Reading Landscape: Wilkie Collins, the Pathetic Fallacy, and the Semiotics of the Victorian Wasteland

by Simon Cooke

In his assessment of the art of Wilkie Collins, Harry Quilter highlights the way in which the “facts of Nature” are combined with the “emotions of his story” (578). Quilter’s comments are astute: for one of Collins’s key concerns is the interconnectedness between his landscapes and his characters’ states of mind. Indeed Collins regularly exploits the poetic device that, in volume three of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin called the Pathetic Fallacy. Presenting his settings as ‘real’ places—many of the landscapes being literally based on specific locations—Collins insists on combining emotions with topographies. Collins thus writes his landscapes as tangible places that are also textualizations of inner conditions. As in his treatments of physiognomy and gesture, he develops his settings as a series of “outward signs” (No Name, 111),1 iconic visualizations that exist in two domains and empower the novelist to chart what lies ‘within’, whilst rooting that information in the phenomenal world. At once intensely ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’, Collins’s landscapes are concise embodiments, inscriptions of feeling in the very fabric of the material world. In Collins’s settings “all things” can thus represent an “aspect of the heart” (Basil, 37); nature and human nature are merged, locations become mindscapes, and the forms of the land are simultaneously the “hieroglyphics” of the characters’ psychologies (The Moonstone, 169).

This fusion of landscape and mind is partly realized in Collins’s treatment of the Picturesque. Strongly influenced by the example of his father’s art, he recreates the ideal linkages, the connection between sentiment and setting which, according to him, was a main characteristic of the paintings of Collins senior (Memoirs, 2:229). As William Collins makes use of the Picturesque as a method of projecting his figures’ emotions, so Wilkie manipulates the serenity of the natural world as a means of visualizing his characters’ happiness. In The Two Destinies, for example, the “grassy banks” and “soft reflections” of Greenwater Broad are the emblems of a swain-like contentment (11). The Picturesque similarly encodes the bucolic contentment of the children of St. Cleer, whose innocence is signalled by the details of unspoilt terrain and “rambling” village (Rambles Beyond Railways, 20-1). Modelled on pictures such as Borrowdale(1821) and The Kitten Deceived (1816), both now housed in the Guildhall Gallery, London, these descriptions represent the “sentimental rusticity” of his father’s sensitive style (Wood, 11).

The linkage of mental and material is more typically developed, however, in the writing of Gothic dystopias. Conceived as gardens gone to seed, these grotesqueries subvert the aesthetic and moral certainties of the Picturesque. Described as dense fields of rank vegetation, tangled trees, dank pools, sluggish rivers, barren plains and moorlands, they collectively suggest a type of psychological malaise. Reflecting the emotions of those who stand within them or (on a few occasions) those who own them, they provide a nightmarish equation, a series of diseased visualizations in which the characters’ sense of morbidity is encoded in the blight of the land.

So much is clear, although the exact definition of the characters’ state of mind is more problematic. Always presented as iconic descriptions, without textual explanations to frame them, Collins’s dystopias imply a wide variety of distressing emotions. Walter de la Mare (94) keeps his options open when he interprets the landscapes as the emblems of “rapture . . . suspense . . . fear . . . dread . . . despair or anguish”. For Sampson, on the other hand, the overwhelming effect is one of “desolation”, “depression” and “horror” (646). Yet others, adopting a variety of approaches, have striven for more precision. Hutter, for instance, in a tour de force of Freudian psychoanalysis, has interpreted the Shivering Sand in The Moonstone as a dream-representation of “the fear of intercourse” (204). Bernstein has argued for a Gothic interpretation stressing the “manipulation of archetypes” (299), whilst the Blackwater Estate of The Woman in White has been linked to the sufferings of Dante’s Inferno by Caracciolo (390-1).

