background, despite the fact that it is she, not Walter, who rescues Laura from the mental hospital. She supervises her half-sister's rehabilitation; she eludes the Count by switching their residence; and, at the end of the novel, she takes Laura to claim Limmeridge without Walter's knowledge. One could argue that Walter is not deliberately suppressing Marian; after all, he includes the details mentioned above in his narrative. Her slipping into the background might well result from her own choice to remain in a domestic role, taking care of her half-sister. Yet the very fact that Walter's narrative implicitly insists that Marian's domestic protection of Laura is less interesting than his own attempts to discover Sir Percival's Secret indicates that consciously or not, Walter is letting his own values, and not the objective truth he claims to revere, shape the story he presents to the reader.

The full extent to which Walter permits his own assumptions about gender and patriarchal law to structure his supposedly objective tale can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in his act of perjury at the inquest into Sir Percival's death. Walter does “not feel called on to volunteer any statement of [his] own private convictions” (p. 484) about the reasons for Sir Percival's presence in the vestry. He initially claims, reasonably enough, that he withholds that information because “no practical purpose” would be served with its release, and because he fears he would not be believed (p. 484). Although these are doubtless elements in Walter's decision, he later gives another, more revealing, reason for his silence.

Walter contends that the information Sir Percival's solicitor provides about the baronet's estate justifies him in “keeping secret [his] discovery of Sir Percival's fraud” since the “heir whose rights he had usurped was the heir who would now have the estate” (p. 503). Because the values Walter upholds exist to protect property, deception is legitimate as long as it serves the same purpose. At least twice in the Second Narrative, it becomes evident that the defense of power based on possession does indeed lie behind Walter's tale. In speaking about Laura and Sir Percival, respectively, Walter loses control of his rhetoric:

In the right of her calamity, in the right of her friendlessness, she was mine at last! Mine to support, to protect, to cherish, to restore. Mine to love and honour as father and brother both. Mine to vindicate through all risks and all sacrifices.

(p. 381)


This was the Secret, and it was mine! A word from me; and the house, lands, baronetcy, were gone from him for ever—a word from me, and he was driven out into the world, a nameless, penniless, friendless outcast!

(p. 471)

Ultimately, and rather disturbingly, Walter's quest to restore Laura's identity becomes inextricably entangled with his attempt to dispossess Sir Percival of lands and wife in order to claim the latter, at least, for himself.

In pointing out the flaws and inconsistencies in Walter's narrative, we are not attempting to rewrite Collins' novel and make Walter the villain. Nor are we claiming that the novel does more than offer a critique of this gender-based system through Walter's confused but nonetheless successful attempts to defend it. Certainly, the patriarchal order is left comfortably intact with the concluding presentation of “Mr Walter Hartright—the Heir of Limmeridge” (p. 584). Yet the very fact that the critique does not propose any pat solutions to the problems that it reveals is significant; Collins himself may well have intended his reader to feel disappointed by the novel's conclusion. His indignation at social injustice extends beyond his treatment of the disturbing but rather improbable attempt to rob Laura of her legitimate identity. In addition, Collins is interested in showing how basic injustice infects and warps even such apparently well-meaning figures as his own hero. Far from retreating from the full implications of the problems that he raises, Collins is in fact suggesting their immense complexity by tacitly revealing that they, unlike melodrama, cannot be neatly resolved at the end of the book.


  1. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, 1859-1860, ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975). All citations will be from this edition.

  2. See Sue Lonoff, Wilkie Collins and his Victorian Readers (New York: AMS Press, 1982) and Dorothy L. Sayers, Wilkie Collins: A Critical and Biographical Study, ed. E. R. Gregory (Austin: Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1977).

  3. See in particular, discussions of The Woman in White in Nina Auerbach's Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1982); Richard Barickman's, Susan MacDonald's, and Myra Stark's Corrupt Relations: Dickens, Thackerey, Trollope, Collins, and the Victorian Sexual System (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1982), and Lonoff's Collins and his Victorian Readers.

  4. Sayers, p. 69. Auerbach uses the same adjective to dismiss Hartright as Laura Fairlie's “colorless suitor” (p. 135).

  5. Other critics have pointed to the centrality of this passage. They do not, however, stress the way it reveals the gender assumptions defining Walter's perception. See in particular D. A. Miller, “La Cage Aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White” in The Nineteenth-Century British Novel, ed. Jeremy Hawthorn (London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1986), pp. 95-126.

  6. Patrick Brantlinger, “What is ‘Sensational’ about the Sensation Novel?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37 (1982): 128.

  7. Collins' implicit attack on gender conventions is related to the novel's explicit attack on legalism; both systems are based on the same model of possession, of property and of women. In effect, Sir Percival owns Laura as surely as he owns Blackwater Park. Readers interested in this aspect of the novel should see Miller and Lonoff.

  8. Wilkie Collins, “A Petition to the Novel Writers,” Household Words 350 (1856): 481-85.

  9. Miller argues that the conventions of the suspense novel encourage the reader to identify with Walter. While our argument does not invalidate his, our difference in focus leads us to another conclusion.

  10. Collins' concern with the fragility of social identity is evident in several of his other novels as well, particularly No Name and Armadale.

  11. Although neither critic discusses the relationship between Collins' depiction of marriage and Hartright's roles as narrator and editor, both Auerbach and Brantlinger identify a concern with marriage as central to the novel. Calling The Woman in White an “explicit exaltation of the old maid as a criticism of traditional wifehood” (p. 142), Auerbach contends that the conventional union which concludes the novel fails to reverse the preceding critique of marriage. In his formalist argument, Brantlinger points out that marriage and divorce laws were often central to sensation novels of the 1860s, in part because bigamy, as both a moral and legal offence, was a natural topic for writers of sensation novels. For further discussion of Collins' subversion of the marriage of Laura and Walter, see our analysis of Marian's influence over Laura's fate at the end of the novel, below pp. 16-17.

  12. The ambiguities surrounding Marian's journal are more complicated than we suggest here. Miller's study includes a convincing argument that the Count's—and the reader's—examination of the journal is an intrusion analogous to rape.

  13. Winnifred Hughes, The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860's (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), p. 140.

  14. Consider, for example, Marian's declaration to Laura, made at Blackwater Park: “our endurance must end, and our resistance must begin, to-day” (p. 272).

Deirdre David (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Rewriting the Male Plot in Wilkie Collins's No Name: Captain Wragge Orders an Omelette and Mrs. Wragge Goes into Custody,” in Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender (ed) Criticism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 186-96.

[In the following essay, David argues that No Name's questioning of Victorian gender politics disrupts its conventional narrative discourse.]

Whether Wilkie Collins was a feminist, deployed popular literature for feminist ideology, or even liked women is not the subject of this essay. My interest is in something less explicit, perhaps not fully intentional, to be discovered in his fiction: an informing link between restlessness with dominant modes of literary form and fictional critique of dominant modes of gender politics. In what follows, I aim to show how the narrative shape of one of Collins's most baroquely plotted, narratively complex novels is inextricably enmeshed with its thematic material. I refer to No Name, a novel whose subversion of fictional omniscience suggests Collins's radical literary practice and whose sympathy for a rebellious heroine in search of subjectivity suggests his liberal sexual politics.1 To be sure, there are other Collins novels as narratively self-reflexive as No Name, The Moonstone, for one; and Man and Wife, for example, mounts a strong attack on misogynistic subjection of women (particularly when exercised by heroes of the Muscular Christian variety). But no Collins novel, in my view, so interestingly conflates resistance to dominant aesthetic and sexual ideologies as No Name, even as it ultimately displays its appropriation by the authority that both enables its existence and fuels its resistance.

Challenging authoritarian, patriarchal-sited power in his interrogation of form and theme, Collins collapses a binary opposition between the two, a separation assumed in Victorian criticism of the novel and still, perhaps, possessing a lingering appeal in these deconstructive times. The intense dialogism, the insistent relativism, of No Name makes it impossible to align in one column what is represented and in another the ways in which representation takes place. Neither is it possible to construct a neat alignment of fictionality and representation, to say that at this moment the novel performs self-reflexive cartwheels and that at another we are in the realm of strict mimesis. Mimesis, one might say, is always simultaneous with semiosis in No Name, so much so, in fact, that representation, say, of a character obsessed with the record keeping which is the means of his social survival, becomes a field for self-reflexive fictionality; and, to a lesser extent, fictionality is sometimes the ground on which Collins maps his persuasively realistic narrative.2 Collapsing the neat polarities of literary analysis, upsetting the conventions of omniscient narrative, showing a woman's struggle for survival as she is both exiled from and enclosed within patriarchal structures—all this is the business of No Name, in my view an exemplary novel for “naming” Collins's disruptive place in the tradition of Victorian fiction.

The original publication of Collins's novels covers some forty years, from Antonina in 1850 to Blind Love, left unfinished at his death in 1889, and his career encompasses two distinct periods in the history of Victorian fiction: At the beginning we are in the age of Dickens and Thackeray; at the end we enter a new generation composed of Hardy, Stevenson, Moore, Gissing, and Kipling.3 With Antonina, a historical romance set in fifth-century Rome and owing much to Gibbon and Bulwer-Lytton, Collins established himself as a powerful storyteller with a commendable eye for detail, and by the time of his fifth novel, The Woman in White, he emerged as a master of diegesis with a narrative something for everyone: omniscience, free indirect discourse, autobiography, diary, letter, newspaper story, ledger book, memoranda. No Name appeared during the 1860s (Collins's stellar decade of literary production) between his two best-known novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, and was first published in Dickens's weekly magazine All the Year Round from March 1862 to January 1863 and published in three volumes at the end of 1862. Divided into eight dramatic “scenes,” punctuated by groups of letters which are, in turn, interpolated with newspaper stories and journal entries, No Name was phenomenally successful. Collins received 3,000 pounds for the first edition, sold nearly 4,000 copies on the day of publication, netted 1,500 pounds for American serial rights, and obtained 5,000 guineas from Smith Elder for his next novel before having written a word.4

Unlike most Collins novels, however, No Name discloses no secrets, rattles no nerves with sensational excitement; rather, as he observes in his preface, “all the main events of the story are purposely foreshadowed, before they take place—my present design being to rouse the reader's interest in following the train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought about.”5 For some critics, the absence of suspense seriously impairs No Name's success. Jerome Meckier, in particular, finds “the biggest mistake” to be “procedural” and believes Collins “sadly misjudges his own strengths” in forgoing surprise. From another perspective, however, one can argue that even before it begins No Name, a story about an unconventional female response to legal disinheritance, seeks to demystify the power of conventional, one might say inherited, Victorian narrative discourse. Rather than demanding from the reader acquiescence in a controlled revelation of plot, the narrator collaboratively offers a chance to see how plot comes into being, an opportunity to experience plot-in-process, so to speak, rather than plot-as-product. What's more, as several contemporary critics perceived, in forgoing narrative suspense for readerly collaboration, Collins situates his narrative practice in contention with the sort of instructive discourse perfected by George Eliot, whose Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, with their exemplary narrative discursions into questions of social responsibility, artistic representation, and cultural change preceded No Name by several years.6

As it is difficult to discuss any Collins novel without summarizing what happens, I shall do that briefly before showing how No Name disrupts conventional narrative discourse in the process of interrogating Victorian gender politics. On the death of their father Andrew Vanstone, eighteen-year-old Magdalen and her older sister Norah are unable to inherit his considerable fortune. As a young officer in Canada, he married impetuously, repented quickly, and returned to England, where he met the mother-to-be of Magdalen and Norah, a woman courageous enough to live with him. In the opening chapter, Vanstone and his forty-four-year-old pregnant not-wife learn of the death of his legal wife and quickly go off to London to marry. But a few days later Vanstone is killed in a railway accident, and the now legal second wife rapidly declines into death after childbirth, leaving her orphan daughters to discover that, although they are now legitimate, they are disinherited because Vanstone made his will before marrying their mother. They are named “Nobody's children,” and their inheritance goes to a mean-spirited uncle who quickly departs the novel—leaving his puny son Noel immensely rich and vulnerable to Magdalen's considerable attractions. A born actress, she undertakes numerous disguises with the assistance of one Captain Horatio Wragge (a scoundrel who achieves respectability by the end of the novel), marries Noel under an assumed name, is unmasked by her husband's craftily intelligent housekeeper, falls desperately ill after the death of Noel, and is dramatically rescued by the son of a friend of her father, a Captain Kirke—whom she marries in a symbolic reconciliation with the father figure who left her legitimate yet disinherited at the beginning of the novel. Exiled from patriarchal protection in the opening chapters, she is enfolded within patriarchy's embrace by the end. And to complete this story of return to one's heritage, her sister marries the man who inherits the estate from Noel Vanstone.

No Name is notable for Collins's bold delineation of a heroine who sells her sexuality to regain her rightful fortune. An outraged Mrs. Oliphant (always good for a scandalized response) declared in 1863 that Magdalen engages in “a career of vulgar and aimless trickery and wickedness, with which it is impossible to have a shadow of sympathy,” that she is tainted by “the pollutions of … endless deceptions and horrible marriage.”7 The “horrible marriage” part distressed almost all reviewers, and even now, in our far less prudish time, it is difficult not to be troubled, even embarrassed, by Collins's sexual frankness. He describes a young woman bursting with “exuberant vitality,” possessed of “a figure instinct with such a seductive, serpentine suppleness, so lightly and playfully graceful, that its movements suggested, not unnaturally, the movements of a young cat … so perfectly developed already that no one who saw her could have supposed that she was only eighteen,” undergoing “the revolting ordeal of marriage” to a frail little man with a miserable moustache, the complexion of a delicate girl, an appalling habit of screwing up his pale eyes, and a forehead that is always crumpling “into a nest of wicked little wrinkles.”8 But the chilling picture of sexual bargain between vibrant young woman and sickly older man, undisguised as it is by the cosmetic of Victorian piety, serves its political purpose: Collins makes us see that disinherited middle-class women, deprived of paternal protection, assume an identity that is both inscribed and concealed by the gender politics of their social class—that of sexual object. We also see how the literal incarceration of women to be found in Collins's earlier novel The Woman in White becomes, in No Name, an incarceration formed of rigid laws, of patriarchal injunctions.

In his focus upon the “sensational” aspects of The Woman in White, the ways that this novel (and others in the “sensation” genre) elaborates “a fantasmatics of sensation,” D. A. Miller observes that Laura Fairlie “follows a common itinerary of the liberal subject in nineteenth-century fiction: she takes a nightmarish detour through the carceral ghetto on her way home, to the domestic haven where she is always felt to belong.”9 In No Name, Magdalen Vanstone also makes that journey. But whereas Laura is essentially passive, the quintessentially pale and quivering victim, Magdalen is aggressive, robustly in rebellion against the law that confines her to impecunious humiliation. What's more, Magdalen's awesomely vibrant performances (first in legitimate roles as Julia and Lucy in an amateur production of The Rivals at the beginning of the novel, then in illegitimate impersonations of her former governess and a parlormaid) constitute energetic difference from the passivity of women in The Woman in White (excluding, needless to say, that fascinating pioneer woman detective, Marion Halcombe).

Magdalen possesses a frightening ability to lose her own self in the assumption of other identities,10 and her first strategy for survival when she finds herself “Nobody's” daughter is to leave home and seek out the manager of the amateur theatricals, who, amazed by her talent for mimicry, had given her his card and declared her a “born actress.” Unable to find him, she is befriended (or, rather, appropriated) by Captain Wragge: He will turn her into a professional and will be compensated when Magdalen recovers her rightful fortune. Wragge's recounting (in one of his numerous Chronicles, which I shall discuss in a moment) of her first appearance in an “At Home” (a performance featuring one actor assuming a series of extraordinarily different characters) indicates some of the larger meanings of gender politics in the novel. Wragge devises “the Entertainment,” manages “all the business,” writes two anonymous letters to the lawyer authorized to find her, fortifies her with sal volatile as antidote to unhappy memories of her family, and sends her on stage:

We strung her up in no time, to concert pitch; set her eyes in a blaze; and made her out-blush her own rouge. The curtain rose when we had got her at red heat. She dashed at it … rushed full gallop through her changes of character, her songs, and her dialogue; making mistakes by the dozen, and never stopping to set them right; carrying the people along with her in a perfect whirlwind, and never waiting for the applause.11

Endowed with a natural vitality which is “managed,” disciplined, and shaped by Wragge, Magdalen, during the actual performance reasserts her naturally vital, rebellious female self in “out-blushing” her own rouge, thereby suggesting how the novel, in general, addresses the way woman's “natural” talent is shaped by patriarchal culture, society, and the law. If Wragge, then, as stage manager operates as an omnipotent string puller, let us see how his other activities strongly suggest the omnipotence associated with narrative omniscience. Wragge may be seen as parodic emblem, as Collins's embodied and symbolic critique of prevailing literary form in the Victorian period.

Omniscience, according to J. Hillis Miller, finds its authority and its origin in the unsettling of established religious beliefs: “The development of Victorian fiction is a movement from the assumption that society and the self are founded on some superhuman power outside them, to a putting in question of this assumption, to a discovery that society now appears to be self-creating and self-supporting, resting on nothing outside itself.”12 As remedy for the profound unease occasioned by such a discovery, society turns to … authorizes the fictionally omniscient … omnipotent narrator to fill the void, retard slippage from belief to skepticism. Through his unrelenting insistence on diegetic relativism, which is expressed in the multiple narrative perspectives we encounter in almost all his fiction, Collins refuses to perform the consolatory functions Miller identifies. Very much like Thackerary in Vanity Fair, who interrogates all forms of authority and wants us to examine the unthinking ways we accept fictions of various sorts, how, especially, we believe in a novelist's total knowledge of the world, Collins insists that we see the subjective, arbitrary nature of fictional representation, the hubristic nature of novelistic omnipotence.

Defining himself as a “moral agriculturalist; a man who cultivates the field of human sympathy,” Wragge scoffs at being labeled a “Swindler”: “What of that? The same low tone of mind assails men in other professions in a similar manner—calls great writers, scribblers—great generals, butchers—and so on.”13 Identifying himself with “great writers” who cultivate “the field of human sympathy,” he becomes, of course, both like and unlike Wilkie Collins, the Victorian inheritor and reviser of conventional narrative discourse. But this is not all; Wragge's deft talent for inventing characters and identities also associates him with the creation of fiction. For example, one of the books in his “commercial library” (a repository of reference works in roguery and deception) is entitled “Skins to Jump Into.” Concocting plausible identities for himself, Mrs. Wragge, and Magdalen in the plot to attract and snare Noel Vanstone, he selects the “skins” of a Mr. Bygrave, Mrs. Bygrave, and niece Susan and instructs Magdalen as follows:

My worthy brother was established twenty years ago, in the mahogany and logwood trade at Belize, Honduras. He died in that place; and is buried on the south-west side of the local cemetery, with a neat monument of native wood carved by a self-taught negro artist. Nineteen months afterwards, his widow died of apoplexy at a boarding-house in Cheltenham. She was supposed to be the most corpulent woman in England; and was accommodated on the ground floor of the house in consequence of the difficulty of getting her up and down stairs. You are her only child; you have been under my care since the sad event at Cheltenham; you are twenty-one years old on the second of August next; and, corpulence excepted, you are the living image of your mother.14

His imperative omniscience, his persuasive attention to detail, his energetic keeping up of numerous journals and ledgers that record assumable identities, characteristics of different “districts,” narratives of successful and unsuccessful swindles—all affirm his status in No Name as parodic narrator, as emblem of convention, order, and legitimacy (despite and because of his vagabond status).

Insisting “he must have everything down in black and white,” announcing that “All untidiness, all want of system and regularity, causes me the acutest irritation,”15 in a manner worthy of Conrad's accountant in Heart of Darkness, he writes his narratives of deception in precise pages of neat handwriting, obsessively aligns rows of figures, and permits no blots, stains, or erasures. To complete this empire of fiction making, of fabrication of identity, he has, quite literally, authorized himself; everything, he proudly declares, is verified by “my testimonials to my own worth and integrity.” In sum, Wragge performs a kind of burlesque of Victorian narrative discourse, of the sovereign omniscience that dominates the period—and this, of course, is the mode of arbitrary narrative from which Wilkie Collins implicitly disinherited himself in his persistent interpolation of omniscience with the relativism of diary, letter, journalistic fragment, and so on. Bakhtin's observation that the novel form “is the expression of a Galilean perception of language, one that denies the absolutism of a single and unitary language,” is richly borne out by the dialogism of No Name.16

If Captain Horatio Wragge serves as vehicle for Collins's restlessness with dominant modes of literary form, then it is his wife, Matilda Wragge, who, absolutely unconsciously, expresses Collins's critique of dominant modes of gender politics. No Name, thick with the inherited themes of Victorian fiction—marriage, family, money, wills, female desire, male governance—contains an irregular, disruptive episode that functions as an important signifier for Collins's indictment of patriarchal law. Mrs. Wragge is the alarming center of this episode, an illegitimate, irregular, symbolically political action that molests the attempts at omnipotence practiced by her husband. She is affiliated more with modes of signification, with interrogations of fictionality, than with the events of the signified, with what is being represented. I'm going to name this episode “Captain Wragge Orders an Omelette.” And to explain what I mean by this, let me take you to the scene where Magdalen meets Matilda for the first time.

Characterized by her husband as “constitutionally torpid” and declared by Lewis Carroll to be an uncanny anticipation of his White Queen,17 Mrs. Wragge is a physical marvel. A gigantic six feet, three inches, she has an enormous, smooth, moonlike face, “dimly irradiated by eyes of mild and faded blue, which looked straightforward into vacancy,”18 and complains constantly of a “Buzzing” in her head. This buzzing is not helped by her husband's compulsion to bark orders like a sergeant major: Confiding to Magdalen that he is a “martyr” to his own sense of order, Wragge shouts, “Sit straight at the table. More to the left, more still—that will do,”19 and “Pull it up at heel, Mrs. Wragge—pull it up at heel!”—this occasioned by the sight of her worn slippers. The buzzing, she explains, began before she married the Captain and was working as a waitress in Darch's Dining Rooms in London: “The gentlemen all came together; the gentlemen were all hungry together; the gentlemen all gave their orders together.”20 Years later she is still trying to get the gentlemen's orders sorted out; becoming “violently excited” by Magdalen's sympathetic questioning, she begins to repeat the orders retained in her muddled mind:

Boiled pork and greens and peas-pudding for Number One. Stewed beef and carrots and gooseberry tart, for Number Two. Cut of mutton, and quick about it, well done, and plenty of fat, for Number Three. Codfish and parsnips, two chops to follow, hot-and-hot, or I'll be the death of you, for Number Four. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Carrots and gooseberry tart—peas pudding and plenty of fat—pork and beef and mutton, and cut 'em all, and quick about it—stout for one, and ale for t'other—and stale bread here, and new bread there—and this gentleman likes cheese, and that gentleman doesn't—Matilda, Tilda, Tilda, Tilda, fifty times over, till I don't know my own name.”21

In this City chophouse, eerily suggestive of Harold Pinter's Dumb-Waiter where two hit men attempt to fill orders for steak and chips, jam tarts, and so on, Matilda, disoriented by the barrage of gentlemen's orders, does not know her own name, feels herself deprived of identity by the incessant discipline of male directions; she becomes, in a sense, somewhat like Magdalen, a woman deprived of her identity as inheriting daughter and disciplined by laws that legislate legitimacy and correct irregularity.

It is at Darch's Dining Rooms that Mrs. Wragge meets the Captain, “the hungriest and the loudest” of the lot. Once married, her servant duties are transferred from a multitude of hungry and demanding gentlemen to one: She shaves him, does his hair, cuts his nails, presses his trousers, trims his nails, and, misery of miseries, cooks his meals. This latter duty requires constant recourse to a “tattered” cookery book, and when Magdalen meets her, she is attempting to master the directions for making an omelette (ordered by the Captain for breakfast the next day). As I'm going to suggest, this is an omelette with many fillings.

Here's how she interprets the recipe to Magdalen:

“Omelette with Herbs. Beat up two eggs with a little water or milk, salt, pepper, chives, and parsley. Mince small” There! mince small! How am I to mince small, when it's all mixed up and running? “Put a piece of butter the size of your thumb into the frying pan.”—Look at my thumb, and look at yours! whose size does she mean? “Boil, but not brown.”—If it mustn't be brown, what colour must it be? … “Allow it to set, raise it round the edge; when done, turn it over to double it … Keep it soft; put the dish on the frying-pan, and turn it over.” Which am I to turn over … the dish or the frying-pan? … It sounds like poetry, don't it?22

Probably not, I think is our response, but Mrs. Wragge's innocent deconstruction of a recipe generates a kind of narrative poetics and gender politics for No Name. On the level of narrative, her contention with the cookery book implies female subversion of male-authorized texts or laws (the cookery book written by a woman for the instruction of other women in filling male orders); on the level of story, her resistance to accepted interpretation intimates the larger battle in this novel between legitimacy and illegitimacy, between male governance and female revenge. And she doesn't let up. Grandiosely introducing Magdalen to the Wragge way of life, the Captain offers “A pauper's meal, my dear girl—seasoned with a gentleman's welcome”; his wife begins to mutter, “Seasoned with salt, pepper, chives, and parsley.” Negotiating terms with Magdalen for her dramatic training, the Captain begs her “not to mince the matter on your side—and depend on me not to mince it on mine;” his wife (of course) mutters that one should always try to “mince small.” Her “torpid” yet disruptive presence not only prefigures Lewis Carroll's White Queen but also anticipates the interrogation of arbitrary systems of signification that we find in Alice in Wonderland. If her husband's attitudes, despite his raffish demeanor and picaresque career, represent conformity and conservatism, then Mrs. Wragge's attitudes represent resistance and interrogation.

And what of Mrs. Wragge's omelette? Well, she makes it, but, as she says, “It isn't nice. We had some accidents with it. It's been under the grate. It's been spilt on the stairs. It's scalded the landlady's youngest boy—he went and sat on it.”23 Her interpretation of male orders results in something not “nice,” and certainly illegitimate as an omelette. And what of Captain Wragge? Abandoning “moral agriculture” for “medical agriculture,” he goes in for the manufacture and sale of laxatives. Turning his talent for narrative to the production of stories about “The Pill,” his skill in creating identities to the fabrication of testimonials about its dramatic effects, he becomes very rich. Meeting Magdalen at the end of the novel, “the copious flow of language pouring smoothly from his lips,” he declares, “I merely understand the age I live in.”24 It seems as if his attitudes no longer represent conformity and acceptance (as I suggested earlier); speaking the dominant sociolect of “the age,” which will never be understood by his wife, he ceases to function as parody or burlesque and becomes the thing itself. In other words, he goes legit. And instead of shouting at his wife, he appropriates her astonishing physical presence for the narrative that makes him rich: She is, he says, “the celebrated woman whom I have cured of indescribable agonies from every complaint under the sun. Her portrait is engraved on all the wrappers, with the following inscription beneath it:—‘Before she took the Pill, you might have blown this patient away with a feather. Look at her now!!!’”25 Just as Magdalen's story of return to legitimate social identity in marriage assumes conventional narrative form, so Mrs. Wragge's story of respectable celebrity puts an end to her disruption of parodic omnipotence. No longer the resisting reader of a recipe, like the Captain she becomes the thing itself and is read by others, engraved and inscribed as she is on all the wrappers for “The Pill.” Mrs. Wragge is in custody, just as, one might venture, Collins's interrogations of narrative form, patriarchal law, misogynistic sexual politics are (must be) eventually placed in the demanding custody of his serialized novel. They are disciplined by the contingent demands of his career, by the male-dominated directives of his culture. In sum, the subversiveness of No Name must ultimately be contained by the structure that enables its existence. Shall we say real life as opposed to fiction? But perhaps we should remember Noel Vanstone's astonished response to the revelation of Magdalen's plot for revenge: “It's like a scene in a novel—it's like nothing in real life.”26 In deconstructing Collins's literary practice and gender politics in No Name, we should not try to break the dialectical bond between theme and form, life and novel.


  1. Comparing No Name with Great Expectations (which it followed in Dickens's periodical All the Year Round), Jerome Meckier finds Collins's novel inferior. Meckier's interest is in the way these two novels address barriers to “social progress,” their meaning as “serious, philosophical critique of shortcomings traceable to the very nature of things.” Meckier's tendency to focus exclusively on informing connections between the private plight of Pip and public disorder blinds him, I think, to the very real social difficulties experienced by women in Collins's novel. Jerome Meckier, Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Reevaluation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987), 129.

  2. For stimulating discussion of relationships between mimesis and semiosis, I am indebted to Michael Riffaterre's lecture series at the University of Pennsylvania, February 1988.

  3. Norman Page, ed., Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage, Critical Heritage Series (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), i-xvi.

  4. Ibid., 169.

  5. Wilkie Collins, No Name (1864; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); preface pages are not numbered.

  6. An unsigned review in Dublin University Magazine in February 1861 observes that “a writer like George Eliot may look down from a very far height on such a dweller in the plains as he who wrote The Woman in White.” For this critic, Collins's novel is infected by “the spirit of modern realism.” In 1863, Alexander Smith in the North British Review more neutrally noted that Collins was “a writer of quite a different stamp from George Eliot.” Page, Wilkie Collins,104, 140.

  7. Page, Wilkie Collins, 143.

  8. Collins, No Name, 6, 357, 205.

  9. D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 172.

  10. Jonathan Loesberg makes the interesting point that “sensation novels evoke their most typical moments of sensation response from images of a loss of class identity. And this common image links up with a fear of a general loss of social identity as a result of the merging of the classes—a fear that was commonly expressed in the debate over social and parliamentary reform in the late 1850s and 1860s.” Part of the implicit threat to established gender and class politics posed by Magdalen's protean ability to switch roles may be ascribed to such a fear. Jonathan Loesberg, “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction,” Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 117.

  11. Collins, No Name, 175.

  12. J. Hillis Miller, The Form of Victorian Fiction: Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968), 30.

  13. Collins, No Name, 153.

  14. Ibid., 235-36.

  15. Ibid., 147.

  16. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 366.

  17. Page, Wilkie Collins, 245.

  18. Collins, No Name, 146.

  19. Ibid., 151.

  20. Ibid., 148.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid., 150.

  23. Ibid., 161.

  24. Ibid., 529.

  25. Ibid., 526.

  26. Ibid., 403.

Susan Balée (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8385

SOURCE: “Wilkie Collins and Surplus Women: The Case of Marian Halcombe,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 20, 1992, pp. 197-215.

[In the following essay, Balée sees The Woman in White as a “subversion of Victorian sexual stereotypes.”]

Can you look at Miss Halcombe and not see that she has the foresight and resolution of a man?

Count Fosco in The Woman in White

… The very dust of literature is precious, and its dross may be of more worth to the historian than its beaten gold.

E. S. Dallas, Blackwood's, 1859

Fiction forsooth! It is at the core of all the truths of this world; for it is the truth of life itself.

Dinah Mulock (Craik), Macmillan's, 1861

Wilkie Collins's best-selling novel, The Woman in White, first appeared in the 26 November 1859 edition of Charles Dickens's popular periodical, All the Year Round. For the space of a page—page 95—Dickens's latest novel, A Tale of Two Cities, and Collins's new one were juxtaposed. Sydney Carton spoke his famous last words in column 1, and Walter Hartright inaugurated the genre of sensation fiction in column 2 with this prophetic sentence: “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.”1

Dickens's tale of the French Revolution had been a steady seller, but The Woman in White soon eclipsed it, generating enormous sales for the magazine and becoming one of the most popular novels of nineteenth-century England.2 Collins had initiated a genre of fiction that intrigued Victorian readers for nearly ten years before its power subsided with its decade—the Sensational Sixties faded into the unsentimental 1870s.

In its own time, The Woman in White elicited both praise and moral indignation from a wide variety of reviewers. Margaret Oliphant, writing in Blackwood's in 1862, praised Collins for not using any supernatural effects to produce his sensations (“Sensation Novels” 566), but she lamented that his elevation of crime to an art form would inspire less-talented followers and that these “disciples will exaggerate the faults of their leader, and choose his least pleasant peculiarities for special study” (567).

Nevertheless, Mrs. Oliphant admitted that Collins did what he did well, and that Dickens—usually considered to be Collins's tutor—could not compete with his student as a sensation novelist.3

Comparing Great Expectations to The Woman in White, Oliphant put the dunce's cap on Dickens.

Mr Dickens is the careless, clever boy who could do it twice as well, but won't take pains. Mr Wilkie Collins is the steady fellow, who pegs at his lesson like a hero, and wins the prize over the other's head.

(“Sensation Novels” 580)

In later reviews of sensation fiction, Oliphant noted that the new-fashioned heroines of these novels were the real sources of their immorality, that such fiction “has reinstated the injured creature Man in something like his natural character, but unfortunately it has gone to extremes, and moulded its women on the model of men …” (“Novels” 258).

H. L. Mansel, whose celebrated “Bampton Lectures” on religious thought were the table talk of 1859, came to the same conclusion in his review of sensation fiction in the Quarterly Review in 1863. He vilified the genre for its dependency on the subversion of female morality to achieve its shocking effects. The point of Mansel's review was the same as that of his Bampton Lectures: he insisted that there are only two roads that the mind is capable of taking, one that “leads up to light and hope,” and another that perceives only a “dark atheistic view which detects nothing in the universe but unconscious forces breaking out” (Smith 49). Clearly, Mansel felt that sensation novels led readers along the darker path. E. S. Dallas, a brilliant mid-century British critic, also perceived the unusual power of sensation-novel heroines, but rather than denigrating heroines who did not fit the angel in the house ideal, he applauded them.

… If the heroines have the first place, it will scarcely do to represent them as passive and quite angelic, or insipid—which heroines usually are. They have to be pictured as high-strung women, full of passion, purpose, and movement. …

(“Lady Audley's Secret” 4)

Nancy Armstrong in Desire and Domestic Fiction argues that conduct books of the late eighteenth century helped to create the domestic woman of the nineteenth.4 Words created this dainty maternal creature, and words maintained her. As Davidoff and Hall detail in Family Fortunes, this ideal of the domestic woman was promoted in the 1830s and '40s by “church and chapel” which “were central to the articulation and diffusion of new beliefs and practices related to manliness and femininity” (149). Further, “if a man's ability to support and order his family and household lay at the heart of masculinity, then a woman's femininity was best expressed in her dependence” (114). Therefore, it is not surprising that until the advent of the sensation novel, “the young, dependent, almost child-like wife was portrayed as the ideal in fiction. … Such an image of fragility and helplessness enhanced the potency of the man who was to support and protect her” (323).

Women characters who did not fit this ideal of femininity were treated as abnormal, even evil. Dickens, for example, in Little Dorrit (1855-57) presents in a minor role an androgynous, powerful female character—Miss Wade. But Miss Wade is portrayed as a dark force, a probable lesbian who seeks to lead the rebellious young Tattycoram to her doom.

Wilkie Collins, whose novel appeared two years after his friend and advisor's, recreated in The Woman in White the androgynous heroine not as an evil force, but as a wonderful alternative version of womankind. Further, he would bring this character—Marian Halcombe—to center stage. She, with Count Fosco, would number among the most compelling characters of her day and after. Even Dickens praised her in a letter written to Collins on 7 January 1860: “I have read this book with great care and attention. There can be no doubt that it is a very great advance on all your former writing. … In character it is excellent.” The depiction of Marian, Dickens added, is particularly “meritorious” (Letters 89). Years later, in an interview with Edmund Yates, Collins recalled the many letters he had received from English bachelors who wanted to marry the original for Marian Halcombe (4-6). Clearly, the moment for a new ideal of woman had come, and Collins began to fashion her in words and to promulgate her in fiction.

The Woman in White began its literary devaluation of the angel in the house in 1859 by contrasting her with the strong-minded old maid, Marian Halcombe, as a new ideal of womanhood.5 Sensation fiction, and Marian's creation, had everything to do with a social dilemma that had begun in England in the 1850s. This dilemma centered on a proliferation of single women who, as men emigrated to the colonies or were killed in the Crimea, would never find mates, would never have the chance to become those maternal angels beloved by Victorian iconography. Something had to be done for and about England's “surplus women,” and Collins began to do it in the medium most likely to influence the millions—the serial novel.

Fitzjames Stephen, writing in the Edinburgh Review in July 1857, commented on the new role of authors as the boom in periodical literature brought their words into more households than ever before. There is, he said, “one class of writers who are, perhaps, the most influential of all indirect moral teachers—we mean contemporary novelists” (125). Crime reportage, which had increased enormously in the 1850s, soon filtered its facts into fiction; crime and its detection became one of the distinguishing features of the 1860s sensation novels.6 Stephen, as early as 1857, feared that “novelists will become a pest to literature, and they will degrade, as some of them have already degraded, their talents to the service of malignant passions, calumny, and falsehood” (155).

Stephen's words in this instance were aimed specifically at Charles Dickens and Charles Reade. Stephen felt that Dickens unfairly represented English bureaucracy with his portrayal of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, and that Reade was guilty of base falsehoods in his novel of prison reform, It is Never Too Late to Mend (1856-57).

Stephen was by no means the last to comment on the extraordinary turn that literature was taking as periodicals flooded the market. E. S. Dallas, in an essay entitled “Popular Literature—the Periodical Press” published in Blackwood's in January 1859, noted that “literature … is not only the expression of public opinion and the index of contemporary history, it is itself a great force that reacts on the life which it represents, half creating what it professes only to reflect” (97). Further, and this is a point that carried much weight with all the serially-published novelists,

A periodical differs from a book in being calculated for rapid sale and for immediate effect. … It is necessary, therefore, to the success of a periodical, that it should attain an instant popularity—in other words, that it should be calculated for the appreciation, not of a few, but of the many.


Two years later, W. H. Ainsworth, the former editor of Bentley's Miscellany, discoursed on the problems inherent in the rapid production of serial literature—it lacked research, he admitted, and thus could only amuse rather than instruct.

Every month sees the birth of some new periodical … [and] the writer who has in any way gained the ear of the public is sure to obtain work, not only profitable but tolerably regular in its nature. At the same time, however, it cannot be denied that the character of our literature has degenerated.


Ainsworth, despite his acknowledgment that the demands of serial publication forced writers to sacrifice quality to meet weekly or monthly deadlines, did little to rectify the situation. He himself was the successful author of several serial novels, including the very popular Jack Sheppard (1839). As an editor, he fostered the talents of numerous popular writers. The sensation novel that was destined to become the best-selling book of nineteenth-century England, Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne (1860-61), was written under his guidance and initially published in another of the magazines he edited, The New Monthly Magazine.

Ainsworth, like Dickens and Thackeray, both wrote for and edited the publications under his management. He noted that this, too, was new in the history of literature. “All of our great writers,” he wrote, “bestow their energies on the serials they have under their management, and the result is such as has never been seen before in literature” (218). Ainsworth's protégée, Mrs. Henry Wood, would go on to manage her own magazine as would Mary Elizabeth Braddon,7 another tremendously successful sensation novelist, and the author of Lady Audley's Secret (1861-62).

The changes in the production and publication of literature in the 1850s and '60s cannot be extricated from the changes that were happening concurrently in women's roles. That Mrs. Henry Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon could make the transition from contributing to popular magazines to being their proprietors is yet another indication of the way that the role and social status of women underwent dramatic change in the 1860s. That these changes were linked to the influence of popular literature seems undeniable. For it is certainly true that scores of writers in the late 1850s and early 1860s were commenting on the way that periodical literature together with increased literacy had revolutionized public knowledge. Perhaps Dinah Mulock (Craik), writing for Macmillan's in the spring of 1861, put it best:

The amount of new thoughts scattered broadcast over society within one month of the appearance of a really popular novel, the innumerable discussions it creates, and the general influence which it exercises in the public mind, form one of the most remarkable facts of our day.


The Woman in White is a novel that plays on the theme of sex-role reversals. D. A. Miller first explicated the ways “sensations”—which the sensation novel produces internally (on its characters) and externally (on its readers)—are gendered. Miller interprets the novel as an elaborate play on the Victorian readers' desire for and fear of homosexuality:

no less than that of the woman-in-the-man, the motif of the man-in-the-woman is a function of the novel's anxious male imperatives (“cherchez, cachez, couchez la femme”) that, even as a configuration of resistance, it rationalizes, flatters, positively encourages.


Miller reads the novel—breathlessly—as an elaborate pathology of male homosocial bonds and “free-floating homoerotics” (122). I read it rather differently, as a subversion of Victorian sexual stereotypes (the angel in the house, the manly man) in order to promote new icons. The Woman in White actively works to dismantle old myths of sexuality in order to construct new ones that would be of greater use to an economically-altered society. It is no surprise that the angel-in-the-house icon rose to prominence with the industrial revolution and market capitalism, the phenomena that put men to work outside the home and confined women within it. Wives and mothers were idealized, even as they were robbed of economic power (see Christ).

By the late 1850s, single women outnumbered single men significantly: in 1851 in Great Britain there were 2,765,000 single women aged fifteen and over; by 1861, the figure was 2,956,000; by 1871, it would reach 3,228,700—an increase of nearly seventeen percent in twenty years (Banks 27).8 This imbalance meant that large numbers of women would never be able to get married, would never live the role of angel in the house—a role that had been presented to them for decades as not only the ideal, but virtually the only part they could play. Cultural ideology and economic necessity, which had reinforced each other for so long, were suddenly in conflict. Women required an alternative ideal of femininity that was not maternal as more and more of their numbers remained unmarried.

When we first see Marian Halcombe through Walter Hartright's eyes, she is shockingly androgynous. Walter, at this point in the novel, perceives Marian through the filter of conventional ideals of female beauty.

The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise that words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!


What makes Marian ugly to Walter is her distinctly masculine face set upon a perfectly feminine figure. Marian's complexion is dark, and she has an incipient moustache (58). A page later, in direct contrast to Marian, we hear our first words of Laura Fairlie, the blonde angel with whom Walter Hartright will fall in love. She is classically feminine, right down to her nerves. “My sister is in her own room,” Marian informs Hartright, “nursing that essentially feminine malady, a slight headache” (59).

As the novel progresses, Marian's masculine strength of mind is continually juxtaposed with Laura's weakness; readers are left to form their own opinion as to which character is the more admirable of this novel's two heroines. Or perhaps I should say three heroines, for as Barbara Fass Leavy points out, “the woman in white” of the title—Anne Catherick—represents a third and very important heroine (91). Anne Catherick, Laura's half-sister on the father's side, continually figures as a paler version of Laura herself. Both are blonde, physically fragile, and mentally weak. The physically and mentally durable Marian, Laura's half-sister on her mother's side, stands out in dark contrast to these two fluttering angels.9

Marian despises her own sex in general, her affection for Laura excepted. What she feels for Laura seems to be a chivalrous, brotherly love10 that deepens as Laura comes to rely on her more and more. Marian, as the novel progresses—particularly after she experiences a jolt of mutual sexual attraction to Count Fosco—begins to display more classically feminine characteristics. It might be said that Fosco literally makes a woman of her when he reads her diary. His invasion of her room (a private sanctuary that, in psychoanalytic terms, may be read as her “womb”) and his taking possession of her innermost thoughts constitutes a kind of psychic rape (358-60).

Before she meets Fosco, Marian responds to strong emotions with manly reticence. When Laura tells her that she must honor her engagement to a man she does not love, Marian manages her feelings like a man. “I only answered by drawing her close to me again. I was afraid of crying if I spoke. My tears do not flow so easily as they ought—they come almost like men's tears, with sobs that seem to tear me in pieces, and that frighten everyone about me” (187). However, after she comes under the spell of Fosco, Laura's troubled marriage causes Marian to weep like a woman. “Crying generally does me harm; but it was not so last night—I think it relieved me” (289).

Fosco, it should be mentioned, is also described in the most androgynous terms. Although he has a face like Napoleon, he is also fat and feminine in manner. He resembles “a fat St. Cecilia masquerading in male attire” (250). He is tenderly maternal to his pet birds and mice, and is described by Marian as a “Man of Sentiment” (308). Manly reticence is not one of his virtues, yet his charm for Marian is his honeyed tongue. She says,

Women can resist a man's love, a man's fame, a man's personal appearance, and a man's money, but they cannot resist a man's tongue when he knows how to talk to them.


One may extend this compliment to Wilkie Collins, who put the words in Fosco's mouth.

If Marian is an androgynous character who becomes somewhat more feminized towards the close of the novel, Walter Hartright is described as a eunuch who becomes more manly through his association with Laura and Marian. Hartright first describes himself as safely emasculated.

