Cosmetics and poisons share a complex relationship in the work of Wilkie Collins and, as I will argue, their commonalities make visible his challenge to the ideological matrices which governed the conceptualisation of the body at this time. Collins clearly uses cosmetics and poisons to allude to the unstable borders of the body, in so doing enabling him to bring to light the absences of knowledge concerning bodies that the legal and medical professions, at times, sought to cover up and gloss over. Armadale (1866), with its array of bodies of different ages, appearances, strengths and weaknesses provides a direct challenge to medical opinion regarding male and female bodies, as well as the ability of such discourse to accurately fix and define bodies. By pairing the preternaturally youthful Lydia Gwilt with the aged clerk Mr Bashwood, the discussion will aim to show that Collins’s interests extend beyond exploring femininity and the female body as supposedly porous (and inherently dangerous) into a consideration of the overlap between qualities defined as “male” and “female”, as well as problematising the boundaries of youth and age. The Law and the Lady (1875) similarly questions the precision with which legal proceedings can declare and define cause(s) of death, an argument made most clearly by the heroine Valeria’s ability to disprove various conclusions reached in the courtroom but also more obliquely by the multiplicity of narratives in the novel, undermining the validity of legal (and medical) accuracy. Both texts seek to re-set the various dichotomous and dyadic pairings of bodies that medicine and the law upheld as part of their claim to legitimacy and knowledge, in the process alluding to the problematic spaces between bodies which are created or compressed, and the manner in which such ideological work simultaneously served to disguise gaps in knowledge or competency of the professions themselves. Cosmetics and poisons play a key role in these arguments, and this article aims to add to existing scholarship in this area by highlighting the further ways in which such substances are put to varied and interesting use in Collins’s texts.
Specifically, Collins’s depiction of the way in which cosmetics and poisons interact with the figures in his texts leads him to consider various pairings of bodies – male and female, young and old, dead and alive – and to challenge the discrete fixity of each, as well as the way in which these labels are used in medical and legal practice to create and cement forms of knowledge. In her discussion of Lydia Gwilt in Armadale, Jessica Maynard draws on Georg Simmel’s writing on secrecy, and in particular on a lack of full knowledge or intelligence, in arguing that it is on this basis that Gwilt succeeds as “criminal seducer and object of so many male fantasies” and “double as ordinary modern lover”, yet this same concept of secrecy, omission and deficit of knowledge can also be seen, in Armadale and The Law and the Lady, as the driving force behind medical and legal power, and the maintenance of its relationship with the lay public (64). According to Maynard, “it is in this hinterland between the bona fide and the suspect” that Gwilt, “the confidence trickster” prospers, and indeed the same could perhaps be said for the dual disciplines of medicine and the law (64). Collins challenges medico-legal authority in two main respects across the two novels: in Armadale he asserts the basic similarities of bodies on one plane (drawing together the seemingly disparate states of youth and old age, male and female), taking issue with the way in which bodies were classified and separated as a means of making assertions (and producing knowledge) out of perceived differences, whilst in The Law and the Lady he modifies this, demonstrating the incremental changes between life and death, disputing both legal accuracy and the principle of anatomical medicine that alive and dead bodies could be directly compared. Uniting the arguments in both of these texts is an underlying interest in the essentially permeable and fluid nature of all bodies; a fluidity which is mirrored in his representation of poisons and cosmetics, disrupts the enforced fixity of gender and age, and problematises the stark comparison of dead with alive.
As the earlier text of the two, Armadale introduces Collins’s interest in the role that cosmetics and poisons play in subverting and complicating the appearance of the body. Lydia in particular provides the focus for the narrative’s exploration of appearance and the aging female, both through the depiction of her body and looks, and her relationship with Mrs Oldershaw, “the most eminent woman in England, as Restorer-General of the dilapidated heads and faces of the female sex” (Armadale 535-6). Lydia is involved in cosmetics usage from an early age, a detail which anticipates the fluid relationship she has with the process of aging throughout the text, as well as rooting her in a decidedly unfeminine world of exchange and commerce. She is presented as a product of the market place itself: as James Bashwood, the private detective explains to his father, her “story begins” in the “market-place at Thorpe Ambrose”, where she is exhibited as a “living example” of the “washes and hair oils” touted by the quack-doctor Oldershaw, Mrs Oldershaw’s husband (520). Taken on by the Oldershaws in the “capacity of an advertisement”, the “pretty little girl” is exhibited to the crowd to advertise various lotions and potions intended for customers over twice her age, complicating the notion of time and age as linear and merging the appearance and concept of the young and old female body (521). As Lisa Niles comments, “Lydia’s eight-year-old body performs a maturity that her thirty-five-year-old body will repress”, signalling her relationship with aging to be an inherently unnatural one, and indicating that her age is no longer “tied to the body but to a free-floating signifier of an appearance intended to produce the desired effect” (91). Whilst cosmetics are an attempt to halt a body which is in decline, placing it in a position of stasis and resisting the progression of time, they also reinforce by their very application the changeability of the body and its malleable surface appearance, as well as pointing to the lack of bodily permanence and solidity that they are intended to evoke.