These readings are useful, although the approaches are largely ahistorical and raise more questions than answers. The emotional content of Collins’s dystopias can be better explained, I suggest, by viewing the emblems within those landscapes as signifiers drawn from a range of contemporary semiologies. Engaging in a sort of intertextual game, which eclectically borrows from literature and art, Collins appropriates what in effect are conventionalized notations of blight: ways of showing types of emotional malaise that were commonplace throughout the “wastelands” of mid-Victorian culture (Dahl, 341-7). In the domain of literature his sources include the Gothic landscapes of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis, whose work he knew well (see Peters, 6 & 32). By looking to the emotionalized landscapes of Gothic, he found a rich source of emblematic details. He also drew on the elaborate landscapes of Scott, his favourite novelist, and on the contemporary descriptions of Tennyson, the Brontës, Browning and Poe. Other sources can be traced in the painterly wastelands of Danby, whom Collins regarded as a ‘poetic’ painter, and in the symbolism of flowers.

Familiar with each of these precursors, Collins exploits what is clearly a code or language of suffering. Indeed, the possibility of manipulating this discourse depends upon its legibility to his original readership. By drawing on a pre-existing semiology Collins strongly appeals to the knowledge of his audience; addressing the literate, he could be confident that (as in his manipulation of other sets of codes) his readers’ awareness paralleled his own. Yet the notations of the wasteland are no longer understood, and the original significance of Collins’s treatments has been lost. In this essay I reconstruct the emotional content of Collins’s blighted mindscapes by reconnecting the emblems to their original semiologies. In so doing I demonstrate how the dystopias should be read, their significance as a method of characterization, and their position within the discourse of the Victorian wasteland.

Visualized as a dense conglomeration of “lank weeds” (The Queen of Hearts, 139), creepers, ivies and moss, or “tangled trees” (The Woman in White, 180), Collins’s gross vegetation can be interpreted as a sub-set of the ‘language of flowers’. Popular throughout the century, and described in literally dozens of books, this code provides a concise symbolism in which floral emblems are the “ingenious pictures” of states of mind (Phillips, 20). In fact Collins’s use of the ‘language’ is highly systematic, and, although he never possessed any of the works associated with the discourse (see Library of the Late Wilkie Collins),his treatments reflect a clear understanding of its semiotics. This point needs to be stressed, for in her recent analysis of the symbolism of flowers, Beverly Seaton has cast doubt on its impact on Victorian writing. According to Seaton (162), there is “little or no direct application . . . to most nineteenth century literature”. However, this claim can be refuted (in at least one instance) by examining Collins’s usage in detail. In particular, we can decode his vegetation by linking it to the symbolic tables which appear in publications such as Phillips’s Floral Emblems (1825), Wirst’s Floral Dictionary (1829), Ingram’s Flora Symbolica (1887), and the anonymous Language and Poetry of Flowers (1889). By reconnecting his emblems to these code-books it is also possible to question Seaton’s other claim, that the language of flowers was barely a language at all, but only existed as a “vocabulary list” with no universal notation (Seaton, 2 & 148). On the contrary, the code Collins employs is always consistent. Functioning, like all proper languages, to give expression to a range of connotations, it materializes a specific set of psychological conditions. Featuring at key moments in the characters’ emotional development, Collins’s weeds and bushes give iconic but resonant expression to their thoughts and feelings.

In sharp contrast to the sentimental encodings of flowers (Seaton, 16- 18), gross vegetation generally acts as a signifier of troubled thoughts. Presented in the form of cankerous plants, it visualizes the metaphorical cankers invading the characters’ mental terrains. Stressing the idea of psychological infestation, Collins focuses on plants that trail and climb. Provocatively described as the emblems of “dangerous insinuation” by Phillips (107), these icons are used particularly to convey the cancerous qualities of fear, anxiety, paranoia and obsession. Thus, in The Woman in White, Marian’s concern for Jonathan is vividly evoked by the “rank creepers” in her dream (242). Ostensibly part of the jungle in which Hartright is supposedly marooned, the creepers provide a graphic sign of her deep (or “insinuating”) anxiety. An “untrained ivy” similarly suggests the cankerous quality of Sarah’s obsessive guilt in The Dead Secret (20). Described as a creeping plant “growing in the fissures of the stonework” (20), it infests the wall as surely as Sarah’s sense of wrongdoing clings to the fissures of her mind, and threatens its stability.