I had long since learnt to understand, composedly and as a matter of course, that my situation in life was considered a guarantee against any of my female pupils feeling more than the most ordinary interest in me, and that I was admitted among beautiful and captivating women much as a harmless domestic animal is admitted among them.


He is irresolute and tearful when he realizes that he must leave Laura; Marian exhibits more manly composure than himself. “She caught me by both hands—she pressed them with the strong steady grasp of a man” (148). Nevertheless, as Walter is called into service as Laura's protector and becomes the detective who will unravel the crime that has robbed her of her identity, he behaves increasingly like the Victorian ideal of manhood. Ann Cvetkovich draws a connection between Hartright's accession to patriarchal power and property (when he becomes the accepted suitor, and later the husband of Laura) and his deepening masculinity.

Nevertheless, Collins inverts traditional stereotypes of manliness and femininity in order to alter them. Laura Fairlie, who retains her role as angel in the house throughout, is a pathetic character. When Walter sets up house together with Marian and Laura (in a ménage à trois that must have delighted Collins as he penned it,11 he and Marian play mother and father to Laura, whose brief incarceration in a lunatic asylum has rendered her childlike. Even Laura recognizes her own helplessness.

“I am so useless—I am such a burden on both of you,” she answered, with a weary, hopeless sigh. “You work and get money, Walter, and Marian helps you. Why is there nothing I can do! You will end in liking Marian better than you like me—you will because I am so helpless!”


Walter and Marian play a friendly deception on Laura—they tell her that Walter is selling her drawings as he sells his own:

Her drawings, as she finished them, or tried to finish them, were placed in my hands. Marian took them from me and hid them carefully, and I set aside a little weekly tribute from my earnings, to be offered her as the price paid by strangers for the poor, faint, valueless sketches, of which I was the only purchaser.


Laura's childlike dependency on her artist lover reminds one of David Copperfield's Dora who held his pens and believed she was helping him to compose.12

Laura's inability to compete economically—she has no marketable skills and several liabilities—reiterates the infeasibility of the angel-in-the-house role for women who would be forced to earn their own living. When The Woman in White appeared in late 1859 with its positive portrayal of an old maid and its negative portrayal of the Victorian ideal of womanhood, it entered a fiery discussion on the condition of English women that had been heating up the pages of popular periodicals since the mid-1850s. Ideologically-opposed essayists argued about the economic and legal rights of women, examining work opportunities for “the fairer sex” as well as new legislation that affected women. Again and again the question was asked: What could England do about its growing population of impoverished, middle-class spinsters?

An Old Maid, eh? The phrase is quite enough: you have only to mention it, and of course everybody begins to snigger, simper, or sneer.

Francis Jacox, Bentley's Miscellany, March 1859

The Crimean War (1853-56) was a crucial event for English women insofar as one of the heroes it created was a heroine: Florence Nightingale. Nightingale was a single woman possessed of ambition and abilities worthy of any man of her time. Her life, fortunately, coincided with a historical moment that enabled her to develop her talents. Martha Vicinus asserts that Florence Nightingale was the most important role model for single women that the century would produce (19). Vicinus adds:

Nightingale was exceptional in many ways—her class connections, iron determination, and brilliant analytic skills would have placed her in the forefront in any age—but her highly publicized work in military camps gave her an incomparable public image.


Even contemporary commentators were quick to note that men who admired Florence Nightingale—for it was not only single women whom her deeds had impressed—were more likely to extend their esteem to other single women. An anonymous reviewer writing in the Edinburgh Review in January 1856 intuited that the nurse reformer's important work in the Crimea would reflect well not only on herself, but on all English women.

From the high and the low, from the most noble among the subscribers to the Nightingale Fund to the humblest ballad singers who are singing Miss Nightingale's praises in our streets, we learn lessons of faith in the readiness with which man's esteem is given where it is earned by woman. Her whole sex will profit by the reflection of the light her example has shed upon us; and it is to be hoped that many a woman will feel it both a responsibility and an encouragement that she has lived at the same time with Florence Nightingale.

(“Lectures to Ladies” 153)

By now it should be evident that the web of causes and effects that ultimately produced a significant change in the role and status of women is both dense and subtle. Nevertheless, certain events and individuals do stand out in this complex weave, and Florence Nightingale is one of them. It was soon after her exploits in the Crimea that a new series of articles on the legal and social status of women began to appear in all of the important magazines.

Margaret Oliphant, who later wrote scathing reviews of sensation novels, first took up the cudgels against women's rights in the April 1856 edition of Blackwood's, in a book review entitled “The Laws Concerning Women.” Oliphant, reviewing a pamphlet that detailed the ways women had been wronged by marriage and property laws, attacked the writer with the rhetoric that would soon become the trademark of those opposed to more lenient legislation for women. The catchwords of this rhetoric were “natural,” “preordained,” and “self-evident.” That man should rule woman, that a husband should dominate his wife, Oliphant insists is “natural,” and that the existing laws that confer on him his power to do so are also “natural.” Oliphant declares that “Nature confers this official character upon the head of a household, the law has no choice but to confirm it, and all honest expediency and suitableness justifies this ordination of God and of man” (386). Oliphant concludes this piece by throwing the traditional bone to the angel in the house. Women, she declares, actually have more power than men because—although they have no economic or legal rights—they rule the house, the moral center of society (387).

As Michel Foucault's archeological digs into various fields of knowledge and history have shown us, wherever there is power, there is resistance. I would add that this is particularly evident when a long-standing balance of power is about to make a heterostatic shift in favor of the resistance. This shift happened as the 1850s wore on and surplus women became more numerous while, at the same time, mistreated wives became more vocal about the rapacity of husbands who had full legal rights to their wives' property, and even to their children in the event of divorce (which became an option for the first time in 1857).

The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, it should be noted, is one of the first legal inklings that there was trouble in the paradise of Victorian matrimony, that heretofore hallowed state that was so closely bound to the cult of wife and motherhood, the safe haven of home, the bliss of family life. All of the myths, interconnected as they were, began to suffer together. But this Act, which permitted certain unhappy—and very rich—spouses to get free of one another, did little to advance the rights of women. Men could petition for divorce on the basis of adultery, but women had to prove desertion, cruelty, rape, bestiality, or incest as well.13

T. E. Perry, reviewing the divorce bill for the Edinburgh Review in 1857, vehemently advocated married women's property rights. (The Married Women's Property Bill of 1857, which would have protected them, was dropped in order to pass the divorce act. It resurfaced in Parliament ten years later—just as sensation fiction was beginning its decline—and finally became law in 1870.) “The time is past,” he wrote, “when the law could annihilate, by a fiction, the rights of one half of society, and repudiate the claims of that portion which stands most in need of legal protection” (183). Perry, unlike Oliphant, found nothing natural about the law. Instead, he cites numerous instances of the unnatural ways it deprived specific women—such as Caroline Norton—of their personal inheritances and their children. Perry insists that no law can be natural when so much public sentiment is against it.

It appears that during the last Session upwards of seventy petitions with 24,000 signatures have been presented to Parliament, complaining of the law of property as it affects married women; and if such petitions are to be weighted pondere non numero, it will be found that the names attached comprise some of the most eminent thinkers of our day, and nearly all the distinguished women who have made the present such a remarkable epoch of female literature.


The unhappy state of marriage, particularly for women, would begin to make the spinster's lot look better than it ever had. Frances Power Cobbe, one of the feminists who stands out in this period, reprinted one of her essays in Fraser's in 1862 entitled “Celibacy v. Marriage.” Cobbe concludes, “‘the old maid's life may be as rich, as blessed, as that of the proudest of mothers with her crown of clustering babes” (233). Furthermore, Cobbe reasoned, “while the utility, freedom, and happiness of a single woman's life have become greater, the knowledge of the risks of an unhappy marriage (if not the risks themselves) has become more public” (234). Single women, for one thing, enjoyed exactly the same property rights as men.

What single women did not enjoy—and which commentators now began to discuss at great length—were equal employment rights. Mrs. Oliphant, writing in Blackwood's in 1858, challenged the notion that single women were any worse off than they had ever been historically.14 Oliphant, ever opposed to change, once again made the plight of women seem “natural.”

There were single ladies as there were single gentlemen as long as anybody can remember, yet it is only within a very short time that writers and critics have begun to call the attention of the public to the prevalence and multiplicity of the same.

(“Condition” 141)

Oliphant argues that the statistically large numbers of surplus women cited by the author of Women's Thoughts About Women (the book that Oliphant is here reviewing) cannot possibly be correct; Oliphant is sure that old maids number a mere handful, that they are simply individuals “drop[ped] … out of the current” (141). Oliphant concludes

It is, however, an unfortunate feature in the special literature which professes to concern itself with women, that it is in great part limited to personal “cases” and individual details, and those incidents of domestic life which it is so easy, by the slightest shade of mistaken colouring, to change the real character.


Before she reaches this resounding closure to her argument, however, Mrs. Oliphant has herself indulged in a personal “case” to make her argument. The case is literary; Mrs. Oliphant discusses how Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre “bears with no small force upon the present subject” since it treats of the abysmal life of governesses (142). However, Oliphant declares, the Brontë sisters, though they suffered wretchedly as governesses, were no worse off than their brother Branwell, who had a miserable position as a tutor. Oliphant triumphantly concludes that “so far as this example goes, the theory of undue limitation and unjust restraint in respect to women certainly does not hold” (143).

Mrs. Oliphant had probably recently read Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) from which she culled her facts; what is interesting is that she should have suppressed so many equally valid pieces of information about Branwell's life that were detailed in Gaskell's book. Long before Branwell was a tutor he was sent to art school—where his sisters could not follow even if they wished to—and after he failed as a painter, he became an assistant clerk to a railway company (another job not open to women in the 1840s); it was only after he was fired from this job for intemperate negligence that he took up full-time employment as a tutor. All along, Branwell had had educational and work opportunities that were denied to his sisters, but Oliphant does not choose to mention these facts.

Harriet Martineau, Charlotte Brontë's former close friend, in an anonymous essay entitled “Female Industry,” published in the Edinburgh Review in April 1859, argued directly against thinkers like Oliphant. Martineau immediately acknowledges the problem of surplus women, and argues for broadened work opportunities for women as well as pay equal to men's.

In a community where a larger proportion of women remain unmarried than at any known period; where a greater number of women depend on their own industry for subsistence … how can there be a doubt that the women will work more and more, and in aggregate ways … ?


Martineau cites the greatest obstruction to women's education and employment as “the jealousy of men in regard to the industrial independence of women” (329).

Nevertheless, there were still plenty of people—particularly men—who agreed with Mrs. Oliphant in 1859. An anonymous article entitled “A Fear for the Future that Women Will Cease to be Womanly,” published in Fraser's in February, lamented the damage done to that cherished myth of Victorian iconography—the angel in the house. It was hard to let her go, and the author of this piece bemoans the way that “young ladies” have changed: “the pretty ignorance, the fascinating helplessness, the charming unconsciousness that enslaved us bachelors of long ago—where are they all gone to?” (245)

The battle would rage back and forth throughout the 1860s, with feminists like Frances Power Cobbe, Harriet Martineau, and John Stuart Mill on the one side, and advocates of the old ideology about women, such as W. R. Greg, W. E. Aytoun, and John Ruskin15 on the other. The familiar rhetoric invoking nature, God, and historical precedent would be employed again and again, just as it is in this piece by Aytoun:

… by the common consent of mankind in all ages, certain vocations have been assigned to each of the sexes, as their proper and legitimate sphere of action and utility—and that any attempted readjustment of these could lead to nothing save hopeless error and confusion.


What was particularly frightening to men like Aytoun was the notion that the entry of women into the working world of men would deprive women of their femininity and men of their masculinity. When males and females transgress the gender rules of work, he wrote, the result is to “make men effeminate and women masculine by tempting them to unsuitable occupations” (199).

It was exactly these gender rules that Collins broke in The Woman in White; further, the novel's allegiance (and by extension, the readers') is given to the masculine woman and the sensitive man.

D. A. Miller notes that Marian Halcombe is outside the sexual system of the novel (and, presumably, of Victorian society) because she is neither male nor female. She cannot do what males do because she lacks a penis, and she cannot be the recipient of male desire because she lacks the ability to attract men (116). Without realizing it, Miller has offered another definition of the phrase “surplus woman.” At the novel's close, Marian also seems to be the extra or “surplus” woman in the household with Walter and Laura and their child, because she is not a member of this nuclear cluster. Collins, however, skews this perception of Marian's redundancy in the family by having Marian—not Laura—holding the baby (645). And the very last line of the novel is a tribute to the manly spinster as the real heroine of the story: “The long happy labour of many months is over. Marian was the good angel of our lives—let Marian end our story” (646).

Many critics of this novel, such as U. C. Knoepflmacher, D. A. Miller, and Sue Lonoff note that Collins undermines the order of the Victorian world only to restore it with a traditional happy ending. Lonoff thinks that Collins, although “his rendering of women seems enlightened from a twentieth-century perspective,” is really ambivalent about the strong heroines he creates because they “ultimately set their independence aside” (138). I would counter this by saying that Collins knew his audience; he wanted to portray women as he really saw them—strong and capable—but he did not want to alienate his readers. Furthermore, the happy endings tacked on his novels do not eradicate what came before; the subversiveness is still there, and still lingers in the minds of the readers.

I would further argue that the happy ending helped Collins to disguise his real aim, social reform. In Collins's later novels, this reformatory zeal—to redress the wrongs of prostitutes, governesses, illegitimate children—became less and less disguised and, as a result, his reputation sharply declined. Swinburne is reputed to have created this cruel little couplet to describe the once-great novelist's fate: “What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition? Some demon whispered—‘Wilkie! Have a mission’.” Because The Woman in White appears to have no political bias, it offers readers ideology in its most influential form.16 As Dinah Mulock Craik and countless of her contemporaries were aware, there was no influence on public opinion more powerful than a really popular novel.

The Woman in White was such a novel, and it does not seem too much to say that by its laudatory portrayal of an androgynous old maid, Wilkie Collins helped the movement towards broadened opportunities for single women. It is certainly true that after his novel appeared and throughout the 1860s, work opportunities for women increased and legislation, such as the 1870 Married Women's Property Act, was passed in their favor. Frances Power Cobbe noted in 1862 that the “popular prejudice against well-educated women is dying away” (“What Shall We Do with Our Old Maids?” 606), as the first ladies' colleges were instituted in England. New ones were opened throughout the 1860s. The widening sphere of education for women resulted in a widening sphere of career opportunities, a movement that would continue throughout the nineteenth century and up until our own day.

The line that began Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White and that inaugurated the genre of sensation fiction is often misread as a reaffirmation of Victorian sex role stereotypes. When Walter Hartright says, “This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve,” the reader assumes that Walter is the resolute man and that Marian or Laura is the patient woman. I beg to differ. Throughout the novel, by virtually every male character who encounters her, from Walter to Mr. Gilmore the solicitor to Fosco the wily villain, Marian is described as “resolute.” Walter, who leaves Laura to go on an expedition to Central America, with no hope that he can ever win her love, is patient. Despite every hardship and the deaths of almost all of his companions, he makes his way back to England and finds her again. Throughout the period when he is tracking Fosco and solving the mystery of Laura's identity, he is patient. He holds his temper, waits for his chances, and takes them when they come. Because he is patient, he solves the case, marries Laura, and becomes the proprietor of her estate.

The first line of The Woman in White, then, presages what the novel is really about: the subversion of sexual stereotypes. Because this is the story of what a man with a woman's patience can endure, and what a woman with the resolution of a man can achieve.


  1. Further references to The Woman in White are from the 1974 Penguin edition, edited by Julian Symons.

  2. Kathleen Tillotson cites the unprecedented reader response to Collins's novel. See also Elwin. For an overview of the Sensational Sixties and the four most prominent sensation novelists—Collins, Wood, Braddon, and Reade—see Winifred Hughes. Another account of the critical reaction to sensation novels, particularly as they pertained to women and women's roles, may be found in the third volume of Helsinger, Sheets, and Veeder.

  3. A number of mainstream Victorian novelists added sensational effects to their productions in this period. Dickens, in fact, had employed them much earlier; in Bleak House (1852-53), the “chancellor” of the rag and bone shop, Krook, dies of spontaneous combustion, which Dickens had read about in a periodical. In similar fashion, sensation novelists would later read the detailed newspaper accounts of lurid murder trials of the late 1850s and '60s and incorporate spouse poisoning, bigamy, and insanity into their titillating tales.

  4. “Conduct books imply the presence of a unified middle class at a time when other representations of the social world suggest that no such class yet existed” (Armstrong 63). The industrial revolution and the changes it produced in the middle-class family required a new kind of woman. “Sexuality,” Armstrong asserts, “has a history that is inseparable from the political history of England” (15).

  5. Anti-angel heroines were not new to fiction—one has only to think of Thackeray's Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (1847-48)—but Collins's extremely positive portrayal of an unwomanly woman was new. Other sensation novelists would devalue the angel in the house by showing her to be a demon in disguise (as M. E. Braddon did in Lady Audley's Secret), but Collins went further—he not only debased the old icon, he minted a new one: the androgynous heroine.

  6. Altick treats this phenomenon in Victorian Studies in Scarlet. He tentatively draws a connection between the sensational murders of the 1850s and '60s and the birth of sensation fiction; in Deadly Encounters he sees a direct cause and effect relationship between two sensational murders in the summer of 1861 and subsequent sensation fiction. Thomas Boyle argues for a subtler connection between real crime and its literary manifestations; he emphasizes the complex weave of cause and effect surrounding sensation fiction, asserting that there is not “any really extended pattern of imitation of real-life crime from the newspapers. So these are not ‘non-fiction novels’ or ‘true fiction’” (146). However, Boyle acknowledges that “almost all the writers used newspapers as sources of information in one way or another” (146).

  7. Braddon founded Belgravia in 1866 and Ellen Price Wood acquired The Argosy in 1867.

  8. Vicinus points out that most surplus women during this period were from the working class, because the middle class comprised only fifteen percent of the total population. Nevertheless, most contemporary discussions of surplus women focused on the plight of middle-class spinsters. “The conviction shared by all middle-class commentators that the number of unmarried middle-class women was steadily increasing was due to their increase in absolute numbers and their increased visibility, brought about in part by their acceptance of paid work and in part by the public discussion of their plight” (27).

  9. Laura Fairlie is the legitimate and Anne Catherick is the illegitimate daughter of a dissolute aristocratic father. Besides passing on his looks, one can infer that Philip Fairlie also passed on his mental instability, the other trait that Laura and Anne share. That the Fairlies represent a kind of physical, mental, and moral degeneration of the upper class may be further seen in the still-living Mr. Frederick Fairlie (Laura's uncle) whose nervous disorder, intensely fey mannerisms, and cruelty to servants are persistently pointed up by Collins. The other representative of English aristocracy in this novel, Sir Percival Glyde, is, of course, an out-and-out villain: a coarse, brutal drunkard who does not stick at the notion of killing his wife to claim her inheritance, nor of confining Anne Catherick to an insane asylum to keep her from revealing his life's guilty secret.

  10. Lambert suggests that Marian has lesbian designs on her half-sister (13). The evidence does not seem to support this, especially in light of what we know about the strong bonds of Victorian sisterhood and the effusive expressions of love permissible between sisters (and brothers) during this period. (The relationship between Florence and Paul Dombey in Dickens's Dombey and Son (1847-48) had been similarly misread by late twentieth-century critics.) For more about the relationships of Victorian female siblings, see Helena Michie.

  11. Collins never married, but he supported two mistresses, Caroline Graves credited by Davis as the original “woman in white”) and, later, Martha Rudd. Collins formed a liaison with Rudd after Graves left him to marry a plumber. When she returned, disenchanted with her marriage, Collins supported both his mistresses au même temps. The untenable legal status of illegitimate children—Collins had several—is a minor theme in The Woman in White (Sir Percival Glyde's terrible secret is that he's a bastard) and a major one in No Name (1862).

  12. Laura's inability to compose—to tell her own story—is underscored by the structure of the novel itself. Marian writes two of the narratives, but Laura does not write any. Laura can never, therefore, be the author of herself, but is dependent upon the way other narrators represent her.

  13. Nor did the divorce act provide for spouses who wanted to get divorced for reasons other than adultery. Charles Dickens, one of the Victorian era's greatest spokesmen for the sacred bonds of marriage and family life, found himself in an uncomfortable position in the same year that Parliament ratified the Matrimonial Causes Act. Desperately unhappy with his wife of twenty-two years, Catherine Hogarth Dickens, the novelist longed to break out of his marriage. But according to the new act, he would have to prove Catherine's adultery to divorce her legally, and Catherine had committed no such crime. Her crimes were that she was fat, fortyish, complacent, and no intellectual match for her brilliant husband. In 1858, Dickens separated from Catherine. He gave her a house and settled 600 pounds a year on her for maintenance. For the rest of his life he also maintained Ellen Ternan, the mistress whom the law did not permit him to marry.

  14. Besides the other logical problems with Mrs. Oliphant's argument, it begs the initial question. By invoking historical precedent, Oliphant avoids the grievance itself: the limited employment opportunities for single women who had to support themselves.

  15. Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies appeared in 1865, and included the essay entitled “Of Queens' Gardens.” This essay is one of the most persuasive pieces of writing celebrating the angel-in-the-house myth and its attendant fantasies of the idyllic family and happy home that one can find in the Victorian period; as such, it is frequently cited by scholars studying the stereotypes and realities of Victorian family life. What renders it additionally fascinating, however, is that Ruskin should have been the man to write it. Ruskin's own wife, Effie Gray, succeeded in annulling their marriage in 1854 on the grounds that it had never been consummated. Ruskin, who admitted that he found his wife's adult body “disgusting,” later fell in love with the young girl he tutored, Rose La Touche—a passion that was unrequited. At no point did Ruskin's real life resemble the familial fantasy he sketched so poignantly in “Of Queens' Gardens.”

  16. To those who would argue that Marian Halcombe cannot really represent the impoverished surplus women of the 1850s and '60s because she does not need a job, let me say this: Collins in this novel was not striking at the issue directly—as did Cobbe, Martineau, Oliphant, and many other commentators—but obliquely. What Collins was doing was reducing the power of a potent icon—the angel in the house—by contrasting her with a strong lovable, laudable new version of womanhood: the androgynous spinster. In his next novel, No Name (1862), Collins treated the issue of single women's employment more overtly but less successfully. Magdalen Vanstone and her sister, Norah, the heroines of No Name, lose their inheritance and are forced to work—one as a servant, the other as a governess. But No Name did not capture the imagination of the public as its predecessor had done; its lessons were not disguised enough.

Works Cited

[Ainsworth, W. H.] “The Present State of Literature.” Bentley's Miscellany 49 (February 1861): 215-19.

Altick, Richard D. Deadly Encounters: Two Victorian Sensations. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1986.

———. Victorian Studies in Scarlet. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1987.

[Aytoun, W. E.] “The Rights of Woman.” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 92 (August 1862): 183-201.

Banks, J. A., and Olive Banks. Feminism and Family Planning in Victorian England. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.

Boyle, Thomas. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism. New York: Viking, 1989.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley's Secret. 1862. Ed. Jennifer Uglow. London: Virago P, 1985.

Christ, Carol [T.] “Victorian Masculinity and the Angel in the House.” A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women. Ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1977. 146-62.

Cobbe, Frances Power. “Celibacy v. Marriage.” Fraser's 65 (February 1862): 228-35.

———. “What Shall We Do With Our Old Maids?” Fraser's 66 (November 1862): 594-610.

Collins, Wilkie. No Name. 1862. New York: Stein and Day, 1967.

———. “The Woman in White,” first installment. All the Year Round 2 (26 November 1859): 95-104.

———. The Woman in White. 1861. New York: Penguin, 1974.

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Ghostlier Determinations: The Economy of Sensation and The Woman in White.Novel 23 (Fall 1989): 24-43.

[Dallas, E. S.] “Lady Audley's Secret.” The Times (18 November 1862): 4.

[———.] “Popular Literature—the Periodical Press.” Blackwood's 85 (January 1859): 96-112.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Davis, Nuel Pharr. The Life of Wilkie Collins. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1956.

Dickens, Charles. Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins. Ed. Laurence Hutton. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892.

———. A Tale of Two Cities, final installment. All the Year Round 2 (26 Nov. 1859).

Elwin, Malcolm. Victorian Wallflowers. London: J. Cape, 1934.

“A Fear for the Future that Women Will Cease to be Womanly.” Fraser's 59 (February 1859): 243-48.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

[Greg, W. R.] “Why Are Women Redundant?” National Review 15 (1862): 434-60.

Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Robin Lauterbach Sheets, and William Veeder. The Woman Question: Society and Literature in Britain and America, 1837-1883. Vol. 3. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Hughes, Winifred. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1980.

[Jacox, Francis.] “Old Maids.” Bentley's Miscellany 45 (1859): 345-55.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. “The Counterworld of Victorian Fiction and The Woman in White.The Worlds of Victorian Fiction. Ed. Jerome H. Buckley. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1975. 351-70.

Lambert, Gavin. The Dangerous Edge. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1975.

Leavy, Barbara Fass. “Wilkie Collins's Cinderella: The History of Psychology and The Woman in White.Dickens Studies Annual 10 (1982): 91-141.

“Lectures to Ladies on Practical Subjects.” Edinburgh Review 103 (January 1856): 146-53.

Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers. New York: AMS P, 1982.

[Mansel, H. L.] “Sensation Novels.” The Quarterly Review 113 (April 1863): 481-514.

[Martineau, Harriet]. “Female Industry.” Edinburgh Review 109 (April 1859): 293-336.

Michie, Helena. “‘There Is No Friend Like a Sister’: Sisterhood as Sexual Difference.” ELH 56, 2 (Summer 1989): 401-21.

Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. 1869. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P, 1970.

Miller, D. A. “Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.The Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Ed. Jeremy Hawthorn. London: Edward Arnold, 1986. 95-126.

[Mulock, Dinah.] “To Novelists—and a Novelist.” Macmillan's 3 (April 1861): 441-48.

[Oliphant, Margaret.] “The Condition of Women.” Blackwood's 83 (February 1858): 139-54.

[———.] “The Laws Concerning Women.” Blackwood's 79 (April 1856): 379-87.

[———.] “Novels.” Blackwood's 102 (Sept. 1867): 257-280.

[———.] “Sensation Novels.” Blackwood's 91 (May 1862): 564-84.

[Perry, T. E.] “Rights and Liabilities of Husband and Wife.” Edinburgh Review 105 (January 1857): 181-205.

[Smith, William Henry.] “Dr Mansel's Bampton Lectures.” Blackwood's 86 (July 1859): 48-66.

[Stephen, Fitzjames.] “The License of Modern Novelists.” Edinburgh Review 106 (July 1857): 124-56.

Tillotson, Kathleen. “The Lighter Reading of the Eighteen-Sixties. The Woman in White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.

Vicinus, Martha, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Wood, Ellen Price (Mrs. Henry). East Lynne. 1861. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers U P, 1984.

Yates, Edmund. “Interview with Wilkie Collins.” The World (26 December 1877): 4-6.

Alison Milbank (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12663

SOURCE: “Breaking and Entering: Wilkie Collins's Sensation Fiction,” in Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 25-53.

[In the following essay, Milbank surveys Collins's sensation fiction, focusing particularly on his unconventional heroines and their ultimate subjugation to authorial and patriarchal authority.]

Wilkie Collins is currently enjoying a revival in critical attention, both as a constructor of sensational plots and as a writer who takes a critical stance to the bourgeois realism of the Victorian novel, as well as to the ‘clap-trap morality’ of its ethical values. U. C. Knoepflmacher has been influential in spreading the view of a radical Collins who poses an amoral counterworld of great energy and attractiveness against the pallid vapidity of his heroes and heroines.1 Knoepflmacher would include even a ‘moral’ heroine like Marian Halcombe of The Woman in White in his guerrilla force. Feminist critics too indulge in admiration of Collins, seeing him as a slightly less outrageous Mary Elizabeth Braddon, with the same fondness for unconventional heroines who abandon their domestic role to pit themselves against men, actively engaging in plot-making in the conspiratorial as well as narrative sense.2

Emphasis is almost always put on Collins as a sensation novelist: aggressively contemporary, interested in the details of Victorian medicine, law, psychology and science, his narrative self-referential and his heroines unconventional. All this is true, and this chapter will argue strongly for the appropriateness of the term ‘sensationalist’ to describe Collins, although the usual positive feminist evaluation of this sub-genre will be questioned. There is, however, another side to Collins which, to use the definition proposed in the Introduction, has been called ‘female’ Gothic: the entrapped heroine, the sinister house, ghosts, dreams, and a sense of a divine order. …

In this [essay] attention will be paid to the aggressively modern heroines of Collins's other fiction. Behind the facade of a liberal discourse of personal autonomy, there will be shown to exist a demystification of the home and the woman as moral values. But this revelation, it will be argued, lacks the liberating quality that recent feminist scholarship allows it, as the domestic ideal is secularized in order to provide male erotic pleasure, which is located in increased control over the female. The argument about female autonomy will necessarily range over the debate about the nature of Providence and free will that is characteristic of Victorian authorship in general. Here, the ‘houses’ of narrative that Collins's errant (and thus homeless) heroines construct for themselves against the ravages of the providential sea are removed out of their grasp, so that their free will is gradually lost, and they end their careers as victims of a fate that Collins equates both with patriarchy and with his own control as author.

Collins's most interesting errant heroine, the aptly named Magdalen Vanstone, is deprived of a moral base, her home, and of masculine protection in the form of a surname—hence the title of the novel, No Name (1862). Combe-Raven, the secure and comfortable family home of the Vanstones, reveals its latent instability in the last two syllables of its name, as well as in tiny details of dress and conduct in its inhabitants, showing Collins's use of the techniques of the story-painting genre. So the mere fact that Mr. Vanstone mislays a key and walks indolently indicates a carelessness that will prevent him leaving a will and lead to his (unexpectedly illegitimate) daughters' homelessness and impoverishment.

While the elder sister, Norah, seeks work as a governess, Magdalen eschews this conventional resource to attempt a career as an actress.3 Acting is only a temporary strategy, since Magdalen decides to seek marriage as a means of getting her name and her money back. In Collins it is the homelessness of the errant woman that activates the plot, as she uses all sorts of stratagems to gain a home and social identity through marriage. The desire for a husband can take desperate forms, as in the case of Anne Vanborough in Man and Wife who is seduced by a muscular oaf, greatly her inferior in mind and character, whom she determines to force into marriage as a means of gaining justice for herself, despite her detestation of him.

Magdalen Vanstone similarly seeks to marry a man she hates—her cousin Noel who has inherited her patrimony and who refuses to share it. In order to mount her amatory attack, Magdalen resorts to disguise and a false name, while acquiring the services of a ‘family’ (without which no respectability is possible) and a house. From this secure base Magdalen mounts the classic sensation-novel ‘breaking and entering.’ She assaults her victim through an attempt to penetrate the security of his house. Collins sets the encounter between the cousins at Aldborough in Suffolk, on a coast well known for ‘the extraordinary defenselessness of the land against the encroachments of the sea.’

In Collins, as is common in the Victorian period, the sea and its tides stand for the operation of fate, so Noel Vanstone's confidence in the unassailability of his villa is hubristic, seeming to tempt Providence:

“There is only one safe house in Aldborough, and that house is Mine. The sea may destroy all the other houses—it can't destroy Mine. My father took care of that; my father was a remarkable man. He had My house built on piles. I have reason to believe they are the strongest piles in England. Nothing can possibly knock them down.”

“Then if the sea invades us,” said Magdalen, “we must all run for refuge to you.”

“I could almost wish the invasion might happen … to give me the happiness of offering the refuge.”

(Fourth Scene, Ch. 4, p. 304)

As the novel will later reveal, his body is as weak as the security of his house. A further irony in the above quotation centres on Magdalen's aim of forcing entry into Vanstone's house as his wife. Although the novel presents her manoeuvre as a bold and shocking enterprise, the unconscious accuracy of Vanstone's and Magdalen's flirtatious conversation points out the conventionality of her scheme. Plenty of women of the period marry for money. Magdalen is not carving out an independent future for herself, nor is she openly and boldly fighting Vanstone for her lost inheritance. Rather, she is following—although perhaps in a parodic form—the conventional route of marriage, regaining her surname through taking that of her husband, and her money in the same way.

It might be argued here that Magdalen's assumption of a false name in order to trap her cousin makes her action less moral and also more radical, since hers is a deliberate plot, more than a conventional sexual manoeuvre. Certainly feminist critics regard her as the most successful of Collins's heroines:

Magdalen acts for herself, not for a surrogate self [as Marian Halcombe does in The Woman in White], using men for her advantage rather than subordinating herself to them. Though her conscious goal is to regain the name and inheritance unjustly taken from her, she is more profoundly rebelling against the fragility and emptiness of conventional feminine identity.4

In fact Magdalen acts primarily for the sake of her sister Norah, her resolve strengthened when she accidentally sees the degradation and trials of Norah's first position as a governess. The same critics view the elder sister harshly as a ‘passive, pallid, good girl who accepts disinheritance and disgrace as submissively as she accepted the idle security of middle-class respectability.’5 Unfortunately Norah does not fit the stereotype of the submissive Victorian daughter any more than Magdalen is a liberal feminist in embryo. In the Combe-Raven section of the novel Norah appears as a reserved and ironic observer who fails to take the family stance of approval towards Frank Clare; it is rather Magdalen who is the spoiled darling of her father and who accepts wealth and servants as her right. Further it is Norah who chooses the more independent course following her disinheritance: becoming a governess she depends on nothing but her own labour and the friendship of the redoubtable Miss Garth. Despite her submissive position within her employer's household Norah defends her sister's behaviour, thus losing her job. Magdalen deliberately cuts herself off from female support only to put herself in the power of a man, Captain Wragge, who will help her to exploit her sexuality to gain a husband. Both sisters seek a home, but Norah enters one openly as an employee, whereas Magdalen forces her way in by deceit.

The scenes describing Magdalen's vamping of Vanstone and the plots devised by her and the resourceful Captain Wragge against the watchful Mrs Lecount, Vanstone's housekeeper and ‘minder’, are exhilaratingly swift in their see-sawing of advantage from one group to the other. Once Magdalen's goal is at last achieved she is able to write triumphantly to Miss Garth:

I have done what I told you I would do—I have made the general sense of propriety my accomplice this time. Do you know who I am? I am a respectable married woman, accountable for my actions to nobody under heaven but my husband. I have got a place in the world, and a name in the world at last … You forget what wonders my wickedness has done for me. It has made Nobody's Child Somebody's Wife.

(Fourth Scene, Ch. 12, p. 418)

The above passage does indeed seem to justify the view of those who argue for Magdalen as a successful, rebellious nonconformist. And yet this confidence in her position is woefully misplaced. She loses her husband's affection, her true identity is soon discovered, and on her husband's early death she is again disinherited. Becoming ‘Somebody's Wife’ brought little power; rather, it put her totally within the control of her husband, with very few rights under the law.

As well as the authors of Corrupt Relations (see note 4), critics like Sue Lonoff see in Magdalen's career the possibility of a ‘liberated lifestyle’ which Collins then punishes by allowing his heroine to fail in her endeavour to steal the trust (or at least look at it), and then fall ill.6 It is not, however, just the physical collapse at the end of the novel that jerks Magdalen back on the lead of convention. The goal of marriage inevitably led to a loss of power and independence. And indeed the whole enterprise of disguise and machination was already ambiguous in its relation to the current dominant ideology with regard to women. Nina Auerbach describes Magdalen's ‘dangerous psychic void’ which ‘creates the fascination of the novel which denounces her,’ the effect of her lack of a social identity and of her ability to act. This void is however, the novel's own perception of feminine identity, and one that is promoted rather than denounced.7 In the first description of the heroine as she runs down stairs to breakfast, her mobility of feature helps to constitute her sexual attraction. First the narrative sets up expectations about the unity of her appearance which are then confounded—her eyes are not the violet of convention but ‘incomprehensively and discordantly light.’ Her hair, complexion and eyes are monotonous in tone, yet:

The whole countenance—so remarkable in its strongly opposed characteristics—was rendered additionally striking by its extraordinary mobility. The large, electric, light-gray eyes were hardly ever in repose; all varieties of expression followed each other over the plastic, ever-changing face, with a giddy rapidity which left sober analysis far behind in the race.

(First Scene, Ch. 1, p. 16)

As Jeanne Fahnestock has made us aware, the Victorian reader would have been able to read off Magdalen's character from this account: the chin showing firmness of mind offset by the mobility of the eyes and expression, the low forehead implying a lack of abstract intelligence, the large mouth and sinuous body sensuality.8 Magdalen Vanstone is ‘the heroine of irregular features’ taken to extremes; the modernist dislocation of the parts of her body fetishises it, making it an erotic focus by its very contradictions: the dull passivity of the flesh and the vigour and force of the eyes and bearing. Not only can the reader predict in advance Magdalen's response to various situations (and thereby she ceases to be the absolute threat that some critics would like), but her pliability has been sited firmly within the erotic field, so that her future disguises will be sexually exciting rather than morally disturbing.

Martin Meisel has indicated the exact nature of the mid-Victorian unease with the actress: it is not so much the professional actress who poses a threat, since she is all too often associated with the roles she plays, becoming the victim of her art. Rather it is ‘the power of impersonation, of being other than oneself’ that ‘appears as a significant literary symbol of moral peril, especially in a woman not already a frank professional of one kind or another.’9 To act, he argues, involves both dissembling one's feelings and also sharing in the feelings that one acts. Magdalen fits this role completely, since her skill is not so much in acting as in impersonation and mimicry. So we first see her copying the speech and mannerisms of her elder sister to create a character in The Rivals. When Magdalen comes to make the stage her living, she does not join a company of actors, but works alone. In a sense she acts herself; her performances are (ironically) called ‘A Young Lady at Home,’ and much of the interest to her audience is in her person and her situation, as much as in the power of her acting. Just as her amateur debut had depended on the making public of the private characters of her sister and governess, so she now earns money by making public the skills and accomplishments that young ladies learned in order to entertain their family and friends at home. Magdalen's acting career is not some blow for freedom—there is no sense of irony or humour in her performance—so much as something parasitic on the social idiom it imitates.

Magdalen goes on to play further roles for real: Miss Garth, the vamp at Aldborough, and the parlour maid at St Crux-in-the-Marsh. Each of these ‘parts’ represents a role that women play in the Victorian home and each is one of sexual vulnerability and also allure, constituted in the first and third roles by the social ambiguity and lower status of the work. As it was when Magdalen acted her ‘at homes,’ so here the fact that it is a lady who assumes these positions only increases the sense of sexual provocation.

It turns out that Magdalen Vanstone's attempt to use her body as a weapon rebounds in making her an object of sexual currency. Her objectification begins at Aldborough with what she regards as Captain Kirke's intrusive admiration. She had already learned with anger that her description has been published on a handbill: ‘“Is this thing shown publicly?” she asked, stamping her foot on it, “Is the mark on my neck described all over York?”’ And her plot to marry Vanstone demands that she conceal the marks with cream so that her suitor can view their absence against a written description. The whole episode represents a further reduction of her person to a list of attributes.

Her final humiliation occurs when she takes the position of maid in order to gain entry to Admiral Bartram's house. She makes her preparations while lodging (respectably) in the highly ambiguous area of St John's Wood, only to find herself treated at Admiral Bartram's to the racy pleasantries of the Admiral and his eccentric servant; they treat her kindly but as a sexual object, to be smacked on the behind and admired for her ‘clean run fore and aft.’ Collins contrasts the stiff silk dress and revealing bodice of a lady with the close-fitting but high-necked servant's uniform—to the advantage of the latter mode of dress, calling it ‘the most modest and the most alluring that a woman can wear.’ In it ‘no admirer of beauty could have looked at her once and not have turned again to look at her for the second time.’ (Seventh Scene, Ch. 1, p. 516).

Magdalen's imitations of the actress, the vamp and the maid come in for praise in Corrupt Relations: ‘the course she chooses is to impersonate women in stereotyped roles, thus eluding the constraint of any one role and making them serve her purposes rather than conforming to theirs.’10 The chapter goes on to argue that Magdalen explores her own character by these encounters with the prevailing models of womankind. But Magdalen Vanstone is not Jane Eyre, who recognizably does view other women in this way, although No Name affects some of the allegorical nature of the former novel. In No Name Magdalen is defeated at every turn; she is rarely able to take full advantage of the roles she assumes. Her adventures end in illness and rescue by the aptly named Captain Kirke, the man whose admiration she had once deprecated as impertinent, and the novel ends with Magdalen questioning Kirke about the account of her adventures she has given him to read: ‘Say what you think of me with your own lips’ (Last Scene, Ch. 4, p. 609). He responds not with words of respect and admiration, with no celebration of her moral worth, but by bending down and shutting her lips with a kiss. Thus he confirms her sexual rather than moral value, the former redeeming the latter. Their earlier roles at Aldborough are reversed, and it is now he who bends down to her level, not she to his. By his embrace, Kirke confirms that the roles Magdalen has assumed, far from being any sort of threat to masculine power, only serve to increase her nubility, because it is in marriage that the parts of actress, maid, flirt and servant will be domesticated, removed back from the public world to the private house.

There is, however, some demystification of the lady and of domestic values in No Name. Some little time is taken to establish Combe-Raven as an example of a well-run, comfortable and tranquil Victorian house, only to then reveal that the house's respectability is but a facade, since Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone are not really married. Similarly Magdalen's maid's successful impersonation of a lady implies that this is a role that can be copied: ‘Shall I tell you what a lady is? A lady is a woman who wears a silk gown, and has a sense of her own importance’ (Sixth Scene, Ch. 2, p. 510). This statement is not as radical as it sounds, since Magdalen is, to some extent, speaking of herself and, bitterly, of her own failings. It does point, however, to Collins's assumption that personal identity is external: one is whatever others can be made to think one is. The main critique of the lady is to be found in Collins's next novel, Armadale (1866), which will be discussed below. What Magdalen Vanstone does in No Name is to whittle away the barrier between public and private, the social world and the home, upon which the concept of woman as a source of moral value had come to rest.

Collins wishes to present Magdalen as a heroine, however errant, and he uses a variety of devices to preserve her character from corruption. Her adoption of a stage career is presented as the logical outcome of the law's removal of her identity. Homeless and nameless, she has but two options: she must either efface herself and accept her nothingness as her sister does, or else take on the identity of someone else, on the stage or in real life.

This identity in No Name is accorded and sustained by men. Without Captain Wragge as her uncle, Magdalen could not set out on her attempt to marry Vanstone. And once launched into this public world—which is presented as a play, its sections divided into ‘scenes’—to act in any way is also to ‘act’ as a performer, to pretend and deceive. So the heroine cannot be other than imperfect, as Mary Elizabeth Braddon writes in justification of Aurora Floyd:

But then, if she had been faultless, she could not have been the heroine of this story; for has not some wise man of old remarked that the perfect women are those who leave no histories behind them, but who go through life upon such a tranquil course of quiet well-doing as leave no footprints on the sands of time; only mute records hidden here and there, deep in the grateful hearts of those who have been blest by them.11

To leave footprints is to act publicly, and to act thus is guilty since by doing so the heroine creates the plot of the novel, in both senses of that word. With the structuring of his novel in dramatic terms, with the double use of ‘plot’ and ‘action,’ Collins begins an identification of moral and aesthetic categories that will provide him with a poetics that finds full expression in the novella, The Haunted Hotel (1878). In Collins all action by women outside the home is, by implication, guilty, since it involves them in ‘plots.’ (There is, however, no suggestion that male characters similarly offend who take an active role in events.) Yet because it is always the unfair operation of the patriarchal law that exposes women to the homelessness and lack of identity that forces them out into the public realm, they are at once guilty and innocent, guilty of action but guiltless of intention to act. (Hence Magdalen's biblical Christian name, which as well as pointing to her sin and repentance, is intended to deflect the stones of judgement from her throughout the novel, to keep her securely on the side of the angels.)

Once a woman enters the world of plot and counterplot that constitutes society in Collins—‘Is it the object of half the world to cheat the other half, and the object of the other half to put itself in the way of being cheated?’ as a Spectator reviewer asked pertinently—she necessarily lays herself open to the operation of the rules of the game: cheating and plotting against her.12 And it is a game in which men alone, for example, Noel Vanstone, the Admiral and then George Bartram in No Name, hold all the best cards; no woman can finally succeed against them. Although Collins's errant heroines often end by marrying well, it is for love alone, not as part of some greater plan or purpose. Their own plots usually fail, and marriage is brought in as a consolation prize.

Both the (latterly) penitent Magdalen and the more venal Lydia Gwilt of Armadale fail in their machinations at the point at which each loses her single-minded sense of purpose. Lydia falls in love with the man she intended to trick, thus losing control of events and ending an atoning victim of her murderous intentions; Magdalen, full of self-disgust, submits her will to the operation of chance. Unable by her own will to take the poison that would end her inner struggle, she decides only to do so if an odd number of ships pass her window during a half-hour period. Eight ships pass and her life is saved. Reborn, Magdalen is being prepared for the return of another ship, the Deliverance, captained by the religiously named Kirke, who will rescue her.

In this way Magdalen is released from guilt but also from the active control of events that might have brought success; from this point on all her plans turn out badly. ‘Chance’ or ‘Providence’ acts as a third, more successful plotter, since it is this force of coincidence that causes Norah to marry Bartram and, accidentally, to find the hidden trust. Further, the use of fate as the agent of causation removes any sense of independent action from the novel's characters, but especially from the heroine, as it is she who most asserts, against the law and conventions of correct female behaviour, her will to act as she pleases.

The use of place in the novel as a means of signification illustrates this use of fate. The various ‘scenes’—Lambeth, York, Aldborough, St Crux-in-the-Marsh—externalize the current state of mind of the protagonist, her plans and the choices available to her. Most of them involve a house to which Magdalen must force an entry, as at Lambeth, where Vanstone's house is surrounded by the hovels of the poor, who are ‘the writing on the wall’ to a society which, like Vanstone, worships money but fails to pay its workers a living wage. In this scene Magdalen shares the prophetic role of the poor, her own poverty and desperation being a threat to Vanstone's security. As has been shown, Magdalen's amatory attack on Vanstone is mirrored by the invading action of the sea at Aldborough, making her appear to be on the crest of fate. Her assault seems to have the inexorability of the sea itself, until the scene with the ships, when fate (for which the sea is often an emblem) starts to operate on her too. But with the exception of the East End which Magdalen chooses as somewhere cheap and anonymous to live, the places of the ‘scenes’ are all chosen for her: she goes to the walls at York while waiting to see a theatrical agent; Lambeth and Aldborough happen to be places where Vanstone is living; and St Crux-in-the-Marsh is where the trust is hidden.

What the combination of symbolic detail in the settings of the scenes and the element of choice in Magdalen's next action makes is a ‘situation’ in the contemporary theatrical sense of a moment of crisis or significance in the action of a play, often illustrated pictorially by the cast forming a group picture, each person in an attitude expressing his or her relation to the situation and to the other characters. The use of situation in Collins, I want to argue, is directly related to his articulation of human freedom, and I shall end the discussion of No Name by illustrating how the aesthetics of situation is linked also to the divide between the home and the public world outside.

Martin Meisel is quite sure that the use of situation can be traced right back to No Name.13 He is referring to the situations caused by the intense plot-making of the two groups of schemers, the choices and dilemmas that their activities cause, but this is not the only use of theatrical situation in the novel. What is particularly interesting about the achievement of the situations that involve Magdalen on her own in No Name is that they are not just human tableaux but result from the interaction of the person and the physical setting. The ‘effect’ of the encounter of Magdalen Vanstone and Captain Wragge on the walls at York is preceded by the ‘picture’ of Magdalen alone, standing by the Mickelgate, looking at the sunset, caught between the city on one side of the wall and the start of the country on the other. The setting is described in naturalistic, and quite unmelodramatic detail, as Wragge passes the minster, the railway, even a spare strip of overgrown ground, only to find Magdalen at the parapet: ‘There she stood in the lovely dawn of her womanhood, a castaway in a strange city, wrecked on the world’ (Second Scene, Ch. 1, p. 165).

The employment here of intensely detailed physical description combined with a specific—and crucial—moment in the protagonist's history is akin to a Pre-Raphaelite use of situation, rather than a melodramatic one. Meisel describes how Millais and Holman Hunt turn from the static and idealized qualities of the stage situation, the aesthetics of effect, to present in their paintings a moment in a specific story, which would give a realistic rather than an emblematic effect; it would imply a continuation of the story after the moment portrayed, rather than a renewal of the action.14 In Hunt this use of situation results in works like The Awakening Conscience in which he tries to show the ‘perceiving subject’ in a moment of metanoia, moving out of her frame, just as Meredith's heroine seeks self-realization, freedom from the social ‘framing’ represented by the contemporary opinions of her with which Diana of the Crossways begins.15 Similarly in the Mickelgate scene Collins ‘paints’ Magdalen enjoying a breathing space, a moment of existential choice.

Collins had close links with the Pre-Raphaelites through his brother Charles, whom Millais wished to admit to the Brotherhood, and Millais, a close friend, is the source for the story of the meeting with ‘the woman in white’ on Hampstead Heath, and her identification with Caroline Graves, Collins's mistress. (This scene provides Collins himself with a ‘situation,’ as he who decides to pursue the beautiful fleeing woman.)16 Collins wrote a defence of the movement for the general public, and in A Rogue's Life gave a rough-and-ready outline of some of the Pre-Raphaelite qualities: ‘variety, resemblance to nature; genuineness of the article, and fresh paint.’17 His remarks in the preface to Basil about the closeness of the drama and fiction, ‘one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted,’ could serve as a manifesto for much of the Pre-Raphaelite output of story pictures. The temporal dynamism for a static painting is provided by the narrative element, while the pictorial presentation of a scene in a novel provides a means of exploring psychology while using the dramatic mode of dialogue.

Although Collins's more Gothic fictions exploit his ability to evoke memorable and symbolically effective landscapes and houses, with the exception of the scenes in No Name and the set pieces on the ‘Grace de Dieu’ and at the Norfolk Broads in Armadale Collins eschews this mode of writing in his sensation fiction. Indeed, place dwindles to a mere sentence at the beginning of each scene, little more than a stage direction—less perhaps than would be included in a mid-Victorian melodrama in which artists of the standing of Clarkson Stanfield would paint extensive and detailed backdrops. And in the drawing-room dramas of T. W. Robertson, individual interiors would be recreated down to the last antimacassar.18 This change in Collins's style, when it is noticed at all, is usually explained in terms either of his declining powers and ill health, or his growing interest in dramatic performance. However, Collins's intense interest in the theatre predates his abandonment of physical description, and indeed, despite the success of the play version of The New Magdalen, his period of most intense dramatic activity is that of his association with Dickens, with whom he conceived and took part in The Frozen Deep (1857) and The Lighthouse.

The 1870s did, however mark a series of changes for Collins in his circle of friends: Dickens died in 1870 and his brother Charles Collins in 1873. While Holman Hunt and Millais remained his friends, the latter was no longer painting in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, and the former was deep in his obsession with the biblical East, no longer interested in painting moments of decision within contemporary settings. Ill health and opium addiction may also have contributed to the paring-down of detail in an attempt to keep control of the material (the increasing length and insistent tone of the prefaces with which Collins polices his novels, anxious to limit the interpretative range of his readers, points to a lack of confidence in his authorial power).19 Collins's views on the possibility of human freedom—and that of women in particular—equally affect the development of his narrative style.

In Armadale one can chart both the gradual demise of the landscape description, and also the ‘fall’ of the independent woman into the realm of fate. The situations that are enacted by landscape and the house in No Name present the heroine with conscious choices, and hints of the significance of her actions. Similarly in Armadale Lydia Gwilt half creates such a picture by her arrival at Hurl Mere, again a scene prefaced by an extended description of the desolate Broads:

The sun was sinking in the cloudless westward heaven. The waters of the Mere lay beneath, tinged red by the dying light. The open country stretched away, darkening drearily already on the right hand and the left. And on the near margin of the pool, where all had been solitude before, there now stood, fronting the sunset, the figure of a Woman.

(Third Book, Ch. 9, p. 233)

There is a free-floating quality about this description, which the preceding paragraphs telling of Armadale's and Midwinter's wanderings in the wood confirm. Situation and effect here unite to present an image of mystery and inexorability, the woman's ‘fronting the sunset’ suggesting that her presence has all the natural inevitability of dusk following day. Unlike the scene of Magdalen Vanstone at York, this picture lacks the narrative details that inform the reader/viewer about the woman portrayed, that give specificity to the image. If this is a Pre-Raphaelite picture, it is Millais's Autumn Leaves in which a group of girls gather leaves in a twilight garden, the meaning of their activity unspecified, hinting at transience, but also pregnant with mystery. Where the scene at Hurl Mere differs from the Millais painting is in its frame: it resembles a Rossetti picture with its accompanying poem or literary reference written on the actual frame of the work in having a narrative appended to it:

Midwinter was the first to speak.

“Your own eyes have seen it,” he said. “Now look at your own words.”

He opened the narrative of the Dream, and held it under Allan's eyes. His finger pointed to the lines which recorded the first Vision; his voice sinking lower and lower, repeated the words:-

“The sense came to me of being left alone in the darkness.

“I waited.

“The darkness opened and showed me the vision—as in a picture—of a broad, lonely pool, surrounded by open ground. Above the farther margin of the pool I saw the cloudless western sky, red with the light of sunset.

“On the near margin of the pool there stood the Shadow of a Woman.”

(Second Book, Ch. 5, p. 122)

These words follow immediately upon the description quoted above, and serve to dramatize the choice between fate or chance that is similarly produced by the passing ships in Magdalen Vanstone's suicide scene. Further, the reference to Armadale's earlier dream puts the scene in an ironic context, thus reducing the element of freedom in Lydia Gwilt's actions. The scene created then is over-determined in a manner of which Lydia Gwilt, who thinks she has contrived the meeting, is unaware.

Lydia Gwilt bears the weight of representing human free will in Armadale, for its male protagonists seem singularly unable to act, either from the indolence that riches cause, or from a guilty superstition. Both the sunny Armadale who accepts life as it comes and his lugubrious friend Midwinter with his much handled account of Armadale's dream on the abandoned ship accept the rule of fate, while it is women who initiate events. Even the ‘good’ heroine, Miss Milroy, causes her first encounter with the eligible Armadale by trespassing in his grounds and stealing some flowers—an innocent version of Miss Gwilt's housebreaking. With her accomplice, Mrs Oldershaw, Lydia Gwilt seeks to take Thorpe-Ambrose by storm, marrying its owner for his fortune, then, when circumstances make this plan unworkable, marrying his namesake in order to pose as Armadale's widow, murdering him if necessary. While these female plotters remain untouched by any sense of guilt about their activities they seem to defy the fates, or rather to make them their accomplices:

If the other young booby had not jumped into the river after you, this young booby would never have had the estate. It really looks as if fate had determined that you were to be Mrs Armadale, of Thorpe-Ambrose—and who can control his fate, as the poet says?

(Third Book, Ch. 2, p. 138)

Mrs Oldershaw is referring here to Lydia's attempted suicide, when she jumped from a Thames steamer only to be rescued by Armadale's uncle, who died as a result. Lydia herself comes to accept the fatalist reading of these events for real when, married to Midwinter, she is faced with the narrative of the dream and recognizes her own part in its working-out: ‘These may be co-incidences, but they are strange co-incidences. I declare I begin to fancy that I believe in the Dream too!’ The narrative fulfils for Lydia Gwilt the role that original sin does in Benjamin's account of German tragic drama: ‘The core of the notion of fate is, rather the conviction that guilt … unleashes causality as the instrument of the irresistibly unfolding fatalities. Fate is the entelechy of events within the field of guilt.’20 Fate is thus an effect of plot, which is driven by humanity's own willed action. By showing his wife the dream account Midwinter makes her bite at the apple of guilt and accept her fall into fatalism. In terms of the narrative, Lydia's descent from the heights of self-determination begins at the point when her letter to Mrs Oldershaw describing Midwinter's successful courtship of her is broken off while she consults her diary. Up to that point the journal had been a means of defence in case she forgot what story she had told and to whom. The diary after Midwinter's revelations moves into a mode of self-analysis, questioning of her own motives and desires as well as future plotting. When Lydia Gwilt asserts her independence, it is obvious that it is under threat, ‘I won't, I won't, I won't think of it! Haven't I a will of my own? And can't I think, if I like, of something else?’ (Fourth Book, Ch. 10, p. 399).

Whereas Victorian reviewers deprecated the claims seemingly made at the end of the novel for Lydia's rescue of her husband from the poisonous fumes with which she had hoped to kill Armadale, and regarded her subsequent suicide as morally weightless, modern critics are disappointed that the cynical, witty tone of the Gwilt-Oldershaw correspondence gives way to the melodramatic repentance of her last scene; they see Collins as trying to draw back from the moral anarchy that he has himself released.21

There is certainly something odd about Lydia's change from melodramatic villainess to agent of divine atonement. It is necessary for Collins to destroy Miss Gwilt in order that relations between the two Armadales be purged of guilt (again in its hereditary sense of original sin). However, despite his ironic treatment of her plotting, Collins still wishes to preserve some sense of moral freedom in Lydia's action, or it will fail in its atoning purpose. With the chief villainess promoted to the role of sacrificial victim, the whole melodramatic structure of the novel is put at risk. Admittedly dangerous in the way her letters revealed the essential triviality of the innocents she preyed on, without her evil and vengeful counterpoise the ‘good’ characters cease to preserve any weight, and the void left by the death of Lydia Gwilt collapses the moral tension of the novel. This marks a move away from a melodramatic notion of character, which, when internalized in Lydia Gwilt becomes modernistic, inherently contiguous and unstable.

In an appendix, Collins affects to present the reader with an open ending: ‘they are free to interpret it by the natural or the supernatural theory, as the bent of their own minds may incline them.’ He then proceeds to inform readers of a ship called the Armadale which was found at Liverpool after the completion of his novel, with corpses in the deck-cabin, having died from poisoned air. This over-determination effectually closes down the hatches on the reader's own hermeneutic activity, while the reassurances that he gives as to his detailed knowledge of the Norfolk Broads and the necessary chemical processes for Lydia Gwilt's murder plans call attention to the fictive nature of the work itself. The first of these two moves tries to limit the free will of the readers, while the second shows up only too clearly that the elaborate apparatus of fate in Armadale is no more transcendentally situated than in the head of the novel's author. Winifred Hughes is correct about Collins in stating that: ‘Destiny, however piously invoked, has no moral content in the sensation novel.’ Being arbitrary, it has lost ‘its effectiveness as the controlling mechanism of an ordered and predictable universe.’22 The reason for this in Collins is not so much the failure of a religious perspective, as part of the novelist's desire to control and direct the interpretation of his texts, which results in the conflation of authorial decision and Providence itself.

It is, however, the argument of Collins's feminist critics that he is anxious to constrain the autonomy of his female rather than his male protagonists. To understand the rather complex attitude that Collins takes on the subject of female autonomy one must look at the use of fate and Providence in his novels under another guise: as imagery about the sea and shipwreck. Again Martin Meisel takes the accepted view that the sea is an equivalent for fate in the Victorian novel and melodrama, carrying ‘an unspecified charge of psychological and metaphysical disaster … and as the frozen analogue of metaphysical doubt and despair’ and shows how it is also linked to ‘a fictive threat to domestic happiness.’23 One can see this association in nautical melodramas with their rescues from the waves, and in a popular Gothic play like The Flying Dutchman, with its threat to the marriage of the hero and heroine. Poems like Arnold's ‘The Forsaken Merman’ and Tennyson's ‘The Wreck’ link a wife's abandonment of her husband and child to shipwreck. In the latter work, the woman internalizes the event: ‘My life itself is a wreck, I have sullied a noble name / I am flung from the rushing tide of the world as a waif of shame.’

Collins exploits the same associations in the play, The Frozen Deep. It is constructed like some cosmic dinner party when the sexes have parted, with the first act in an English drawing room of women, while the second reveals their male relatives in the arctic regions on an exploratory expedition. In the midst of the tea-drinking one of the women, Clara Burnham, goes into a trance and sees her rejected lover Wardour in the northern waste, in the act of raising a gun to shoot her fiancé. When performed, a backdrop of the Arctic Ocean (painted by Dickens's friend, Clarkson Stanfield) was let down behind the realistic drawing-room set, while one of the women played Home, Sweet Home on the piano, as if to emphasize the point that the male frozen deep with its scene of violence is associated with the female realm, the domestic world portrayed at the front of the stage. A crimson light stains the whiteness of the backdrop, and Clara faints to end the scene in pure ‘situation’ terms, in a tableau of crisis.

The scene in the Arctic is thus revealed as what Peter Brooks in The Melodramatic Imagination calls ‘the moral occult,’ by which he means the spiritual and psychologically truthful situation that everyday life obscures, but which melodrama elicits, often by concentrated language or gesture, ‘gestures which in the world constantly refer us to another, hyperbolic set of gestures where life and death are at stake.’24 Here muteness (of the unconscious Clara) produces that hyperbolic gesture, as well as the extreme qualities of the sea and the Arctic terrain.

When the women are transported to Newfoundland in Act III, the identification of treacherous Arctic seas and that of the domestic house suggested by the Act I situation is complete: they are the same, or rather the former is the psychic reality behind the latter. Wardour and his rival are both missing, believed lost, only to suddenly float into view on an iceberg, Clara's Frank in Wardour's arms; he delivers his rescued rival to Clara and then dies, the threat to the expedition and to domestic peace overcome.

The Frozen Deep is unusual in Collins's dramatic and sensation works in having a domestic threat posed by a man, although there is a link with the later Armadale in the threat to the unity of the expedition posed by male jealousy: the heart of the play is the male bonding rather than the romantic interest. What is most characteristic of Collins's fiction as a whole is the threat posed by women to domestic security. We have seen how the career of Magdalen Vanstone is articulated in nautical terms, from her situation, ‘wrecked on the world,’ through her tidal assault on Vanstone at Aldborough, to her rescue by Captain Kirke of the Deliverance. The phrase ‘wrecked on the world’ suggests the helpless innocence of Magdalen as a victim of circumstances, while around her circle the unsettling associations of doubt, crisis and domestic upheaval, as well as fate itself. It is this sense of Magdalen as a castaway heroine that causes her parodies of female roles—the roles have lost their domestic moorings and so seem threatening to the stability of others—but also makes her actions innocuous. The association of the sea and fate is so strongly asserted that it removes the autonomy and thus the sense of responsibility for her actions from the heroine. Armadale makes even more of the shipwreck motif. The novel begins with an account of murder during a sea rescue, its adventuress jumps from a steamer, while the dream that forms the basic situation for the plot takes place on the murder vessel. Armadale's own murder is planned for a sea voyage on his yacht. The theme of disaster at sea is also parodied comically in the long section about the picnic on the Norfolk Broads, which ends in amatorial misunderstandings and the romantic appearance of Miss Gwilt by the pool.

Allan Armadale's dream on the wrecked ship, with its ‘Man Shadow’ and ‘Woman Shadow’ who gesture and form patterns of which the meaning is unclear, presents a backdrop tableau to the rest of the action, similar to that of Act I of The Frozen Deep. The ship becomes the place both of secrets (as the site of a murder) and of revelation; it provides the insight into the ‘moral occult’ hiding beneath the surface of later scenes, even though the characters are unable to use its information to alter their behaviour. Rather, the setting of the dream on the Grace de Dieu reveals it as the ship of Providence itself. All the events of the narrative are ‘on board’ in the sense that they are in the foreknowledge of the Deity.

The ship of Providence also produces a text: the account of the dream which Midwinter produces at crucial points in the narrative. It is a patriarchal text in the sense that the dream is a warning to Allan from his dead father, and also in the sense that it allies Providence to the male point of view in the novel. The Gwilt-Oldershaw correspondence forms a competing female text, equally a privileged one in that it interprets other texts in its own light. It is openly, though ironically, feminist:

I declare when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex—when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterwards), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not the least surprised at our faults.

(Fourth Book, Ch. 19, 8, p. 361-2)

The sweep of Mrs Oldershaw's invective is breathtaking as she ironically denigrates women through a contempt for men; she justifies her own and Lydia's nefarious activities by thus alluding to the low opinion held of women and its natural origin; most shockingly she mocks the biblical account of the creation in Genesis 2. For the two women the only good men are dead ones, and it is Beethoven who for Lydia Gwilt is ‘the only man I care two straws about,’ while the male protagonists are remorselessly satirized. It is the women who bear the intellectual weight in the novel, larding their letters with references to Shakespeare and Dr Johnson (although these allusions can, on occasion, lack reverence, as in Lydia Gwilt's ‘“To bed! To bed!” as Lady Macbeth says. I wonder by-the-by what Lady Macbeth would have done in my position? She would have killed somebody when her difficulties first began. Probably Armadale.’) (Fourth Book, Ch. 10, p. 390).

While the correspondence of the conspirators holds sway over the reader's access to events, a real drama is created, and the women seem to have succeeded in building some linguistic roofs over their heads. When the alliance breaks up and Lydia begins to let the Armadale dream drift into her narrative, that latter text becomes primary and she finds herself ‘on board’ the ship of Providence. Whereas the dream narrative is impregnable in the sense that it is not open to misuse by the others, the sparkling wit of the female conspirators' letters is all too vulnerable: Mrs Milroy's interception of one of Mrs Oldershaw's letters reveals their plans, and the return of a letter to Miss Gwilt's mythical reference proves it to have been a forgery. These discoveries show the fragility of the Oldershaw philosophy: ‘A woman, my dear Lydia, with your appearance, your manners, your abilities, and your education, can make almost any excursions into society that she pleases, if she has only money in her pocket and a respectable reference to appeal to in cases of emergency’ (Third Book, Ch. 1, 7, p. 143). The reference is the homeless or errant woman's equivalent of a house and family; it is easily put to the test, while the letter's privacy in its use of a seal and envelope is all too easily violated. And even though the reader is forced to view events for much of the novel through the eyes of the adventuresses, the fact that this knowledge comes not through a first-person narrative but by eavesdropping on a private correspondence effects a certain ironic distance between the reader and the writers. It creates a feeling of power in the reader who is able safely to enjoy the brazen and unrepentant criminality of the writers because their unconscious exposure renders them relatively harmless.

Lydia Gwilt's other weapon, her sexual attractiveness, is similarly fragile. She is indeed presented as seductively beautiful, her description echoing that of Magdalen Vanstone in the way that it is built up in terms of a set of contradictions. Just as Captain Wragge had a written description of his niece on a printed handbill, so Midwinter checks Lydia Gwilt's appearance against that of the woman followed by Mr Brock (who was actually Lydia's maid, pretending to be her mistress):

The nose in the rector's description was aquiline. The line of this woman's nose bent neither outward nor inward: it was the straight delicately moulded nose (with the short upper lip beneath) of the ancient statues and busts. The lips in the rector's description were thin, and the upper lip long; … this woman's lips were full, rich and sensual.

(Third Book, Ch. 10, p. 245)

Again the erotic charge comes from the opposing characteristics, and again also the particularity of the account is pruriently intrusive. The total effect is somewhat unreal; her hair is called ‘terrible’ as if it were a supernatural attribute, and her gait is never one of simple walking but gliding, as if the inexorable progress of a heavenly body in its orbit: ‘Nearer and nearer, and fairer and fairer she came, in the glow of the morning light’ (Fourth Book, Ch. 7, p. 333). In her approach to the aged and besotted Bashwood she moves sinuously as a snake: ‘Noiselessly and smoothly she came on, with a gentle and regular undulation of the print gown,’ the breathing seemingly unrelated to Lydia herself, as if she were an articulated machine.

Lydia herself makes fun of her serpentine quality: ‘Did you ever see the boa-constrictor fed at the zoological gardens? They put a live rabbit in his cage, and there is a moment when the two creatures look at each other. I declare Mr Bashwood reminded me of the rabbit’ (Third Book, Ch. 11, 2, p. 254). The mesmeric power of Lydia Gwilt is described as siren-like in her ‘sexual sorcery,’ thus giving her a role in the nautical melodrama. In some legends the sirens are sea-serpents, half fish and half woman, and in all versions they tempt men to their doom by their music. When their spells fail they die, just as Lydia does when her power over Midwinter fails. As serpent, Lydia is a Lilith in the male Eden of Thorpe-Ambrose, while like Adam's first wife she fails to hold his affection and is displaced by the approved and providential Eve, Neelie Milroy.25 As the virginal sirens maintain their seductive power by their inaccessibility, so Lydia Gwilt can only keep her hold on her admirers until she accepts them. Although she conquers Waldron who marries her, causes a music master to commit suicide, and easily attracts Armadale, Midwinter and Bashwood, most of them cool towards her. Her husband maltreats her, Manuel uses her as a tool, Armadale quickly transfers his affection back to Miss Milroy, and even Bashwood cheats her. Midwinter's love she seems to lose at the point at which she reciprocates it. Magdalen Vanstone loses power on marriage, while Lydia Gwilt loses hers with possession.

From the dissolution of this tension, and thus the destruction of Lydia Gwilt as a character, results the Victorian critics' unease with her role in the novel, an unease not expressed in relation to the scheming and immoral adventuresses in other novels of the period.26 They could accept as characters sexually aggressive, even successful morally dubious women like Lizzie Eustace but, like the feminist critics today, they wished to find some consistency of characterization in a figure like Lydia Gwilt who only exists melodramatically as a tension between polarities. Collins allows even an outcast like Midwinter with an alias and no secure social identity a moderately realist character and a comfortable home with Armadale, as well as a secure textual roof over his head in the apparatus of his father's deathbed letter and the dream narrative; yet a similarly shipwrecked figure like Lydia, parentless and homeless as he is, with no social identity save that of a criminal, has her day of plots and stratagems but is then destroyed. The career of Lydia Gwilt from villainess to willing victim charts the victory of providential plot which ties itself, as Ulysses did, to the narrative mast to defeat the modernist siren.

The themes of fate, control over one's own narrative, and the female protagonist are rehearsed again in a late novella, The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice. T. S. Eliot admired the story, arguing that ‘as the chief character is internally melodramatic, the story itself ceases to be merely melodramatic, and partakes of true drama.’27 Eliot is referring to the Countess Narona's obsession with the idea of her own destiny, by which she deliberately arranges that coincidences occur; it is tragic in its element of self-destruction. One can, however, see in the internalization of the melodramatic that Eliot points to, a destruction of the will that will remove any sense of consistency of character from the Countess. Not only does her determinist attitude destroy her reason, it also causes her to internalize the murder plot perpetrated on her husband, in order to reproduce it as her own imaginative creation—a melodrama—which she urges the actor-manager, Francis Westwick, to buy for future performance. She fragments, becoming author of her own life story, detective of her own crime. She is consciously, unlike Franklin Blake of The Moonstone, the heroine of her own version of events, as well as the cast of characters she writes of in her play. As Lydia Gwilt dramatized her activities in letters and a diary, the Countess, herself an adventuress and housebreaker, who marries Lord Montbarry for money, and then joins in a plot to kill him, writes her melodrama in order to assert her control over events and their interpretation, while laying herself open to discovery by the act of writing. She even leaves the ending open as if inviting the reader to apply judgement to the events described.

The handwriting grew worse and worse. Some of the longer sentences were left unfinished. In the exchange of dialogue, questions and answers were not always attributed to the right speaker. At certain intervals the writer's failing intelligence seemed to recover itself for a while, only to relapse again, and to lose the thread of the narrative more hopelessly than ever.

(Ch. 28, p. 122)

In style the play moves from melodrama to modernist stream-of-consciousness, while the Countess herself falls apart under the weight of fatality. ‘“My invention has gone,” she said, “I can't write my fourth act. It's all a blank—all a blank.”’ There is no fourth act because the third completes the tale of the Countess's crime; she dies just after this, thus identifying herself with the play and becoming textualised, an open-ended work, as the mechanical breathing of the corpse negates the finality of death.

The Countess shares the physical contradictions of Magdalen's and Lydia's countenances with their erotic charge, becoming in her, ‘the startling contrast between the corpse-like pall of her complexion and the overpowering life and light, the glittering metallic brightness in the large black eyes’ (Ch. 1, p. 4). They create a face of Gothic contrasts, the death-in-life of Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, turning eerily here to life-in-death when the body of the dead Countess is found still to be breathing. Her face interests Dr Whybrow as a physician rather than as a man, for having given herself up to fatalism, the Countess reveals the dark meaning behind her attractions, the murder behind the seductive smile. Life and death, eros and thanatos are held in tension, arcs of desire in language, themselves pointers to the moral occult that lies behind the sexuality of the earlier temptresses, and showing them to be closer to the unlovely, emasculating Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone than might be realized.

Unlike the earlier women, the Countess Narona is much more confidently melodramatic; and neither do the tensions that energize her collapse under her acceptance of the action of the furies. In the figure of the Countess lies the whole plot of the novel: narrative plot and fate are not opposed but seen—by the Countess herself—as the same. For this reason, Winifred Hughes's remark about Collins's novels exhibiting ‘the triumph of form’ belongs most properly to this work. As we have seen, Collins's formal experiments in the sensation genre are also, necessarily, explorations into the nature of the limits of human freedom.

In The Haunted Hotel Collins returns to an interest in the house as the location of secrets, providing the reader with a Venetian palazzo, complete with vaults, a secret room and authentic Gothic decay. Unlike Radcliffe or Maturin, he fails to capitalize on these resonant details, despite his ability to paint local ‘effect’ with great skill. The setting in Venice, which at that time was invariably associated with the encroachment of the sea on the sinking city, transience and decay, lends itself to a story about the inevitability of judgement and one's destiny. Similarly the palazzo turned into an hotel is a stopping-place—a temporary abode—and thus an image of life itself, and the border between life and death. The history of the building from ancient private house to public hotel charts the history of the Gothic novel with its associated gloomy mansion to the hotel setting of so many detective stories. In this way the hotel becomes a lens, or rather a series of lenses for viewing the events of the story. A number of strange events take place when the Westwick family, in various combinations, visit the hotel: Henry Westwick, accommodated (unknowingly) in the room in which his brother died, suffers from total insomnia and lack of appetite, only to regain his ability to eat as soon as he quits the building; his sister suffers from terrible dreams while sleeping in the same room; Francis Westwick is assaulted by a disgusting smell; Marion Westwick sees a spot of what she is convinced is blood on the ceiling; the widow of Lord Montbarry, the Countess Narona, enters a trance; and the dead man's cousin and jilted fiancée sees his head descend from the ceiling, and the eyes open to confront the Countess. These various visitations form a reasonably comprehensive list of possible supernatural effects of a haunted house. Yet running alongside the ghostly experiences is an equally strong detective interest, culminating in the discovery of an actual severed head in a secret cubby-hole above the room that produced the supernatural effects. An analysis of the teeth proves that the head is indeed that of Lord Montbarry.

So the hauntings of the whole Westwick family become clues to the existence of the criminal secret of Montbarry's murder. The Countess's unfinished melodrama similarly is a clue to the solution of the crime, being as much a confession as a pathetic attempt to control the interpretation of events, and to assert free will; the sheet from the old guidebook to the palazzo is a clue too, telling Agnes and Henry Westwick of the existence of the cubby-hole. Collins seems to be working out a quite complex rhetorical schema. The various plot tropes can be viewed as evidence of ghostly invasion, the existence of a crime, mental derangement, the plot of a melodrama or the working-out of destiny. Collins's novella suggests that all these explanations can work simultaneously.

It is the house/hotel which activates all these events, seemingly unable to preserve its own secrecy: a change of door number is useless in checking the Westwick family's vulnerability to supernatural visitation. The house here is incapable of the hypocritical respectability of the villa in Basil. Its revelations come to a climax when the perfect lady, Agnes, comes to stay and mediates the Countess's vision and her destiny. It is as if the errant heroine has come home at last to grant her moral approval to the house and to be confirmed in her own heroine status by its spiritual power. Agnes is indeed an errant heroine, since she is poor, a governess to members of her own family, without a home of her own. In turning to work, to the public realm, she yet remains domestic, not just by becoming a governess, but by confining her field of operation to her own family; she thus returns the public heroine to private ownership, while forcing the public hotel to reveal the secrets of its ‘private’ past. The Palace Hotel is made truthteller by Agnes, its very structure revealing the truth beneath its surface, just as her mute presence (Collins's use here of muteness as the activator of the moral occult is one of the strongest examples in his fiction of this particular melodramatic convention) judges and forces the truth out of the Countess. The Countess faints on first meeting Agnes, and the arrival of the latter woman in the hotel lounge is the direct cause of the Countess's loss of ‘invention’ and the degeneration of her narrative into fragments. Just as Agnes Lockwood causes the Countess's death-like trance, and possibly her actual death, so her arrival makes of the Countess's life a blank page, like the last act of her play. It is as if Agnes erases the self-determining texts of the homeless adventuresses of Collins's earlier fiction, first forcing them into confession and self-revelation, and then into blankness.

Something similar seems to be happening to the sensation genre itself. The palazzo's history is that of Gothic house turned detective novel hotel, just as the plot moves from ghost story to crime novel. The extreme over-determination of the events of the story leads each genre to demythologize the others, so that the sordid facts of the murder, in the matter-of-fact way in which they are described (especially the checking of the teeth), is a reduction of the Gothic qualities of the novel to the banal, rather than a revelation of strangeness under the seemingly banal, which Collins achieves in some of his short stories. With the murderess's confession and the supernatural evidence rather forced on the characters like cards on an unsuspecting tyro poker player, the role of the detective is reduced to a mechanical checking of the clues provided. Having secularized the Gothic, Collins then proceeds, through Agnes, to attempt some reconstruction, with a heroine not unlike those of Le Fanu who, as will be seen later, uses the heroine to criticize the patriarchal Gothic house, and in so doing to assert some new mode of spirituality. But Agnes's production of truth from the haunted hotel by her very presence merely serves to reveal its rhetorical structure; it provides a grammar of mystery, more than mystery itself. As the Countess Narona's play calls attention to her crime, but equally to itself as fictive, so the novella—like so much of Collin's later work—is self-referential, dissolving not even into a plot, but into plot as an abstraction.

Agnes Lockwood fails to redeem the ancient palazzo from its modern role as a commercial hotel. The descent of the aristocratic Gothic house to the commercial status of an hotel is mirrored by the degeneration of Collins's heroines into commodities. Of the women mentioned so far, Margaret in Basil has been literally sold by her father, while Magdalen Vanstone and Lydia Gwilt have been homeless, and thus ‘public’ women—not in any professional sense—but as women who exploit the domestic skills and sexual charms of femininity to gain public advantage. To use the analogy of buildings they are themselves hotels, offering a public version of a private country house.

Lydia Gwilt is definitely luxury class in the quality of her accomplishments: she plays Beethoven easily, ‘There is the “Moonlight Sonata” open and tempting me on the music-stand;’ her spelling and grammar are far superior to that of the gently bred Neelie Milroy; she is very well read; her ‘dainty neatness’ is a quality usually reserved in fiction for the most moral of heroines; her attention to the needs, the conversation and the breakfast cup of Major Milroy far exceeds that of his daughter. Miss Gwilt even possesses that most characteristic of heroine-like attributes, a ‘modest little work-basket,’ although the fact that it is ‘in the window’ suggests some desire to impress. With the official heroine of Armadale a coquettish, impertinent simpleton, it was no wonder that contemporary reviewers of the novel resented Miss Gwilt's gentility—and her snobbery. ‘How I hate the coarse ways of the lower orders!’ she exclaims, and the reader's uncertainty about whether the remark is ironic only increases further the sense of irritation (Fourth Book, Ch. 10, p. 379).

Lydia Gwilt's gentlewomanliness is the result, of course, of an expensive education, something reviewers seemed able to accept in the case of characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. What shocks in Collins's assertion that gentility and ladylike feelings can be taught is his underlying assumption that there is no essential female, moral quality: women are only what society makes of them; their nature is protean. The ritualized nature of the behaviour of a Victorian lady makes it all the easier to imitate, but imitate is all that any women does, not just the adventuress. Lydia Gwilt does this self-consciously; she imitates the domestic ideal—as Lady Audley does in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's novel—but she is also, unlike Lady Audley, able to make fun of herself and it:

If so ladylike a person as I am could feel a gentle tingling all over her to the tips of her fingers, I should suspect myself of being in that condition at the present moment. But with my manners and accomplishments the thing is, of course, out of the question. We all know that a lady has no passions.

(Fifth Book, Ch. 1, p. 488)

The novel seems here to be mocking the contemporary idea of the lady, and to bear out the feminist claims made for it. There is no such person as a perfect lady in the pages of Armadale. The gentlewomen of Thorpe-Ambrose are dismissed as uncharitable hypocrites, Miss Milroy has already been shown to be ill-bred and petulant, her mother is a jealous monster, and Allan's revered mother practised deception on her own father. The male characters bear all the weight of courtesy, kindness and loyalty. The result of this demystification is not, however, any more liberating for the female protagonist than it was in No Name. Rather, the fragility of female identity exposed by Collins is used to justify a need for male mastery of a woman, mastery that Collins associates with the acceptance of fate. After The Moonstone Collins loses interest in mystery stories, and in removing the detective element from his work he removes also the active detective role of the reader. He comes to focus, as he did in Armadale, on the mechanics of the thriller plot, in which, as in a James Bond story, all the reader has to do is to respond to a set of predetermined stimuli.

The result of this policing by Collins of his texts to control their interpretation serves to fix his female characters especially within a textual and moral confine that is his linguistic equivalent of the patriarchal house. His increasing lack of interest in subjectivity, combined with his analysis of the fragility of female identity results in female characters who are no longer sensation heroines and adventuresses who break and enter the male house but house-prisoners. But paradoxically, in the process of fixing his women all the more firmly in their place, Collins loses control over his rapidly self-deconstructing texts. By removing all human motivation except for fatalism (as in The Haunted Hotel) his characters collapse into nothing but difference, and plot similarly into metonymic chains that cancel each other out. The move into melodrama produces nothing but a fallen drama, rhetorical rather than actual, difference rather than moral opposition being all that separates his characters from each other, as word is separated from word, no longer good and evil.

Indeed, what Collins's discussion of destiny and its association with patriarchal and authorial control reveals is that his sensation fiction is actually a version of ‘male’ Gothic. His interest in the destabilization of female identity, and in the secularization of the domestic house, combined with a social and quasi-religious determinism marks him as the descendent of Lewis and Maturin. His female protagonists owe more to the Juliettes of the Marquis de Sade's libertine texts than the Emilys and Ellenas of Radcliffe. However, his work lacks the heavy sense of a particularly masculine guilt that I claimed … characterized much of this masculine tradition. ‘Monk’ Lewis's Ambrosio was destroyed by the power and cunning of a female demon. But Collins casts a female as his protagonist, and gives her the guilt that causes her own destruction. This guilt makes her tamely reenter the private house, and accept the authority of its master. The endings of Collins's sensation novels may lack the climactic drama of those of the earlier Gothic period, but they are equally punitive.


  1. U. C. Knoepflmacher, ‘The Counterworld of Victorian Fiction and The Woman in White,’ in Jerome Buckley (ed.), The Worlds of Victorian Fiction (Cambridge Mass., 1975) pp. 352-69 (p. 353).

  2. See, for example, Dorothy Sayers's introduction to The Moonstone (London, 1944) p. viii; Merryn Williams, Women in the English Novel 1800-1900 (London, 1984) pp. 132-37; Elaine Showalter, ‘Family Secrets and Domestic Subversion: Rebellion in the Novels of the 1860s,’ in Antony S. Wohl (ed.), The Victorian Family: Structures and Stresses (London, 1978) pp. 101-18.

  3. Magdalen follows the example of Mary Braddon herself who became an actress to support her family. See Robert Lee Wolff, Sensational Victorian: The Life and Fiction of Mary Elizabeth Braddon (New York, 1979).

  4. Richard Barickman, Susan Macdonald and Myra Stark, Corrupt Relations: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Collins and the Victorian Sexual System (New York, 1982) p. 121.

  5. Ibid., p. 120.

  6. Sue Lonoff, Wilkie Collins and his Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship (New York, 1985) p. 151.

  7. Nina Auerbach, Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (New York, 1985) p. 165.

  8. Jeanne Fahnestock, ‘The Heroine of Irregular Features,’ Victorian Studies, vol. XXIV (Spring, 1981) no. 3, pp. 325-50, especially p. 341 on Magdalen Vanstone.

  9. Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth Century England (Princeton, 1983) p. 333. Meisel is referring to Becky Sharp. Hardy, in his own version of the No Name plot, The Hand of Ethelberta (London, 1875-6), makes his heroine not an actress but a lady by marriage who exploits a private gift for storytelling for public gain. The effect of her performance is thus the more shocking—and carries a stronger erotic charge—than straightforward professional acting.

  10. Barickman, Macdonald and Stark, Corrupt Relations, pp. 56-7.

  11. Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Aurora Floyd (London, [1863] 1984) p. 330.

  12. Norman Page (ed.), Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage (London, 1974) p. 149.

  13. Meisel, Realizations, p. 66.

  14. See ibid., pp. 351-5. Millais is discussed on p. 355:

    Millais put forward a series of original narrative paintings (not dependent on a prior fiction) designed to contain the whole interest and significance of a story in a plausible circumstantial setting and configuration, a “situation” … In all but one, the situation is like a diagram of countervailing forces, present together, and recorded at the moment of equilibrium.

  15. See Chapter 1 of Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (London, 1885). Braddon too shows an interest in ‘framing’—of a specifically Pre-Raphaelite kind—in Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Lady Audley's detailed, exaggerated and colourful portrait reveals potentialities that go beyond her conventional role and her angelic surface. As in the narrative paintings by Hunt and Millais, the framing of Lady Audley does not enclose so much as dramatize her, and reveal choices and possibilities.

  16. See Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins (London, 1951) pp. 120-22.

  17. Cited in Tim Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites (London, 1970) p. 55.

  18. See Michael Booth, Melodrama (London, 1965) pp. 157, 163.

  19. It is interesting that such an independent and individualist writer as Collins begins authorship with a biography, pious in tone, of his father, Memoirs of the Life of William Collins R.A. (London, 1848), and that the death of his mother in 1868 coincides with a deterioration in his health and his fiction: see Robinson, Wilkie Collins, p. 193f. Alethea Hayter in Opium and the Romantic Imagination (Berkeley, 1968) pp. 264-7, attributes the decline of Collins's powers to his opium addiction.

  20. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, John Osborne (tr.) (London, 1977) p. 129.

  21. See, for example, Nina Auerbach, Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth (New York, 1979) pp. 138, 143, 205-6.

  22. Winifred Hughes, The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s (Princeton, 1980) pp. 55, 61.

  23. Meisel, Realizations, p. 198.

  24. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama and the Mode of Excess (New Haven, 1976) p. 8. See also p. 54.

  25. The myth of Lilith, Adam's first and evil wife, was popular with the Pre-Raphaelites. See, for example, D. G. Rossetti's sonnet, “Body's Beauty,” No. 78 in The House of Life sequence, in William M. Rossetti (ed.), The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London, 1905) p. 216. Also see the painting Lady Lilith (1864).

  26. This is a complicated issue. Trollope was indeed criticized for his lack of moral proportion in such works as The Eustace Diamonds. It was not, however, his morally dubious women themselves who were the origin of this criticism—indeed they were often praised as social types. Rather Trollope was accused for not including an equivalently prominent good character to balance them. See David Skilton, Anthony Trollope and his Contemporaries: A Study in the Theory and Conventions of Mid-Victorian Fiction (London, 1972) pp. 70-74.

  27. T. S. Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” in Selected Essays (London, 1958) pp. 460-70 (p. 467).

Peter Thoms (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7903

SOURCE: “Some Early Quests: Basil, Hide and Seek, and The Dead Secret,” in The Windings of the Labyrinth: Quest and Structure in the Major Novels of Wilkie Collins, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 13-53.

[In the following excerpt, Thoms studies the thematic “quest for independence and identity” in Basil, viewing this early novel's foreshadowing of the principal issues in Collins's later fiction.]