Mentally corrupted by unwelcome thoughts, both of these characters are caught in a parasitic embrace. In the terms of one theorist, their mental “parterre” has been choked by a “secret poison” (Phillips, 107 & 187). Moreover, this notion of weeds choking a garden—in effect, of nature destroying itself—is further developed as a means of showing how some characters are entirely consumed by their anxieties. A prime example is Mad Monkton, whose self-absorption is frighteningly revealed in the details of the Italian wood. At once a ‘real’ place, this setting provides an exemplification of the character’s emotional turmoil. As the wood is smothered by “thickets” and “lank weeds” (The Queen of Hearts, 139), so Monkton’s monomania finally turns in upon itself, and consumes his mind. Cankered by the fear of insanity, he is overcome by the very condition he most fears. Self-destruction is again visualized by the convulsive vegetation in The Guilty River. Imaged by the animistic detail of trees “undermining their own lives” (6), this conflict symbolizes the Cur’s state of mind as he continues his damaging obsession with Cristel. Like the trees themselves, the Cur is bent on destroying his mental equilibrium, by “undermining” his well-being with a “rank” disorder. Nature wrecking itself in a gross conglomeration of weeds and unchecked growth thus becomes a powerful metaphor for the process of emotional ruination. Always recalling the Darwinian Struggle for Survival, Collins’s gardens gone to seed are intense representations of convulsive conditions of mind. Yet this weedy notation does more than emblematize the cancerous quality of the characters’ malaise. Acting as a stable code, it identifies specific details of the characters’ anguish and suffering. This process is sometimes a matter of clarification, in which a character’s emotion is focused by the careful placing of a single plant. For example, in “Gabriel’s Marriage”, the hero’s state of mind as he returns to the site of the (alleged) murder is visualized by the presence of a bramble. Described as a “tangled nook” (Complete Shorter Fiction, 115), this detail signifies remorse (Language, 151). In other settings, though, the plants are organized in multiple fields, so giving intricate representations of the characters’ state of mind.

In Hide and Seek, for example, the plants surrounding Mary’s grave are used to catalogue Mat’s complex emotions as he contemplates his sister’s “damp” resting place.

About this spot the thin grass languished; the mud distilled into tiny water pools; and the brambles, briars and dead leaves lay thickly and foully between a few ragged turf-mounds . . . (364)

Taken as a field of “humble” plants, these emblems initially suggest the brother’s despondency (Language, 175). More specifically, they visualize varieties of melancholia. The “dead leaves” denote his “sadness” (Language, 167); the brambles, as noted above, his “lowliness” and “remorse” (Ingram, 349); and the briars his “solitude” and “thoughtfulness” (Lehner, 112). The graveside is written, in other words, as a rather static evocation of the brother’s grief. But Mat’s mind is unsettled by far more than melancholy remorse. By using plants which carry implicit as well as conventional connotations, Collins stretches the language of flowers to identify certain types of inner conflict. Most suggestive is the treatment of the grass: described as “thin” and “ragged”, this could be read not only as the conventional notation of death and fate (Lehner, 117), but specifically as a signal of “vice” (Language, 166). In particular, the grass on Mary’s grave can be interpreted as a signifier of Mat’s overwhelming sense of his own wickedness. It is this realization, combined with a corrosive grief, which creates a moment of mental turmoil, a “dangerous brightness” of self-accusation only relieved by his determination to seek out and settle the score with Mary’s seducer (Hide and Seek, 366). The weeds in Hide and Seek are developed, then, as a means of presenting a concise emotional profile. Placed at a crucial moment in the text, they greatly enrich the understanding of Mat’s mind by revealing far more than has otherwise been exposed. Described as “cool” and “collected” (181), Mat gives little away, and it is only through careful scrutiny of the emblematic plants that we gain a primary clue to his feelings.

The same could be said for all the characters whose inner lives are registered in this weedy lexicon. Configured as fields of rank excess—which according to Hayter reflects the author’s dendrophobia (264)—Collins’s plant- life is a hallucinatory but finally transparent text. By engaging with this primeval expanse it is possible to trace the characters’ most primitive and distressing emotions.