Just as Walter Hartright is startled and perplexed by the mysterious “apparition” of “a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments,” so the reader of Collins may be puzzled by the sudden appearance of The Woman in White (1860) itself. Representing such a stunning advance over its predecessor, The Dead Secret (1857), The Woman in White, like one of its titular characters, Anne Catherick, seems to have emerged from nowhere—in Hartright's words, to have “sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven” (15). Yet the novel possesses strong thematic roots in the works of Collins's apprenticeship. In the twelve years prefacing his great decade, Collins was extremely busy with publications which included a biography of his father (Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A.), a travel book (Rambles beyond Railways), two collections of short stories (After Dark and The Queen of Hearts), and four novels (Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome, Basil, Hide and Seek, and The Dead Secret). An earlier, unpublished novel was set “in the island of Tahiti, before the period of its discovery by European navigation.”1 As in its successor, Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome (1850), a historical romance set in the early fifth century, Collins shows an initial preference for situations remote in space and time. With his second published novel, Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852), however, Collins comes home to Victorian Britain, an imaginative landscape which he would prove was no less romantic and mysterious, and which he would explore for the rest of his career. He would make the familiar unfamiliar, plunging his characters (and readers) from the daylight of normality into a shadowy world of secrets, sins, crimes, and conspiracy. That sinister world and the threat it poses to the complacency of his protagonists are most effectively realized in the novels of the great decade; but the dynamic of surface and depth, respectability and depravity, and false and true begins to take shape in the sequence of Basil, Hide and Seek, and The Dead Secret. In those three novels Collins forecasts the thematic and structural concerns of The Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone, as he experiments with patterns of hiding and seeking, and formulates some early quests for freedom and identity.


Henry James, who credits Collins with introducing “into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors,” writes in 1865 that

this innovation gave a new impetus to the literature of horrors. It was fatal to the authority of Mrs. Radcliffe and her everlasting castle in the Apennines. What are the Apennines to us, or we to the Apennines? Instead of the terrors of Udolpho, we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible. Mrs. Radcliffe's mysteries were romances pure and simple; while those of Mr. Wilkie Collins were stern reality.

[Page 122-23]

Within this explicit statement explaining Collins's ability to evoke excitement are two interesting observations. First, James's juxtaposition of “the terrors” with “the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings” suggests the permeating tension in Collins's fiction between apparent surface order and underlying disorder. Collins exposes the corrupt underpinnings of society in The Woman in White through the conspiracies of Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde; in No Name through the plotting of Magdalen Vanstone, Captain Wragge, and Mrs. Lecount; in Armadale through the machinations of Lydia Gwilt, Mother Oldershaw, and Doctor Downward; and in The Moonstone through the theft which shocks the group attending Rachel Verinder's birthday party. In his previous decade, the disturbing depths are equally evident. Basil recognizes the deceit of Robert Mannion and Margaret Sherwin; Matthew Marksman of Hide and Seek uncovers the secret past of Zack's father; and Rosamond of The Dead Secret, a woman of supposedly high birth, discovers her illegitimacy. Second, in a remark of equally broad implications, James points out that Collins's mysteries are “stern reality.” Because Collins intends to convey (as he says in the “Letter of Dedication” to Basil) “the poetry of everyday truth” (1:xi), his vision is not only particularly thrilling, as James contends, but acerbic, attacking the age's self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. For Collins an accurate rendition of life required the inclusion of both the virtuous and the unscrupulous, the noble and the sordid, and it was his attention to the unsavory side of this dichotomy which often drew the venom of his critics.

A writer for the Westminster Review (October 1853) offers this response to Basil: “The incident which forms the foundation of the whole, is absolutely disgusting; and it is kept so perseveringly before the eyes of the reader in all its hateful details, that all interest is destroyed in the loathing which it occasions” (Page 52). In the same key, thirteen years later, H. F. Chorley assesses Armadale for the Athenaeum of 2 June 1866; recoiling from the examples of vice in the novel, Chorley wonders: “What artist would choose vermin as his subjects?” (Page 147). Both critics angrily accuse Collins of using depravity gratuitously, and thus fail to appreciate how the subversive works as a crucial part of the educative quest in the novels. Initially hidden, this dark knowledge is gradually uncovered, shocking the readers and protagonists and contaminating the conception of life on which they had previously relied. The readers (who are intended to feel both uncomfortable and tainted by exposure to the underside of “respectability”) ideally begin to question social conventions and their subscription to them. The protagonists are suddenly forced by their unsettling discoveries to reevaluate the structures of their lives and to recognize them as false and imprisoning. Thus, the characters attempt to define themselves anew. Rejecting the old order, they struggle to affirm a new personal identity based on the heroic values of duty, truth, and love.

Far from being an unwarranted presence in the novels or the product of unremitting cynicism, the sinister depths become a necessary precursor to the moral life. Collins, in his dedicatory letter to Basil, writes:

My idea was, that the more of the Actual I could garner up as a text to speak from, the more certain I might feel of the genuineness and value of the Ideal which was sure to spring out of it. Fancy and Imagination, Grace and Beauty, all those qualities which are to the work of Art what scent and colour are to the flower, can only grow towards Heaven by taking root in earth.


This interaction between the “Actual” and the “Ideal,” between the earth and the flower which grows out of it, is much like the conversion articulated in Collins's novels, whereby the recognition of the actual (or existing form of one's life) as corrupt and inherently imprisoning instills the desire for, and thus leads to the creation of, the potential or ideal—a new structure molded from moral convictions. Essentially, this process is one of maturation, as the protagonists escape from restraint (a pattern for conduct which is usually inherited), and seek to determine the proper shape of their lives. This is the quest for independence and identity, a journey which emerges as a dominant motif in Basil, Hide and Seek, and The Dead Secret, three of the best of Collins's minor novels.


Although Basil is only Collins's second published novel, it is one of his most memorable, a work which voices in a surprisingly powerful way many of the conflicts and concerns of the major novels. Containing a prose and a melodramatic tone that are often overwrought, the novel clearly belongs to Collins's apprenticeship; but this lack of control seems to allow a certain emotional sincerity, a questioning honesty. In fact, of the three early novels, Basil most successfully foreshadows the rich tensions of Armadale and The Moonstone. In Basil's attempt to define his own identity, the novel roughly diagrams the journey which later protagonists would make in articulating their stories; and in its inclusion of Basil's protracted suffering and Mannion's cynicism, the novel challenges such an optimistic construction of self. The urgent self-writing, which is figuratively responsible for the book itself, reveals both Basil's determination to master his story and the traces of his failure to accomplish this task completely, as he shudders before his autobiography and even relegates its possible revision and editing to another.


Of all the quests delineated in the three novels preceding The Woman in White, Basil's is drawn most forcefully. In Hide and Seek Collins splits his interest between the moral growth of Zack Thorpe and Matthew Marksman, and in The Dead Secret he alternates between portraying the trials of the newlyweds, Rosamond and Leonard, and those of Sarah Leeson. But in Basil the autobiographical form centers attention on one character, and provides the “history of little more than the events of one year, out of the twenty-four years of [his] life” (1:26). Indeed lifewriting, as it is dramatized in Basil and later in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, becomes a central metaphor for the act of self-determination. “Hidden amid the far hills of the far West of England” (1:27), living “under a threat of impending hostility” (1:27), Basil begins his account with the need to procure order. Isolated, deprived of the consoling presence of both a wife and a family, Basil strives through writing for a kind of reintegration and acceptance; he hopes that his “plain and true record will of itself, plainly and truly show, that [his] error was not committed altogether without excuse,” and that this document's discovery “after [his] death” (1:26) will cause “the hard sentence against [him to] be repented of” and “the children of the next generation of [their] house … to speak charitably of [his] memory” (1:27). By telling his story, Basil also intends to make something morally good out of his failures, to “put [them] to some warning use” (1:26). In confessing he offers “penance” (2:115), achieving humility and strength as he exchanges his previous secrecy and deceit for openness and truth. Above all, writing is crucial for Basil's recovery, functioning as both a therapeutic exercise which gives occupation and purpose to his troubled mind (3:231) and a reflective practice which allows him to make sense of his past and of his story's present, as it unfolds in the book's last pages. In defining this “history” Basil attempts to give imaginative and moral form to his life, and finally seems to achieve the sense of identity for which he has long been searching.

Basil's writing (and thus shaping) of his life, however, does not occur until late in the recounted story, when Margaret is dead, Basil's father has rejected him, and Mannion is his declared enemy. Basil's writing, in which he slowly scrutinizes his life and invests it with inner integrity, is preceded by a lengthy period where identity is sought largely in objective terms. At the start of the novel, we read of his “ambition … to make a name … in literature” (1:36), to “struggle for fame” (1:37). Here selfhood is conceived as an external accomplishment, as recognition conferred by others. When this project is set aside in the courting of Margaret, Basil adopts what, at first glance, seems a bold course to become his own man. In his pursuit of Margaret, whom he desires to marry even though she is a linen draper's daughter, he opposes himself to his father's sensitive pride in ancestry and prepares to establish his own familial order. Yet Basil's quest is ill-conceived. He doesn't really know what he wants. He appears to want Margaret, but actually cannot distinguish the real woman from the fantasy he has created; he appears to want to repudiate patriarchal power, but actually fears facing his father and the possibility of separation from him. Without a proper focus for his energy, Basil flounders, defining his goal as an external attainment (Margaret) and, consequently, ignoring his own moral development. Instead of leading him from imprisonment to freedom, this initial journey only binds him further, as he becomes ensnared in blind love, in deceit, and, ironically for this rebel, in the plots of Mr. Sherwin, Margaret, and Mannion.

Much of the novel, then, portrays the tortuous course by which Basil discovers his true quest; finally he recognizes that he must reject the existing structure of his life (formed by his ignorance, deceit, and dependence on others) and rely on his own moral resources to create a new framework. While it is not until the end of part 2, when Basil's eyes are opened, that he begins to break free from his past, the desire for a change exists from the beginning of the novel. As Basil opens, the protagonist is a restless inmate of his father's household, constrained, he retrospectively remarks, by his father's pride: “We, his descendants, had to share his heart with his ancestors—we were his household property as well as his children” (1:46). His older brother, Ralph, has already asserted some claim to independence through exuberant behavior which collides directly with his father's expectations. Undoubtedly Ralph—who has left home, who has declined a “commission in the Guards” because “he would submit to no restraints … because … he was determined to be his own master” (1:57), and who refuses to let his father harness his “free careless energies” (1:56)—stimulates Basil and serves as a type for him in his struggle for freedom. In courting Margaret, Basil attempts to register his own independence, and, on an unconscious level at least, to repudiate the proud principles of his father. For his love is a revolt; it is impossible to separate entirely his obsession with the linen draper's daughter and his psychological need to oppose his father. On her deathbed Margaret accuses Basil of marrying her “to spite the pride of his family” (3:172), and these “wild words” (3:173) possess a painful sliver of truth.

The courtship, however, acts not to enfranchise Basil but to enclose him within a more oppressive form of imprisonment. In selecting Margaret as the repository of his affection, Basil makes a moral choice and decides poorly. Without much subtlety, Collins describes Basil's dream, which presents the protagonist with the choice of two women: one wearing a robe that “was white, and pure, and glistening,” and the other with “black hair” and a robe “of the dun hue of the vapour and mist which hung above the trees, and fell to her feet in dark thick folds” (1:155). Clearly these two women represent Clara, whose “goodness of heart” (1:83) has already been depicted and whose name suggests openness and purity, and Margaret, whose appeal is sensual. In the symbolic geography of the dream, with Clara descending from the “bright summits” (1:155) of the hills on one side of the plain, and Margaret emerging from the “dark secret depths” (1:154) of the woods on the other side, the choice is between moral elevation and sensual decline. Basil can maintain intimacy with Clara, which means an adherence to truth and integrity, or he can submit to Margaret and be led into “the secret recesses that lay amid the unfathomable depths of trees” (1:159).

The latter path, which Basil chooses “with [his] blood burning and [his] breath failing [him]” (1:158), suggests the lure of sexual penetration, but more significantly it images his descent into a dark, “secret,” and ultimately imprisoning world of deceit. This is the private world which through lies and dissimulation he hides from Clara and his father; it is a relationship which, as the imagery of the dream points out, blinds and binds him. Her eyes fascinate his eyes; “her long hair” seems to spread “over [his] eyes like a veil, to hide from them the fair hill-tops, and the woman who was walking onward to the bright clouds above” (1:158). She “clasped her supple arms round [his] neck, and drew [him] a few paces away with her towards the wood” (1:157); she “clasped [him] more closely than before” (1:158); she “encircled [him] in the folds of her dusky robe” (1:159). Enthralling him thus, she is a siren, diverting him from his true quest, murmuring “a mysterious music in [his] ear” so that he “had no thought of returning to the plain again; for [he] had forgotten the woman from the fair hills, and had given [himself] up, heart, and soul, and body, to the woman from the dark woods” (1:159).2

As a moral allegory, Basil's dream effectively summarizes the first half of the novel, in which the would-be rebel becomes enslaved by the very woman he pursues. In his infatuation he loses control of himself, surrendering “to the charm that was at work on” him (1:137), and descending to the plots of deception which prevent honest exchange with others. He does not escape through passionate love into an expansive world of freedom but rather slips on the sly into a constricting nether world. After first seeing Margaret on the omnibus, Basil's desire compels him to follow her “cautiously and at some distance” (1:119) to the Sherwin residence, to buy information about the occupants of the house from a tradesman's boy (1:126), and to visit Sherwin's shop where he misrepresents himself in his clandestine attempt to discover more:

“There was a Mr. Sherwin I once knew,” said I, forging in those words the first link in the long chain of deceit, which was afterwards to fetter and degrade me—“a Mr. Sherwin who is now, as I have heard, living somewhere in the Hollyoake Square neighbourhood. He was a bachelor—I don't know whether my friend and your master are the same?”


While this is a minor bit of trickery in itself, it makes his next transgression easier, and the one after that easier still, until a “long chain of deceit” binds him. Through “money and persuasion” (1:166) he obtains the services of a female servant in the Sherwin household; he follows the counsel of “deceit” (1:174) as he contrives to keep his life with the Sherwins a secret; and he attempts to camouflage the one-month honeymoon he plans with Margaret by telling his father of an intended “visit to one of [his] country friends” (2:124). Isolating him from his family, Basil's cunning ties him more tightly to the secret relationship with Margaret, an alternative structure for life which he may like to think he has created but which has largely been constructed by Mr. Sherwin, Margaret, and Mannion.

On the evening of the day in which Basil first sees Margaret, he returns to Hollyoake Square and views the Sherwin house:

She was at the window—it was thrown wide open. A bird-cage hung rather high up, against the shutter-pannel. She was standing opposite to it, making a plaything for the poor captive canary of a piece of sugar, which she rapidly offered and drew back again, now at one bar of the cage, and now at another. The bird hopped and fluttered up and down in his prison after the sugar, chirping as if he enjoyed playing his part of the game with his mistress.


Like many of the incidents of the first half of the novel, this episode contains a warning which is registered by the reader and ignored by Basil, whose critical judgment is dulled by love. While other “warnings” (2:4), such as Margaret's attempt to kill the cat with the poker (2:80-84) and Mannion's horrid visage as it is exposed by the lightning (2:73), should speak more loudly to the protagonist, this scene sinisterly foreshadows his relationship with Margaret. Figuratively, Basil becomes the “poor captive canary” in the “prison” of the cage, who reacts “as if he enjoyed playing his part of the game” with Margaret. Like the canary, he is unaware of his entrapment, that he is a manipulated character in a “game” or plot he does not control. Delighting in the warmth of his passion and in things as they appear, Basil fails to perceive the cold calculations carried on just beneath the surface. He is aware that Mr. Sherwin views the marriage as a profitable business transaction, but he cannot guess that Margaret is equally mercenary. Nor can he penetrate beneath the “mask” (2:27) of Mannion to discern the man's hatred and vengeful motives.

To achieve freedom and selfhood Basil first needs to free himself from the order of his past and thus confront the abyss of disorder in which a new identity can be forged. But Basil is unwilling to take that step. His desire for rebellion is not strong enough to compel him to reject his father or to create a new life independently. Optimistically he hopes for his father's future acceptance of Margaret, as he bows to Mr. Sherwin's “stipulation” (1:252) that the secret marriage be followed by one year in which Basil is never allowed “to see [Margaret], except in the presence of a third party” (1:252). His entrapment (especially by Mannion, to whom Basil applies “to exert the influence which he had promised to use, if I wished it, in my behalf” [2:89]) continues until the last night of the stipulated year. Then, in secretly following Margaret and Mannion from a party to a room in a seedy hotel, Basil discovers the truth:

I listened; and through the thin partition, I heard voices—her voice, and his voice. I heard and I knew—knew my degradation in all its infamy, knew my wrongs in all their nameless horror. He was exulting in the satanic patience and secrecy which had brought success to the foul plot, foully hidden for months on months, foully matured on the very day before I was to have claimed as my loved and honoured wife, a wretch as guilty as himself!


In a horrific instant in which “whole years of the direst mental and bodily agony were concentrated” (2:146), Basil recognizes the false foundations of his life. A few moments later, impelled by instinctive revenge, he repudiates that life, attacking one of its principal plotters, Mannion. Intercepting him in the street as he leaves the hotel, Basil begins choking the life out of him, and then hurls him “face downwards, on to the stones” (2:155) of the street. Before his vengeance is interrupted by the sound of the hotel door opening, Basil bends toward the insensible Mannion with the intention of “lift[ing] him again, and beat[ing] out of him, on the granite, not life only, but the semblance of humanity as well” (2:155). It is almost as if Basil in his frenzy wants to inscribe the “impenetrable face” (2:28) of Mannion with the truth, with that “spectral look of ghastliness and distortion” which he had once seen and unfortunately ignored as only “an optical illusion produced by the lightning” (2:73).

The brutal attack on Mannion is the turning point in the novel, representing both the depth to which Basil has fallen and the beginning of his upward climb to a new life. For just as he performs a vicious crime, he also, in a positive sense, strongly rejects his past life, exhibiting a commitment to rebellion which he had previously lacked. Mannion, who traps Basil “into trusting him as [a] second father” (2:171), becomes in the revised quest a replacement for the father, a real oppressor whom he can treat as an enemy. Renouncing his life—as it was scripted by Mr. Sherwin, by Margaret, and particularly by Mannion, who had made it part of his “foul plot” (2:146)—Basil finally steps into the abyss, a disorder symbolized by his mental confusion. Without a structure for life to cling to he staggers away after the assault “like a drunken man” (2:158), like a “mad” (2:159) man, fearing for his sanity and fighting for “mastery over [his] own mind” (2:161). Brought home by a policeman, he lapses into a delirious sickness. Chaos prevails until he wakes “faintly, one morning, to a new existence—to a life frail and helpless as the life of a new-born babe” (2:181-82).

Basil's passage through sickness clearly indicates rebirth, as he rejects oppression, experiences the abyss, and wakes to a new and necessarily “frail” beginning. Margaret no longer exists as an image of order in his life, and, as events quickly prove, his actions have alienated him from his father. Tearing the leaf devoted to Basil from the family history, the father symbolically deprives him of (and frees him from) his roots and his place within the narrative of the family. Thus isolated, Basil tries “to conquer [his] misfortune by [his] own vigour and endurance” (3:79); he seeks to replace the previous structures (or plots) that governed his life by creating his own story. This “writing” occurs literally of course, but also morally as Basil constructs a code of identity. He affirms truthfulness in confessing to his father, and selflessness as he risks infection to visit the dying Margaret in the hope of soothing “her last moments” (3:164). Here the self is not identified by externals, such as fame or a wife, but by moral actions—actions which confirm his liberation from his former life. His confession releases him from deceit; his selflessness frees him from his earlier selfishness; and the forgiveness he grants Margaret eradicates any vengeful fixation on the past. In his misfortune and trials, Basil discovers “how suffering had fortified while it had humbled [him]” (3:162). In this strength Basil locates his self and, finally, a “repose” (3:289), a sense of stability and contentment which concludes his restless search for freedom and identity.

In Basil's story of rebellion—of breaking free from bondage to construct his own life—Collins articulates the pattern of self-development which would preoccupy him throughout his major decade. Central to the general pattern is the motif of “the sins of the fathers,” which Collins employs as an initial restriction on the freedom of his protagonists. Secreted in the past, the father's crime or folly generates consequences which seem fatalistic as they threaten to entrap the offspring and deny him or her selfhood. In Basil, the father's mistake is a lack of mercy toward Mannion's father, who had forged his name on a bond. Even though he is the patron of the forger, Basil's father (in Mannion's words) “held strict principles of honour which made no allowance for temptations and weaknesses,” and “gave evidence against the prisoner; who was found guilty, and left for execution” (3:15). While Basil's father shows some mercy afterward and attempts “to obtain a mitigation of the sentence to transportation for life” (3:15), he fails and the prisoner hangs. From that sin of the father—“pitiless honour” (3:15)—originates a chain of circumstances which brings the son into conflict with Mannion, who grievously feels the burden of that pitilessness, of his father's death as a felon, and of his own legacy of “the name of a felon's son” (3:11). Discovering that Basil had “stepped between [him] and [his] prize” (3:47), Mannion vengefully concocts his plan to recover Margaret and humiliate Basil. Later, responding to his mutilation, Mannion writes to Basil: “As my father's death by the hangman affected my existence, so the events of that night when you followed me shall affect yours” (3:69). Mannion, like Lydia Gwilt in Armadale, becomes a sort of Fury, establishing the past's powerful influence upon the present and challenging the protagonist's attempt at self-determination. Basil must gain freedom not only from the father but also from Mannion, whom he had trusted as a “second father” (2:171) and who represents the burden of inheritance.3 In asserting his integrity as an individual, Basil, as we have seen, assaults Mannion, transforming him from a perceived friend into an enemy. Later, pursued by Mannion along the mist-enshrouded Cornish coast, Basil resists the “horrible temptation to rid [himself] for ever of the wretch … by hurling him over the precipice” (3:252), a significant decision, which suggests the strength of his moral will and consequently his self-sufficiency. By murdering his enemy, Basil would be submitting and contributing to the oppressive story of sin, suffering, and guilt that Mannion envisions; by refusing the physical conflict with his enemy, however, Basil repudiates Mannion's power over himself. That Mannion dies a moment later, slipping in the chase and disappearing into “the abyss,” into “the yawning mouth of the chasm” (3:255), seems entirely appropriate. Telling Basil, “we are linked together for life; I cannot leave you, if I would” (3:251), Mannion had become almost a psychological apparition, a figure of guilt and of the tyrannical past, who could only be defeated by a mental struggle.

While some readers may regard Basil's escape from Mannion simply as a piece of luck—Mannion conveniently happens to slip and fall to his death—it is important to interpret the incident as part of Basil's psychic drama. In Basil and in the major novels, Collins encourages us to read events, as the introspective protagonists do, in terms of a psychological journey, and to see the characters' triumphs as in large part mental victories. Thus Basil, in attaining his measure of freedom and identity, resembles Walter Hartright of The Woman in White and Franklin Blake of The Moonstone. But unlike the quests of Hartright and Blake, which conclude with marriage and a happy sense of the protagonist's strength and compatibility with the world, Basil's journey ends on a note of melancholy. Despite his return to Clara and thus symbolically perhaps his marriage to the ideals she represents, the conclusion of the novel does not communicate optimism in a new beginning but withdrawal, as the protagonist seeks refuge “in obscurity, in retirement, in peace” (3:295).

Basil's struggles have sobered his spirit. In defining his moral self by visiting and forgiving Margaret and, particularly, by accepting his isolation and facing Mannion alone, Basil endures a continuing strain which frays his nerves until they snap. After he has apparently journeyed to moral strength and independence, he breaks down, and is dying when he is recovered by his family and nursed back to health. For Collins sickness often becomes a symbol for the transition between a false and a true life, and functions thus in the stories of Marian Halcombe of The Woman in White, Magdalen Vanstone of No Name, and, as we saw at the beginning of part 3, of Basil himself. But the introduction of a second illness is unusual, implying a passivity seemingly at odds with the vigour we come to expect from his protagonists. While we cannot deny that suffering “has fortified [Basil's] spirit with a good and an abiding strength” (3:299), we also cannot ignore the fact that his safety finally depends on the actions of others and that, in his last days in Cornwall, his writing (or self-expression) becomes confused and collapses into illegibility. He must supplement this part of his narrative with the letters of others. At the end Basil is a fragile hero, wise but also worn. His journey to selfhood becomes the prototype of the quests of the major novels, but the quality of sadness he finds is distinctive. Unlike the essentially comic conclusions to the quests of Walter Hartright, Magdalen Vanstone, and Franklin Blake, Basil's contentment is mixed with a bittersweet wisdom: “I have suffered too much; I have been wounded too sadly, to range myself with the heroes of Ambition, and fight my way upward from the ranks. The glory and the glitter which I once longed to look on as my own, would dazzle and destroy me, now” (3:295).

Basil's failure to achieve a strongly comic conclusion can be linked to failings in his project of self-writing. This writing, by which the work figuratively dramatizes its own creation, exists largely as a “retrospect,” what the fictional autobiographer describes as the tracing of “the history of my errors and misfortunes, of the wrong I have done and the punishment I have suffered for it, from the past to the present time” (3:221). By confessing his past, Basil, like Magdalen Vanstone of No Name, seeks to place himself beyond it; and by ordering its confused events, Basil, like his successors, Hartright and Blake, seeks to determine his personal story. Yet Basil does not succeed entirely in mastering his past. Indeed, it so unnerves him that, on completing his retrospect, he “dare[s] not read the lines which [his] own hand has traced” (3:221). Even in his closing letter, written almost nine years after his trials, Basil remarks: “I have not the resolution, even now, to look over my manuscript again; so I freely leave the corrections it requires to others …” (3:291). The painful period of the past is one which he “still shrink[s] in terror from thinking on” (3:293), an admission which suggests that the past has not been tamed (or even contained) in the pages of the autobiography, but that it continues to exert an oppressive influence, qualifying the freedom of his new life. Thus his writing comes to express not only his attempt to escape the past by achieving the distance and the shaping power of authorship, but also the unruliness of that past as a reservoir of disturbing material which will not be completely harnessed and put to rest.

Basil's vulnerable position toward his material is particularly evident in the final pages of his manuscript, when the “retrospect” succeeds to the more immediate narration of his journal entries, and finally to the “Letters in Conclusion,” where other voices appear to fill “a gap” (3:290) in the narrative. Before encountering Mannion for the final time, Basil starts the “Journal” which is

the necessary sequel to the narrative of the past. What may yet happen worthy to be written down, I know not: what suffering I may yet undergo, which may unfit me for continuing the labour now terminated for a time, I cannot foresee. I have not hope enough in the future, or in myself, to believe that I shall have the time or the energy to write hereafter, as I have written already, from recollection. It is best then, that I should note down events day by day, as they occur; and so ensure, as far as may be, a diurnal continuation of my narrative, fragment by fragment, to the very last.


In addition to supplying an even greater mood of urgency and suspense, as the time between the writing and the action closes, the journal method emphasizes the connection between writing and personal or narrative control. The final shape of Basil's story, with its possible comic or tragic emphases, now unfolds concomitantly with his writing of it; the already blurred boundary between the events of the story and the inscription of them begins to dissolve as Collins accentuates Basil's writing as a struggle for self-control. His own peril and that of his manuscript—his self-representation—is evident in the above passage, where Basil refers to possible “suffering” which “may unfit” him for the continuation of his task and to his sense of failing authorial “energy.” Proceeding “fragment by fragment,” his project now becomes particularly fragile, and begins to disintegrate three days later, after his final meeting with Mannion.

On 27 October Basil admits: “My nerves must have suffered far more than I suspected at the time, under the constant suspense in which I have been living since I left London, and under the incessant strain and agitation of writing the narrative of all that has happened to me” (3:260). Noting the failure of his voice (he cannot “articulate a single word distinctly” [3:261] to the doctor) and the deterioration of his compositional powers (he cannot manage a letter to Ralph), Basil comes to consider, on 31 October the fate of himself and of his journal: “When I am no longer thus able to continue in some sort, the employment to which I have been used for so many weeks past, what will become of me? Shall I then have lost the only safeguard that keeps me in my senses?” (3:262). Mental order becomes identical with self-writing, and simultaneously both collapse. A note by the Editor intrudes, telling us that the last lines of the Journal are “illegible” (3:264). Instead of exhibiting his firm mastery over his story, Basil's writing falters at the end and is superseded by an editorial note and by the letters of William and Mary Penhale. Basil does reappear to write a letter of conclusion, but, as remarks directed to John Bernard at a distance of almost nine years, it seems somewhat detached from his project. Unlike Hartright, who becomes the controlling and energetic editor of his story, Basil in his concluding pages seems to lack a strong commitment to his work, neglecting revision, and only communicating, it seems, “the materials” he “can supply for the conclusion” (3:297) at the urging of John Bernard, who wants to see the manuscript published.

While we must acknowledge Basil's authorial success, as he ultimately creates a meaningful form for his life, we must also recognize the limitations of his achievement—the extent to which the content resists the controlling efforts of the writer. In the Journal sequence, events overwhelm Basil's writerly ambition to subdue them; and although the protagonist reappears nine years later to provide a conclusion, his manuscript and the sense of order he had hoped to embody in it remain richly problematic. While Basil in his “conclusion” of “repose” hopes to suggest stability, the reader is likely to sense a disturbing instability, reflected in the protagonist's feebleness, withdrawal, and inability to face the lines he has written.

Poised against and not entirely rebutted by the contentment and duty which the protagonist claims to have found with Clara are the cynicism of Mannion and the horrors of Basil's own experience. Indeed, twice in the novel the forces of disorder triumph over Basil's efforts to maintain rational control. In the delirium that accompanies the protagonist's first sickness, the knowable world is transformed into a visionary hell; and in the days following Mannion's death the nightmare again emerges. Despite “the new, free prospect which [Mannion's] death has opened to [Basil's] view” (3:258), the shocking sight of Mannion's fall into “the yawning mouth of the chasm” (3:255) remains indelibly scored on the hero's mind. “Waking or sleeping,” he writes, “it is as if some fatality kept all my faculties imprisoned within the black walls of the chasm” (3:258). Horrible and imprisoning, the abyss becomes a powerful image in the work, and suggests, as we first view it, a primal chaos underlying the “reality” that Basil constructs and tries to believe in:

Beyond the spot where I stood, the rocks descended suddenly, and almost perpendicularly, to the range below them. In one of the highest parts of the wall-side of granite thus formed, there opened a black, yawning hole that slanted nearly straight downwards, like a tunnel, to unknown and unfathomable depths below, into which the waves found entrance through some subterranean channel. Even at calm times, the sea was never silent in this frightful abyss; but on stormy days its fury was terrific. The wild waves boiled and thundered in their imprisonment, till they seemed to convulse the solid cliff about them, like an earthquake. But, high as they leapt up in the rocky walls of the chasm, they never leapt into sight from above. Nothing but clouds of spray indicated to the eye, what must be the horrible tumult and glory of the raging waters below.


In the abyss Collins images his novel's underside;4 he symbolizes the disorder—the dark, the dangerous, the chaotic, the hidden—which undermines not only Basil's project but, to varying degrees in the major decade, the attempts of Hartright, Magdalen, Midwinter, and Blake to overcome the terrifying and unknown.

Like the image of the abyss, the voice of Robert Mannion also works to unsettle the order that Basil constructs. Although Collins suggests that Mannion has a chip on his shoulder—that his problems in part occurred, as his friend remarked, because he “was too quick of temper, too morbidly sensitive about the slightest reference to [his] father's death” (3:27)—the reader likely senses some validity in the vision which finds that “the moral common-places current in the world are so many brazen images, which society impudently worships” (3:49). Anticipating Count Fosco of The Woman in White in his attacks on convention, Mannion is a subversive presence in the novel, a writer, it seems, of a text that is diametrically opposed to Basil's own.5 As we discover in the pages of Mannion's own self-portrait, he too possessed ambitions as an author:

Knowing I had talents which might be turned to account, I tried to vindicate them by writing an original work. But my experience of the world had made me unfit to dress my thoughts in popular costume: I could only tell bitter truths bitterly; I exposed licensed hypocrisies too openly; I saw the vicious side of many respectabilities, and said I saw it—in short, I called things by their right names; and no publisher would treat with me.


Rejected by publishers, Mannion figuratively gets his chance to speak in Basil's story, although even now his text of injustice and fate is repressed, contained within writing of a very different perspective. As a rebellious voice, Mannion offers a challenge, questioning not so much Basil's character—for after a shaky beginning Basil emerges as a person of integrity—but the very possibility of fulfillment of Basil's search for value and freedom.

Challenged by Mannion and his own nightmare visions, Basil naturally begins to doubt his authorial power, his ability to articulate convincingly the existence of a moral order in himself and in the world. As he searches for and writes his conclusion, his uncertainty is tangible:

One difficulty, however, still remains:—How are the pages which I am about to send you to be concluded? In the novel-reading sense of the word, my story has no real conclusion. The repose that comes to all of us after trouble—to me, a repose in life: to others, how often a repose only in the grave!—is the end which must close this autobiography: an end, calm, natural, and uneventful; yet not, perhaps, devoid of all lesson and value. Is it fit that I should set myself, for the sake of effect, to make a conclusion, and terminate by fiction what has begun, and, thus far, has proceeded in truth? In the interests of Art, as well as in the interests of Reality, surely not!


Despite his insistence that his story's lack of the artful resolution common to fiction reveals a commitment to reality and truth, his language betrays some discouragement. Although he does claim that the end is “not, perhaps, devoid of all lesson and value,” the reader may suspect that Basil wishes he could more confidently discern closure and thus fulfillment in his story. Compared to the emphatic resolutions of The Woman in White and No Name, which contain a perception of the providential shape of life, the conclusion to Basil, from the protagonist's point of view, is disappointing. Perhaps an outline of moral design can be glimpsed in the course of Basil's penance, which leads him from sin, suffering, and alienation to a return to God's favor and to community. In such a reading, occurrences which may seem purely accidental, such as Mannion's timely death and Basil's restoration to his family, can be interpreted as signs of providential pattern. This explanation of events, however, seems rather tenuous, and is certainly not stressed by Basil, who seems to perceive little comforting evidence of God's beneficent presence in his world. Just as we sense how Basil's fortunate return to Clara anticipates the workings of providence in the later novels, we also recognize how small a part “providence” actually plays in the novel's vocabulary. In Basil particularly, and in the early novels generally, Collins has yet to develop providence as an explicit theme or structural device. Basil does project the existence of God, but the deity seems to be an inhabitant of “the Eternal World above us,” rather than an agent in “the little life here” (3:300). The Woman in White and No Name will celebrate the possibilities of this world, in which individuals' creativity and God's providence unite, but in Basil there is less enthusiasm. The emphatically comic resolution is missing. There is no concluding marriage, no exuberant happiness, no sexual satisfaction, only an expression of contentment delivered by a tired and not altogether convincing protagonist.

As a troubled narrative, in which the fictional autobiographer simultaneously constructs and destabilizes his sense of identity, Basil perhaps most closely resembles not its immediate successors, but the richly provocative texts of Armadale and The Moonstone. While Basil anticipates those later works, it belongs to Collins's apprenticeship, and can be viewed profitably as a seedbed in which the potential of the major novels already exists. As such, Basil is surprisingly expansive yet not finely considered, innovative yet seeming to exceed the grasp of its author. In Basil Collins finds the conceptual backbone of his fiction (the protagonist's struggle for self-articulation) and manages to convey the problematic nature of that project. But the central issues of his best work—providence, freedom, identity—are not yet sharply focused. Collins is just beginning to work out the protagonist's journey and its implications; he is just beginning to sense, perhaps, in Basil's successful penance a possible relationship between providence and plot, and to transform fate from a power of tragic inevitability into actions which only seem to exemplify fate, and which really represent psychological oppression. In Hide and Seek and The Dead Secret, Collins would continue to develop this drama of self-definition, emphasizing the protagonists' potentially greater creativity within a more comic world. Despite important tensions—Matthew Marksman's isolation at the end of the original version of Hide and Seek and Sarah Leeson's entrapment in The Dead Secret—Collins's novelistic vision becomes more optimistic, as he highlights the power of individuals to imbue their lives with personal significance, and delineates a moral and beneficent pattern in life that increasingly resembles providence. The result is novels which seem more polished and controlled, although at the expense, I think, of the earlier complexity. Only in the novels of the major decade, when Collins had seemingly mastered his plot, would the skepticism of Basil return, and then as part of a more mature artistic vision.


  1. Collins, as quoted in Robinson [Kenneth. Wilkie Collins: A Biography. London: Bodley Head, 1951] 34.

  2. O'Neill [Philip. Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety. London, Macmillan, 1988] (190-92) also describes the symbolic importance of the dream.

  3. Van Essen [Thomas. “Figuring the Father: The Paternal Thematics of Wilkie Collins.” Dissertation, Rutgers University, 1987] (85-89) also notes connections between Mannion and Basil's father.

  4. It is significant that Basil nearly succumbs to the abyss himself, as he edges closer and peers dizzily into its “gaping, perpendicular depths.” He records that “the thundering of the water bewildered and deafened me—I moved away while I had the power” (3:248). While Mannion's description of the moment as a contemplation of suicide seems exaggerated, the scene nevertheless suggests the psychological menace of the abyss—a menace that powerfully resurfaces in Armadale [1866. New York: Dover, 1977] and The Moonstone [1868. Edited by Virginia Blain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982] and claims the lives of Lydia Gwilt and Rosanna Spearman.

  5. Taylor [Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988] writes that “Mannion's own confession … sets up an alternative moral and social framework which challenges the one within which it is framed by offering an inverted replication of it” (92-93).

Stephen Bernstein (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6944

SOURCE: “Reading Blackwater Park: Gothicism, Narrative, and Ideology in The Woman in White,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 291-305.

[In the following essay, Bernstein considers the gothic setting of The Woman in White and its relation to the novel's “historical narratives of class, gender, and genre.”]

With The Woman in White Wilkie Collins wrote, Peter Brooks notes, a “slightly perverse, dilatory, almost fetishistic text of narrative pleasure,” one replete with “readers and writers constantly reading one another, even when they weren't meant to” to such an extent that the novel suggests “a prelapsarian age of unlimited storytelling and the unlimited consumption of story: a world in which narrative, whatever the subject, enormously mattered.”1 Walter Kendrick, similarly, has referred to the novel as an “endless chain of text on text,” a “second-degree text” by virtue of its “arrangement of realistic writing” from numerous narrators and sources.2 Indeed the novel does make extensive use of the multiple narrator technique which is in part the heritage of the epistolary novel of the eighteenth century; as a result the larger narrative which comprises the novel is composed of numerous smaller narratives which fill in various aspects of the plot. As Walter Hartright notes in the “Preamble,” the story will be told by “persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he [Hartright] has spoken before them.”3

One aspect of narrative in The Woman in White overlooked in the otherwise circumspect treatment this topic has received is setting. Specifically, with the central setting of Blackwater Park, “the ancient and interesting seat … of Sir Percival Glyde, Bart.” (p. 219), Collins is able to inscribe a highly concentrated, at times iconically allegorical, narrative into the very surroundings in which his characters function. The Park's status as a gothic setting enables such manipulation, simultaneously drawing on one of the larger generic narratives within which the novel is positioned. Collins thus uses Blackwater as shorthand for several of the narratives within the novel, as well as for the historical narratives of class, gender, and genre which also have important bearing on how the action of the novel proceeds.

Critics agree that with The Woman in White Collins achieved a considerable adaptation of the elements of the classic gothic novel to mid-nineteenth century English life. Henry James wrote that

To Mr. Collins belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors … Instead of the terrors of ‘Udolpho,’ we were treated to the terrors of the cheerful country-house and the busy London lodgings. And there is no doubt that these were infinitely the more terrible.4

A more recent critic has observed that the novel's Count Fosco is capable of “Suggesting a refinement of the Gothic villain,” while another sees the sensation novel in general as involving “both the secularization and the domestication of the apparently higher (or at any rate, more romantic) mysteries of the Gothic romance.”5 What is interesting about this otherwise unsurprising attribution of gothic revisionism to Collins is that his use of the single most characteristic aspect of gothic fiction, the genre's imposing castle or monastery, has received little comment.

Indeed, though Blackwater Park has been noted as “the most famous of Collins's sinister houses,”6 it has not been the focus of attention that such of its antecedents as Walpole's Otranto or Radcliffe's Udolpho have. Collins's biographer Kenneth Robinson, for example, though noting that “The novel of sensation must depend to a large extent upon the creation of a convincing atmosphere, in which the melodramatic incidents of the plot are made to appear almost inevitable,” goes on only to ask of Blackwater the unsatisfying question “Who would not expect sinister events in a setting so forlorn as this?”7 Such a lack of critical examination is puzzling, as Collins is certainly (and, as a writer of mysteries, necessarily) an imposing employer of telling detail, and Blackwater Park (like Udolpho before it) dominates the mood of a novel for which it actually provides only about a third of the setting.

We are first introduced to Sir Percival Glyde's ancestral estate through the eyes of the most interesting of the novel's narrators, Marian Halcombe, who describes it as follows:

The house is situated on a dead flat, and seems to be shut in—almost suffocated, to my north-country notions, by trees. I have seen nobody but the man-servant who opened the door to me, and the housekeeper, a very civil person, who showed me the way to my own room, and got me my tea. I have a nice little boudoir and bedroom, at the end of a long passage on the first floor. The servants and some of the spare rooms are on the second floor, and all the living rooms are on the ground floor. I have not seen one of them yet, and I know nothing about the house, except that one wing is said to be five hundred years old, that it had a moat round it once, and that it gets its name of Blackwater from a lake in the park.

(p. 220)

In this brief account one may observe several notable aspects of the setting's importance: the deadness and flatness of the property and the suffocating nature of the park's foliage foreshadow the significant threats to the lives of both Marian and her half-sister Laura, Lady Glyde, and attest to the generally claustral quality of life in the mansion. The house is furthermore, like so many gothic dwellings, linked to the aristocratic past. It not only dates from the late medieval period, but once boasted that dependable feudal form of enclosure, a moat.

As important as any of these details, however, are the references in Marian's account to occlusion: she does not see the servants, she knows nothing about the house, the house's very name, in fact, derives from a body of water the name of which signifies opacity.8 In this way Collins is able to put Blackwater Park firmly in line with his gothic precursors by sharing the earlier settings' accent on darkness and the problematics of vision. As Michel Foucault has observed, “the Gothic novels develop a whole fantasy-world of stone walls, darkness, hideouts and dungeons which harbour, in significant complicity, brigands and aristocrats, monks and traitors … these imaginary spaces are like the negative of the transparency and visibility which it is aimed to establish.”9 What the dark spaces of the gothic accomplish, in other words, is to fabulize the importance of the desire for visibility and accountability which the post-feudal culture of the eighteenth century was moving toward concurrent with the publication of the original gothics. This parallels the growth of Foucault's panoptical model of society, that modern system whereby all can be known, transcribed, and regulated by central modes of control. The gothic novel would thus be complicit in a growing system of social “discipline,” as Foucault calls it, which helped to concentrate power in the hands of a burgeoning new urban middle class.10

Collins's novel, coming nearly seventy years after the heyday of the gothic novel, nevertheless confirms that genre's political bent with its insistent echo of the opposition between occlusion and narrative disclosure and its own determination (through Walter Hartright) to “suppress nothing from beginning to end of the terrible story that I now stand committed to reveal” (p. 106).11 At the same time, as William Patrick Day notes, post-eighteenth century gothicism provided its audience with “internal definitions of the reality they felt and experienced, definitions that might not fit with the public fables. It helped shape its readers' sense of their own subjectivity.”12 Certainly Marian's self-questioning at Blackwater regarding the degree to which her observations are empirically accurate fits such a mold. The genre thus becomes one poised between public and private, a novel which works to model the psyche toward the ends of self-analysis and a public role both. In Jane Eyre, one of the finest examples of mid-Victorian gothicism and a likely Collins intertext, this agency becomes clear. The various gothic locales employed by Brontë function easily toward the symbolic exploration of Jane's mental progress as well as providing the settings for her incrementally shifting human relationships. Brontë's twist on the inherited formula is to remove Jane from the world at the end of the novel; at Ferndean she and Rochester experience, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar write, “their spiritual isolation in a world where such egalitarian marriages as theirs are rare, if not impossible.”13 Collins's gothic will have a different overriding motivation, but the comparison is useful not only in illustrating how many Victorian novels operate as revisionary extensions of the eighteenth-century genre, but also in demonstrating the way that gothic setting, ideologically charged in its effort to link the spheres of public and private, becomes a central narrative concern.

This literary historical narrative of genre, then, is already embedded in as brief a passage on Blackwater Park as that which Marian provides upon her arrival. Lest there be any doubt that the Glyde seat is going to share much with the gothic archetype, however, this passage goes on to state that

Eleven o'clock has just struck, in a ghostly and solemn manner, from a turret over the centre of the house, which I saw when I came in. A large dog has been woke, apparently by the sound of the bell, and is howling and yawning drearily, somewhere round a corner. I hear echoing footsteps in the passages below, and the iron thumping of bolts and bars at the house door.

(p. 220)

The noises heard by Marian are direct derivations from The Mysteries of Udolpho, where

soon after [twelve o'clock] the distant sounds, that murmured through the castle, ceased, and sleep seemed to reign over all. Emily then seated herself at the casement, where she was soon recalled from the reverie, into which she sunk, by very unusual sounds, not of music, but like the low mourning of some person in distress. As she listened, her heart faltered in terror.14

Thus Collins cements the relationship that this setting will share with the original gothic novels, simultaneously calling on both a popular memory of that late-eighteenth century vogue of hauntings to further bolster the eeriness of his own fiction, and a culturally embedded wish for greater openness and disclosure in the functioning of power. At the heart of this wish, we have seen, is also the desire for a deepened understanding of individual subjectivity.

The ways in which Collins deepens the meaning of his gothic building and its grounds, the ways in which he inscribes narrative into architecture and landscape, are clearly worthy of investigation. Such inscription is itself incipient in the generic traditions of the gothic. Of Lewis's The Monk, for example, Peter Brooks observes that

Part of the epistemological moment to which [it] belongs, and which it best represents, is [the] opening up of sepulchral depths, the fascination with what may lie hidden in the lower dungeons of institutions, and mental constraints ostensibly devoted to discipline and chastity. What does lie hidden there is always the product of erotic drives gone beserk [sic], perverted and deviated through denial, a figuration of the price of repression.15

Published nearly seventy years after The Monk, The Woman in White requires us to advance and revise this model of architecture as psyche; here again Day is a helpful critic. He demonstrates the historical shift with which the Victorians grappled while the sensation novels of the 1860's enjoyed their popularity, showing that the gothics written at this time were part of a larger attempt by the middle class to acculturate themselves to an emergent modernity. “The fables of the past could,” as he notes, “provide a sense of continuity that might stabilize human life.”16 By adopting the form of the gothic novel, then, Collins could attempt to use the romance mode to deal with realistic problems. That his settings should then be freighted with not only psychological but also historical meaning—indeed, that his gothicism should demonstrate the interaction between history and an era-specific subjectivity—demonstrates a credible and necessary maneuver for the mid-Victorian writer.

If we consider this view of setting as a signifier, it comes as no surprise that Marian thinks of Blackwater as “the exact opposite of Limmeridge” (p. 220), the latter a place “beyond the reach of the trivial conventionalities which hamper people in other places” (p. 209). For this reason Laura will go on to attempt to transform Marian's bedroom into a simulacrum of Limmeridge (“I will put my father's portrait in your room instead of mine—and I will keep all my little treasures from Limmeridge here—and we will pass hours and hours every day with these four friendly walls round us” [p. 235]), but this attempt to form an enclave/refuge from the exaggeratedly rigid conventionality of the Glyde and Fosco marriages is not enough, and Laura finally claims that “The sand and heath and the fir-trees are the only objects I can discover, in all this large place, to remind me of Limmeridge” (p. 279). Clearly the gothic emphasis on setting as always more than just setting extends its lineage into The Woman in White. Blackwater Park, standing in so staunch an opposition to Limmeridge, takes on the characteristics of the marriages which it houses and begins to appear as a socioeconomic, as well as literal, carceral.

Laura's claim further complements Marian's earlier observation that “Most men show something of their disposition in their own houses, which they have concealed elsewhere, and Sir Percival has already displayed a mania for order and regularity” (p. 237). At another point she refers to the passage of time as putting “the new machinery of our lives at Blackwater Park in fair working order” (p. 233). This characteristic orderliness, transmuted to various forms of control and domination, is displayed in the further descriptions of the building and grounds of the Glyde estate; they work together to create an interlinked series of references which bear significant historical meaning.17

“The main body of the building,” Marian notes the day after her first impressions, “is of the time of that highly-overrated woman Queen Elizabeth” (p. 225).18 She goes on to say that

On the ground floor there are two hugely long galleries, with low ceilings lying parallel with each other, and rendered additionally dark and dismal by hideous family portraits—every one of which I should like to burn. The rooms on the floor above the two galleries are kept in tolerable repair, but are very seldom used … I positively declined exploring the upper regions of dust and dirt at the risk of soiling my nice clean clothes.

(p. 225)

Here the iconic nature of Blackwater Park starts to become discernible; the central part of the house is linked not only to the late-sixteenth century but also to such aristocratic privilege as that period before the Stuart monarchy, the Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution might afford. This relation is confirmed by the “hideous family portraits” which Marian sees, portraits which not only convey a frisson of gothic grotesque, but which also give her the opportunity to foreshadow Sir Percival's death unwittingly through her desire to burn the pictures. A grotesque aristocratic past is the most important emphasis here, however, not least for the revulsion it inspires in the unconventional and freedom-loving Marian.

The hall of portraits is a familiar enough allegorical fixture of nineteenth-century realism; in the Vaubyessard section of Madame Bovary or Chekhov's “Gooseberries,” for example, the family gallery functions as a focal point for middle class desire: desire for a class history, for ostentatious wealth, for prestige. It is important in Collins's text, then, that this topos inspires disgust and is linked with filth rather than working as a magnet for wishes of grandeur. Like the earlier gothics, Collins's novel is tied to a period in which the middle classes still seek certain types of distance from an aristocracy perceived as tainted.19 The hideousness of the pictures also works to convey the persistence of the mark of Cain in the Glyde family. Not only are these distant ancestors grotesque; we will later find out that Sir Percival's father, the ironically named Felix Glyde, “suffered from his birth under a painful and incurable deformity, and had shunned all society from his earliest years” (p. 476).

The central, Elizabethan section of the house is complemented by two wings. The “half-ruined wing on the left … built in the fourteenth century” (pp. 225-26) with architecture “considered remarkably fine by good judges,” causes Marian to assert that “I discovered that good judges could only exercise their abilities on Sir Percival's piece of antiquity by previously dismissing from their minds all fear of damp, darkness, and rats” (p. 226).20 The building is completed by “the wing on the right, which was built, by way of completing the wonderful architectural jumble at Blackwater Park, in the time of George the Second” (p. 226). In this last wing “None of the rooms are anything like so large and airy as our rooms at Limmeridge,” though Marian acknowledges that in this, the inhabited portion of the house, “It is an inexpressible relief to find that the nineteenth century has invaded this strange future home of mine, and has swept the dirty ‘good old times’ out of the way of our daily life” (p. 226).

In actuality, however, the dirty good old times (which Marian signifies through “fatiguing antique chairs, and dismal stained glass, and musty, frouzy hangings, and all the barbarous lumber which people born without a sense of comfort accumulate about them” [p. 226]), bad old times in their actuality of aristocratic abuse (the hangings and stained glass both, again, stand for the occlusion, real and figurative, of the earlier aristocratic period), still thrive at Blackwater and will achieve a highly—if only temporarily—successful outcome with the eventual de facto imprisonment of Marian in “the old Elizabethan bedrooms” (p. 412). Such alignment with “that highly-overrated woman” also works as the novel's implicit ideological punishment of Marian in return for her earlier comments regarding women (“You see I don't think much of my own sex, Mr. Hartright” [p. 60]).21

Aside from these linkages with other parts of the main narrative, however, we see Blackwater Park in these descriptions as a narrative in its own right, a narrative of an aristocracy which has moved from the half-ruin of medieval privilege (now damp, dark, and rat-infested) to the more comfortable setting of the Elizabethan renaissance, and finally to Georgian semi-modernity. Tellingly, however, the Elizabethan segment remains the visual center of the building, both its focus and the location of the turret from which (in the initial description) the hour is rung forth. This alliance with the measurement of time marks this section as still dominating the mood of the seat, with the portrait gallery working as the visual cue to this primacy. No thoroughly up-to-date building has occurred at Blackwater; if it did the option would be to turn the structure into a quadrangle, making it visually double of the prison which it will in fact become for the half-sisters.22

A first exposure to the grounds confirms for Marian her earlier impression “of there being too many trees at Blackwater. The house is stifled by them” (p. 227). Thus is the claustral nature of the residence confirmed, yet there is further information to be gained through this depiction. “I suspect there must have been a ruinous cutting down of timber all over the estate before Sir Percival's time,” Marian continues, “and an angry anxiety on the part of the next possessor to fill up all the gaps as thickly and rapidly as possible” (p. 227). Here a narrative of familial debt is established, a familiar motivation for the cutting of which Marian writes. The present financial problems of Sir Percival (and Fosco as well, whose life, his widow later maintains, “was one long assertion of the rights of the aristocracy and the sacred principles of Order” [p. 644]) are part of a larger history of recurring debt, an aristocratic history of landed wealth and monetary poverty.23 This detail is yet another way for Collins to link his larger narrative to the encompassing narrative of the gothic genre. Contained within the Glyde family history, we see, is that assertion from Exodus which Walpole found so useful as the structuring principle of The Castle of Otranto: “that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation.24 The sin visited upon Percival, in addition to this familial propensity for debt, is of course his illegitimacy, a designation the obscuring of which is the immediate cause of his death.

The triptych-like appearance of the main building at Blackwater Park is exploited as Marian's description of the grounds continues. This description operates, as it works through a series of imagistic correspondences, to confirm the gothic anxieties suggested in the historical narrative of the building. In front of the house is found “A large circular fishpond with stone sides, and an allegorical leaden monster in the middle … The pond itself is full of gold and silver fish, and is encircled by a broad belt of the softest turf I ever walked on” (pp. 226-27). As she walks down to the “still, stagnant waters” of the estate's eponymous lake, she sees “that the ground on its farther side was damp and marshy, overgrown with rank grass and dismal willows” (p. 228). The importance of the remainder of this description merits its quotation at length:

The water, which was clear enough on the open sandy side, where the sun shone, looked black and poisonous opposite to me, where it lay deeper under the shade of the spongy banks, and the rank overhanging thickets and tangled trees. The frogs were croaking, and the rats were slipping in and out of the shadowy water, like live shadows themselves, as I got nearer to the marshy side of the lake. I saw there, lying half in and half out of the water, the rotten wreck of an old overturned boat, with a sickly spot of sunlight glimmering through a gap in the trees on its dry surface, and a snake basking in the midst of the spot, fantastically coiled and treacherously still. Far and near the view suggested the same dreary impressions of solitude and decay, and the glorious brightness of the summer sky overhead seemed only to deepen and harden the gloom and barrenness of the wilderness on which it shone.

(p. 228)

With this description another triad is complete. We have, within a few pages of one another, three important mentions of water, three mentions which parallel one another in a provocative way. The house once surrounded by a moat, the round pond in the square, and the rounded lake at a distance—each of these implies threats which become more graphic with each layer of description.

Sir Percival, we know, is at this point in the novel largely unreadable. As Gilmore, the lawyer who draws up the marriage settlement, states, “If we are friends of Sir Percival's, who know him and trust him, we have done all, and more than all, that is necessary” (p. 161). There is not yet any concrete reason (by nineteenth-century standards of British law and propriety) to suspect him of any wrongdoing. But the corresponding images make clear that there is a danger lurking in the heart of Blackwater: Sir Percival is paralleled first in the “allegorical leaden monster,” next in the snake on the ruined boat. Each level of representation thus becomes clearer. If we cannot read the allegorical figure any more clearly than we can read Percival, we at least have no trouble with the snake in the “sickly spot of sunlight” (p. 228).

Like the mansion itself, the grounds of Blackwater Park provide ample evidence of a history of abuses, and even provide a key to reading themselves. That Marian is unable to comprehend this text is essential to the continuation of the novel and is certainly no detraction from her otherwise accurate observations. The meaning is clear enough to us, however, by virtue of Collins's manipulation of gothic archetypes together with a narrative emphasis on the historical grounding of the problems he highlights in his plot.

And indeed the reading can proceed further, as the entire description recedes into allegory. The soft turf around the pond and the mushy ground around the lake work well as symbols of Marian's uncertain standing, a precarious position which reaches its greatest problem of balance when she climbs along the side of the house to overhear Sir Percival and the Count's late night conversation. This standing is also a product of her uncertain position in the household. As Elaine Showalter notes, “Unmarried middle-class women … were widely considered a social problem by the Victorians,”25 and Marian herself asserts that “no man tolerates a rival—not even a woman rival—in his wife's affections” (p. 207).26 As she settles in at Blackwater she thinks deprecatingly of herself as “plain Marian Halcombe, spinster” (p. 219).

It is significant, moreover, that Madame Fosco's “favourite circle” for walking is “round and round the great fish-pond” (p. 290). Thus the surveillance which the half-sisters endure at the Park is already nascent in the image of the pond. Just as the silver and gold fish, surely representative of the monetary gain Glyde expects from his marriage, swim between the allegorical monster and the walking track, so Laura and Marian are trapped between the Count's alliance with Percival and Madame Fosco's quiet work in aid of the plot. “The Count is a miserable Spy—!” Laura exclaims to Marian in what she thinks is privacy but Mme. Fosco, “a willing instrument in her husband's hands,” is already at the keyhole listening (pp. 318, 329).

After she views the forementioned parts of the park, Marian encounters “a shabby old wooden shed” in which she stops to rest:

I had not been in the boat-house more than a minute when it struck me that the sound of my own quick breathing was very strangely echoed by something beneath me … My nerves are not easily shaken by trifles, but on this occasion I started to my feet in a fright—called out—received no answer—summoned my recreant courage, and looked under the seat.

There, crouched in the farthest corner, lay the forlorn cause of my terror, in the shape of a poor little dog—a black and white spaniel.

(p. 228)

The function of this “poor little dog” is, once more, triadic: it not only links with Marian through its strange echo of her breathing but also, when it turns out to be Mrs. Catherick's dog, works as a double for her persecuted daughter Anne and, by implication, Anne's half-sister Laura. The dog has been shot by the gamekeeper Baxter, whose authority over such an execution is directly parallel to Percival's over the continued false imprisonment, and Fosco's over the “accidental” death, of Anne.

Anne and Laura have traditionally been understood as doubles by critics of the novel, and a further scene helps cement this relationship. Walter Hartright's first encounter with Laura at Limmeridge offers an interesting parallel to Marian's discovery of the wounded dog:

We turned off into a winding path while [Marian] was speaking, and approached a pretty summer-house, built of wood, in the form of a miniature Swiss châlet. The one room of the summer-house, as we ascended the steps of the door, was occupied by a young lady. She was standing near a rustic table, looking out at the inland view of moor and hill presented by a gap in the trees and absently turning over the leaves of a little sketch-book that lay at her side. This was Miss Fairlie.

(p. 74)

What is striking, in these descriptions, is not only the similarity between the two buildings and how they are approached but between the encounters which take place within them. Marian finds a wounded dog, Walter finds a young drawing pupil, and both turn out to be victims of a sadistically wielded authority which confirms its power in its ability to effect changes at the level of the body itself. “If ever sorrow and suffering set their profaning marks on the youth and beauty of Miss Fairlie's face, then, and then only, Anne Catherick and she would be the twin-sisters of chance resemblance, the living reflections of one another,” Hartright maintains (p. 120), demonstrating in another way the physical level at which Collins likes to confirm the existence of the doppelgänger.

If the dog links the three half sisters, it operates as another concentrated emblem of the larger organizing structures within the novel. Not only does its black and white coloring, like the gothic-tinged chiaroscuro of the overarching architectural and landscape descriptions, echo the contrast between Anne and Laura, the two women in white, and the dark-complected Marian, but as Barbara Fass Leavy observes,

if Laura, split away from the characteristics of Marian, is thereby less than a whole person, so is she incomplete without her other half-sister, Anne … What Collins seems to be implying in his portrayals of the differences and similarities among Laura and her two half-sisters is a kind of mass object splitting in the Victorian mentality which, in order to protect its feminine ideal, had to keep her free of, on one side, the sexuality and intellect of one sister, and, on the other side, the maturity that comes from a confrontation with pain and suffering.27

This formulation succinctly demonstrates the way in which character divulges the Victorian narrative of gender; what we are now able to see is that The Woman in White shows in numerous ways how this narrative is also revealed, just as character itself is, through setting.

The settings in Collins's novel, then, with Blackwater Park as their most fully articulated representative, must be seen as integral to this text which works overwhelmingly as a concentration of disparate, yet mutually implicated, narratives. That the numerous settings of the novel are closely linked is clear from several examples. Early in his opening narrative Hartright states that “The idea of descending any sooner than I could help into the heat and gloom of London repelled me. The prospect of going to bed in my airless chambers, and the prospect of gradual suffocation, seemed, in my present restless frame of mind and body, to be one and the same thing” (p. 46). Here London claims several of the characteristics which will later become oppressive at Blackwater; as so often in Dickens's novels the capital city is transformed into one great gothic mansion. Later, echoing the poorly kept woodland around the Park, Hartright refers to “the house-forest of London” (p. 433), while “the clean desolation, the neat ugliness, the prim torpor of the streets of Welmingham,” where Mrs. Catherick lives, give rise to the rumination that “The deserts of Arabia are innocent of our civilized desolation—the ruins of Palestine are incapable of our modern gloom!” (p. 503). In the same vein as Henry James's earlier remark, J. D. Coates has claimed that “It is Collins's achievement to re-establish the dimension of evil. Economic and social progress might have seemed the central facts of the age, banishing terror to a Gothic limbo. Yet the darkest and most sinister place in The Woman in White is perhaps the new town of Welmingham, the product of the railways.”28

Yet we can see that (despite even Hartright's analysis) it is not simply the industrialization of Welmingham, but also several of its links to Blackwater Park, that make that town another of the novel's suffocating sites of anxiety. As D. A. Miller notes, “Laura … follows a common itinerary of the liberal subject in nineteenth-century fiction: she takes a nightmarish detour through the carceral ghetto on her way home, to the domestic haven where she is always felt to belong,” yet Jenny Bourne Taylor takes such a formulation one step further by showing that “any stable division between the resonances of ‘home’ and ‘asylum’ as places of safety and danger” is broken down by the novel.29 In either view, however, what is most important is the oppressive claustral interdependence of the novel's numerous locations.

What is finally evident, then, is the degree to which the Blackwater Park section of The Woman in White can be seen as a concentrated version of the entire novel. Nancy Armstrong has shown the ways in which, in Jane Eyre, “the various rooms in Thornfield Hall … provide a model of the novel itself but also express the link between the history of sexuality and that of literature.”30 Beyond question, such a reading is appropriate for Collins's novel as well. Not only do the descriptions of architecture and landscape in the Blackwater section divulge the important mid-Victorian narratives of class, gender, and genre which combine intertextually to generate The Woman in White, but in so doing they reveal the fundamental rules which will govern the usage of setting in other areas of the novel. Most importantly, Marian's views of the Glyde family seat demonstrate even further than has previously been discussed the extent of Collins's absorption in narrative, an absorption which merely finds alternate routes into—rather than detours around—the daunting problem of turning physical objects themselves into narratives. The explosion of narratorial voices in this novel is thus only the most obvious manifestation of a thorough-going authorial inquiry into the numerous possibilities available through narrative. Not only could many stories work together to become one story, but objects could become stories in their turn as well. Peter Brooks suggests that Collins's most famous novel creates “a veritable utopia of reading and writing.”31 A novelist's utopia, perhaps, but it is notable that Collins uses that utopia to limn the sensationally dystopic situations faced by his characters, and that he does so in more areas of the novel than have previously been accounted for. Provocatively, The Woman in White's is a world where everything has truly always already been written.32


  1. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Vintage, 1985), p. 170.

  2. Walter Kendrick, “The Sensationalism of The Woman in White,Nineteenth Century Fiction 32 (1977): 31, 34.

  3. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 33. Subsequent references to this novel will be made parenthetically in the text.

  4. Henry James, Literary Criticism (New York: Library of America, 1974), p. 742.

  5. William Marshall, Wilkie Collins (New York: Twayne, 1970), p. 56; Patrick Brantlinger, “What Is ‘Sensational’ about the Sensation Novel?” Nineteenth Century Fiction 37 (1982): 4.

  6. Robert Ashley, Wilkie Collins (New York: Roy, 1952), p. 64.

  7. Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 152-53.

  8. Peter Caracciolo notes that “the name ‘Blackwater Park’ itself apparently draws upon the description of Styx” in Inferno 7.103, and also maintains that the overall description of this setting is “increasingly reminiscent of the Inferno: its pools, bogs, harsh sands, dark woods, and prisons” (“Wilkie Collins's ‘Divine Comedy’: The Use of Dante in The Woman in White,Nineteenth Century Fiction 25 [1971]: 390-91). Suggestive as this reading is, it does not seem to me significantly at odds with the gothic nature of the setting. Many of the original eighteenth century gothic novels, of course, are notably indebted to the Inferno as well.

  9. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, ed. Colin Gordon, trans. Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, Kate Soper (New York: Pantheon, 1980), pp. 153-54.

  10. See Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), pp. 153-228.

  11. On the narratorial bad faith implicit in this and related claims of openness and honesty by Hartright (in what is, after all, a mystery novel), see U. C. Knoepflmacher, “The Counterworld of Victorian Fiction,” The Worlds of Victorian Fiction, ed. Jerome H. Buckley (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 362; Kendrick, “Sensationalism,” p. 34; and David Blair, “Wilkie Collins and the Crisis of Suspense,” Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail into Form, ed. Ian Gregor (New York: Barnes, 1980), p. 39. That Hartright repeatedly withholds information while claiming to reveal all is not actually in contradiction with the assertion I am making regarding the continued panoptic emphasis of a gothic-influenced novel. The fact remains that, as a whole, Collins's novel is still committed to full revelation and complete openness by the time it reaches closure.

  12. William Patrick Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire: A Study of Gothic Fantasy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 10.

  13. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 369.

  14. Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), p. 355.

  15. Peter Brooks, “Virtue and Terror: The Monk,ELH 40 (1973): 259.

  16. Day, In the Circles of Fear and Desire, p. 82.

  17. On the status of realist settings as indicative of specific historical narratives and circumstances Fredric Jameson comments in “The Realist Floor-Plan” that “We must look at a description of this kind in a new way, as a form of programming” (On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985], p. 376). This view has clear application to Collins's novel, the anti-aristocratic flavor of which was directed toward a predominantly middle class audience. See also Jameson's The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 110-12, 154-57.

  18. By setting the date of the building of this part of Blackwater when he does, Collins keeps well within actual historical trends. Lawrence Stone claims that “By the 1570's and 1580's there had developed overwhelming incentives for new building … there was clear recognition of an aesthetic obligation to strive for architectural symmetry … Building materials were plentifully available.” In fact, “Between 1580 and 1620 England was largely rebuilt in the new materials and in conformity with the new standards of comfort and privacy” (The Crisis of the Aristocracy: 1558-1641, Abr. ed. [London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965], p. 251).

  19. This does not mean, however, that the gallery could not have served the purpose for the aristocracy that it serves for the middle class in the works by Flaubert and Chekhov. As Stone comments, the Elizabethan period saw intense pressure among the peerage “to create a home suitable for the residence of a nobleman—a particularly urgent incentive to one whose patent was still fresh from the mint” (Crisis, p. 252).

  20. Mark M. Hennelly, Jr.'s claim that Blackwater Park has “‘two’ wings ‘built in the time of George the Second’” (“Reading Detection in The Woman in White,Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22 [1980]: 461) is clearly a misreading.

  21. On the Victorian debate regarding the level of behavioral influence sensation fiction might have over its largely female audience, see Kate Flint, “The Woman Reader and the Opiate of Fiction: 1855-1870,” The Nineteenth Century British Novel, ed. Jeremy Hawthorn (London: Edward Arnold, 1986), pp. 47-61.

  22. Blackwater as carceral is actually confirmed in this set of descriptions when Marian describes the immediate grounds: she writes of “the great square which is formed by the three sides of the house, and by the lofty iron railings and gates which protect it in front” (p. 226). We may well ask what Blackwater needs such protection from; the gates can only be as old as the last wing of the building, which has only been built about 120 years before the novel takes place. Far more likely (and useful, from the gothic standpoint) is the implication of the gates as a protection against escape rather than intrusion.

  23. As Gilmore unequivocally affirms, “the debts on [Sir Percival's] estate were enormous, and … his income, though nominally a large one, was virtually, for a man in his position, next to nothing” (p. 174). Once more Collins is accurately tying the evidence of the present to the historical data of the past. As Lawrence Stone comments, again regarding the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, “many families, including some of the richest in the kingdom, contrived at one time or another to run headlong into debt” (p. 249).

  24. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 5.

  25. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Pantheon, 1985), p. 61.

  26. Mary Poovey also points to the ideological difficulty inherent in the logic that “If even middle-class women … did not always marry, then marriage might not be the only unit of social organization” (Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988], p. 155). Though it would be difficult to classify Marian as technically “middle-class,” she is not the heiress Laura is by virtue of her differing patrilineage, and lacks any significant financial resources. “Thank God for your poverty,” Laura tells her, “it has made you your own mistress” (p. 280).

  27. Barbara Fass Leavy, “Wilkie Collins's Cinderella: The History of Psychology and The Woman in White,Dickens Studies Annual 10 (1982): 128, 130.

  28. J. D. Coates, “Techniques of Terror in The Woman in White,Durham University Journal n.s. 42 (1981): 186.

  29. D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), p. 172; Jenny Bourne Taylor, In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 99.

  30. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), p. 210. Gilbert and Gubar, of course, prefigure such a reading as they state that “not only is Thornfield more realistically drawn than, say, Otranto or Udolpho, it is more metaphorically radiant than most gothic mansions: it is the house of Jane's life, its floors and walls the architecture of her experience” (Madwoman, p. 347). Again, the point is well taken in terms of Collins's novel though its focus diverges from the type of feminine experience which these authors describe.

  31. Brooks, Reading for the Plot, p. 170.

  32. The research for this project was supported (in part) by a fellowship from the Faculty Research Initiative Program of the University of Michigan—Flint.

Brooke Allen (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6163

SOURCE: “More than Sensational: The Life & Art of Wilkie Collins,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 4, December, 1993, pp. 31-40.

[In the following essay, Allen offers an assessment of Collins's works as modern and enduring, rather than merely melodramatic and sensationalistic.]

Wilkie Collins, the author of Victorian masterpieces of suspense including The Woman in White and The Moonstone, seems to have found the secret to a happy life: Do as you please and be damned. He had not an ounce of the native puritanism of the Anglo-Saxon. He loved pleasure of all kinds: food, drink, women, the theater. Visits to France and Italy early in life had confirmed him in the belief that his fellow-Englishmen were hypocrites regarding sex and barbarians when it came to the arts of the table, that “a man who eats a plain joint is only one remove from a cannibal—or a butcher.” His self-indulgent habits told on him, and in middle age, according to Julian Hawthorne, the son of the novelist, “he was soft, plump, and pale, suffered from various ailments, his liver was wrong, his heart weak, his lungs faint, his stomach incompetent, he ate too much and the wrong things.” Nevertheless, he continued to take his pleasures where he could, determined to make the most of life.

He was a firm enemy of social convention. A radical and a bohemian with a bourgeois fondness for comfort, Collins did exactly as he liked, shocking a number of people in the process. From 1858 until the end of his life he lived with a semi-respectable widow, Caroline Graves, and her daughter Elizabeth (called Carrie); from about 1865 he had also a second mistress, Martha Rudd, by whom he fathered two children. This he called his “morganatic family.” Public disapproval bothered Collins not at all; he had always hated “Society,” and was only too pleased to be excluded from it. His friends remained his friends.

In any case, many of his circle enjoyed or suffered from marital irregularities. There was Charles Dickens's separation from his wife, Catherine; Holman Hunt's long and stormy liaison with his illiterate model, Annie Miller; John Everett Millais's marriage to Mrs. Ruskin, whose first marriage had never been consummated; William Frith's seven children by his mistress and his twelve by his wife. George Eliot and George Lewes lived together openly, as did Charles Reade and the actress Laura Seymour.

What set Collins apart was his specific dislike for the institution of marriage, and he was not afraid to voice his objection in print. “The real fact seems to be, that the general idea of the scope and purpose of the Institution of Marriage is a miserably narrow one. … The social advantages which it is fitted to produce ought to extend beyond one man and one woman, to the circle of society amid which they move,” he wrote in “Bold Words by a Bachelor” (1856). Collins did not shy from the responsibilities that marriage involved—he willingly supported both his households—or even from a more settled way of life; his relationship with Caroline was a settled one, and time with his “morganatic family” was spent in conventional domestic activity. His stated objections to the institution appear to have been quite sincere, and when in 1868 Caroline tried to pressure him into wedlock by threatening to marry another man, he called her bluff. (She lived with her new husband, Joseph Clow, for two years, then returned to Collins upon exactly the same basis as before.)

Sensitive though he was to the potential selfishness of marriage, Collins was amazingly obtuse when it came to the actual selfishness of his own bachelor existence. As the author of No Name, he had passionately criticized the law that deprived illegitimate children of their legal rights and place in society; as a father, he blandly condemned his own children to suffer these indignities. As a result, his daughters, who lived until 1955, never married and never acknowledged their connection with the novelist. It seems that Collins, generous friend though he was, had a tough streak of egotism, or at least of stubbornness: no one was going to make him do otherwise than his own inclinations directed. Yet he was a kind man, and inspired only affection in the overwhelming majority of his acquaintances. His charm partly stemmed from his lack of interest in social advancement. “Wilkie was entirely without ambition to take a place in the competition of society,” wrote Holman Hunt, “and avoided plans of life that necessitated the making up of his mind enough to forecast the future. In this respect he left all to circumstance.” Yet Collins was anything but careless; he worked industriously, with a conscientious professionalism, and met his deadlines even when incapacitated by illness, as he was throughout his last years.

To today's readers, he is known simply as the author of The Moonstone and The Woman in White. A few others have read Armadale and No Name, and though Collins was the author of thirty-three books as well as many plays and magazine articles, his modern reputation rests exclusively on these four novels, all published in the 1860s.

They are indeed extraordinary, the more so in that they belong, at least in part, to the most ephemeral of all literary genres: melodrama. T. S. Eliot, one of Collins's most influential admirers, wrote of Armadale that “it has no merit beyond melodrama, and it has every merit that melodrama can have.” I think it is time that Eliot's judgment, taken as gospel by many twentieth-century readers, be challenged, or at least broadened. Collins's best fiction comprises melodrama, suspense, and mystery: but it is made complete, made literature rather than simply genre fiction, by a strange and passionate moral vision. This perhaps is one of the reasons that his books are as startlingly vivid, as mesmerically readable, today as they were upon their appearance. Comparing The Woman in White or No Name with other popular melodramas of the nineteenth century—The Mysteries of Udolpho, say, or Uncle Tom's Cabin—Collins's novels have the ring of absolute modernity while the others have dwindled into fusty, faintly ridiculous dullness. Suspense novels with great longevity are rare (how absurd will the works of Stephen King appear to readers a century hence?) and for this reason alone Wilkie Collins might be accounted an extraordinary writer. But there are other reasons, many others.

First among these is Collins's abundant gift for invention. So great was it that he could afford to be profligate with ideas. With The Moonstone, for example, he virtually invented the modern detective novel. (I say “virtually” because Poe had already written his tales of C. Auguste Dupin; but the book-length, fleshed-out plot with a crime at its center was Collins's creation, and many of the book's details have now become conventions of the genre.) But while The Moonstone's innovations have been refined, elaborated, and imitated by thousands of writers over more than a century, Collins himself never again exploited the genre he had created.

Another characteristic that gives Collins's work its life was the assurance, which he shared with many of his great contemporaries—Thackeray, Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, but most of all his brother-in-arms Dickens—that writing for the masses did not imply writing down to them. In Collins's day, highbrow and lowbrow had not yet parted company; the best literature was popular literature, and Collins considered his readers (measured in volume of sales) to be the final judges of his work, rather than the convention-bound critics. Had he lived long enough to witness the Joycean ideal of godlike aesthetic detachment in the writer, he would have been disgusted. As it was, he sought an audience even broader than the voracious general readership of his own period, trying again and again to entrap even the lowest echelon of readers, the “Unknown Public” which read cheap and sensational newspapers rather than books. Though he never succeeded in this final goal, Collins was throughout his career a democratic artist who boldly made his bid for popularity and won it in an almost unhoped-for measure. Swinburne was correct when he offered that “though Dickens was not a Shakespeare, and though Collins was not a Dickens, it is permissible to anticipate that their names and their works will be familiar to generations unacquainted with the existence and unaware of the eclipse of their most shining, most scornful, and most superior critics.”

Collins was exceptional, too, in the way that he adorned his sensational plots with a finely drawn psychological truth. Unlike the typical characters of melodrama, his are no mere types but living people, sometimes etched with a delicacy of nuance that brings to mind George Eliot rather than his fellow-melodramatists, even the greatest melodramatists, of all, Dickens. In spite of Collins's friendship with Dickens—and it was certainly the formative friendship of his career, if not of his life—it was to Balzac that Collins looked for inspiration, and to Balzac's breadth of vision that never excluded the petty, the sordid, the contradictory. Balzac he saw as the greatest portrayer of women, while Dickens was limited in this area: Collins believed Nancy in Oliver Twist to be “the finest thing [Dickens] ever did. He never afterwards saw all sides of a woman's character—saw all round her.” He himself tried always, with varying levels of success, to see “all round” his women characters, an attempt that did not commend him to certain of his critics. When No Name was published in 1862, the reviewer Margaret Oliphant wrote in horror of Magdalen Vanstone, the book's heroine, revolted by her “career of vulgar and aimless trickery and wickedness … from all the pollutions of which he intends us to believe that she emerges, at the cost of a fever, as pure, as high-minded, and as spotless as the most dazzling white of heroines.” Of course Collins never intended even the reformed Magdalen to seem high-minded or spotless; she remains the flawed but attractive character she has been from the beginning. Her sister Norah, who bears the sisters' discovery of their illegitimacy and their subsequent fall into penury with modest resignation, ultimately wins back the family fortune by virtue alone, but it is almost as though Collins simply threw her in as a sop for those who require virtue in a heroine. It is always the ruthless Magdalen with whom the reader identifies, though she goes so far as to prostitute herself by tricking into marriage a man who repels her. Collins deftly manipulates the reader's sympathies so that they turn against Norah and the girls' governess, who have Magdalen's best interests at heart, perversely presenting them as mere encumbrances to Magdalen's search for revenge against the cousin who has robbed her of her fortune and her name.

He again employs a “double heroine” in The Woman in White. Here is the most memorable character in all his fiction, the magnificent Marian Halcombe, a vigorous, passionate, strong-minded young woman who is the most active force for good in the book. Yet, as though to comment upon society's ideal of feminine dependency, Collins condemns Marian to permanent spinsterhood, making the helpless Laura Fairlie the book's nominal heroine. When Laura agrees to marry the sinister Sir Percival Glyde, her father's choice, rather than the young drawing instructor Walter Hartright, whom she loves, her passive betrayal not only for her lover but of herself means that she more or less colludes in the plot to steal her identity and confine her to an insane asylum. Yet the colorless Laura is rewarded with a loving husband and son; Marian, the fighter, who risks her life for Laura, must content herself with the role of aunt. Again, Collins manipulates the reader's sympathies so that they are at odds with the accepted moral code and the role it assigned to women.

He simply felt that life was more complicated, circumstances more extenuating than middle-class English society was willing to admit. Sex, and sex among the unmarried, was a fact of life. Why could others not acknowledge it? He was outraged by the concurrence of Dickens's friend and biographer, John Forster, in the platitude that all of Dickens's work could be put into the hands of children. “It is impossible to read such stuff as this without a word of protest,” he wrote.

If it is true, which it is not, it would imply the condemnation of Dickens's books as works of art, it would declare him to be guilty of deliberately presenting to his readers a false reflection of human life. If this wretched English claptrap means anything it means that the novelist is forbidden to touch on the sexual relations which literally swarm about him, and influence the lives of millions of his fellow-creatures, [except when] those relations are licensed by the ceremony called marriage. One expects this essentially immoral view of the functions of the novelist from a professor of claptrap like the late Bishop of Manchester. But that Forster should quote it with approval is a sad discovery indeed.

The modernity of Collins's books, then, is largely due to his moral vision, which harmonizes far more readily with the relativistic attitudes of our own time than it did with the popular standards of the 1860s. Many have called Collins an atheist. He was not a churchgoer, but he was emphatically not an atheist; he simply believed God's tolerance and forgiveness to be extended far beyond some narrow elect—a belief to be found throughout No Name, an essentially Christian book. Cruelty was hard to forgive, sexual weakness easy.

How was this easygoing iconoclast formed? In her new and entertaining biography of Wilkie Collins,1 Catherine Peters proposes that he determined to escape “the mental inhibitions of the obsession with class that his father had allowed to throttle his freedom.” For though Collins's childhood was a happy one, his parents prosperous and affectionate, there can be no doubt that the father's character—which Peters represents as a “mixture of grovelling humility, anxiety and family affection”—forced an uncongenial code of behavior upon the son.

William Collins was a well-known painter, a member of the Royal Academy, and very much a pillar of England's artistic establishment. He was not, perhaps, an artist who would appeal much to modern tastes, for he ran to heavy-handed conversation pieces with titles like “The Burial-Place of a Favourite Bird” and “The Sale of the Pet Lamb.” Nor was he greatly admired by his more brilliant contemporaries. Constable, who despised his work, described one of William's contributions to the Academy Exhibition as “a coast scene with fish, as usual, and a landscape like a large cow-turd.” Nevertheless, William gave his sons, William Wilkie (born 1824) and Charles Allston (born 1828), a wonderful education in the art of seeing and an appreciation for the privileges of an artist's life. He often expressed his belief that “the study of the Art was in itself so delightful, that it balanced almost all the evils of life … that an artist with tolerable success had no right to complain of anything.” Wilkie (who dropped the “William” from his name in adolescence) later wrote of his father that “an excursion with him in the country was a privilege. … He possessed the peculiar facility of divesting his profession of all its mysteries and technicalities, and of enabling the most uneducated in his Art to look at Nature with his eyes, and enjoy Nature with his zest.”

Wilkie Collins was always a visual writer, constructing his scenes in a vivid, painterly fashion. In this his father's training was instrumental, as was the fact that he spent his entire life around painters. As a child he was surrounded by his father's friends in the profession, who included Turner; his aunt, Margaret Carpenter, was one of the best portraitists of her time; his younger brother, Charley, was a fairly considerable Pre-Raphaelite painter; Wilkie himself studied painting and even had a work exhibited at the Academy Exhibition of 1849. Wilkie included among his own intimate friends the Pre-Raphaelites Rossetti, Millais, and Holman Hunt, as well as the Academy Painters (whose work he preferred) W. P. Frith, Augustus Egg, and Edward Ward.

A careful (some said niggling) artist, William Collins was anything but a bohemian. His modest gifts had afforded him an escape from the obscurity and near-poverty of his youth to the privilege and social position he craved, and he passionately embraced the values of the upper-middle class. Among the perks of his trade were professional visits to the country houses of the great, from where, Peters tells us, “his loving letters to his wife often contain, as well as chat about the titled and famous people he is mixing with, reference to a good sermon, or a pious exhortation not to forget the blessings of the Almighty.” When he sent Wilkie to school, he chose Mr. Cole's establishment at Highbury, telling the boy that there “you will make aristocratic connections which will be of the greatest use to you in life.”

It goes without saying that Wilkie never did make use of these connections. He had already rejected his father's ambitions for upward mobility, turning with gusto toward the raffish and the sybaritic. He became a conscientious nonconformist: “He had only to identify a conventional attitude,” writes Peters, “to want instantly to outrage it; to hear a platitude and contradict it; to have an expectation held of him and disappoint it.” The boy cheerfully failed at each new start in life his father arranged for him, including a five-year stint with a tea-merchant in the Strand, an establishment Wilkie baldly called “a prison.”

William Collins took his family on a long visit to Italy and France from 1836 to 1838, when Wilkie was an adolescent, and from this time on the boy adopted continental attitudes to religion, sex, and food, in obvious reaction to his father's neophobia and piety. Also in contrast to his father, Wilkie was bumptious and sexually self-confident, in spite of his strange appearance: he stood under 5′ 6″, his hands and feet were smaller than a woman's, and there was a bulging protuberance on his forehead.

Though Wilkie began studying law in 1846, his ambitions were by that time wholly literary: he had started a novel. Its composition was interrupted, however, by the death of William Collins, and Wilkie set about the task of writing his father's official “Life.” The finished biography2 was Collins's first published book, and it was received with enthusiasm: “… no better work upon art and artists has been given to the world in the last half-century,” wrote the Observer critic.

Though she had been devoted to her husband, Harriet Collins felt unexpectedly liberated upon his death. After years as the sober helpmeet of a serious and ambitious man, she became ebullient and witty, the dominant force in her sons' lives. She moved to a new house and began running what was in effect a salon for the artists who were her sons' friends: Millais, Frith, and Egg, among others. Wilkie and Charley were content for many years to live with Harriet, using her as landlady, banker, and hostess. She had a firmer hold on her sons than did any of the women in their lives, and Collins was repeatedly to speak of her death (in 1868) as the greatest sorrow of his life.

The new atmosphere at home proved a fruitful one for Collins. He at last completed his novel, Antonina: or the Fall of Rome, published in 1850. It was a historical romance modeled upon the works of Bulwer-Lytton and Scott, and dealt with the destructive nature of religious fanaticism and extremism of all sorts; it was a great success with reviewers. He followed this with a light travel book about Cornwall, Rambles Beyond Railways (1851). His publisher was Richard Bentley, a useful connection in that he also put out a magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, that became an outlet for Collins's growing stream of articles and stories. The first editor of this periodical had been Charles Dickens, and it was at this point in his life that Collins first became acquainted with the older novelist.

Dickens was producing a new play, Not So Bad As We Seem, in aid of the Guild of Literature and Art. Himself the star, he recruited Collins to play a small part. Dickens's rehearsal pace—long, grueling hours followed by riotous parties—suited Collins's temperament, and the two men quickly became friends. John Forster's jealousy of Collins's friendship with Dickens caused him practically to omit Collins from what was for years the definitive biography of the great man, but we now know that during the mid-Fifties Collins became Dickens's bosom-friend, taking the place of earlier companions like Forster and Daniel Maclise. Collins's professionalism matched Dickens's, and his liking for fun and dissipation made him especially attractive. For Dickens had become something of a prisoner in the role of household deity he had created for himself, and family life was growing less congenial to him as he became estranged from his wife and disappointed in his children. Collins's taste for brothels, music halls, and actresses was shared by Dickens; his openness about sexual matters was exciting, if a little threatening to Dickens's chosen image. They traveled together in Europe, Collins flaunting his knowledge of painting and his adolescent sexual experiences in Italy before the more insular Dickens, but generally making himself agreeable: “Collins eats and drinks everything,” Dickens wrote home to his wife. “Gets on very well everywhere, and is always in good spirits.”

Dickens gave Collins valuable business advice about the publication of Basil (1852), his first novel with a modern setting; he gave him work writing stories for his magazine Household Words, including one classic, “A Terribly Strange Bed”; and, in 1853, he made Collins one of the “young men” on the magazine's staff. Collins attacked social convention here and in The Leader, a radical newspaper founded by George Lewes and Thornton Leigh Hunt: “A Plea for Sunday Reform,” for instance, or an editorial on the dreadful legal status accorded married women. When his outbursts became too radical for Household Words' more middle-of-the-road politics, Dickens would gently edit him.

Peters demonstrates that it required an effort for Collins to retain his independence from the Dickens machine. “All Wilkie's good-humored stubbornness was needed to keep his own style and literary integrity, to remain something more than one of Dickens's ‘young men.’” And though Collins continued to publish his own novels (Hide and Seek, 1854; The Dead Secret, 1857), his output was markedly slower during these years than at other times in his life. Dickens could be high-handed: when Collins showed him a play he had written, The Lighthouse, Dickens appropriated it, did some rewriting, and gave it an amateur production with himself in the lead, rather than the professional one with which Collins sought to break into the theater. Nevertheless, Collins's long apprenticeship with Dickens strengthened his work. The older man's energy and rich imagination were infectious, and it is worth noting that after Dickens's death in 1870 Collins never again wrote anything of great imaginative force.