Negative states of mind are more generally implied by the image of the rotting and bottomless pool. Variously described as a stagnant mere (Two Destinies, 287), a pool in mud (No Name, 243), a hole in a cliff-face (Basil, 248), a marshy lake (The Woman in White, 180), and a quicksand (The Moonstone, 22-5), this emblem is richly evocative and offers a number of interpretations. As noted earlier, sexual readings have been attempted by Hutter (204-5), although the pool more generally connotes a condition of horror. Collins appears to have had a personal (and almost pathological) loathing of all things associated with “ooze” (see Basil, 248), and his treatment of this image is always infused with revulsion and dread. According to Hayter (266), whose comments on the Shivering Sand have a general application, they always suggest “feelings of menacing calm, of decay, of the dead-alive, of being sucked down”. They equally imply mind-expanding terror—the fear of looking into the face of some unknown (or unknowable) reality or truth. It is precisely the unnerving contemplation of the “spirit of terror” that Franklin confronts when he reaches for the clue in the Shivering Sand (The Moonstone, 300).

More than this, Collins’s pools can be interpreted as the emblems of despair. As in the treatment of plants, he manipulates a well-established sign, a betokening of dismay commonplace throughout the period. Configured as a symbolic currency, its sources lie in a number of literary and painterly texts, all familiar to the author. A primary influence was the image of the abyss, the dismal hole which regularly appears in Gothic fiction and occupies a particular prominence, as a sign of transcendent despair and suffering, in Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Lewis’s The Monk(1796). Collins would also have been aware (see Library, 5) of the dark pool in Scott’s Old Mortality(1816), and the quicksand in The Bride of Lammermoor (1819). Moreover, he is almost certain to have been familiar with the desolate pools of his contemporaries. These would notably include the “lurid tarn” in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1840), the “dark fen” in Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ (1830), and the black and menacing pond in Danby’s painting of Disappointed Love (1821, Victoria and Albert Museum; see Adams, 25). These texts provided Collins with a powerful type, an all- embracing morass of “dead waters” (Basil, 132) which always encode the darkest recesses of dismay. Writing what in effect is a Romantic Pool of Despair, Collins uses the pond as a terrible icon, a visualization of the characters’ utter dismay as they contemplate a moment of climactic change and trauma.

Thus, when Magdalen decides to marry her dim-witted cousin Noel in No Name, her despondency is revealed in the apparently naturalistic details of “gleaming water-pools” turning suddenly to “pools of blood”. Configured as part of a “marsh” on the beach adjacent to Slaughden, these emblems vividly suggest the loss of optimism, the overwhelming of “gleaming” prospects with a glutinous despair (NoName, 242-3). Walter’s dismay, when he thinks he has lost his beloved Laura, is similarly conveyed by the depressing details of “a pool of water, stagnating around an island of draggled weeds”. “Sodden” with depression, the pond provides a visual concomitant of his “groaning” state of mind (The Woman in White, 99-100).

But the most horrifying pools are those that visualize their characters’ emotions, and swallow their bodies. Acting as both site and symbol, these suffocating spaces are voids of despair: physical exemplifications of mind and soul in which the personae are quite literally consumed by the “depths of depression”. In Basil,Mannion’s despair is signified by his absorption in a cliff-hole; transformed into a Frankenstein’s monster who pursues his tormentor, if not to the ends of the world then at least to the ends of England, his underlying hopelessness is finally shown when he falls into the “yawning mouth” of “running ooze” (248). The same fate befalls Rosanna Spearman, who, on committing suicide in the Shivering Sand, is suffocated by the “dreadful deeps” of an overpowering depression (The Moonstone, 25).

Epitomized by the Shivering Sand, Collins’s death-holes are images of despair taken to an absolute extreme. Although derived from specific precedents—there being a clear relationship, as Hayter has pointed out (266), between Collins’s murderous holes and the quicksands in Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor—he moves this motif into new realms of grotesquerie. Indeed, Collins’s signs resonate with a sense of Biblical hopelessness. As well as constituting holes in the mind, Collins’s ponds and pits further suggest the “yawning” jaws of hell (Basil, 245). This is a point the author provocatively implies in Rambles Beyond Railways (76), when, in describing the Devil’s Throat on the Lizard, he remarks on the aptness of its name as a place of “ghastly imagery”, a place on earth where “Dante’s terrible ‘Vision'” is “realized”. Imagining his characters as lost souls in a hell of despair, he consigns them to the “ooze” and “formless masses” of perpetual dismay (Basil, 248 & 132). In death, as in life, his suffering personae are condemned to a fate of inescapable (and thoroughly Sensational) extremes. Less complex in its implications is the emblem of the barren plain or moorland. Usually described as a “dreary” tract (Armadale, 255), empty beach, arid scrub, or other “monotonous” space (No Name, 243), the endless waste always denotes loneliness and isolation. To some extent this reflects a personal association, although the image is again explicable as part of a literary semiology.