In 1858 the lives of both men changed direction. Dickens's love for the young actress Ellen Ternan forced him to a final break with his wife, and Collins began living openly with Caroline Graves, leaving his mother's house for the first time at the age of thirty-four. (In his biography of his father, John Guille Millais tells a melodramatic story of Collins's first meeting with Caroline: alone and dressed entirely in white, fleeing a mesmerist at dead of night, she appeared like a ghost to Collins and his companions. Peters ridicules the unsubstantiated story.) The way in which Dickens and Collins dealt with their personal crises marks the profound differences between them. Collins was perfectly open about his relationship with Caroline, and if he did not invite her everywhere he went, it was not out of shame but because he often preferred traveling as a bachelor. Dickens took the opposite tack. But while he tried to keep his link with Ellen Ternan a secret, his separation from his wife was inevitably made public, and he responded with defensive bluster, even destroying Household Words because its publishers refused to print his own version of the separation in Punch.

The dissolution of the magazine gave birth to a larger one, however, when Dickens replaced it with All the Year Round. He decided that each number would begin with a serialized piece of fiction by a well-known author. He himself launched the periodical with A Tale of Two Cities, and he asked Collins to follow it up with a new novel of his own. The result was The Woman in White.

The kernel of the story, based [on] a true case, Collins described as “a conspiracy in private life, in which circumstances are so handled as to rob a woman of her identity by confounding her with another woman, sufficiently like her in personal appearance to answer the wicked purpose.” Challenged by Dickens's example, Collins set out to write, above all, a page-turner. “I must stagger the public into attention, if possible, at the outset. They shan't drop a number, when I begin, if I can help it.” But he overstepped the mark in his zeal. “I have yielded to the worst temptation that besets a novelist—the temptation to begin with a striking incident, without counting the cost in the shape of explanations that must and will follow.” He had to begin again—but the new beginning, of course, was more striking yet: Walter Hartright's famous meeting with Anne Catherick, the Woman in White, late in the evening on a Hampstead road.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Collins chose to ignore the stringencies of serial publication. He felt that the most important thing was to keep “the story always advancing, without paying the smallest attention to the serial division in parts, or to the book publication in volumes.” The result is a remarkably free-flowing, suspenseful narrative, unmarred (at least to the modern reader) by subplots or comic supporting characters. Unquestionably thrilling, the book has many other virtues. Its narration by a series of characters in turn (inspired by Collins's visit to a criminal trial) ensures a continual freshness of outlook, gives differing interpretations of the events, and shows, in Collins's best style, the relativism of any received moral notions. The feminist heroine, Marian Halcombe, is something quite new in English literature; the arch-villain, Count Fosco, is an equally superb creation, with his brilliant and all-too-plausible attacks upon the English moral code. Most striking of all is Collins's use of humor, which is always intrinsic to the central situation and never, as in so many popular novels of the period, appended as mere filler. Take, for example, Walter's first meeting with Marian.

I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. … She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

The Woman in White was nothing less than a blockbuster. Lines formed to buy each new number of All the Year Round, and the periodical achieved staggering circulation figures, three times that of Household Words. There were “Woman in White” perfumes and toiletries, cloaks and bonnets; there was a Fosco Galop and a Woman in White Waltz. Collins's commercial success now allowed him to dictate his own price to publishers, and though the highbrow Cornhill was too late to snag his next book, already promised to All the Year Round, its editor offered him an enormous sum for the following one. Collins was gleeful. “Five Thousand Pounds!!!!!! Ha! ha! ha! Five thousand pounds for nine months or at most a year's work—nobody but Dickens has made as much.”

He was already at work on No Name. Dickens was excited by what he read, but gave his protégé a suggestion:

It seems to me that great care is needed not to tell the story too severely. In exact proportion as you play around it here and there, and mitigate the severity of your own sticking to it, you will enhance and intensify the power with which Magdalen holds on to her purpose. For this reason I should have given Mr. Pendril some touches of comicality, and should have generally lighted up the house with some such capital touches of whimsicality and humour as those with which you have irradiated the private theatricals.

Fortunately, Collins ignored this advice. Only a writer of Dickens's own genius could have carried off such “whimsicality” and “comicality” without destroying the straightforward narrative rush which was Collins's particular strength. No Name sold well, though critics were repelled by its heroine. Armadale, Collins's next novel, was serialized in Cornhill from 1865 to 1866. Again, he chose a heroine who would shock: Lydia Gwilt was even more cynical and tough than Magdalen Vanstone. Armadale did not justify the magazine's financial output, selling relatively slowly. But it is one of Collins's best books, in fact the very acme of the “sensation novel” of the Sixties that he did so much to define and popularize. The sensation novel dealt with crime, adultery, bigamy, illegitimacy, sex, murder, or any combination thereof. Armadale and No Name are the best the genre has to offer; Collins now set out to challenge his audience's expectations by changing the rules of the game.

In so doing he created a new and more durable genre. “The Moonstone is the first and greatest of English detective novels,” according to Eliot, and this is an opinion shared by many. In this novel the detective story as we know it today bursts amazingly, fully matured, upon the scene. Its precedents were few. There was the Inspector Bucket subplot of Dickens's Bleak House. There were, as I've said, the Dupin stories: but, as Eliot pointed out, “the detective story, as created by Poe, is something as specialized and as intellectual as a chess problem; whereas the best English detective fiction has relied less on the beauty of the mathematical problem and much more on the intangible human element.” It is Collins's Sergeant Cuff, with his inductive reasoning and his passion for roses, who is the direct ancestor of Sherlock Holmes and his progeny.

Like The Woman in White, The Moonstone has many virtues other than those of its genre. The first is the respect accorded the Hindu religion. The jewel has been stolen from a Hindu temple by the wicked John Herncastle and left in his will to his niece Rachel Verinder. Though the book's series of narrators all treat the diamond as Rachel's rightful property—and indeed, Rachel is innocent of any taint of theft—Collins gently enlists our sympathies with the mysterious, even murderous, Brahmin priests who seek the stone, and we rejoice at the moonstone's ultimate return to its temple. This may seem straightforward enough today, but the novel was written hardly a decade after the Indian Mutiny, and the vengeful jingoism it had caused in England was still the overwhelmingly dominant attitude.

The novel was also remarkable in its bold sympathy for poor working women. With The Moonstone's Rosanna Spearman, the ugly housemaid who dares to fall in love with the young gentleman Franklin Blake and commits suicide for her unrequited love, Collins cast a very uncomfortable shadow over the reader's feelings for the charming Franklin. His inability to recognize the girl's love and her pain is a real fault: as Rosanna's friend Lucy says, “He bewitched her. Don't tell me he didn't mean it, and didn't know it. … Cruel, cruel, cruel.”

The Moonstone was another best seller, spawning imitations of all kinds: The Eustace Diamonds, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and The Sign of Four are three of the more famous books which drew inspiration from the story. But The Moonstone was the last of Collins's great books. After this, his talents seemed to fade, for several reasons.

His health, never good, began to handicap him intolerably. He suffered from a debilitating condition which he described as “rheumatic gout,” and as it grew more severe, he became more and more dependent on laudanum (an opium-based drug) to ease his discomfort. Eventually he was taking massive doses, and the disease and the drug combined to make long periods of concentrated work a painful process. The death of Dickens, two years after the publication of The Moonstone, ended Collins's most fruitful working relationship. Also, his success as a playwright began to play havoc with his fiction; he took to writing his books with one eye on their immediate transformation into plays, and his fictional constructions suffered for it. Some feel, too, that his consuming political interests—the rights of women, anti-vivisectionism, divorce law reform—began during this period to take precedence over his attention to art, and that in the absence of Dickens, he became a disciple of Charles Reade, the leading proponent of “Fiction with a Purpose.” Swinburne's parody of Pope—

What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition?
Some demon whispered—‘Wilkie! have a mission’

—is, perhaps, partly true.

Meanwhile, in the eyes of the great public, Collins was becoming old hat. The most intelligent readers no longer turned to melodrama, and the style of the time, naturalism, was a closed book to him. He was too highbrow for the new mass-readership newspapers, yet out-of-touch with the tastes of educated readers. He was in fact one of the first victims of the new rift between literature for the elite and literature for the masses, and Peters points out that “Collins, who had always believed passionately that the two could and should be combined, found himself caught in the middle.” A younger writer such as Robert Louis Stevenson was able to take Collins's material and turn it once more to magic—for surely Collins, with his recurrent motif of the double, is one inspiration behind both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Master of Ballantrae. But for Collins himself the magic no longer worked. He wrote several more novels, notably Heart and Science (1883), The Evil Genius (1886), and Blind Love, which he was still working on when he died, in agonizing pain, in 1889. Walter Besant finished the novel, on Collins's request and following his fantastically thorough notes.

Meredith, Hardy, and Harry Quilter raised a subscription for a memorial to Collins in St. Paul's, but the Dean and Chapter refused to consider memorializing so notorious a fornicator. The money was used in a way that Collins would have preferred, to create the “Wilkie Collins Memorial Library of Fiction” at the People's Palace in the East End, later Queen Mary's College.

Catherine Peters's biography is timely, for Wilkie Collins is a strangely modern character, his eccentricities likely to appeal to late-twentieth-century readers, his books worthy of a new surge of interest. His disdain for cant and for social niceties are as merciless as anything that came out of his own century, or has come out of ours. “Shall I tell you what a lady is?” Magdalen Vanstone asks her maid. “A lady is a woman who wears a silk gown, and has a sense of her own importance. I shall put the gown on your back, and the sense in your head.” Collins knew that gentility and respectability are constructed of surfaces, with no more solidity than air. But any disdain he felt for the human race was always far overshadowed by his principal quality—kindness. Collins was, above all, a kind man, and he understood the well-kept secret that kindness is not a simple virtue but a difficult one, closely allied with intelligence and sensibility. “Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward,” he wrote; “examples may occasionally be found of a fool who is not cunning; but it may be reasonably doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.”


  1. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins, by Catherine Peters; Princeton University Press, 502 pages.

  2. Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A.; London, 1848.

Elisabeth Rose Gruner (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8724

SOURCE: “Family Secrets and the Mysteries of The Moonstone,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol. 21, 1993, pp. 127-45.

[In the following essay, Gruner evaluates The Moonstone's “scathing commentary” on the secrets and hidden sins of the Victorian family.]

What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition?
          Some demon whispered—“Wilkie! have a

Swinburne, “Wilkie Collins”

Swinburne's famous judgment on Wilkie Collins is not generally applied to The Moonstone, the work which T. S. Eliot called “the first and greatest of English detective novels” (377). While few readers today would go so far as to concur with William Marshall's opinion that the novel reveals a “general absence of social criticism, overt or implied,” still it is rarely considered one of Collins's “message” novels—and probably for this reason it has received far more critical attention than those later works (77-78).1 But The Moonstone, like those later novels with purpose which Swinburne found so unaesthetic, is a novel dominated by a social message—a message probably both riskier and more central to Collins's own life and those of his readers than some of those which pervade his later works, such as his diatribes against vivisection, prison life, the cult of athleticism, and Jesuits. Not easily reducible to “beware opium,” “don't bring back sacred diamonds from India,” or “don't steal your cousin's jewels,” the message of The Moonstone yet involves all three of these strictures. The novel calls into question what writers like Sarah Ellis had celebrated as “one of [England's] noblest features … the home comforts, and fireside virtues” of the Victorian family, and it asks us not to trust in its appearance (Ellis 2). Drugs, imperialism, and theft are subsumed into the larger question of family relations (cousinly or closer) which is at the heart of The Moonstone. What is the Victorian family, and whose purposes does it serve? Collins asks, and the answer does not come back in the family's favor.2

Theorists of detective fiction usually discuss the genre's interest in the discovery and expulsion of a crime, perceived as a foreign element which has invaded a secure community or family.3 While this tendency is apparent in The Moonstone, one of the genre's founding texts, a contradictory impulse runs equally strongly through the novel, one with profound implications for the security of the Victorian family. For The Moonstone is, to a great extent, motivated by an impulse to secrecy, not to tell, to cover up the family's complicity in crime. Franklin Blake's editorial strategy seems designed to this end: he has chosen witnesses loyal to the family, unreliable as observers (Gabriel Betteredge remarks, “It is one of my rules in life, never to notice what I don't understand”), and often monomaniacal to the point of selective blindness (Collins 75). They are, singly or together, almost incapable of telling “the truth.” But the impulse to conceal is built as well into the very material of the novel, Collins's most important source for The Moonstone, the Road murder case of 1860, which remains unsolved today.

If we read The Moonstone in the context of the famous murder case on which it was in part based, we find a scathing commentary on the Victorian family in Collins's selective recapitulation of the details of the case. Far from remaining within the protected private space which Victorian ideology reserved for family, the Kent family in the Road case and the Verinder-Herncastle-Albewhite clan of The Moonstone cross boundaries and break traditions, rules, and commandments. Yet, Collins implies, these transgressions are not anomalous; the reasons for them are deeply imbedded in the Victorian ideology of the domestic sphere, especially in the concept of domestic privacy. For Collins the Victorian family, far from protecting one from the increasingly complex and dangerous public world, is itself the source of many of its own complexities and dangers.


Early in the morning of 30 June 1860, the murdered body of four-year-old Francis Savile Kent was found in an outhouse close by his father's house.4 (The house, known as Road House or the Road-Hill House, furnishes the popular name for the case.) The circumstances of the case soon made it clear that a member of the Kent household must be the murderer, and the case became a cause célèbre in both the local and the national press.

The case received national attention, as Richard Altick notes, primarily “because it occurred in a substantial middle-class family” (130). The murder and the arrests of two young female members of the household (first Savile's sixteen-year-old half-sister, Constance, then his twenty-one-year-old nursery governess Elizabeth Gough) raised the disturbing possibility that the security of the Victorian home was an illusion. Anthea Trodd writes:

The whole Road case affronted the popular conception of the domestic sanctuary in the most violent manner imaginable. … A young lady had been dragged from under her father's roof into a police-court, and her reputation and prospects irretrievably blighted. …


She adds, “All the features of the case recommended themselves to intense publicity,” and Collins was certainly aware both of the case and of its publicity value (Trodd 441). As Collins and the rest of the newspaper-reading public must certainly have known, Francis Savile Kent (known as Savile) had been stabbed several times and his throat was cut, although he did not appear to have bled profusely. (This detail, as hardened readers of detective fiction now know, raises the possibility that the child was stabbed after death.) The child was the son of Samuel Kent and his second wife Mary (née Pratt)—who had been a nursemaid and governess in the Kent household before the death of the first Mrs. Kent.

The appearance of the house and the testimony of the servants made it clear that the house had not been broken into, so the local police suspected those in the house: the family and the servants. It was suggested that Elizabeth Gough had admitted a lover into her room and that they had murdered the child when he awoke inopportunely. This was the most comforting suggestion possible, in an entirely uncomfortable affair, since it exonerated the immediate family and cast blame on a servant and—to some eyes—an outsider. When Jonathan Whicher, the celebrated Scotland Yard detective (and the model for Collins's Sergeant Cuff), entered the picture almost two weeks after the murder, he seized on one (missing) piece of evidence and arrested sixteen-year-old Constance Kent, Mr. Kent's third daughter by his first marriage. The missing evidence was one of Constance's nightgowns, entered into the washing book but never received by the washerwoman. Since no bloodstained clothes were found in the house, Whicher surmised that Constance's missing nightgown was the bloodied evidence which could have incriminated her, and that she had destroyed it. Other examinations of the evidence, however, have turned up reports of no less than three nightgowns, one belonging to Constance's elder sister Mary Ann, stained by what witnesses euphemistically called “natural causes;” Constance's, which some witnesses claimed to have seen—unstained—the morning after the murder; and a mysteriously bloodied “night shift” which was discovered hidden in the boiler-stove and then lost by the bumbling police. By the time Whicher entered the case several days later, there was only the one—now missing—nightgown of Constance's to be reckoned with, and he arrested her. Her putative motive was jealousy of her stepmother and her father's second family.5

Local opinion was against Whicher, and soon after Constance was released on the grounds of insufficient evidence, Whicher resigned from the force in disgrace. Elizabeth Gough was arrested some months later after a second investigation and released when she was proved to know no one in town, thus disproving the “outside lover” theory. Five years later, in 1865, Constance Kent confessed to the crime, and a weeping judge condemned her to death in a melodramatic courtroom scene. Constance's lawyer called no witnesses for her defence in the initial hearing and spoke in the second trial only to record her plea of guilty; Constance herself maintained a stony silence throughout the proceedings.

Like Rachel and Lady Verinder in Collins's transformation of the case, Constance, her stepmother, and Elizabeth Gough appear to have been hostile to or at least uncooperative with the police investigating the case. As Bridges remarks, this seems particularly strange on Mrs. Kent's part, as she was by all accounts a fiercely devoted mother who could be expected to be zealous in her prosecution of her son's murderer. Like Rachel's belligerent silence after the theft of her diamond, Mrs. Kent's refusal to cooperate seems to imply some special knowledge of the case which her personal concerns required her to hide; as the injured parties, both would seem to have had the most to gain by cooperating with the investigation. Constance's confession itself, which failed to account for many circumstances of the murder (including motive, and, especially, the lack of blood), appeared to many contemporary commentators to have been dictated, perhaps by her confessor in the Anglican convent where she had spent the last two years. In a letter written after her confession, Constance pointedly disavowed revenge or jealousy as a motive for the murder, although no other motives were ever suggested. Her confession and subsequent silence failed to convince many of her guilt, including, it seems, the judge who reluctantly sentenced her.6

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the whole disturbing Road case was the reluctance of the family to assist in the investigation of the crime. The suggestion that the family was not all it seemed, especially because its members would lie or at least remain silent even in the investigation of such a brutal murder, is inescapable. The Kent family's silence seems to imply that no one is innocent, least of all the young women whose innocence, in other circumstances, the family could have been expected most zealously to protect. Family secrets, the Kent case seems to say, are both disturbing and dangerous, and murder may not even be the worst of them.


The Moonstone, despite its narrative technique based on eyewitness testimony and a stated devotion to “the interests of truth,” is a novel characterized and perhaps even motivated by secrets (39).7 The prologue's narrator has kept a secret which protects John Herncastle's theft of the moonstone, Mr. Candy's secret trick keeps Franklin Blake's motivations mysterious, Godfrey Ablewhite's secret life must be uncovered to solve the crime, and Franklin Blake's secret from himself complicates both the mystery and his relationship with Rachel. Most obviously, perhaps, both Rachel Verinder and Rosanna Spearman keep secrets to hide Franklin's, and in some sense their own, guilt. Like the mystery of the Road case which inspired it, the plot of The Moonstone is complicated by the silence of women. Rachel, Rosanna, and even Miss Clack conceal their own motivations and what they know of others' in order to protect secrets of their own, thus complicating and ultimately doubling the plot: Franklin Blake's “strange family story” becomes both a mystery and a courtship novel, a story of both theft and passion (39). And the secrecy which creates this mystery is deeply implicated with the family's privacy.

The Victorian family depended on the privacy which earlier generations had carefully cultivated with innovations like corridors and locks and had increased by rejecting earlier practices like fostering out children and boarding in apprentices.8 In Sesame and Lilies, John Ruskin eulogized the family home in terms of its security and privacy:

within [a man's] house … need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offence. This is the true nature of home—it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in.


As Sissela Bok notes, domestic privacy and secrecy are closely related:

The private constitutes, along with the sacred, that portion of human experience for which secrecy is regarded as most indispensable. In secularized Western societies, privacy has come to seem for some the only legitimate form of secrecy; consequently, the two are sometimes mistakenly seen as identical.


In this context, the notion of “family secrets” becomes almost redundant: the family's privacy necessarily involves a certain amount of secrecy, even if the two are not, as Bok notes, identical.

As Patrick Brantlinger has noted, sensation novels like The Moonstone rely on secrecy for their appeal: “the plot unwinds through the gradual discovery—or, better, recovery—of knowledge, until at the end what detective and reader know coincides with what the secretive or somehow remiss narrator-author has presumably known all along” (19). Even the supposed “eyewitness” character of The Moonstone's narration requires, because of its retrospectivity, a certain suppression of evidence in the retelling. Betteredge, for example, confesses that he is concealing his present knowledge of the case in his reconstruction, leaving his readers “in the dark” (233); and Miss Clack (“condemned to narrate,” 241) similarly includes in her narrative an exchange of letters which indicates her inability to “avail … herself of the light which later discoveries have thrown on the mystery” (241; 285).

The absence of testimony from several key witnesses, among them Penelope Betteredge (whose diaries, we are told, provide many of the important facts in Gabriel's narrative), Godfrey Ablewhite, and Rachel Verinder, is even more disturbing than possible omissions in the testimony we do have. Obviously their silence is a necessary element in the novel's mystery plot, but these characters are silenced for another reason as well: they are witnesses to the development of a counterplot involving a young woman's sexual passion and desire.9 The counterplot of Rachel's passion for Blake is witnessed by Penelope and doubled in Godfrey's secret suburban life, but because this second story is told only or at least primarily through the voice of the demented Miss Clack it remains buried through most of the novel. Clack—like Franklin, keeping a secret from herself—provides a grotesque parody of Rachel in her determined suppression of her own and, by implication, of Rachel's desire.10

Rosanna Spearman provides another parallel to Rachel: her passion for Blake is an open secret, known at least to Penelope and Limping Lucy, and the narrative gives her, unlike Rachel, a voice—albeit a voice from beyond the grave. Her “testimony”—the letter to Blake—is both a clue to the eventual solution of the theft mystery and a hint at the other, buried mystery; it is Rosanna who tells us, far more explicitly than Clack or Betteredge, of Rachel's desire for Franklin. It is Rosanna who unites the mystery and the marriage plots by her recognition that the paint on Franklin's nightgown is evidence against him, evidence of at least an illicit visit to Rachel's room, if not of his theft of the moonstone.

Female secrecy is, of course, not unique to The Moonstone. Elaine Showalter believes that “secrecy was basic to the lives of all respectable women” of the mid-nineteenth century. She quotes Jane Vaughan Pinkney's Tacita Tacit, a novel of 1860: “Women are greater dissemblers than men … by habit, moral training, and modern education, they are obliged to … repress their feelings, control their very thoughts” (2). Margaret Oliphant went further than to note the tendency toward concealment; she endorsed it and regretted that young women in modern novels (particularly sensation novels, with which The Moonstone shares many generic characteristics) could not keep their feelings secret. She wrote in 1867, just one year before The Moonstone was published:

That men and women should marry we had all of us acknowledged as one of the laws of humanity; but up to the present generation most young women had been brought up in the belief that their own feelings on this subject should be religiously kept to themselves.


But the secrecy which Oliphant calls for in modern heroines becomes dangerous in The Moonstone when it becomes epidemic, as the women who in concealing their passions also conceal a crime and set off a chain of circumstances which includes theft, suicide, and murder. The family's reliance on secrecy for its normal maintenance quickly translates, in The Moonstone, into an almost pathological—and certainly criminal—secrecy. The secrecy of Collins's own family life seems benign by comparison to the secrecy which permeates both the Road case and The Moonstone.11

Collins makes it clear that the family is not, as Ruskin would have it, a place of peace; and the mysteries of The Moonstone do not arise from a foreign invasion which can be expelled, leaving the family complacently untouched—they are inherent in the very nature and structure of the family. The secrecy which, as Bok and Showalter agree, is part of family life, is primarily women's part. But the women of The Moonstone's extended family, like the women of the Road case, keep their secrets too well, covering up crime rather than expose their passionate secrets to a prying public (primarily the police, but also—especially in the Road case—the press). Like the mystery of the Road Murder of 1860, in which Collins found the original of Sergeant Cuff and the evidence of the missing nightgown, The Moonstone's mystery operates on at least two levels, only one of which—the fictional theft of the diamond or the actual murder of the child—can be publicly acknowledged. And, as the Road Murder seems to hinge on a familial conspiracy of silence, so The Moonstone's mysteries hinge on the silence and the secrecy of the Verinder-Herncastle clan, especially its women.


In its bare outlines, there seems to be little to connect the Road murder with The Moonstone beyond the ineptitude of the local police and the evidence of the missing nightgown. But Collins's focus on the social pathology of female silence seems also to derive from his understanding of the Road case. It is the silence which Constance and Rachel share which unites the cases and sets these women apart from many of their fictional counterparts, at least in the sensation novels Mrs. Oliphant deplores; it is a silence which brings them under suspicion of one crime but may in fact have been designed to conceal another. In Rachel's case, and Collins probably believed in the Road case as well, the second “crime” is illicit passion. In a letter to Collins on 24 October 1860 Dickens outlined his theory of the Road murder. As Dickens puts it:

Mr. Kent intriguing with the nursemaid, poor little child awakes in crib and sits up contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes body to mystify discoverers and disposes of same.12

(qtd. in Bridges 187)

Dickens's theory neatly domesticates the widespread—and more popular—theory of Elizabeth Gough's guilt, which involved a lover coming in from outside the house. Trodd cites other contemporary reports which did, however, in more guarded terms, express variations on the same theme (443).13 Bridges proposes Constance's 1865 confession, then, as a form of self-sacrifice intended to protect her family, keep the secret, and lay the matter to rest. While Rachel keeps silent to protect her cousin-lover and to hide her own feelings for him, Bridges theorizes that Constance's silence (and her stepmother's), and the odd way in which she broke it, were designed to protect her father and to hide his—and Elizabeth's—illicit passion.

Collins's two passionate and silent women—Rachel and Rosanna—recall aspects of Constance and Elizabeth without providing an easy parallel. Rosanna, a servant in love with her master, recalls Elizabeth Gough—but hides a criminal past rather than an (allegedly) adulterous present. And Collins conflates the two roles of Constance and Elizabeth (knower and lover) into the single character of Rachel, thus increasing the pressure on the family to solve or hide its own crimes and its own deviations from familial norms. Of course Rachel is neither murderer or fornicator, nor even an accomplice to any serious crime; yet her silence in the face of a police investigation suggests that Collins could expect her passion to be widely read as almost as guilty as the adulterous Elizabeth's. Any woman who would allow herself to be suspected of theft (or, in Elizabeth and Constance's case, murder) must, the reasoning goes, be hiding something far worse.

As Richard Altick notes, behind the shocking violence of the murder lay other shocking circumstances in the Kent family. The first Mrs. Kent was widely believed to have gone mad after bearing her third child “but her loss of mind did not deter her husband from begetting six more [children] on her body” (Altick 131). Bridges hypothesizes that the first Mrs. Kent was not indeed mad but jealous of her husband's relationship with Mary Pratt the governess (and her successor), and she notes the striking similarities between the situations of the first Mrs. Kent with Mary Pratt, and the second Mrs. Kent (née Mary Pratt) with Elizabeth Gough. Whatever the particular circumstances, the Kent home clearly concealed a most unfamilial (or un-Ruskinian) reality.

So, of course, does the Herncastle-Verinder clan. Mr. Ablewhite, Senior, acknowledges a seamy family history when he attributes Rachel's stubbornness to her Herncastle blood, implying that she is, unlike himself, “descended from a set of cut-throat scoundrels who lived by robbery and murder” (305). The moonstone, then, is not the only legacy Rachel has received from the wicked colonel; in some ways, however, it seems to be emblematic of them all. Perhaps we need to examine the moonstone itself more closely to determine just what these characters are protecting with their secrets.


It is a commonplace of Collins criticism to see the moonstone as symbolic of Rachel's virginity—this bright jewel that “seemed unfathomable as the heavens themselves,” which Rachel displays proudly in the bosom of her dress (97).14 Hutter, building on this connection, notes the more important detail that the diamond is flawed, perhaps “suggest[ing] some of the sexual prejudice so strongly attached to women in the nineteenth century” (200-1). More threateningly, because the diamond would be more valuable cut into smaller stones, the flaw may suggest that a woman's value is not in her wholeness and self-sufficiency but in her multiplicity and her reproductive ability. In fact, as a symbol of woman's status as “exchange value,” one could hardly do better than the flawed diamond. For, as Luce Irigaray notes, only virgins are exchange value for men. Once violated (divided, cut up, married) they become use value, recognized only for their ability to reproduce themselves. Rachel and her (uncut) diamond are both more valued in a capitalist economy for their potential than for themselves.15 Lady Verinder, recognizing this, puts Rachel's inheritance in trust to protect her from a too-rapacious consumer such as Godrey Ablewhite. Only the Hindu priests, who are outside of English life and the capitalist economy, are able to value the diamond for itself; no one (with the possible exception of Franklin Blake) seems able to value Rachel for herself.

John Reed, in his interesting examination of The Moonstone's anti-imperialist implications, makes a similar claim for the symbolic value of the diamond but focuses on its status as sacred gem and stolen object:

In itself ambiguous, its significance lies in its misappropriation. Because it is so desired by men, it signifies man's greed. … More particularly, however, the Moonstone becomes the sign of England's imperial depredations—the symbol of a national rather than a personal crime.

(286; my emphasis)

While I agree with Hutter that Reed “oversimplifies the novel” in this symbolic reading, his insights are helpful (196). For, as he points out, Rachel Verinder has no more right to the diamond than Godfrey Ablewhite—it belongs, in fact, to the Indians from whom Franklin and Betteredge try so hard to protect it and to whom it is finally returned. Like a woman's virginity, its greatest value is a symbolic one: it is less valuable to the possessor (Rachel) than the desirer (whether Ablewhite or the Indians), it is most valuable in exchange, and the desirer is only and always male. The diamond thus points in (at least) two directions: outward, towards England's treatment of its colonies, and inward, to its treatment of women at home.16 And Rachel's insistence on maintaining control of it challenges both of these (analogous) power structures: she refuses to treat the diamond as a prize, preferring to maintain it in its native setting (the Indian cabinet), and she refuses to give up her own independent judgment. Jenny Bourne Taylor claims that “Rachel thus tacitly upsets the conventions of feminine propriety … she is dark, positive, purposeful, independent—yet silent” (200). Constance Kent, who once ran away from home to escape her stepmother's tyranny, was similarly accused (by her father) of a wish “to be independent” (Bridges 39). Her habitual reserve and self-dependence are among the characteristics John Rhode—who believes in her guilt—notes when he claims that “in a sense, the crime saved her character. Before it … she was a wayward, passionate girl … and she would probably have developed into a selfish, headstrong woman” (83).17 The Verinder family lawyer, Bruff—more sympathetic to Rachel than Rhode is to Constance Kent—comments that Rachel's “absolute self-dependence is a great virtue in a man … [but] has the serious drawback of morally separating her from the mass of her sex” who are, presumably, more compliant (319).

Bruff's comment points out a characteristic which all of Rachel's observers note. Rather than claiming that she has been changed by the theft of the diamond into a secretive person, Gabriel, Clack, Lady Verinder, and Bruff agree that she has always been “secret and self-willed” (262; see also 87; 205). Bruff's correlation of secrecy with self-will corresponds with Bok's observation that “secrecy guards against unwanted access by others—against their coming too near, learning too much, observing too closely. Secrecy guards, then, the central aspects of identity” (13). Rachel's secrecy, both after the theft of the diamond and after her broken engagement with Ablewhite, signifies her insistence on maintaining herself as a separate identity and her refusal to be known and thereby possessed.

Why does Rachel's secrecy so annoy her family, when she seems simply to be complying with the Oliphantian code of self-suppression? I believe it is because she, and Constance Kent, and Elizabeth Gough, are forced into the ironic position of defending their identities through the very means Oliphant would use to urge their suppression. Silence for Oliphant signifies a lack of desire—for these women, it signifies an excess.18

When Franklin steals the diamond and Rachel refuses to condemn him, we can see that she is tacitly accepting his right to her sexuality, even to her virginity—but not her identity (Hutter 202-3; Lawson 67).19 Her silence, however, cuts two ways: while protecting Franklin, it puts Rachel herself under suspicion, as well as endangering Rosanna Spearman. While Rachel keeps silent, the truth will remain hidden. Thus the plot of the mystery—the discovery of the diamond—is inextricable from woman's passion, and her identity.

If the mystery plot is inextricably linked with passion, perhaps marriage, the courtship plot is similarly mysterious. Not only must Rachel conceal her passion for Franklin until he becomes a “suitable” suitor, but the moonstone itself becomes a pawn in the marriage negotiations. Money and marriage are often related, both in novels and in life; in The Moonstone Gabriel Betteredge first hints at the connection which will later loom large by giving us his own history.

Selina, being a single woman, made me pay so much a week for her board and services. Selina, being my wife, couldn't charge for her board, and would have to give me her services for nothing. That was the point of view I looked at it from. Economy—with a dash of love. I put it to my mistress, as in duty bound, just as I had put it to myself.

“I have been turning Selina Goby over in my mind,” I said, “and I think, my lady, it will be cheaper to marry her than to keep her.”


Betteredge's euphemistic “services” implies an illicit relationship with Selina not unlike the one Rachel and Franklin metaphorically begin when he enters her boudoir. And, as Betteredge's account implies, money enters into both relationships. Rachel seizes on Franklin's implied debts to explain his “theft” of the diamond: “I had reason to know you were in debt, and … that you were not very discreet, or very scrupulous about how you got money when you wanted it” (400). When Franklin comes to Rachel for an explanation of her actions, she immediately assumes that as he has inherited his father's wealth, perhaps he has come to “compensate [her] for the loss of [her] Diamond” (392). The compensation for the symbolic loss (of virginity) will of course be marriage, but here Rachel's concern is with literal, monetary compensation.

Jean E. Kennard argues that the conventional marriage plot of the Victorian novel most often involves a choice between suitable and unsuitable suitors and that each of the suitors “represents one pole of value in the novel in which he appears” (13). Rachel's suitors take on roles which mask their suitability, however: Godfrey appears as “the Christian Hero” and Franklin as a philandering debtor and suspected thief (Collins 239). According to Kennard, when these roles are sorted out—a sorting out which here requires the solution to the mystery—the marriage plot can be satisfactorily, conventionally, concluded. In The Moonstone, however, the sorting out muddles the “poles of value”: we establish that Godfrey is both a philandering debtor and a thief, but we never really establish that Franklin is neither. In fact he is certainly, according to Betteredge's testimony, at least a philanderer and a debtor. Twice constrained from returning to England by “some unmentionable woman,” on his return he borrows money from Lady Verinder to repay an earlier debt (Collins 48). The conclusion of the courtship plot does, however, literalize the “poles of value”: Franklin, who has inherited his father's wealth, is simply worth more than Godfrey.

But Franklin is Rachel's choice even before his father's death makes him wealthy; so while convention demands a fortune for the novel's heroine, Collins also provides her with passion. Rachel's love for Franklin survives her conviction that he is a philanderer, a debtor, and even a thief—it is only his seeming hypocrisy in calling the police which threatens to destroy her love. For the reader, her passion is an ill-kept secret, but among the characters of the novel only the voiceless Penelope seems to be privy to Rachel's passionate secret—as to so many other secrets of the novel.

Penelope, one of The Moonstone's silent women, only comes to us filtered through her father Gabriel. Her narrative silence helps conceal Rachel's love, since her correct observations are always followed by her father's contradictory opinions. Her silence does more than conceal Rachel from us, however; it also conceals herself. Since her diaries supply dates and times for Gabriel, he suggests that “she should tell the story instead of me, out of her own diary, [but] Penelope observes, with a fierce look and a red face, that her journal is for her own private eye, and that no living creature shall ever know what is in it but herself” (46). Her insistence on her own privacy, which mystifies her father, is a more benign version of another important silence in the novel: Rosanna Spearman's. Both women are, of course, servants, and as such are barely even named by the other narrators of the novel—Miss Clack remembers Penelope only as “the person with the cap-ribbons” (259). But servants are part of the extended family, at least in Gabriel's view, and as such privy to and part of family secrets. Resented for “her silent tongue and her solitary ways,” Rosanna, as Gabriel informs us, is hiding a criminal past; and, as we later discover, she is also hiding an unsuitable and uncontrollable passion (55). In this, she not only doubles Rachel but provides another connection to the Road case: like Elizabeth Gough, she is a servant in love with a master, although her passion is not, like Gough's, adulterous. By comparison, Penelope's “Sweethearts” seem insignificant—and they are, except as evidence of the need for concealment in even the most complacent and commonplace of families (46).

The women of The Moonstone, from Penelope to her mistress and including Rosanna and Clark, are forced to conceal their passions, forced to conform to Oliphant's rules. But this conventional concealment has fatal consequences; Collins seems to suggest that these rules are not, in fact, designed so much to protect female modesty or propriety as to conceal the criminal underpinnings of the Victorian family. While the secret of Penelope's sweethearts seems to have no effect on her household, the “necessary” concealments practiced by the other three women create the mystery, complicate relationships, and prevent simple solutions. Again, the line between benign and fatal secrets is not easy to draw.

Because she is complying with Oliphantian strictures against self-revelation, Rachel must not speak until Franklin proposes. But Franklin is not in a position to propose through most of the novel—he is poor, and his chosen lover suspects him of a crime. The situation is a stalemate: only Rachel can solve the crime, but because Franklin is the suspect, she cannot solve it without revealing her passion (and her acceptance of his presence in her bedroom at night). Despite its mysterious underpinnings, however, Rachel's dilemma is not unlike that of any other courtship heroine; any such heroine, of course, must not speak of love until she is spoken to. According to Kennard, she must also learn to read her suitor correctly and must “adjust … to society's values” (18). Ruth Bernard Yeazell similarly argues that marriage in the Victorian novel is usually a metaphor recognizing the heroine's internal growth and an enactment of the “union of Self and Other … [resolving] the tensions between the individual and the larger human community” (34-35; 37). Although she already finds him desirable, Rachel must learn to see Franklin as acceptable. Her “growth,” then, may look to us like regression, as it involves both a rejection of her former status as self-dependent and a recognition of society's commercially-derived values; she must relinquish her “unnatural,” unwomanly, antisocial silence and allow herself to be mastered by the now-wealthy Blake. After Franklin has inherited his father's money, he confronts Rachel about her silence; only then can he claim that “while her hand lay in mine I was her master still!” (393).

Of course, Godfrey Ablewhite's mercenary machinations also make him an unsuitable suitor. Again, it is Betteredge who first makes Ablewhite's character clear: “Female benevolence and female destitution could do nothing without him”—for he uses female benevolence to create female destitution (89). Ablewhite's aborted engagement to Rachel and his secondary theft of the diamond are both evidence of his deviance from acceptable behavior. As Barickman, and others, point out:

Godfrey Ablewhite's secret … involves Victorian sexual roles at their worst; he hypocritically becomes a champion of charitable ladies while he is keeping a mistress, embezzling another man's money, and preying upon Rachel in order to gain control of her money.


It is not so much Ablewhite's preoccupation with wealth as his hypocrisy which condemns him; ironically, he is really guilty of just the kind of hypocrisy of which Rachel suspects Blake.

So Franklin becomes the right suitor when Rachel learns to read him “correctly,” when Ezra's hypothesis about his behavior proves a more satisfying one than her own; she must believe that he came to protect, not steal, her virginity. And Collins, having upset convention by valorizing his passionate, secret, self-willed heroine and exposing the hypocrisy and criminality of the Victorian family, quietly reinscribes her into the system with her marriage to Franklin.


The Moonstone is, then, a detective story, but it is also a family story. Indeed, it is perhaps not even the “strange family story” Franklin believes it to be, but simply a story about the necessary concealments families practice (39; my emphasis). Gabriel even comments on the text's reliance on secrets, insisting in the “Eighth Narrative” that his “purpose, in this place, is to state a fact in the history of the family, which has been passed over by everybody, and which [he] won't allow to be disrespectfully smothered up in that way” (518). Godfrey Ablewhite—himself a member of the family—has been rather disrespectfully smothered up, but not so Gabriel's news.

Yet even in this triumphant conclusion, Gabriel himself contributes to the pervasive silence of the novel by cutting Franklin off with “You needn't say a word more, sir,” and leaving the news of Rachel's pregnancy—which may stand both as visible evidence of female passion and as final proof of her capitulation to her status as “use value”—unspoken (519). The family, even in its triumphant return, is still relying on secrecy, is still, perhaps, not entirely innocent. The “scattered and disunited household,” disrupted by the theft and Rachel's cover-up, is never wholly restored (225). Although Rachel and Franklin are married, Rosanna, Lady Verinder, and Godfrey are dead, Gabriel is retired, and Clack is exiled.

Cuff's failure to solve the crime on his own, like Whicher's failure in the Road Murder, clearly implies that there are family secrets which the police cannot penetrate—secrets not, perhaps, worse than murder or theft, but more difficult to reveal. Cuff's low interpretation of Rachel's behavior considers the possibility of “family scandal,” but this version of the family scandal, involving as it does debts and pawnbrokers, is entirely outside what Ruskin and even Gabriel Betteredge would recognize as the sphere of family, in the more common and public realm of the police. And, in fact, when this realm becomes central to the case in Ablewhite's unmasking, Cuff acquits himself brilliantly. As D. A. Miller shows in his discussion of The Eustace Diamonds, fictional police are notoriously inept when forced to act within the sphere of family; thus “the plot of the novel ‘passes on,’ as it were, the initial offense until it reaches a place within the law's jurisdiction” (13; see also 33-57). But it is not really the family's inviolability which the police cannot penetrate; it is precisely its inseparability from the public sphere which confounds them. For the police, like the family, still believed in the family's privacy in the mid-1860s; remember that the police in the Road case waited to be invited in, preserving a boundary which had presumably already been broken. While we may want to read Godfrey's crime as a crime outside the sphere of family, involving as it does pawnbrokers and Indians and London and its suburbs, we cannot separate the spheres so easily. Like Rachel's implied crime, Godfrey's is both a family scandal and a police matter; the two spheres are inextricably linked, and no amount of artistic pleasure in neat solutions can separate the two. “The complexity and even incomprehensibility of the truth” are not, as Kalikoff would have it, “related to the invasion of the respectable,” so much as they are related to the instability of the respectable (125). No family is secure, Collins's novel implies, from the dangers of its necessary concealments.

The lesson of The Moonstone, like the lesson of the Road Murder, is that the family is complicit in the failings of the larger society; murder and robbery are not invasions from without but manifestations of societal tensions—involving especially the dangerous desires of greed and sexuality—within. The fabled privacy of the domestic sphere protects it not from the public world but from discovery. If we are to understand the Victorian family at all, we must examine its pathological need for secrecy and understand, as does Collins, the kinds of secrets it protected.


  1. John R. Reed and D. A. Miller are two notable exceptions to this trend, although they find different (and, in Miller's case, deeply buried) messages in the novel. Even Philip O'Neill, however, in his recent attempt to unify the Collins oeuvre in terms of social criticism, finds little to say about The Moonstone, reading it primarily as an allegory of literary criticism. But see Sue Lonoff, who writes of The Moonstone that “none of [Collins's] novels is as profoundly critical of Victorian values … and none is more subtle in linking its political, social, and religious censure to its central images and symbols” (211). Lonoff finally sees Collins's social criticism as less conflicted than I do, but her reading is nonetheless perceptive and interesting.

  2. I take the term “family” in its broadest possible sense here, meaning both “blood kin” and “members of a household.” As we will see in my discussion of the Road case and Collins's novel, the “traditional” nuclear family is something of a chimera. The Kent household comprised parents, children of two mothers, and servants; the Verinder household consists of only one parent, a daughter, and servants—as well as frequent visitors, most of them cousins. Most of the primary characters in The Moonstone—Rachel, her mother, Godfrey Ablewhite, Franklin Blake, Drusilla Clack, Rosanna Spearman, and Gabriel Betteredge—are members of the same “family,” either by blood or service. See Steven Mintz for a review of recent work in family history (esp. 11-20).

  3. See, for example, W. H. Auden. George Grella also claims that “the fabric of society will be repaired after the temporary disruption” of crime (38). Many readings of The Moonstone depend on seeing the criminal Godfrey Ablewhite as an outsider; Beth Kalikoff, for example, claims that the crime in The Moonstone represents an “invasion of the respectable” (125; see also Miller 41-46). Yet Ablewhite and Blake stand in exactly the same relation to Rachel; both are her cousins, and both are clearly established and accepted as family members—thus Ablewhite's father, Rachel's nearest male relative, becomes her guardian on her mother's death.

  4. The case is detailed by Yseult Bridges, John Rhode, Richard Altick, and Mary S. Hartman. As Bridges's is the most detailed account, my summary of the case relies most heavily on her reconstruction of it (as verified by Hartman).

  5. Bridges here relies on the testimony of the police and an account of the crime written by Mr. Kent's doctor and friend, J. W. Stapleton (72-73; 77-84).

  6. Contemporary accounts of the trial reveal that Constance was asked three times to enter a plea before she would say the word, “guilty,” and that the judge was forced to pause twice while pronouncing the sentence to choke back sobs (Bridges 237-39).

  7. In my use of the concept of secrecy, I am relying on Sissela Bok's discussion of the topic. Her definition makes it clear that while not all secrets involve deception or are necessarily wrong, our conceptions of secrecy almost always involve “prohibition, furtiveness, and deception” as well as “sacredness, intimacy, privacy, [and] silence” (6). “The defining trait of secrecy,” she says, is “intentional concealment” (9)—although she later discusses the possibility of keeping a secret from oneself—also an issue for Franklin Blake (see, 59-72).

  8. Ian Watt discusses the rise of domestic privacy in relation to the novel in chapter six of his The Rise of the Novel (see esp. 188). See also Michelle Perrot's claim that “the nineteenth-century family tended to subsume all the functions of private life” (97). Lawrence Stone's evidence concurs with Watt's and Perrot's; he characterizes the intense privacy of the mid-Victorian family as an “explosive intimacy” (423; see also 169). Hartman, writing specifically of the Kent case, claims that “new middle-class privacy provided relative isolation from outside pressures,” especially with regard to the treatment of children and Mr. Kent's alleged adultery (117).

  9. Jenny Bourne Taylor writes, “Rachel's silence is the essential secret that generates the Story; but in its very structural indispensability this suppression turns the conventions of moral management into hysterical repression on the one hand, and on the other suggests that the ascription of hysteria is the uncomprehending response to female autonomy” (201).

  10. Beth Kalikoff argues that “Clack is a comic distortion of the other passionate women in the novel. Cloaking all her prejudices and greed beneath excessive religiosity, she seeks attention, love, and money” (122).

  11. The irregularities of Collins's family life are now well known, although they were perforce “secrets,” at least from the novel-reading public, during his lifetime and have been obscured rather than clarified by his biographers. He lived for most of his adult life with a mistress, Caroline Graves, and her daughter Harriet; and he kept for some years a “second family” consisting of Martha Rudd and her three children by Collins. Martha Rudd and Caroline Graves were equally provided for in Collins's will. Nuel Pharr Davis's highly imaginative biography makes the most of these irregularities, to the extent of using Collins's fiction to “comment” on the still sketchy picture of his domestic life (see, for example, 164, 166). Robert Ashley's biography refers to Caroline Graves as an “alleged ‘intimacy’” and, while reporting speculation that she was his mistress, suggests as well that Collins's bequest to her may simply have been a reward to “an affectionately respected housekeeper”—a hypothesis which is by now largely rejected (72, 77). The two relationships are also discussed by Kenneth Robinson.

  12. It seems more likely that the child was—like Godfrey Ablewhite—smothered, not strangled. In the outline of means and motive, however, both Bridges and Hartman substantially agree with Dickens.

  13. Lonoff puts forth the more traditional view that “the [Road] murder itself has nothing in common with the crime or the plot of The Moonstone” (179).

  14. Psychoanalytic critics such as Charles Rycroft and Lewis Lawson have made the most of this symbolism. Rycroft's perceptive and often amusing reading also notes that Franklin Blake gives up cigar smoking during his courtship: Collins provides both hero and heroine with symbolic representations of their sexuality (Rycroft 235; see also Lawson 66).

  15. Irigaray writes:

    The virginal woman … is pure exchange value. She is nothing but the possibility, the place, the sign of relations among men. In and of herself, she does not exist: she is a simple envelope veiling what is really at stake in social exchange. … The ritualized passage from woman to mother is accomplished by the violation of an envelope: the hymen, which has taken on the value of taboo, the taboo of virginity. Once deflowered, woman is relegated to the status of use value, to her entrapment in private property; she is removed from exchange among men.

    (186; emphasis in original)

    While these comments seem problematic as a rendering of contemporary women's experience, they do clearly point up Rachel's (and her flawed diamond's) status. They may also recall to us the situation in the Kent household, in which Mr. Kent seems to have moved from one virgin to another (his first wife to Mary Pratt to Elizabeth Gough) as if they were interchangeable. The “madness” of the first Mrs. Kent and the silence of the second in the face of his virgin-consumption seems to signal the powerlessness of the woman who has been relegated by motherhood to the private sphere.

  16. See Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., for a discussion of Collins's research into gemology. Hennelly sees the diamond itself as uniting the major themes of the novel, which he characterizes as both detective and domestic.

  17. Apparently Constance's most unforgivable behavior was cutting off her hair and running away from home—at age thirteen—with her younger brother William (see Hartman 110).

  18. Hartmann writes of Constance's confession, “Ironically, this act of confession was finely ‘female,’ just the sort of submissive, sacrificial, and self-destructive act which, in lesser forms, was explicitly demanded of all respectable creatures of her sex” (127). Anita Levy discusses the way in which what in one context is good and “feminine” becomes in other contexts destructive and “masculine,” especially in her discussion of the “Venus Hottentot” and the “Bushwoman” dissection (69-72). She writes:

    When anthropological writing contrasted the “bad” female, disruptive of familial and sexual order, with the “good” female, the upholder of that order, it pinpointed female choice as the decisive factor in the transition from nature to culture. … Most important, anthropological writing helped middle-class women to understand their gender as a contradictory phenomenon precisely because it was both crucial to woman's identity and the gravest threat to it. Being female meant (as it does today) constant self-regulation; neither too little nor too much femininity would do.


  19. I seem to be arriving, by some what different methods, at John Kucich's thesis that “Victorian repression produced a self that was actually more responsive libidinally, more self-sufficient, and—oddly enough—more antisocial than we have yet understood” (3). While I would not claim that Rachel's secrecy is typical of Victorian repression—certainly Bruff and Betteredge find it unusual enough to remark on it—it seems to be operating as Kucich defines the term here.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard D. Victorian Studies in Scarlet. New York: Norton, 1970.

Ashley, Robert. Wilkie Collins. New York: Roy, 1952.

Auden, W. H. “The Guilty Vicarage.” The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays. New York: Random House, 1948. 146-58.

Barickman, Richard, Susan MacDonald, and Myra Stark. Corrupt Relations: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Collins, and the Victorian Sexual System. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Bok, Sissela. Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. New York: Vintage, 1984.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “What Is ‘Sensational’ about the ‘Sensation Novel’?” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37 (June 1982): 1-28.

Bridges, Yseult. The Tragedy at Road-Hill House. New York: Rinehart, 1955.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. Ed. J. I. M. Stewart. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Davis, Nuel Pharr. The Life of Wilkie Collins. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1956.

Eliot, T. S. “Wilkie Collins and Dickens.” Selected Essays, 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, 1932. 373-82.

Ellis, Sarah Stickney. The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits. New York: Appleton, 1839.

Grella, George. “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel.” Novel 4 (Nov. 1970): 30-48.

Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. New York: Schocken, 1977.

Hennelly, Mark M., Jr. “Detecting Collins' Diamond: From Serpentstone to Moonstone.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39 (June 1984): 25-47.

Hutter, Albert D. “Dreams, Transformations, and Literature: The Implications of Detective Fiction.” Victorian Studies 19 (Dec. 1975): 181-209.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. 1977. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kalikoff, Beth. Murder and Moral Decay in Victorian Popular Literature. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1986.

Kennard, Jean E. Victims of Convention. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1978.

Kucich, John. Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Lawson, Lewis A. “Wilkie Collins and The Moonstone.The American Imago 20 (Spring 1963): 61-79.

Levy, Anita. Other Women: The Writing of Class, Race, and Gender, 1832-1898. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship. New York: AMS, 1982.

Marshall, William H. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Mintz, Steven. A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture. New York: New York UP, 1983.

O'Neill, Philip, Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble.

Oliphant, Margaret. “Novels.” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 102 (Sept. 1867): 257-80.

Perrot, Michelle, ed. From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War. A History of Private Life. Vol. 4. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

Reed, John R. “English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged Crime of The Moonstone.Clio 2 (June 1973): 281-90.

Rhode, John. “Constance Kent.” The Anatomy of Murder. Ed. Simpson, Helen, John Rhode, Margaret Cole, E. R. Punshon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles, and Freeman Wills Crofts. New York: Macmillan, 1937, 43-86.

Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1952.

Ruskin, John. “Of Queen's Gardens.” 1871. Sesame and Lilies; The Two Paths; The King of the Golden River. London: Dent, 1970. 48-79.

Rycroft, Charles. “A Detective Story: Psychoanalytic Observations.” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 26 (1957): 229-45.

Showalter, Elaine. “Desperate Remedies: Sensation Novels of the 1860s.” Victorian Newsletter 49 (Spring 1976): 1-5.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Abridged ed. New York: Harper, 1979.

Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “Wilkie Collins.” The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne. Vol. 15. Ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise. London: Heinemann, 1926. 289-306.

Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988.

Trodd, Anthea. “The Policeman and the Lady: Significant Encounters in Mid-Victorian Fiction.” Victorian Studies 27 (Summer 1984): 435-60.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957.

Yeazell, Ruth. “Fictional Heroines and Feminist Critics.” Novel 8 (Fall 1974): 29-38.

Ian Duncan (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “The Moonstone, the Victorian Novel, and Imperialist Panic,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3, September, 1994, pp. 297-319.

[In the following essay, Duncan explores Collins's representation of romantic imperialist discourse in The Moonstone.]


Wilkie Collins's Moonstone (1868) is the sole mid-Victorian novel of the first rank that makes England's relation with India the center of its business. In the conquest of Seringapatam an English officer steals a sacred Indian diamond and bequeaths it to his niece back home. When the jewel disappears from the niece's bedroom, her family and friends—a cast of representative English gentry—fall under suspicion. Eventually the thief is revealed and punished, but agents of the cult carry the Moonstone back to India.

Despite its concern with an imperial dispossession of national character, Collins's best-known novel fails to appear in any of the powerful studies of Victorian representations of empire of the last few years.1 It is not as though the relation between imperialism and the novel has been judged unimportant. For Edward Said, “the novel, as a cultural artefact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other” (70-1). This faintly scandalous claim invokes a familiar theory of the novel as the dominant literary form of historical modernity, identified with a new mimetic technology of realism. Said confronts the paradoxical absence of colonialism, the most salient condition of Britain's political economy, from the mise-en-scène of most Victorian novels. Empire appears nowhere because it is everywhere, the invisible cause of a domestic scenery of realist effects, informing the text as “a structure of attitude and reference” (62). An “incorporative, quasi-encyclopedic cultural form,” the novel founds its “globalized world-view” upon a hierarchy of geographical and social space: a metropolitan center expansive with light and detail, a remote and shadowy colonial margin (76, 52).

Supported by a virtuoso reading of Mansfield Park, Said's thesis coincides with Suvendrini Perera's nuanced and resourceful account of the symbolic fabrication of empire “at the primary levels of vocabulary, image, character, place, plot, narrative” (x, 11). Both critics rely upon a selective construction of the nineteenth-century novel, derived from Ian Watt's canon of formal realism and F. R. Leavis's great tradition of moral realism. The old critical hierarchy of rival, unequal traditions of the novel rather too neatly reproduces the ideological relation between center and periphery exposed in the critique of imperialism. Realism, proximate and metonymically dense, comprises the mainstream genre of domestic fiction, while empire lies in the backwaters of romance. The equation between the novel and formal realism, which tends to make the problem of empire one of reference, informs Martin Green's survey of a romance tradition of imperial adventure tales and Patrick Brantlinger's classification of the fictions of empire as “Imperial Gothic” (230-50).2

Sara Suleri has analyzed “the colonial fallacy through which India could be interpreted only as the unreadability of romance,” secured by the binary closure of allegory (2-15). Nevertheless romance (surely no kind of text is less unreadable) enabled, rather than constrained, the work of historical interpretation in nineteenth-century fiction. Far from signifying a local or reflexive failure of Victorian realism, romance was its dialectical guarantee. The distinction between the terms did not become reified until the demographic expansion and class subdivision of the literary market in the last quarter of the century (the period of Brantlinger's Imperial Gothic). Before then, they mark a productive rhetorical tension across a common literary register: a modern vocabulary of empirical visibility, particularity, and probability, entangled with a grammar of plotting and figuration that encodes past or original cultural forms and tends toward allegory and the master plots of national destiny. Victorian authors found the model of this narrative in the Waverley novels, which thematized the relations between domestic and national levels of event and among different cultures. Scott addresses the imperial constitution of domestic life by combining the linear, progressive, determinist plot of Enlightenment history with wonderful romance plots of return and recovery.3 The modern suppression of cultural origins coincides with their reabsorption as aesthetic forms or exotic commodities. In Guy Mannering (1815), one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century, Scott's conservative allegory of modernization relies on a scheme of complex analogies, articulated by a grammar of romance conventions, among the recovery of an alienated domestic estate, the sentimental education of protagonists, Indian conquest, and the supersession of primitive ways of life in Scotland. Different kinds of historical and cultural capital—metropolitan and colonial as well as patriarchal-feudal and matriarchal-tribal—converge to legitimate the modern British estate. The energy of their convergence is signified by romance, a syncretic cultural tradition that contains, orders, and justifies the diachronic motions of history, even as Britain's looting of India perilously repeats the ancient constitution of a domestic native culture from wild Eastern origins. Guy Mannering exemplifies Gauri Viswanathan's recent thesis that British national culture was founded upon imperial formations, rather than vice versa.4 As a category of cultural value, romance expresses the virtue and potency, rather than mere deficiency, of different cultural formations even as it contains them in an imperial solution.

The Moonstone: A Romance belongs to the tradition founded by Scott, in which romance represents an allegory of historical and cultural formation. Collins represents the subtle alienation of an English domestic culture, signified by a virtuous transparency of character, through its participation in an imperial economy. India now holds a fatal glamour of cultural origins, while England's history and national character are hooded in a colonial darkness. Conceived at the end of the decade of imperialist panic that followed the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Collins's tale does not propound an anti-imperialist sympathy for oppressed colonial peoples, or admiration for a devilish Hindu culture, but neither does it enthrone the imperialist subject-position, the proud seat of world-historical agency, analyzed by Said. Disconcertingly, the grand narrative structure of romance corresponds to an Asiatic rather than an English cultural identity. It contains the effects of realism within it, including the progressive model of history, in a demonic counter-imperialism. When a conventional English domestic order is finally restored it appears reduced, artificial, bright but fragile; while the horizons of the world around it, opened by the deeds of empire, are sublime and alarming. Imperial romance turns upon the diminished solutions of domestic fiction to prophesy, not without agoraphobia, another narrative domain: the public, democratic, history-making vastnesses of a world economy.


T. S. Eliot called The Moonstone “the first and greatest of English detective novels.”5 Dorothy L. Sayers, a practitioner of the genre, elaborates: “Judged by the standards of seventy years later … The Moonstone is impeccable. What has happened, in fact, is that The Moonstone set the standard, and that it has taken us all this time to recognise it.”6 Sayers puts her finger on the anomaly of The Moonstone's status as a generic archetype, the product of a subsequent tradition. Yet the novel was obliged to make sense in a preexisting literary grammar. To read it under the influence of its reputation is to be surprised by the thematic failures and disjunctions that compose its bravura formal perfection. Not the professional detective, the redoubtable Sergeant Cuff, but an outcast, the weird Ezra Jennings, succeeds in accounting for the diamond's theft, through sympathy and sheer luck as much as through scientific ratiocination.7 Nor is the Moonstone restored to its patrimonial function within the symbolic economy of the Victorian country house. Instead, a sinister gang of Indians gets away with “Robbery! … And Murder!”8

The English failure to recover the Moonstone mirrors an Indian success. The Moonstone is not lost but restored, to sacred origins. The Indians are not “a set of murdering thieves” but “a wonderful people,” ready to sacrifice caste (more precious than human life) for the sake of religion (109). So argues the explorer Murthwaite, whose shared identity with the Indians as a secret agent in an alien empire enables him to speak for the virtues of Hindu culture. “This sort of thing didn't at all square with my English ideas,” protests the steward of the country house (108).

The positive alterity of India, its victory over English police skill, complicates recent accounts that make The Moonstone perform a double gesture of epistemological totalization and ideological closure in the name of an omniscient detection. The mystery novel is supposed to cure a crisis of representation with a hermeneutic virtuosity that regulates the relation between world and subject. D. A. Miller argues that Collins's narrative subjects a familiar social world to the alienating surveillance of an interloping detective, then localizes guilt in a scapegoat and disperses the function of detection throughout the register of the realist representation. The narrative dialectic restores (that is, endows) ideological innocence to the world:

Power in the novel is never gathered into an identifiable (and hence attackable) center. Neither is it radically “disseminated” so that the totality it claims to organize breaks down into discontinuities and inconsistencies. Its paradoxical efficiency lies in the fact that an apparent lack of center at the level of agency secures a total mastery at the level of effect. What finally justifies us in calling the novel's perception of power “ideological” is that The Moonstone never really perceives power as power at all. The novel is itself blinded by a mystificatory strategy of power in the very act of tracing it. … The novel must always “say” power as though it were saying something else. As I've tried to suggest, the “something else” is no less than the irresistible positivity of words and things “as they are.”9

Miller's account of a “thoroughly monological” narrative that “promotes a single perception of power” remains strategically blind to the novel's most conspicuous signifier of historical power (54, 56), especially since the condition of being not only “identifiable” but “attackable” constitutes India at the origin of Collins's story. Nor does India simply appear as England's elsewhere, the novel's something else, negative sign of that power and agency repressed in the domestic mimesis. India bears instead “the irresistible positivity” of an alien force that breaks in and out of the domestic order, effortlessly eluding a circumscribed agency of detection.

Despite the sack of Seringapatam that opens the novel, with the British taking the place of previous, Muslim invaders, The Moonstone apprehends an India that exceeds and outlasts British dominion and knowledge. Collins turns around the Scottish Enlightenment universal historiography that described a progression of distinct socioeconomic and cultural formations. James Mill's influential History of British India (1817) relied, for instance, on a conjectural “progress of civil society” to classify Hindu culture as prehistoric rather than as the product of a high civilization. Prehistoric and sublime, Collins's India conforms to a familiar orientalist fantasy, except that prehistory and sublimity now fulfill their tropological potential of resistance to the colonizing, rationalizing rearrangements of a Western evolutionary history. In the final pages, Murthwaite spies on the Moonstone's restoration:

Yes! after the lapse of eight centuries, the Moonstone looks forth once more, over the walls of the sacred city in which its story first began. How it has found its way back to its wild native land—by what accident, or by what crime, the Indians regained possession of their sacred gem, may be in your knowledge, but is not in mine. You have lost sight of it in England, and (if I know anything of this people) you have lost sight of it for ever.


The Englishman credits modern (empiricist and individualist) principles of narrative causality, “accident” and “crime,” for the Moonstone's return. But they are irrelevant to an archaic, sacral, and fatalistic world where priestly devotion fulfills destiny. In one of the best discussions of The Moonstone, Tamar Heller argues that it “concludes on the margins of resistance” to the normative domestic regime of Victorian fiction: “The end of the novel promises a repetition of the historical cycle in which repression is followed by resistance.”10 It is truer to say that Collins represents India as a space more vast and perilous than a “margin”—its own fatal center and dark origins. Cyclical recurrence marks an imaginary domain that exceeds mere history or at least the Western linear history that guarantees the narrative of imperial progress. India is a cultural origin strong enough to resist that alienating momentum and reclaim its own. If Collins's India is no mere periphery sustaining a Western developmental center, neither is its exteriority the proof of an ontological weakness. Stylized, spectral, confected from the tropes of Gothic romance, India represents an alternative symbolic economy that defies scientific detection and sympathetic reciprocity alike. In this way realism apprehends an alien reality. Not for the last time, Manichaeanism is the cultural wisdom of empire.11

The definitive romance of British India appeared more than thirty years after The Moonstone. Kipling's realism illuminates the antithetical technique of Collins's oriental Gothic. In Kim Kipling makes India a mystery thrillingly knowable, penetrable, and playable to the initiates of the imperial game (among whom the reader, for a season, is included). In all its vivid strangeness the great world of Kim's India ends up feeling poignantly familiar, partly because estrangement is made a fact of the hero's psychology. In the last pages the accession of a totalizing perspective dislocates Kim's subjectivity (“the bigness of the world … swept linked thought aside”) to replace it with an instrumental and colonizing relation to a world grasped anew as natural, familiar, everyday:

Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to. They were all real and true—solidly planted upon the feet—perfectly comprehensible—clay of his clay, neither more nor less.12

For Said, this epiphanic topos of a post-Wordsworthian realism conforms closely enough to the ideological technique described by Miller (Said, 141-4). If India can be imagined as England, the sufficiency of the real (“the irresistible positivity of things ‘as they are’”) turns out to be above all nostalgic. We read no such domestication of the nocturnal, deadly, and phantasmagoric India in The Moonstone. Its terrain lies apart, shadowed in stock figures that yield no sympathetic texture of dailiness, use-value, lives we might ever inhabit.13 It affords, instead, an alien nexus of value: a positivity of evil.

Said argues that the sentimental colonization of India in Kim depends on Kipling's strategic repression of the event that most disturbed the nineteenth-century British imperial imagination, the so-called Indian Mutiny or Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Collins wrote The Moonstone in the decade following the Mutiny, when stories of rebel atrocities and bloody British reprisals were still flourishing and an epidemic of insurgency spread from New Zealand to Jamaica.14 Throughout the 1860s the empire appeared on the brink of disintegration, held precariously together by force. A new, dark vision of India emerged, defined by racialist fantasies of oriental barbarism, “changeless patterns of superstition and violence which can be dominated but not necessarily altered”—the exact view reflected and transvalued in The Moonstone (Sharpe, 58; Brantlinger, 200). In this moral climate it is less remarkable that Collins should have eschewed sympathetic realism than that he harnessed the imperialist panic, the nightmare of a devilish India, to depict another world triumphant in its darkness.15


As The Moonstone unfolds, the mystery splits into two problems requiring separate solutions: the whereabouts of the diamond and the identity of the thief. The loss of the diamond soon becomes secondary to a more urgent concern with loss of character. This urgency is expressed by the heroine, Rachel Verinder, whose own character falls hostage to the regime of suspicion instituted after the Moonstone's disappearance (“there's something wrong about Miss Rachel” [173]). She cares far less about the stolen diamond than about the seeming dastardliness of her cousin and lover, Franklin Blake, whom (it turns out) she has witnessed committing the theft. The high psychic cost of the lovers' estrangement impresses more than the final assurance of a complete restoration of their faith in one another. The long ordeal of doubt reveals a symptomatic doubleness of character, experienced by each as a (gender-specific) division of subjectivity. The woman suffers between desire and judgment, when she loves against reason and the evidence of her senses; the man suffers between action and consciousness, when he takes the jewel in a drug-induced trance.16

The crisis of character, meanwhile, proves to be wholesale and categorical. The gravest casualty, Rosanna Spearman, bears the fragile character of a servant who was once a thief, while Ezra Jennings has “a very doubtful character” (372), which may indeed be “gone” (428) altogether. The vulnerability of both outcasts accompanies a physical dissymmetry and preternatural keenness of sympathetic intuition. In contrast, the novel's villainous case of doubled or divided character, Godfrey Ablewhite, is the classical type of Anglo-Saxon fairness: “He stood over six feet high; he had a beautiful red and white colour; a smooth round face, shaved as bare as your hand; and a head of lovely long flaxen hair, falling negligently over the poll of his neck” (89). Face and hand converge in a deceptive smoothness, since Ablewhite's hands are neither empty nor clean.

Remarkable for its thoroughness rather than originality, the characterological scheme expresses a historical and cultural crisis of national dimensions. Its setting, the country house, is here as elsewhere in Victorian fiction the center of civilization, a synecdoche for England. “I follow the plan adopted by the Queen in opening Parliament,” boasts the house steward and family retainer, Gabriel Betteredge, of his annual address to the servants' hall (93). From the beginning the great house is under siege, soon to be invaded and despoiled: “When I came here from London with that horrible Diamond … I don't believe there was a happier household in England than this. Look at the household now! Scattered, disunited—the very air of the place poisoned with mystery and suspicion!” (223). If the disintegrating agent is the Moonstone (“here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond” [67]), what the household disintegrates into is London. Swarming with lawyers, usurers, philanthropists, and the detective police, the modern commercial metropolis is the very locus of mystery in the nineteenth-century urban gothic tradition recently described by Richard Maxwell.17 If plunder characterizes the imperial economy at its foreign site (the storming of Seringapatam), the domestic correlative, as Alexander Welsh has noted, is neither production nor even consumption but debt: something like the figure of an ontological lack.18 Debt is the foreign agent (“a strange gentleman, speaking English with a foreign accent” [91]) that invades the house alongside the Moonstone to undermine Blake's character, and debt drives Ablewhite to pocket the jewel.

Involvement in a modern, global, imperial commercial economy destabilizes the national character of England. This historical allegory would be more reliably conservative if it rested on any firm basis of original English character, untainted by debt or foreign influence, such as the honest squire Roger Carbury affirms in Trollope's Way We Live Now (1875). But no one in The Moonstone, however worthy or sympathetic, has not drunk of the cup of darkness. “There is a wonderful sameness in the solid side of the English character,” Ezra Jennings protests far too late in the proceedings, admitting that a side also exists that is neither (469). Ablewhite, who appears the most solid English gentleman in the book, enjoys anything but internal sameness. “Mr Franklin was a perfect savage by comparison with him,” murmurs Betteredge (97). Only the Indians, truly perfect savages, may preserve (but in the martyrdom of its renunciation) the ontological security of “caste.” (Miss Clack's contribution to this argument, “How soon may our own evil passions prove to be Oriental noblemen who pounce on us unawares!” [241], typifies the wrong kind of allegorization that absorbs foreign differences into a normative Christian psychomachia.) Among the English, virtuous character has to have lived and suffered through its division, its loss, its incorporation of otherness. Even Rachel Verinder is exotically dark (her name combines “verandah,” that typically colonial sophistication of the English house, with “very Indian”), while Franklin Blake (whose name hints at a blackening of the traditional social type of Anglo-Saxon independence, as in those influential national romances Ivanhoe and Sybil) is a modern cosmopolitan mélange of European identities.19 Ezra Jennings, the man who shows how Blake took the Moonstone and yet acquits him of criminal guilt, is the novel's garish but honorable personification of racial and sexual adulterations.20


The phobic representations of a crisis of empire that I have called “imperialist panic” belong to an ideological tradition at least a century old when Collins wrote The Moonstone. The vast imperial spoils of the Seven Years' War, according to Linda Colley, induced “a collective agoraphobia” that contributed to the unsettling of traditional constructs of British national identity between 1763 and the wars with revolutionary France. In 1815 final victory over France, and a further massive consolidation of world empire, provoked a Romantic obsession with “the squandering of civic and personal identity in the imperialist project” and a resulting “internal dislocation” and alien contamination of metropolitan culture.21 In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, during the roughest crisis yet in the British imagination of empire, Collins draws upon this Romantic tradition, specifically alluding to its darkest interpreter, Thomas De Quincey. The “invasion” of first the Indian diamond and then the Hindu gang neatly reverses an imperialist expropriation. A metonymic circulation of properties and categories in England's imperial economy causes their metaphoric destabilization, as they interpenetrate and infect one another. In a global system of exchange, where anything may be substituted for anything else, no character can remain (even if ever it were) original or pure.22

At the same historical moment, Marx was redefining the Enlightenment historiography of successive socioeconomic and cultural formations. In Collins's scheme the economic network of empire dissolves the boundaries of discrete cultural stages. Robinson Crusoe and a pipe of tobacco, the infallible remedies of old Betteredge, exemplify the earlier, feudal cultural stage he mentally inhabits as one of a primitive development of national empire rather than a purely native Englishness. Robinson Crusoe is the founding fable of a modern, economic, and colonial formation of British identity, while tobacco is one of England's original imperial commodities.23 Betteredge's solacing pipe joins in analogic series to Franklin Blake's fashionable nicotine addiction, which leads to his ingestion of a more potent, Eastern drug. Opium causes Blake's loss of character, the disastrous division of self from deed. Cultivated in India for export throughout the empire, oriental despot of the imagination of addicted British writers, object of wars to force open Chinese markets—opium above all other substances represented the global penetration and ontological contamination of a modern imperial economy. The commodity in its pure state as all-pervading, all-subverting fluid, opium enthralls the inner subject to an alien, Asiatic identity.24

In contrast, the novel's other (and no less topical) Indian product, the diamond, represents a unique and threatened integrity.25 Perhaps the most striking feature of the historiography of economic and cultural progress in The Moonstone is its radical displacement from any continuous human subject onto the object in question—the Moonstone itself. As its circulation drives the plot and maps the global imperial economy of modernity, the jewel is the vector of a universal history that cuts violently across societies and individuals.

At each stage of its “adventures” the diamond represents a particular cultural formation (34). From a fetish or idol in a Hindu theocracy, to a trophy of Mogul warrior-kings, to an heirloom among the English landed gentry, it will finally become (under the inexorable logic of debt) a commodity in modern commercial society. Dislodged from its sacred origins, the jewel retains their aura, but in the sinister version of a curse. If fatality is the standard romantic figure for an alienated cultural agency (as in Robert Southey's blood-and-thunder Hindu romance, The Curse of Kehama [1810]), commodification promises (to redeem a tendentious phrase) “the end of history.” At the Amsterdam diamond market the Moonstone is to be cut into pieces “to make a marketable commodity” (513). Liquidation will finally dissolve the jewel's original symbolic value: “Make half a dozen diamonds of it, instead of one. There is an end of its sacred identity as The Moonstone” (109).

Collins narrates universal history (an explosion of national history into the vast and murky web of an international economy) in terms of what recent sociology calls cultural capital.26 Expropriation and semiotic decomposition—literal and symbolic “loss of property”—become the joint principles of a historical progress and cultural transformation, of which property itself is classically the telos. The modern commercial economy is the terminus of a route from “sacred identity” to “marketable commodity” at which all symbolic value, including “character,” loses its integrity. The last and present change, from rentier estate to commercial world-city, will apparently bring the final loss: secret frauds and attritions at home while military force is brandished overseas.

It is important, however, to note the difference between Collins's scheme and Marx's commodity fetishism (the first volume of Capital appeared in 1867). Marx invokes an uncanny agency of objects to represent how a value-equivalence between the products of labor usurps the social relations of workers in a complex market economy. By displacing life from persons onto things, commodity fetishism falsifies the organic world of work. In the transition from sacred origins to exchange-value, the Moonstone signifies the persistence of an archaic ontology despite the displacements of modernity. Where Marx insists on the reality of the commodity, The Moonstone insists on that of the fetish.27 The object's successful resistance to commodification and reversion to fetishism might represent the triumph of a fantasy of commodity fetishism by the author, except that Collins's solution is critical, anti-nostalgic. The Moonstone belongs to no world we might belong to; the home regained at the end of the novel is not our own.


As a world-historical subject that refuses the final transformation of modernity, the jewel occupies the position (no less commanding) of the subject of romance. In the last pages, after the Hindu conspirators have assassinated the man guilty of the jewel's theft, the Moonstone returns to its sacred origins. The fulfillment of a romance theodicy of justice and restoration accompanies a reversal of Western imperial history. If that history follows the diurnal track of the sun, India belongs to another planet, one occult, mutable, and yet recurrent. “There, soared above us, dark and awful in the mystic light of heaven, the god of the Moon. And there, in the forehead of the deity, gleamed the yellow Diamond, whose splendour had last shone on me in England, from the bosom of a woman's dress!” (526). Contingent and evanescent, the bosom of a woman's dress merely reflects the archetype. “India” no longer circulates through the system of exchange value; it becomes the transcendental symbol that refers only to itself. “So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell!” (526). The last words announce the resumption of romance time, an immense cyclical repetition that precedes and outlasts the ephemeral forward glint of national history.

In Scott's novels the forms and figures of romance, signifying a vernacular narrative tradition, aesthetically redeemed local subjects and communities caught in the turbulence of historical change. Whatever social and economic convulsions of the world might occur, the novel builds a cultural idea of home in the familiarization of literary conventions. In Guy Mannering a ceremony of recognitions, the solution to old mysteries, and Indian profit ratify the young hero's return. Collins invokes the comic convergences of romance in the domestic plot of The Moonstone only to block and thwart them. The colonial treasure recedes to its origins; the romance return inhabits an inaccessible, alien domain. The “homecoming of the heir” is denied its conventional transparency: “In short,” says Betteredge, Blake's Eumaeus, “he baffled me altogether” (60). The only recognition of Blake (“like a prince in a fairy-story” [362]) comes from Rosanna Spearman, signally unlucky. He must accept the irrelevance of his will and action in the mystery's solution, a far more chronic condition than the receptive passivity of a Scott hero. Only after being radically severed from agency can the integrity of Blake's character be restored—he has indeed taken the diamond, but without his own will or knowledge, in an opium trance.

The experience of self-recognition is accordingly opaque. It comes in a shock of estrangement, when Blake recovers the garment that will incriminate the thief:

I found the mark, and read—

My Own Name.

There were the familiar letters which told me that the nightgown was mine. I looked up from them. There was the sun; there were the glittering waters of the bay; there was old Betteredge, advancing nearer and nearer to me. I looked back again at the letters. My own name. Plainly confronting me—my own name.


Scott's hero was prompted to recall his own identity by the aural cue of a familiar ballad, embedded in an ancestral landscape. “The familiar letters” of Blake's name can only be read and re-read in blank incomprehension amidst the scenery's alien glare.

The dissociation of character from agency is rehearsed in a strange ritual performance that is the opposite of dramatic. In drama one knowingly assumes another character for a hyperbolic representation of agency—in short, one acts. Jennings's “experiment,” in which Blake is once more fed opium to simulate the night of the crime, constitutes a brilliant variation upon the nineteenth-century novelistic topos of amateur theatricals. In Austen's Mansfield Park, Scott's St Ronan's Well, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and Collins's own No Name, the morally inauthentic and socially subversive practice of acting invades the domestic scene. With Blake's unconscious reenactment in front of witnesses, Collins reverses the convention: the performance redefines purity of character in the divorce of act from ethical intent. The player rehearses a script of which he is not the author.28

To reach the spectacle of a split between agency and meaning, the narrative stages a virtuosic alienation of its own dramatic convention of confessional witnessing. It too must rehearse unconsciousness. Once again Collins works against a convention formulated by Scott, whereby the narrative that represents theatrical mimesis as inauthentic itself appropriates, and makes true, the principles of dramatic representation. In particular, it renders psychology transparent by claiming the register of voice as speaking thought.29 Suffering from a mysterious amnesia, unable to remember administering the opium to Blake, Dr Candy cannot however narrate the crucial event directly to the reader, as do the other participants. Jennings must reconstruct a conjectural “confession” by filling in his own fragmentary written record of the doctor's delirious babblings. Dr Candy's complaint is another case of metonymic contagion, as though the touch of opium dissolved the distinction between dispensing and consuming it.30 Earlier Betteredge had found lying outside the house “a small bottle, containing a thick sweet-smelling liquor, as black as ink” (82), presumably the medium of the Indian gang's clairvoyance (50). Opium, writing, and the disjunction between agency and meaning are uncannily combined. Jennings himself alludes to De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, that classic text of imperialist panic, in which “confession” iterates no recovered integrity of character and voice by its author but the dreadful sovereignty of an alien imagination.31 Opium, the Moonstone's familiar spirit, is the true author of the diamond's removal. Its secret influence and the jewel's role as cultural talisman together produce the estranged function of agency in Collins's novel.

To restore character through its performative disassembly requires a dislocation of agency from meaning. Collins deconstructs Scott's dramatic principles of romance representation: action and voice. The Moonstone: A Romance turns from the aesthetic of Scott's romance revival, which reclaims familiar oral-cultural origins (exemplified in the ancestral ballad remembered from childhood), to the De Quinceyan confession, in which writing is a shattered remnant of the terrifying splendors of a daemonic imagination. That the shift occurs, all the same, within a romance plot secures the author in a position of (Scott-like) allegorical control rather than (De Quinceyan) pathological rhapsody. The domestic romance yields a comic remnant after all: although the diamond goes back to India, Blake's name is cleared and he finally marries Rachel. But what shadow of England is limned in the De Quinceyan vision of an infernal India?


Blake's homecoming—private, erotic, and sentimental—corresponds to neither of the world plots of history or romance. Instead, in a disconcerting reduction, Collins relies on the tradition of the English novel itself as the literature of modern bourgeois domesticity. Betteredge insists that everything that happens in The Moonstone is prefigured in Robinson Crusoe, parodying the function of romance convention as an allusive body of cultural meaning in Scott. When Betteredge informs Blake that his marriage and paternity are foretold in those pages, Blake may admit only ironically the recognition that he is a character in a book:

Here was an opportunity of producing Robinson Crusoe! Here was a chance of reading that domestic bit about the child which I had marked on the day of Mr Franklin's marriage! I read those miraculous words with an emphasis which did them justice, and then I looked him severely in the face. “Now, sir, do you believe in Robinson Crusoe?” I asked, with a solemnity suitable to the occasion.

“Betteredge!” says Mr Franklin, with equal solemnity, “I'm convinced at last.” He shook hands with me—and I felt that I had converted him.


It is Blake's last gesture. “You are welcome to be as merry as you please over everything else I have written,” Betteredge admonishes the reader, “but when I write of Robinson Crusoe, by the Lord it's serious—and I request you to take it accordingly!” (520). Betteredge's harping on Robinson Crusoe, and the thematic containment of one novel inside another, exemplifies not so much quixotism (since Betteredge does not act on his reading and enjoys his hermeneutic triumph undisturbed) as the romance trope of miniaturization, described by Susan Stewart. That special case of ekphrasis, the book within the book, joins with micrographia, the miniature book, the tableau, and the dollhouse to represent the interiority of nostalgia, secure from the immense chaotic dissolutions of history.32 Here, with the relegation of the marriage plot to Robinson Crusoe (the fable of an earlier cultural dispensation, the tale of childhood), we glimpse its domestic scenery as indeed luminous, timeless, perfect, and remote, through the other end of the telescope of literary realism.

Such a glimpse was at once promised and baffled in the Moonstone itself:

The light that streamed from it was like the light of the harvest moon. When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed unfathomable as the heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and then shut the light out of the room, and it shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark. No wonder Miss Rachel was fascinated: no wonder her cousins screamed.


The alluring glow of the miniature becomes the glare of the abyss. The charm of interiority yields to the fearful fascination of an exteriority as infinite distance, absolute space, a confusion of height and depth.

Murthwaite's Asiatic Pisgah vision describes the content of this void:

Looking back down the hill, the view presented the grandest spectacle of Nature and Man, in combination, that I have ever seen. The lower slopes of the eminence melted imperceptibly into a grassy plain, the place of the meeting of three rivers. On one side, the graceful winding of the waters stretched away, now visible, now hidden by trees, as far as the eye could see. On the other, the waveless ocean slept in the calm of the night. People this lovely scene with tens of thousands of human creatures, all dressed in white, stretching down the sides of the hill, overflowing into the plain, and fringing the nearer banks of the winding rivers. Light this halt of the pilgrims by the wild red flames of cressets and torches, streaming up at intervals from every part of the innumerable throng. Imagine the moonlight of the East, pouring in unclouded glory over all—and you will form some idea of the view that met me when I looked forth from the summit of the hill.


According to Stewart the gigantic, the trope of exteriority, signifies the natural landscape, wilderness, but also public space, monumentality and state power, and city life (70-103). What converts the merely picturesque to the agoraphobia of the sublime is the very human presence that should have guaranteed the opposite conversion: “tens of thousands of human creatures.” The unreckonable crowd literally covers and absorbs the landscape: “In three different directions, I saw the crowd part, at one and the same moment. Slowly the grand white mass of the people closed together again. The track of the doomed men through the ranks of their fellow mortals was obliterated. We saw them no more” (526). The life of the mass reanimates the landscape: the crowd has taken over not only the sea but, in its opening and closing, “the meeting of three rivers.” But to the English stranger's lonely and illicit gaze this humanization appears dehumanizing in its obliteration of the individual careers of the heroic agents who restored the Moonstone.

The anxious apprehensions of a global capitalism, writes Leask, incorporate “Malthusian fears of an enormously expanding metropolitan population” into the “material sublime” of De Quincey's imperialist terror (227). The sources of panic lie at home as well as abroad. After all, The Moonstone's conception occurs in 1867, not 1857. The portent of the crowd vexed fiercer minds than Collins's in the turbulent years around the second electoral Reform Act, and he would not have been the only one to intuit a connection with the troubles of empire. Bernard Semmel, the historian of the Governor Eyre controversy, notes the “identification of the Jamaica affair with the … reform riots” in journalistic commentary, as “perhaps the first [case] in which it might be said that the realities of a heavy-handed imperial rule were confronted by the growing acceptance of democracy in the homeland.”33 It is as though the last pages of The Moonstone glimpse Matthew Arnold's phantasm of anarchy, the Populace, in the robes of oriental despotism. World-historical agency discloses itself at last in a primeval, titanic, ideologically unified collectivity that coincides with an alien nature, as of life on the moon. If nostalgia is the turn from dread, this vision occupies an uninhabitable future rather than the past.


The fetishistic displacement of agency from persons onto the relic of an apocalyptic collectivity constitutes The Moonstone's figure of mystery, its own twist upon a familiar problematic in Victorian representation. Collins refuses to follow Scott in the restoration of the ethical subject (individual or national) to the center of historical process, even by the ruses of romance. The mystery of the modern world coincides with its discursive status as a complex, dynamic, and global economy. Regulated by its own occult mechanisms, too immense for any personal determination, this universal economy binds heterogeneous spaces and temporalities of historical development into a violent and fearsome synchronicity. A total synchronic system of metonymic exchanges has usurped the narrative stations of both history and romance in Collins's text to generate the compensatory formation of the Indian sublime, which contains those discarded categories in all their original, but now lethal, metaphoric power. As nation decays into crowd, the British themselves turn out to be the colonized subjects of empire at its global zenith. In taking away their history, so to speak, our history is no longer our own.34 The future may belong in the end to that most alien of collectivities, the people.

Collins resists an ideologically closed justification of empire by grimly but far from mournfully depicting India as a powerful alien origin that constitutes the limit or end of English national historical identity. Only the transparency, the factitious familiarity and certainty, imposed by an act of retrospection may dispel the aura of a fatal obscurity—the threat of authentic prophecy—investing the historical present and future predicated in Collins's text. As we decipher the imaginary of the past, our satisfaction is more confident and hollow than any offered in these fictions, since we convert the menace of oracle into just another illusion.


  1. Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988); Suvendrini Perera, Reaches of Empire: The English Novel from Edgeworth to Dickens (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993); and Jenny Sharpe, Allegories of Empire: The Figure of Woman in the Colonial Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

  2. Green, Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire (New York: Basic Books, 1979).

  3. Ian Duncan, Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 51-62; on Guy Mannering, 111-35.

  4. Viswanathan, “Raymond Williams and British Colonialism,” Yale Journal of Criticism 4 (spring 1991): 47-66; see also Suleri, 10, 22.

  5. Eliot, “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” in Selected Essays (1927; rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950), 413. Ian Ousby reiterates Eliot's dictum: “Its commonly accepted status as the first English detective novel” (Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976], 117).

  6. Cited in Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 218.

  7. Again, subsequent tradition has made the “fallibility of the police detective” into a convention (Ousby, 123). In Bleak House (1853), Dickens's Inspector Bucket solves crimes and catches criminals but (as the murderess taunts him) fails to save or restore lives.

  8. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone: A Romance (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 501.

  9. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 56. For an overtly metaphysical account of this problematic see W. David Shaw, Victorians and Mystery: Crises of Representation (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 10-15. Shaw reads The Moonstone as an allegory of the dialectical relation among the historical hermeneutics represented by H. T. Buckle (logical positivism), D. F. Strauss (symbolist mysticism), and F. H. Bradley (analogical sympathy) (288-99).

  10. Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 163. Heller's analysis of a continued “ideological doubleness” is more responsive than most to “the interpenetration of the realms of empire and domesticity” in The Moonstone, though even here the imperial theme tends to remain subordinate, as a figure for the domestic plot of class and gender dominations (144-7).

  11. For a survey of nineteenth-century British representations of India as the site of archaic, eternal, and natural essences outside history, characterized by Hinduism, image-worship, and oriental despotism, see Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), esp. 12-21, 49-74, 86-9, 109-15, 165-72. On Manichaeanism and empire see Abdul R. JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), esp. 3-4, 264-5, who cites Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1968), 41-2. On the imperialist sublime see Suleri, 27-44.