Collins’s source on this occasion was primarily a poetic one. Drawing, it can be argued, on the work of Browning and Tennyson, he would have seen numerous examples of “glooming flats” in the latter’s ‘Mariana’ in which the equation of loneliness and plain is clearly shown. As the Library of the Late Wilkie Collins proves (6), he certainly possessed a copy of Tennyson’s Locksley Hall (1842), and may have noted the poem’s connecting of isolation and moorland. He would also have been aware of the emotionalized landscape in the same poet’s Morte d’Arthur (1842), and especially of the interconnectedness of the characters’ solitude, as the old order fades, and the surrounding “waste land”. Another influence is suggested by Browning’s “‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'” from Men and Women (1855). We cannot be sure of Collins’s knowledge of this poem, although it does provide another example of the interrelatedness of loneliness and the “grey plain”. Nor can we be certain of Collins’s familiarity with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), although here again there is a clear connection between loneliness and the drab open spaces of the moor.

It is clear, however, that physical and psychological isolation is used in Collins’s texts much as it is in those of his contemporaries. As in the psycho- voids of Browning and Tennyson, Collins places his loneliest characters in barren spaces: an agoraphobic device which focuses their state of mind by projecting it outwards, as if they were standing on a vast empty stage. Mapping their isolation of mind in terms of a physical concomitant, Collins makes his characters as insignificant as possible. Open spaces are typically used to reveal the isolation of Magdalen, as she contemplates the shingle emptiness around Slaughden (NoName, 243); Sarah’s loneliness, as she tramps over Dartmoor in The Dead Secret (147); and Anne Catherick’s, as she casts around for help on the moonlit expanse of Hampstead Heath (The Woman in White, 14-16).

Especially revealing is the beach surrounding the Shivering Sand in The Moonstone. Described by Cuff and Betteredge as a “lonesome” (22) place without “a scrap of cover” (119), this setting provides more evidence of the emotional void engulfing Rosanna Spearman. Surrounded by a wilderness visited by no-one but herself, Rosanna’s condition is as “desolate” (119), as lonely and sterile, as the landscape itself. Just as the beach is avoided by the “very birds” (22), so Rosanna is locked into a world of utter isolation, given a “wide berth” (22) and, with the kindly exceptions of Penelope and Betteredge, ignored by everyone.

The terrain around the Sand is in this sense another visualization of emotional disorder. Written as a nightmare text, the description vividly evokes the “unwholesome” and “unquiet” (25). By fusing the mental and material, it epitomizes the author’s treatment of the land as a means of defining his characters’ psychological and emotional “intensities” (Fowler, 296). With its linkage of quicksand and beach—or loneliness and despair—it also typifies the combination of signifiers to encode a compound condition. In the case of The Moonstone, the multiple approach helps to explain a particular orientation of mind, a set of conditions in which the character despairs not only because (in her eyes) she is jilted, but because she is lonely in the first place. Yet other land/mindscapes are more complex. Uniting the principal motifs of pool, plain and rank vegetation, they provide multifaceted schemes, dense encodings of information. Figuring as elaborate tableaux, they visualize and make accessible important truths about the author’s most secretive and challenging characters.

One of the most intricate texts is formed by the land/mindscape of Blackwater Estate in The Woman in White. Described in Pre-Raphaelite detail by Marian Halcombe, this topography is a complicated portrait of mind.