  12. Rudyard Kipling, Kim (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 331.

  13. Mary Louise Pratt analyzes the uses of sympathy in an imperialist rhetoric of “reciprocity” in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), 69-85.

  14. On British reactions to and representations of the Mutiny see Brantlinger, 199-224; and Sharpe, Allegories of Empire (“a pornographic nightmare” [65]).

  15. I do not share John R. Reed's view that Collins simply redistributes sympathy to heroic Indians. While Reed is acute about the use of India as a frame for a critical view of English society, his conclusion is more sentimental than the novel's: “If imperial depradation is the true crime of The Moonstone, [the] discovery of the authentic value of individual humanity is its true subject” (“English Imperialism and the Unacknowledged Crime of The Moonstone,Clio 2 [1973]: 281-90). On the other side, Ashish Roy's blunt indictment of The Moonstone as “an imperialist text and a justification of imperialist rule” is still less satisfactory (“The Fabulous Imperialist Semiotic of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone,New Literary History 24 [1993]: 657-82). Heller gives a subtler account of an obliquely anti-imperialist critique, noting the contrast between Collins's measured response to the Mutiny in “A Sermon for Sepoys” (Household Words, February 1858) and Dickens's effusions of genocidal wrath (Dead Secrets, 190 n. 8).

  16. Modern critics often read these trials of character psychoanalytically. In the standard account by Albert D. Hutter, the diamond represents repressed desire (“Dreams, Transformations, and Literature: The Implications of Detective Fiction,” Victorian Studies 19 [1975]: 181-209). Jenny Bourne Taylor argues that Collins investigates social and psychic identity as radically unknowable (In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology [London: Routledge, 1988], 174-206). According to Ronald R. Thomas, the psychoanalytic allegory transforms the political plot of imperial exploitation into “a romantic intrigue” susceptible of resolution by the tropes of “scientific romance” (“Minding the Body Politic: The Romance of Science and the Revision of History in Victorian Detective Fiction,” Victorian Literature and Culture 19 [1991]: 233-54).

  17. Maxwell, The Mysteries of Paris and London (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992).

  18. Welsh, Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 231-2.

  19. On the nineteenth-century nationalist mythologies that elected the Anglo-Saxon freeholder to be the original English gentleman see Clare A. Simmons, Reversing the Conquest: History and Myth in Nineteenth-Century British Literature (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990), esp. 13-41, 76-87, 103-8.

  20. See Thomas's account of Jennings as a figure of repressed Indian origins, the emblem of “a guilt and anxiety that are imprinted upon the mind and body of even [the empire's] most innocent citizens” (241-2).

  21. Colley, Britons: Forging the National Identity, 1707-1832 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), 101-5. The Romantic tradition is brilliantly analyzed by Nigel Leask (British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992], 2-5, passim).

  22. The curious assonance of Collins's names for the novel's professional agents, detective Cuff and attorney Bruff, echoes if not alludes to a Dickensian trope of the interchangeability of individual identities in an institutional economy: Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, and Buffy, Cuffy in the government satire of Bleak House (chap. 12). Cuff and Bruff are serially related in the plot; only the intervention of the Indians saves the narrative, no doubt, from an interminable regression of detective agency through Gruffs, Fluffs, and Duffs.

  23. Long before Ian Watt's canonical account in The Rise of the Novel (1957), Robinson Crusoe appears as the romance origin—the literary model of masculine identity formation—in several Victorian bildungsromane, notably Dickens's David Copperfield (1850) and George Borrow's Lavengro (1851). Behind these works lies, perhaps, the fascination with Robinson Crusoe in Rousseau's Confessions.

  24. For the history of opium see Virginia Berridge and Griffith Edwards, Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: St. Martin's, 1981). On opium as metonymic figure of imperial commerce and alien contagion see John Barrell, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); Leask, 199-228 (on De Quincey, who will be discussed below); and Perera, 102-22 (on Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood).

  25. The great Koh-i-Noor (Mountain of Light) diamond had been presented to Queen Victoria in 1850; the metonymic transformation of India to “the jewel in the crown” would take place at Victoria's titular promotion to Empress in 1876. See Sharpe, 150-2.

  26. The concept, although not the term (which is Pierre Bourdieu's), had long been available in the imperial mythology of Western civilization as the translatio studii, the cultural analogue of the translatio imperii.

  27. Thomas Richards interprets Marx's theory within the broad cultural transformation of Great Britain from a production-based national polity to a consumption-based imperial one (The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising as Spectacle, 1851-1914 [Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990]). For a discussion of a later romance development in these terms that illuminates Collins's project see Nicholas Daly, “Victorian Commodity Culture and Fictions of the Mummy,” Novel (forthcoming).

  28. My emphasis here differs from Thomas's account of the curative function of Jennings's “scientific public theater,” which stresses its performative reunion of a gendered rift between mind and body (240-2).

  29. See the debate between Pattieson and Tinto, representing the faculties of dramatization and depiction, in the first chapter of Scott's Bride of Lammermoor (1819).

  30. Nor would the hint of oriental sweetmeats in Dr. Candy's name have been missed by many of Collins's readers, fifty years after the British conquest of the kingdom of Kandy (Ceylon). Compare Dickens's erotic improvement of the figure, Rosebud's “Lumps-of-Delight,” in his opium-steeped, Moonstone-influenced, Oriental-Gothic last work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), 58.

  31. See Barrell, passim, and Leask, 170-228. De Quincey lived to write, characteristically, about the Indian Mutiny (Barrell, 168-81). See also Heller's excellent discussion of Jennings, the manager of the opium ceremony, as Collins's authorial figure of a De Quinceyan and Gothic “erasure of Romanticism” (156-63).

  32. Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 37-69. “The miniature, linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulable, version of experience, … which is domesticated and protected from contamination” (69). Welsh registers the quixotic theme and its unsatisfactoriness (219).

  33. Semmel, Jamaican Blood and Victorian Conscience: The Governor Eyre Controversy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963), 95, 140. Sue Lonoff suggests that The Moonstone reflects the controversy that followed Eyre's ferocious repression of the 1865 Jamaica uprising (Wilkie Collins and his Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship [New York: AMS Press, 1982], 178-9). Collins took no public stand in a debate pitting novelists and poets (defending Eyre) against men of science (censuring him).

  34. Or as a character puts it in Rushdie's Satanic Verses: “The trouble with the English is that their history happened overseas, so they don't know what it means” (cited by Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration [London: Routledge, 1990], 317.

M. Kellen Williams (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7045

SOURCE: “‘Traced and Captured By the Men in the Chaise’: Pursuing Sexual Difference in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 91-110.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes The Woman in White in the context of Victorian gender ideology.]

Immediately after he learns that the woman in white is in fact a woman at large, Walter Hartright asks himself this question:

What had I done? Assisted the victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments to escape; or cast loose on the wide world of London an unfortunate creature whose actions it was my duty, and every man's duty, mercifully to control?


From first to last Anne Catherick, the eponymous woman in white, plays the part of a fugitive sign whose significance every one of the novel's persons is determined to secure. Tracked by a series of men bent on extracting her “Secret” and defining her status, eluding one “false imprisonment” only to wind up buried beneath a tombstone bearing the wrong woman's name, Anne Catherick's place and identity are never definitively settled until, late in the novel, Walter Hartright, hero and author of The Woman in White's first and “final” narratives (374), manages with “One line only” to match the name on the monument with the woman lying beneath it (577).

That “One line only” has its counterpart in the “plain narrative” Hartright writes to restore the true identity of Laura, Lady Glyde (575), the woman whose “fatal resemblance” (399) to her illegitimate half-sister Anne enables Sir Percival Glyde and a cohort to lock Laura away under the assumed identity of Anne Catherick in the Asylum from which Anne had earlier escaped and to bury the fugitive herself, who has died while in the villains' custody, beneath a monument marked “Laura, Lady Glyde.” This conspiracy to confound the separate identities of Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick, along with the forgery through which Sir Percival secures his title, sets the stage for what I take to be The Woman in White's premier project: namely, to inscribe, by establishing the difference between two women, the difference of woman, Woman's Difference; and, by representing that difference as empirically available, to reify the binary model of sexual difference whose stability remained crucial to the coherence of mid-Victorian gender ideology. For, as it turns out, Hartright's “plain narrative” not only settles the vicissitudes of the Lady's identity, it also represents the difference which guarantees that identity as something which should and indeed will be recognized by the circle of listeners gathered to hear his account. The similarity between what Hartright's narrative does and what Collins insisted in the novel's 1861 “Preface” every narrative ought to do is striking. A novel's task, he there maintained, was to represent men and women as “recognisable realities”—“their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told” (xxxii).1 Taking Collins at his word, I shall argue that The Woman in White, a text in which the “recognisable reality” of sexual identity is obscured by a pair of crimes which through some “ominous likeness” (51) make it literally impossible to recognize just who is the Lady and who is or is not the Sir, seeks to stabilize those identities by making the difference upon which they depend not only female, but physiological. The difference, then, whose discovery and affirmation supplies the “sole condition” of this novel's own aesthetic and ideological efficacy is thus the recognizably real, material difference between having or not having a phallus.

The Woman in White's deployment of the material body to clear up the gender confusion on which its plot turns has attracted recent critical attention, most notably in D. A. Miller's “Cage Aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.” Arguing that “[t]he specificity of the sensation novel in nineteenth-century fiction is that it renders the liberal subject the subject of a body” (117), Miller shows how Collins's novel enlists the nominally male reading body's somatic responses—fear, jitteriness, “the modern nervousness that is as fundamental to this genre as its name” (107)—in order ultimately to reinforce the masculine/feminine dichotomy here threatened by the neuropathic body of the Woman. The Woman in White's sensational effects thus work on “the disciplinary subject, whose sensationalized body both dramatizes and facilitates his functioning as the subject/object of continual supervision,” a watch mounted to guard against the male subject's “feminization via the nerves” (114). For Miller, then,

The drama in which the novel writes its reader turns on the disjunction between his allegedly masculine gender and his effectively feminine gender identification (as a creature of “nerves”). … In this sense, the novel's initial assumption that its reader is male is precisely what cannot be assumed (or better, what stands most in need of “proof”), since his formal title—say, “a man”—is not or not yet a substantial entity—say, “a real man.”


But if, as Miller argues, the sensationalized body's “gender identification is an active and determining question” which shapes this novel (117), then a related query, also pending, is the identification of that body's gender, i.e., the discovery of the phallic referent whose presence or absence can alone, to borrow Miller's phrasing, supply the “proof” needed to turn formal titles—say, in this case, “Lady” and “Sir”—into substantial entities.2 Thus while the “sensationalized body” may indeed be crucial to our understanding of how The Woman in White constructs masculinity and femininity—and Miller is not alone in making the case3—that understanding, I would suggest, remains incomplete without taking into account the sexed body as well, which serves to naturalize those categories by providing the bodily difference which guarantees them.

The Woman in White's insistence on anatomical difference, far from being wayward or racy, is perfectly in keeping with mid-nineteenth century medical and scientific representations of gender, where, to take Thomas Laqueur's crisp summary, “sex is everywhere precisely because the authority of gender has collapsed” (156). As Laqueur among others has shown, gender did not acquire either its biological buttress or its binary configuration until the last half of the eighteenth century when, after the Enlightenment's radical reconstruction of the political subject and in the drastically enlarged bourgeois public sphere of post-revolutionary Europe, questions regarding the rights and place of women in the new social order made differentiating between the sexes politically and culturally imperative.4 Earlier accounts of male and female bodies as greater or lesser versions of “one sex,” ranked hierarchically along an axis whose telos was male, gave way to what Laqueur styles a “two-sex model,” an “anatomy and physiology of incommensurability” which holds

that there are two stable, incommensurable, opposite sexes and that the political, economic, and cultural lives of men and women, their gender roles, are somehow based on these “facts.” Biology—the stable, ahistorical, sexed body—is understood to be the epistemic foundation for prescriptive claims about the social order.


New scientific representations of the body provided the “facts” needed to support this biology of incommensurability. In 1759 Thiroux d'Arconville published a detailed model of the female skeleton (a structure hitherto regarded as sexually indistinguishable), its fantastically enhanced pelvis and diminutive cranium nicely illustrating the “maternal nature.”5 New renditions of the nervous system revealed the source of feminine sympathy in “female fibers” (Laqueur 149, 157). Ovaries and testicles, organs which had for two millennia shared a single name (testicles), were linguistically and graphically distinguished, while the vagina, hitherto undistinguished, was given its own name.6 These last distinctions in particular mark a radical departure from Classical and Renaissance renditions of male and female bodies which, following the Galenic model of an exact physiological homology between the sexes' reproductive organs, continued to represent the female body as an inverted version of the male's, differing in configuration rather than kind.7 But by the last half of the eighteenth century, Laqueur argues, “the genitals whose position had once marked a body's place on a teleologically male ladder came to be rendered so as to display incommensurable difference” (157); thus “[i]n terms of the millennial traditions of western medicine, genitals came to matter as the marks of sexual opposition only last week” (22).

More even than making an epistemological shift graphic, these renditions of reproductive difference pinpoint the bodily parts that were to take on major political and cultural significance in the following century, when, as Mary Poovey has shown, “a binary representation of sex as the fundamental definition of difference” came to stand as “the characteristic feature of the mid-Victorian symbolic economy” (199). With customary Victorian finesse, The Woman in White works to give that symbolic economy its material, anatomical base by resolving the crimes against gender it recounts through “the idea of something hidden below the surface” (434), some thing the uncovering of whose presence or absence proves indispensable in the hero's quest to determine and then represent the true (sexual) identities of Lady Glyde and Sir Percival. In order better to examine just how the discovery of what lies “hidden below” informs The Woman in White's representation of sexual identity as well as its hero's stunning narrative ascension, I want to bring the psychoanalytic account of the role perceiving genital difference plays in constituting gendered subjectivity to bear on Walter Hartright's own discovery of the woman's difference. That discovery, as we shall see, stands as the enabling condition of his and the novel's “final narrative” (374), securing the masculine and discursive positions its hero needs not only to represent the Lady's difference as a reality which, in perfect accordance with Collins's “Preface,” should and indeed will be “recognized,” but also to conduct an investigation into Sir Percival's own sexual/textual identity that will legitimate Hartright's position as man and master narrator and his final narrative's representation of gender as a “recognisable” reality.

The Woman in White bills itself as “the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and of what a Man's resolution can achieve” (1). As it happens, “a Man's resolution” supplies the story's; and what both achieve is a spectacular reification of the difference that establishes “a Woman's” place and identity. But in order to pull this off, the “Man” in question—Walter Hartright, at this point “out of health, out of spirits” (2), and strangely disinclined to serve as drawing master for “the two young Misses” at Limmeridge House (13)—must first secure his own position as man and then (or rather therefore) master narrator, positions which, as his first and unsuccessful try at the narratorial post makes clear, remain contingent upon his discovery of the woman's difference.8

Throughout the course of his early relations with Laura Fairlie, the young drawing master is nagged by a “vague suspicion of something hidden,” something he is “left to find by [his] own unaided efforts” (56). The trouble at this point is, he has no idea where to look, no idea what is hidden. “In all this,” Freud writes with regard to the male child's first inquiries into the nature of sexual difference, “the female genitals never seem to be discovered” (“Some Psychical Consequences” 145)—which is no surprise since Freud situates those inquiries within the phase of phallic primacy, when “only one genital, namely the male one, comes into account” (142). Hence, to take Stephen Heath's summary, “given the perspective of visibility established, it is the sex of the woman that is taken as the very instance of the unseeable, the hidden” (54). The arrangement, Heath notes, underwrites “a particular economy of representation” whereby “the difference of the woman is the visibility of the man, the assured perspective, the form of exchange; with woman's representing as the lack, the difference … a certain mystery, the veil of truth (‘this lack is only ever presented as reflection on a veil,’ [Lacan] SII, p. 261)” (83).9

That particular economy of representation, with its penchant for reflecting the lack by way of a veil, is The Woman in White's. Early on, and no doubt because her sudden appearance has left him “far too seriously startled … to ask what she wanted” (15; my emphasis), Hartright fails to “lift the veil that hung between” Anne Catherick and himself (19). Later, certain that he “might never look on [Laura] again,” Hartright's gaze is checked by the veil covering her face (79). Between these failures to discover the lack behind the veil occurs another, perhaps the most telling. Once again, the failure entails a signal inability to ascertain “what she wanted,” a symptomatic bungling of look and lack; once again, it leaves the young man feeling “ill at ease and dissatisfied” with himself (45). Here is the sensation baffling Hartright the moment he first sees Laura:

Mingling with the vivid impression produced by the charm of her fair face and head … was another impression, which, in a shadowy way, suggested to me the idea of something wanting. At one time it seemed like something wanting in her; at another, like something wanting in myself, which hindered me from understanding her as I ought. … Something wanting, something wanting—and where it was, and what it was, I could not say.


Although Hartright later fills in what he thinks is wanting here with his “own recognition of the ominous likeness” between Laura and her half-sister Anne (51), that recognition will not assist him in “understanding [Laura] as [he] ought” any more than it will help him apprehend either his masculine identity or his authoritative narrative position. For as his imminent dismissal from Laura's presence and the narratorial post makes clear, what the drawing-master needs to recognize is not two women's similarity, but one woman's difference.10

“Something wanting, something wanting—and where it was, and what it was, I could not say.” The passage gives Hartright's perplexity two dimensions: first, he cannot locate the lack; second, he cannot name it. Both difficulties are intimately related. According to the psychoanalytic paradigm, the moment the boy-child sees the woman's anatomical difference—an event he will experience retroactively as providing confirmation of the prohibition against incest, the law that endows anatomical difference with its cultural significance—is also, crucially, a moment which precipitates his entry into the order of language, the cultural or symbolic order within which, and on the basis of that difference, he will be assigned his sexual and signifying positions.11 A product of intense cultural mediation, that moment is also one in which, as a number of feminists have pointed out, woman comes to symbolize lack, difference. As Laura Mulvey puts it, “Ultimately the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for organization of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father” (16). As Mulvey's gloss makes clear, entry into the order of language depends, like the paternal prohibition itself, upon the ‘recognition’ of the woman's difference, i.e., the discovery of her “castration.” To put all this back in the novel's terms, then, Hartright needs to see Laura's difference before he can say it, needs, that is, to perceive her lack in order to acquire his own position as man and master narrator.

The narrative meets this requirement with considerable figurative brio by having Laura actually unveil her difference before its hero's rapt gaze: a difference that is, literally, her difference from Anne but that figures, thanks to the long-standing equation between the lifted veil and the exposed female genitalia, her anatomical difference.12 Here is the situation: after learning from his mother that Laura has ‘died,’ Hartright returns to Limmeridge, hoping to find consolation at his beloved's gravesite. As he kneels before Lady Glyde's tombstone, head bowed, he hears the sound of approaching footsteps and looks up. Standing before him are two figures, a veiled woman and the now ravaged Marion Halcombe, her eyes “large and wild, and looking at [him] with a strange terror in them”:

I took one step towards [Marion] from the grave. She never moved—she never spoke. The veiled woman with her cried out faintly. I stopped. The springs of my life fell low; and the shuddering of an unutterable dread crept over me from head to foot.


“Probably no male human being is spared the fright of castration at the sight of a female genital,” Freud remarks (“Fetishism” 154)—a sentiment Marion apparently intuits, since she sinks to her knees and begins crying out “Father! strengthen him. Father! help him, in his hour of need,” in a voice which “faltered and sank low—then rose on a sudden, and called affrightedly, called despairingly to [Hartright] to come away”:

But the veiled woman had possession of me, body and soul. She stopped on one side of the grave. We stood face to face, with the tombstone between us. …

The voice came nearer, and rose and rose more passionately still. “Hide your face! don't look at her! Oh, for God's sake, spare him!—”

The woman lifted her veil.


And Hartright instantly sees the difference that allows him to identify Laura as the Lady without “the shadow of a suspicion, from the moment when she lifted her veil” (380), the lack that entitles him to announce, as he does immediately thereafter: “My position is defined” (381).

Having recognized the Lady's difference, Hartright is now ready to represent it. Accordingly, he “open[s] a new page” and prepares to write the account that will establish Laura's identity by representing the difference he has just recognized as, exactly and again, recognisable (379). Hartright's recognition of the woman's difference thus provides the enabling condition of his and the novel's “final narrative,” giving him the masculine and narratorial positions he needs not only to represent the Lady, but also to take charge of the narrative disorder that has prevailed since his initial failure at the narratorial post. In a move which breaks decisively with the format first laid out in the novel's “Preamble” and fully operative up to this point—namely, to let the story “be told by more than one pen” and under the direction of persons who would “relate their own experience, word for word” (1)—Hartright immediately blue-pencils Laura's and Marion's first-person accounts, electing instead to relate “both narratives, not in the words (often interrupted, often inevitably confused) of the speakers themselves,” but in the words of his own “brief, plain, studiously-simple abstract”—“So,” as he explains, “the tangled web will be most speedily and most intelligibly unrolled” (381).13 But if, as another narrator manquée has it, the “gentleman['s]” ability “to put my language right as he goes on” provides convincing testimony of Hartright's having mastered his sexual and signifying positions alike (366), then it is his detective work—work launched immediately after his discovery of the woman's difference—that allows The Woman in White to produce the material evidence on which its narrator-hero's position as man and master narrator ultimately rests. For as it turns out, representing the difference that will establish the Lady's place and identity requires investigating the real bases of a man's “Rank and Power” as well (381), a requirement by which this novel intends to disclose precisely what the woman's difference guarantees.

That Rank and Power belong, of course, to Sir Percival Glyde, who having forged a record of his unwed parents' marriage in the Old Welmingham register is not at all the man he claims to be. Percival, as Walter Kendrick aptly puts it, owes his identity “to a few lines of writing where there ought to be a space” (30): and in a text which holds its masculine and feminine vocabulary to a genital referent and a properly authored line, the man who is really a “blank” is doubly illegitimate.14 But although Hartright will spend a good deal of time girding himself “for the coming struggle with Sir Percival” (399), in point of fact there never is any struggle. This is not, as some critics have claimed, simply because the hero, having survived during the term of his exile from Laura “the wilds and forests of Central America,” assorted attacks by Indians, a plague and one shipwreck, has already proven himself sufficiently manly (373).15 The stakes here, I think, are different, higher: far from showing what it takes to become a man, the contest between the hero and the villain is intended instead to show what it takes to be a man. So—to take the clearest case in point—the “trial of strength between [Hartright] and Sir Percival Glyde” (419) will be decided purely on the strength of what does or does not lie “hidden below.”

Suspecting, then, that “[s]moothly and fairly as appearances looked … there was something wrong beneath them” (465), Walter Hartright scans a second copy of the Old Welmingham register, which like the first ought to contain a record of Sir Percival's parents' marriage. But what he discovers instead, “there, at the bottom of the page,” is “a blank space.” “That space told the whole story” (470). Percival, it appears, does not have what it takes to be a Sir:

The idea that he was not Sir Percival at all … had never once occurred to my mind. At one time, I had thought he might be Anne Catherick's father; at another time, I had thought he might have been Anne Catherick's husband—the offense of which he was really guilty had been, from first to last, beyond the widest reach of my imagination.


The fact that Percival is neither father nor husband; that the “secret which had been [his] life-long terror” is not the “common, too common, story of a man's treachery and a woman's frailty” (432); that “the offense of which he was really guilty” might entail, as Count Fosco phrases it, a “private difficulty” (300), trouble figured by his compensatory habit of “cutting new walking-sticks,” “not one of which he ever takes up for a second time,” but always “thinks of nothing but going on, and making more” (207)—these tell-tale impotencies suggest that Percival's textual lack, that “Secret” which has “a contemptible side to it” (456), is at bottom a sexual lack.16

But in case we miss the point, the novel obligingly annotates the crime through its punishment. Hoping to destroy all evidence of his forgery by burning the incriminating documents, Percival steals the keys to the church vestry and locks himself inside; but when he tries to let himself out after having set the room afire, he cannot extricate his key from the “perverse lock” (465) and so is unable to withdraw. Hartright—who has just discarded his own “light” walking stick for “a stout country cudgel … heavy at the head” (472)—arrives just in time to hear “the key worked violently in the lock” and then “a man's voice … raised to a dreadful shrillness” (476). Clambering onto the roof, Hartright smashes the skylight with his cudgel but to no avail; the “horror of [Percival's] situation” drives our hero to find himself a still larger tool. Calling to “every man,” he rushes into an abandoned cottage and seizes a beam:

God! how it held—how the brick and mortar of the wall resisted us! We struck, and tugged, and tore. The beam gave at one end. … There was a scream from the women … a shout from the men. … Another tug all together—and the beam was loose at both ends. We raised it, and gave the word to clear the doorway. Now for the work! now for the rush at the door! (479)

By the time that door collapses after the third “run with the beam,” Percival has been erased—“nothing,” “nothing,” the narrative intones—and Hartright reels back, spent (479). The scene is intensely phallic. The grinding contrast between Hartright's virility and Percival's impotence, a point driven home by the relentless progression from stick to cudgel to beam, by Hartright's knack for extricating his tools; the fact that Percival perishes in a room filled, à la Tristram Shandy, with “‘Portraits of the twelve apostles in wood—and not a whole nose among 'em’” (460); even the “Rude caricatures” somebody bothers to scrawl on the boards barring the charred-out vestry (487): all suggest how steadfastly determined this text is to base a man's identity on the phallic referent.

But there is a more serious side to the villain's crime, a threat which, it seems to me, is finally responsible for the terrible thoroughness and urgency of his expulsion. Percival's forgery, together with the spurious documents through which he and Count Fosco effectively write out the difference between Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick, raises what for this novel are a pair of equally intolerable possibilities: first, the possibility that sexual identity and the difference upon which it is founded are not, after all, “recognisable realities”; and second, the possibility of a writing which, far from reflecting, in fact produces its referent.17 This last, at any rate, is patently the case with Sir Percival, whose identity has no ground outside of or prior to the writing which produced it. But nowhere are the possibilities that difference might not be a recognisable reality or that writing might come to wield more authority than the referent it ought to reflect more darkly entertained than when Lady Glyde, freshly incarcerated as Anne Catherick, finds every attempt to assert her own identity systematically countered by “the marks on each article of her underclothing” (393). Here is the nurse instructing her new patient:

Look at your own name on your own clothes, and don't worry us all any more about being Lady Glyde. She's dead and buried; and you're alive and hearty. Do look at your clothes now! There it is, in good marking-ink; and there you will find it on all your old things … —Anne Catherick, as plain as print!


The “good marking-ink” that reads Anne Catherick but refers to Lady Glyde stands as the last in a series of writerly operations—including counterfeit doctors' orders, fake medical certificates, and spurious letters—by which Percival and Fosco have managed to inscribe Anne's name on Laura's body and Laura's name over Anne's body. The upshot is semiotic chaos: with Anne buried beneath a tombstone marked “Laura, Lady Glyde” and Laura alive but no longer functioning as an object of reference, each woman becomes a referent deprived of its proper sign, each name a sign cut loose from its proper referent.

Reuniting these estranged pairs and effacing the script which set them at odds supply the impetus for the “plain account” Hartright composes to “secur[e] the just recognition” of Laura Fairlie (550), an account he will read to the men and women gathered at Limmeridge House. Beyond treating his listeners to what MacDonagh and Smith aptly call “an abridged version of The Woman in White itself” (280), Hartright's “plain account” of the difference that renders the Lady's place and identity “publicly recognised” (576, 574) fulfills the literary task as Collins himself had defined it—which, we recall, was to reproduce fictional men and women in terms that would render them “recognisable” to their real-life counterparts. After the family solicitor declares that account “proved by the plainest evidence he had ever heard in his life,” the narrator-hero then lifts Laura in his arms, raising her

so that she was plainly visible to every one in the room. “Are you all of the same opinion?” I asked. …

The effect of the question was electrical. Far down at the lower end of the room, one of the oldest tenants on the estate started to his feet, and led the rest with him in an instant. … “There she is alive and hearty—God bless her! Gi' it tongue, lads! Gi' it tongue!” The shout that answered him, reiterated again and again, was the sweetest music I ever heard.


Hartright's electrifying achievement is to have restored a woman's identity in terms fully consistent with its representation in mid-nineteenth century gender ideology where, as here, it was based on her bodily difference, tangible evidence of her place and, of course, the man's. Laura Mulvey's remark is worth recalling in this context: “Ultimately the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for organization of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father.” Laura Fairlie's identity rests on the discovery and affirmation of the difference which, narratively and thematically, constitutes her meaning and which, first at the cemetery and then again at Limmeridge House, is displayed as “visually ascertainable.” By the same token, Walter Hartright's position as man and master narrator is predicated on his having perceived the “material evidence” of that bodily difference, the very evidence he will adduce in support of his final narrative's claim for the recognisable reality of the Woman's difference.

“Hartright's campaign of textual renovation,” Walter Kendrick writes with regard to The Woman in White's determination to ground the truth somewhere outside texts, “is set moving by an experience which cancels the similitude set up in the second sensation scene three hundred pages before”(31)—the experience, Kendrick says, of seeing “language negated by the sight of a living face” as Laura Fairlie stands beside the inscription recording her death (32). What Kendrick describes as “an experience which cancels … similitude,” “an immediate vision which transcends the lies of language,” comprises what I have argued is the perception of the woman's lack, the sight of an anatomical difference whose recognition, to return to the novel's 1861 “preface,” clearly constitutes “the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told.” But the very moment that makes this “compaign of textual renovation” possible—“this striking moment when language is negated by the sight of a living face”—is also a moment that threatens to undo it. For with “Laura, Lady Glyde … standing by the inscription” recording her death (378), the bind between words and the woman's body—a bind vital to legitimating the narrative project—comes undone; at the same time, and precisely because of that hiatus, difference loses its anatomical foundation and becomes purely linguistic (the woman's difference from words), the site of resistance rather than a term for containment.

The possibility that Woman's Difference might, like the Lady herself, confound rather than complement its inscription suggests just why The Woman in White might be, as one critic has described it, a book “profoundly about enclosing and secluding the woman” in spaces ranging all the way from marriages and madhouses to musty chambers and monuments like Mrs. Fairlie's or Cecilia Matella's (Miller 112). For if, as I have suggested, the representation of men and women as “recognisable realities” depends upon representing the woman's bodily difference, then her escape would amount to nothing less than a disappearance of the “plainly visible” referent needed to substantiate difference's strictly anatomical significance and the truth of Hartright's inscriptions—a threat elaborated through the constant worry over whether the novel's fugitive females have been “traced and captured by the men in the chaise” (23). Thus besides ordering the masculine/feminine, homo/heterosexual dichotomies set awry by the woman's unnerving drift, The Woman in White's determination to “Cherchez, cachez, couchez la femme,” as Miller translates it, also works to countermand the peculiar problems her flight poses to its representational agenda (125).

Nowhere is this imperative to immobilize and inscribe the woman's body more sublimely at work than in the case of Anne Catherick, the text's most elusive and therefore threatening woman. The woman in white, as Diane Elam has suggested, can be read as “the figure of reference itself, haunting the representational claims of the realist novel” (50) with her infinite supplementarity, her role as “a rhetorical trope which figures the impossibility of literal, descriptive reference” (55). Anne's talent for evoking “the impossibility of literal, descriptive reference” begins the moment she leaves Hartright unable to tell whether he has just confronted “a victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments” or “an unfortunate creature whose actions it was [his] duty, and every man's duty, mercifully to control” (22). Insofar as arresting this slippage between victim and ward turns out to require some form of incarceration, whether criminal or kindly, Hartright's dilemma would seem to reflect the novel's. For if the woman's difference is her difference from language—that spectral possibility raised when Laura stands beside her own inscription—then any attempt to secure her body as difference's “literal, descriptive” referent would in fact be tantamount to making her “a victim of the most horrible of all false imprisonments”—an epitaph uncannily brought home when Anne is immured beneath the wrong inscription.

Correcting that inscription and glossing the crime which laid her beneath it as a dark but ineluctable destiny, a desire felt by the fugitive and sanctioned by Providence, comprise the steps by which novel and narrator alike plan not only to erase what is “false” and “horrible” from the fact of Anne's imprisonment, but to put to rest as well any doubts raised by the question she once asked the hero as she “knelt down before the inscription”: “Where should I go, if not here?” (85). Harking back to those “by-gone days when [he] had met [Anne] by Mrs. Fairlie's grave, and met her for the last time,” Hartright marvels at how decisively an “unerring … chain of circumstances” has secured the fugitive's destiny:

I thought of her poor helpless hands beating on the tombstone, and her weary, yearning words murmured to the dead remains of her protectress and her friend. “Oh, if I could die, and be hidden and at rest with you!” Little more than a year had passed since she breathed that wish; and how inscrutably, how awfully, it had been fulfilled! … There (I said in my own heart)—there, if ever I have the power to will it, all that is mortal of her shall remain, and share the grave-bed with the loved friend of her childhood …


The “One line only” Hartright has engraved in order to make certain “all that is mortal” of this text's most mobile woman “shall remain” clearly aspires to share in the same sublime inscrutability which presides over the fugitive's fate. But neither that gloss nor the inscription it seeks to underwrite are without their difficulties. “The End is appointed; the End is drawing us on—and Anne Catherick, dead in her grave, points the way to it still!” (415). Dead in her grave, the fugitive also points up the violence required to intercept and inscribe her errant body so as to finish off this “story of what a man's”—and a novel's—“resolution can achieve.”


  1. The immediate context for Collins's use of the term “recognisable” is the charge, leveled by a fair number of the novel's reviewers, that he was deficient in his portrayal of character. For a discussion of Collins's relations with his reviewers, see Lonoff.

  2. I read the terms “Lady” and “Sir” and the confusion surrounding their status as tropes through which The Woman in White dramatizes its concern with sexual identity and gender difference. The nineteenth-century, as Davidoff among others has remarked, is a period in which “class designations came to carry gender overtones” (88), when the appellation ‘Lady’ “signified as much gender as economic and social meaning” (91). Indeed, according to Kaplan, “[t]he many layered, compacted representations of class and gender found in imaginative literature are not generic metaphors. … They occur in many other nineteenth-century discourses—metonymic, associative tropes which are linked by incomparable similarities, through a threat to identity and status that inheres to both sets of hierarchies, both structures of difference” (164-65). For a reading of The Woman in White which focuses exclusively on questions of class identity, see Loesberg.

  3. For Anne Cvetkovich, who also concentrates on the sensationalized body, Hartright's sensitivity to affect helps diffuse and naturalize his sensational climb up the social ladder.

  4. It is important to note, as both Laqueur and Schiebinger insist, that far from being a result of scientific advances or a greater understanding of female anatomy, this new model of sexual incommensurability is instead the effect of a complex set of cultural and political determinates. For a full discussion of those determinates, see Laqueur, Chaps. 1 and 5, and Schiebinger, Chaps. 7 and 8.

  5. D'Arconville's rendition continued to be favored throughout Europe and especially in England over its far more anatomically correct rival, the Soemmerring skeleton (1796). On the advent of the female skeleton and England's preference for the d'Arconville model, see Schiebinger, 191-206.

  6. See Laqueur, 4-5, 157-61. According to Jordanova, the genitals of late-eighteenth century wax models and engravings, which earlier models had customarily covered, were now “not just present, but drawn to attention” (54).

  7. Laqueur describes the Galenic model thus: “The vagina is imagined as an interior penis, the labia as foreskin, the uterus as scrotum, and the ovaries as testicles” (4).

  8. With the notable exception of Miller, critics tend to regard Hartright's questionable masculinity as a figure for something beyond itself. Cvetkovich, for example, reads the drawing-master's “desexualization” as “the sign of his class difference” (28), while Tamar Heller, who reads The Woman in White as a novel which “revolves around the attempts of a male artist to detach himself from the world of women and their blank ‘whiteness,’ or lack of social identity” (111), connects the “symbolic emasculation” Hartright suffers while at Limmeridge to the economically marginal and therefore feminized status of the male artist (117); for Heller, then, “male professionalism is posed as the solution to the problem of masculine identity” (128).

  9. For more on the interrelationship between the woman, the veil, and her certain mystery in psychoanalytic discourse, see Kofman.

  10. Critics who treat this scene tend to focus on the overdetermination of Hartright's failure to recognize the similarity between Laura and Anne. See Cvetkovich, 34-36, and Miller, 25-27.

  11. On the importance of sight in the Freudian scenario and its intense cultural mediation, see Mitchell and Rose, Silverman, 137-149, and Laplanche and Pontalis. Coward and Ellis offer a detailed account of the link between the perception of difference and the subject's entry into the symbolic order, as do Mitchell and Rose, as well as Silverman.

  12. Elam argues that, through “the figural play inscribed by the infinite supplementarity” of Collins's women in white (55), “the feminine refutes the decidability of identity and instead unveils the untruth of decidable sexual difference” (62). I am arguing that, like the mid-nineteenth century medical discourses with which it is profoundly allied, The Woman in White wards off this figural threat by collapsing femininity and the female, making the woman's body (or more precisely, her anatomical difference) the truth of sexual difference.

  13. This startling redistribution of narrative duties has attracted critical attention, but never as an effect of Hartright's perception of the woman's difference. See, for instance, Perkins and Donaghy, and Heller, 134-41.

  14. For an exhaustive treatment of the links between writing and illegitimacy, see MacDonagh and Smith.

  15. See, for instance, Miller, 118-119.

  16. It seems pertinent in this context of castration to mention that one of the novel's most enthralled reviewers “def[ied] Oedipus himself, after reading two volumes, to predict the end of Sir Percival Glyde” (Page 82).

  17. Kendrick makes a similar point when he suggests that “At the heart of The Woman in White stands the momentous question whether … the language of any text might not generate the reality which it pretends to imitate” (35). I share Kendrick's conviction that, for all its flirtation with textuality, Collins's text is “founded in the realistic faith which it violates.” But for an opposing point of view, see Thomas.

Works Cited

Collins, William Wilkie. “Preface” to the Present Edition. 1861. The Woman in White. Ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973. xxxi-xxxii.

———. The Woman in White. 1861. Ed. Harvey Peter Sucksmith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973.

Coward, Rosalind and John Ellis. Language and Materialism: Developments in Semiology and the Theory of the Subject. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

Cvetkovitch, Ann. “Ghostlier Determination: The Economy of Sensation and The Woman in White.Novel 22.3 (1989): 24-43.

Davidoff, Leonore. “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries or Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick.” Feminist Studies 5.1 (1979): 86-141.

Elam, Diane. “White Narratology: Gender and Reference in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. Ed. Lloyd Davis. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993. 49-63.

Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey et al. Vol. 21. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74. 152-57. 24 vols.

———. “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes.” Standard Edition. 19: 248-58.

Heath, Stephen, “Difference.” Screen 19 (1978): 51-113.

Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992.

Jordanova, L. J. “Natural Facts: A Historical Perspective on Science and Sexuality.” Nature, Culture and Gender. Eds. Carol P. MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980. 42-69.

Kaplan, Cora. “Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Literary Criticism.” Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism. Eds. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. London: Methuen, 1985. 146-76.

Kendrick, Walter. “The Sensationalism of The Woman in White.Nineteenth-Century Fiction 32.3 (1977): 18-35.

Kofman, Sarah. The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud's Writings. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Laplanche, Jean and J.-B. Pontalis. “Fantasy and the Origin of Sexuality.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 49 (1968): 1-18.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

Loesberg, Jonathan. “The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensational Fiction.” Representations 13.1 (1986): 115-38.

Lonoff, Sue. Wilkie Collins and his Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1982.

MacDonagh, Gwendolyn and Jonathan Smith. “‘Fill Up All the Gaps: Narrative and Illegitimacy in The Woman in White.The Journal of Narrative Technique 26.3 (1996): 274-91.

Miller, D. A. “Cage aux Folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White.The Novel and the Police. Berkley: U of California P, 1988.

Mitchell, Juliet and Jacqueline Rose. Introduction. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne. London: Pantheon Books, 1982. 1-57.

Mosedale, Susan Sleethe. “Science Corrupted: Victorian Biologists Consider ‘The Woman Question.’” Journal of the History of Biology 11.2 (1978): 1-55.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16 (1975): 6-18.

Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Perkins, Pamela and Mary Donaghy. “A Man's Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White.Studies in the Novel 22 (1990): 392-402.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origin of Modern Science. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.

Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Thomas, Ronald. “Wilkie Collins and the Sensational Novel.” In The Columbia History of the British Novel. Ed. John Richetti. Columbia: Columbia UP, 1994: 479-507.

Further Reading

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Cvetkovich, Ann. “Ghostlier Determinations: The Economy of Sensation and The Woman in White.” In Novel: A Forum on Fiction Vol. 23, No. 1 (Fall 1989): 24-43.

Argues that the rhetoric of fate and chance in Walter Hartright's narrative serves to mystify many of the sensational elements in The Woman in White.

Elam, Diane. “White Narratology: Gender and Reference in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. In Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Fiction, edited by Lloyd Davis, pp. 49-63. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Considers the relationships between woman, referentiality, and truth in The Woman in White.

Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992, 201 p.

Studies Collins's use of the Gothic to dramatize “female victimization” and “disruptive female sexuality” in his novels, particularly Basil, The Moonstone, and The Woman in White.

Kent, Christopher. “Probability, Reality and Sensation in the Novels of Wilkie Collins.” In Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 20 (1991): 259-80.

Discusses Collins's “redefinition of the boundaries of probability and possibility” in his sensation novels.

Law, Graham. “Wilkie in the Weeklies: The Serialization and Syndication of Collins's Late Novels.” In Victorian Periodicals Review 30, No. 3 (Fall 1997): 244-69.

Details the history of novel serialization as it relates to Collins's works.

Ledwon, Lenora. “Veiled Women, The Law of Coverture, and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.” In Victorian Literature and Culture 22 (1994): 1-22.

Investigates the theme of a woman's loss of legal identity through marriage in The Woman in White.

MacDonagh, Gwendolyn and Jonathan Smith. “‘Fill Up All the Gaps’: Narrative and Illegitimacy in The Woman in White.” In The Journal of Narrative Technique 26, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 274-91.

Probes the nature of false, legitimate, and transgressive narratives in The Woman in White.

May, Leila Silvana. “Sensational Sisters: Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.” In Pacific Coast Philology XXX, No. 1 (1995): 82-102.

Examines sisterly love and its link to the motif of erotic desire in The Woman in White.

Miller, D. A. “Cage aux folles: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.” In Speaking of Gender, edited by Elaine Showalter, pp. 187-215. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Analyzes the dynamics of bodily sensation and gendered perception in The Woman in White, contending that the work ultimately privileges patriarchal ideology.

Morris, Debra. “Maternal Roles and the Production of Name in Wilkie Collins's No Name.” In Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 27 (1998): 271-86.

Discusses motherly influence in No Name.

Nayder, Lillian. “Agents of Empire in The Woman in White.” In The Victorian Newsletter 83 (Spring 1993): 1-7.

Maintains that Collins presents both a defense and a subversive critique of imperial ideology in The Woman in White.

Pykett, Lyn, ed. New Casebooks: Wilkie Collins. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998, 280 p.

Contains eleven essays on Collins's novels by various contributors.

Roy, Ashish. “The Fabulous Imperialist Semiotic of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone.” Im New Literary History 24, No. 3 (Summer 1993): 657-81.

Contends that The Moonstoneis “a prototypical imperialist text” that both exhibits and justifies imperialist rule.

Sutherland, John. “Wilkie Collins and the Origins of the Sensation Novel.” In Dickens Studies Annual: Essays on Victorian Fiction 20 (1991): 243-58.

Recounts Collins's numerous contributions to the sensation novel genre.

Taylor, Michael. “‘In the Name of her Sacred Weakness’: Romance, Destiny, and Woman's Revenge in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White.” In University of Toronto Quarterly 64, No. 2 (Spring 1995): 289-304.

Comments on Collins's manipulation of romantic tropes concerning feminine weakness in The Woman in White.

Thomas, Ronald R. “Wilkie Collins and the Sensation Novel.” In The Columbia History of the British Novel, edited by John Richetti, pp. 479-507. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Investigates the mania for sensation novels precipitated by the publication of Collins's works of the 1860s.

Additional coverage of Collins's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1832-1890; andDictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 18, 70, 159.

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Wilkie Collins Long Fiction Analysis


Collins, Wilkie (1824 - 1889)