I found myself standing suddenly on the margin of a vast open space, and looking down on Blackwater Lake . . . The ground, shelving away from me, was all sand, with a few little heathy hillocks to break the monotony of it in certain places. The lake itself had evidently once flowed to the spot on which I stood . . . I saw its still stagnant waters . . . separated into pools and ponds, by twining reeds and rushes and little knolls of earth. On the farther bank the trees rose thickly again, and shut out the view, and cast their black shadows on the sluggish water. As I walked down to the lake, I saw that the ground on the farther side was damp and marshy, overgrown with rank grass and dismal willows. The water . . . looked black and poisonous opposite to me, and the rank overhanging thickets and tangled trees… (The Woman in White, 180)

The question, however, is whose psychology is being revealed? Hayter argues for Blackwater being an “allegory” of Marian’s “prospects” (265): a logical interpretation, given that it is Marian who overlooks and describes the landscape. However, Blackwater is better interpreted (in a calculated distortion of the Pathetic Fallacy) as a representation of the mind of its owner, Sir Percival Glyde. Marian, it can argued, is simply the means of describing its grotesqueries; entering Glyde’s emotional terrain (as Fosco enters hers when he completes her diary), she catalogues what is clearly a psychotic condition. Interpreted in the terms already defined, Blackwater is a grisly map, a physical transcript of its owner’s emotional disorders.

Overgrown and weedy, the vegetation reads as another representation of obsession and paranoia. Configured as a dense assemblage of “rank grass” and “twining reeds and rushes”, the plants imply that Glyde (like Monkton) is self- consumed and ill at ease. As his woodlands are “planted far too thickly” (TheWoman in White, 179), and close in on themselves in a claustrophobic struggle to survive, so Glyde’s state of mind is overloaded with troubles, obsessive, congested, jungle-like. The precise nature of those troubles is specified, moreover, by the designation of the plants. As noted before, “rank grass” denotes wickedness (Language, 166), and in this context implies a mental habit of evil thoughts. He is equally prone to melancholy, symbolized by the conventional treatment of the “dismal willows” (Phillips, 210), and ill humour, here materialized by the despoliation of the “complaisant” reed (Language, 166).

Consumed with these anxious combinations of unspecified wickedness, inner congestion and sadness, Glyde’s mental state is indeed “overgrown”. At the same time his mind is absorbed by loneliness, as shown by the details of the Estate’s openness. Imaged, when viewed from a prospect, as a “vast open space”, the “monotony” of view exemplifies his isolation. As Marian remarks (in a moment of emotional identification), the Estate is infused with the “dreary impressions of solitude”. Underpinning all this, however, is the emblem of the pool: a roll-call of despair embracing the “stagnant waters” of the lake—itself significantly called Blackwater—a muddy series of “ponds”, “damp and marshy” ground and “spongy banks”. Threatening to swallow the whole estate—and metaphorically the mind of its owner—the pools at Blackwater highlight hopelessness as the primary constituent in Glyde’s emotional composition.

Blackwater can be interpreted, then, as a personal hell in which Glyde is revealed as a suffering soul as well as a villain. Entering the Estate through the eyes of Marian, we penetrate a soul tormented by loneliness, agitation, sadness and despair. Described by Caracciolo as a Dantean monster who occupies an Inferno-like hell (390-1), he is also, on the basis of what is shown in his mindscape, a rather sad neurotic. Indicating what is otherwise concealed behind the character’s smooth—or gliding—exterior, Blackwater provides vital information which predicts how he will subsequently behave. If we interpret him as lonely, despairing and self-obsessed, we should not be surprised when he undertakes his criminal conspiracy to eliminate his wife. For the attentive reader of landscape, all such clues are plainly inscribed.

Considering Collins’s novels more generally, other complexities are suggested by the elaborate descriptions of the Broads in Armadale. These landscapes have a primary role in the unfolding of the narrative; infused, as Quilter remarks, with an “underlying sense of mystery” (579), they act as the ominous setting for the realization of the Dream. More to the point, they visualize several of the characters’ emotions—rather than those of a single individual—as they change and develop. Locked into a mysterious landscape, the members of the party who visit the Broads reveal their inner feelings partly through the exercise of dialogue, but mainly in the semiotics of pool, plant and wasteland.

In the first instance plant-symbolism uncharacteristically denotes a positive outlook. As they begin to enjoy their adventure in the wilds the characters’ contentment is signalled by banks of reeds, the conventional sign of complaisance and docility (Language, 166). Registered within Armadale’s naturalistic surface, but signifying what lies ‘within’, the reeds provide materializations of their “placid” state of mind (237). This situation includes the “thoughtless” lovemaking of Allan and Miss Milroy (237), the dreamy speculations of the Major, and the “dormant amiability” (241) of the group as a whole. Surrounded by the emblems of harmony and well being, the revellers are united in a “friendly fusion” (241) of mutual pleasure. Yet this “enchantment” (240) is purely superficial. From the very beginning of their trip, Collins insists on the characters’ incompatibility and potential for ill feeling. What is more, he manipulates the language of plants to predict that an emotional conflict, a clash of negative thoughts, will arise. Particular stress is laid on the small but telling detail of a “little weedy lane” (236), which marks their entry to the Broad. Existing as a canker within the “green grazing fields” (236) of their minds, the weed prefigures the impending affect of discordant thoughts and inner conflicts.

This process quickly unfolds in the period after the onset of Pentecost’s illness, when the characters collapse into bad feeling and mutual antagonism. The dominant emotion, in recognition of lack of mutuality, is one of loneliness and isolation—and this Collins powerfully conveys through the symbol of the flat and dreary waste. No longer Picturesque, the landscape of reeds is reconfigured as a “lonesome” void (247), a watery waste charting the existential emptiness of the mind. In the words of Neelie Milroy, whose comments indicate her feelings of estrangement from Allan, it becomes “the most lonely, dreary, hideous place I ever saw” (253). Based on a ‘real’ place— the Hurle Mere being a version of the Horsey Mere in Norfolk (Clarke, xi)— the Broad becomes a chilling image of separateness, fear and the isolating effects of mutual antagonism.

Worse than this, it signifies Allan’s growing dismay and depression, here typically symbolized by the “unfathomed depths of slime and water” (247). Possessed by “something” he does not understand (248), Allan is uncertain as to why his thoughts of Midwinter give rise to such negative thoughts. Like the waters oozing under the peat, Allan’s mind—itself a sort of “labyrinth” (236)—is undermined by a sense of foreboding. What Allan senses, of course, is not the discomfiture of Midwinter (whom he supposes to be working too hard) but the forthcoming fulfilment of the Dream. When Midwinter arrives at the Hurle Mere he too partakes of the sense of desolation. But the most telling set of waters is that within the Vision itself. Described as a “broad lonely pool” (257), with Lydia standing on its banks, the Mere provides the definitive image of the despair of Allan and Midwinter. Looking at the pool, they are forced to look, at the moment when the Dream comes true, into the blackened tarn of their own dismay.

That moment represents the point of greatest intensity. Arranged in sequential tableaux, the descriptions of the Broads lead inevitably from the characters’ primary happiness to the moment of emotional trauma. Nevertheless, all of these emotions are encoded in the author’s initial descriptions of the Broad. Visualized as a landscape of “startling anomalies” (236), with strange contradictions between land and sea, wheat-field and rush, the Broad is also a challenging mindscape, a jostling combination of harmony and despair, loneliness and a growing sense of inner conflict. Evoking a particular passage of feeling, its emotional range locates it at the very heart of the novel’s complicated skein of emotions.

* * *

The Norfolk Broads, and all of Collins’s corrupted gardens, might thus be viewed as revelatory texts. Assembled from pre-existing semiologies, they embody a type of “corrupted pastoralism” (Bornstein, 164) in which the blight of the land is a precise indication of the characters’ states of mind. Conceived, in the words of Hayter (266), as a “hidden country of symbols”, they can nevertheless be interpreted as legible texts, providing one knows the taxonomies from which the author constructs them. Used to give vital information, Collins’s settings are dense with significance, and should always be read with care. As Quilter remarks, Collins “feels what every great landscape painter has always felt . . . that the interest of landscape . . . depends [on] the associations with which it is connected . . . and the emotions [it] wishes to excite” (580).

It can be argued, in short, that Collins cleverly exploits the Pathetic Fallacy, the traditions of the Victorian wasteland, and the older traditions of Gothic (see Punter, 223-8) and romance. Borrowing from Scott, Browning, Tennyson and the rest, he turns the emblems of blight to his own Sensational purposes. Writing his own version of established materials, he creates visual tropes of great intensity and depth. In developing his own formulations of the wasteland he also makes a significant contribution to the on-going tradition of blight. Acting as a link between Gothic and his own time, Collins’s hypnotic mindscapes highlight the importance of the wasteland as a key constituent in the charting of the aberrant and strange, and were themselves influential. Imitated by writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Richard Jefferies, H. Rider Haggard and Thomas Hardy, his settings are quoted in a variety of contexts. For instance, there is surely a connection between the Grimpen Mire in Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and the Shivering Sand (Waugh, 365). Jefferies’ apocalyptic imagery of watery scum and decay in After London (1885) must also bear a relationship to Collins’s pools of despair. The deserts in Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and the desolate moor in Mrs Henry [Ellen] Wood’s The Shadow of Ashlydyat (1863) are likewise related to Collins’s dead open spaces, as is the blank expanse of Egdon Heath in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878).

All of these analogies, and especially the relationship between Collins and Hardy, need to be analysed further, and deserve a study in their own right. What we can say, finally, is that Collins develops a provocative materialization of what Dahl describes as the characteristically Victorian emphasis on “melancholy moods” (Dahl, 341). Offering a paradigm of blight and the symbolism of emotional ruin, he helps to define the territories of anguish and despair.

Works Cited

Adams, Eric. Francis Danby: Varieties of Poetic Landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.

Bernstein, Stephen. “Reading Blackwater Park: Gothicism, Narrative and Ideology in The Woman in White.”In Studies in the Novel 25 (Fall 1993) 291-305.

Bornstein, George. “Miscultivated Field and Corrupted Garden: Imagery in Hard Times.” In Nineteenth Century Fiction 26 (1971-72) 158-70.

Caracciolo, Peter. “Wilkie Collins’s ‘Divine Comedy’: The Use of Dante in The Woman in White.” InNineteenth Century Fiction 25 (1971) 383-404.

Clarke, William. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Allen, 1988.

Collins, Wilkie. The Complete Shorter Fiction. Ed. Julian Thompson. London: Robinson, 1995.

_________. Hide and Seek. 1854; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

_________. Memoirs of the Life of William Collins. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1848.

_________. Rambles Beyond Railways. 1851; London: Mott, 1982.

_________. The Guilty River. 1886; Stroud: Sutton, 1991.

_________. Wilkie Collins’s Novels: A New Edition. 29 vols. London: Chatto & Windus, 1889-1908.

Dahl, Curtis. “The Victorian Wasteland.” In College English 16 (Mar 1955) 341-7.

De la Mare, Walter. “The Early Novels of Wilkie Collins.” In The Eighteen Sixties, ed. J. Drinkwater, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932, 51-101.

Fowler, Alastair. A History of English Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Hayter, Aletha. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, 1968.

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

Ingram, John. The Language of Flowers; or, Flora Symbolica. London: Warne, 1887.

Lehner, Ernst & Johanna. Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees. New York: Tudor, 1960.

The Language and Poetry of Flowers. London: Marcus Ward, 1889.

Library of the Late Wilkie Collins. London: Puttick & Simpson, 1890.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.

Phillips, Henry. Floral Emblems. London: Saunders & Otley, 1825.

Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. London: Longman, 1980.

Quilter, Harry. “The Last Survivor: An Essay in Rehabilitation.” In Contemporary Review 53 (Apr 1888) 572-93.

Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Waugh, Arthur. “Wilkie Collins and His Mantle.” In The Academy and Literature 62 (1902) 364-5.

Wood, Christopher. Paradise Lost. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988.


  1. Unless listed otherwise in ‘Works Cited’, citations from the novels refer to Wilkie Collins’s Novels: A New Edition, the Library Edition issued by Chatto & Windus from 1889. []

Reading Landscape: Wilkie Collins, the Pathetic Fallacy, and the Semiotics of the Victorian Wasteland by Simon Cooke
The Wilkie Collins Journal 02 (1999)

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