The choice of the “pretty little girl” works on a further level here however, demonstrating Collins’s engagement with ideology surrounding the female body that advertisements for cosmetics and related products promoted. Although, according to Lori Loeb and Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, “makeup was rarely advertised” (Loeb 29), with many magazines seeming “reluctant” to promote the use of “artificial remedies” (Talairach-Vielmas 150), numerous advertisements could be found for the “millinery, corsets, hair and teeth products needed to maintain the lady’s appearance” (Beetham 41). What such products and advertisements helped to create was the image of a female body which was “constantly under threat, constantly having to be recreated with corsets, hair colouring and other invisible aids”, as well as “requiring Royal Cough Lozenges, stomach pills, vegetable syrups and books on ‘the Diseases of Females’ if it was not to slide into incipient pathology” (Beetham 41). Part of this was the conceptualisation of the female body as porous and unstable, a line of argument which Collins goes on to address in Armadale. Many of the lotions and patent medicines intended to clear the complexion “claimed to regulate those inflammations, dilations, expansions, and disruptions of invisible fluids beneath the surface of the skin which ruined the complexion” (Talairach-Vielmas 145), whilst texts such as Mrs A. Walker’s Female Beauty warned, conversely, that cosmetics could do damage by “penetrating the body via ‘chaps or fissures’ [and sinking] ‘through the pores into the circulating fluids’” (qtd. in Talairach-Vielmas 136).
What both arguments draw on is the notion that bodily fluids “attest to the permeability of the body” (Grosz 193) and betray a “messiness” which “is often conceptualised as feminised” (Longhurst 23). Sally Shuttleworth identifies this view of the female body as stemming from an obsession with “with female secretions, and in particular with those of menstruation,” perpetuated both by the medical profession and advertisements for medical products aimed at women: advertisements for ‘female pills’ promised “invigorating purity” resulting from a “ritual purgation that rids the body of ‘morbid blood’, restoring the modest maiden to a state where surface appearance is not belied by the state of her bodily secretions” (51). Aside from the implication that such pills were abortifacients, the marketing of these medicines as products to improve appearance situate the female body, with its problematic fluids and secretions, as being in constant need of such pills, lotions and cosmetics to provide a smooth exterior appearance. The Oldershaws’ use of a young girl to advertise their wares, therefore, not only demonstrates the paradoxical relationship between cosmetics and the process of aging, but betrays the implicit ideal that all these products point towards: that the “messiness” of the female body can be controlled, regulated and contained to the point where the problematic body of the woman is closer to that of the prepubescent girl.
During the main portion of the narrative, Lydia is in her mid-thirties (her age only ever being vaguely alluded to) and retains a seemingly ageless body, reinforced by her connections to the older generation of Armadales, Allan’s mother and Ozias Midwinter’s father. Although Collins is careful to ensure that everything adds up (Lydia is “barely twelve years old” (34) when employed as Mrs Armadale’s maid), the fact that this generation are dead and buried whilst Lydia retains looks that are still striking enough to bewitch the young Allan Armadale and Midwinter accentuates the sense that her body and appearance are timeless and unchanging. Seemingly set apart from the bodies of the other characters, she occupies a borderland between young and old, identifiable as neither. The same can be said, unexpectedly, for Mrs Milroy, the jealous, bed-ridden invalid who hires Lydia as a governess for her daughter. Despite having an outward appearance of a decrepit aging woman, she is described as being, “so far as years went, in the prime of her life” and functions as Lydia’s shadowy double, trapped in a body that has prematurely aged and situated as the opposite to Lydia’s eternally youthful figure (311). The pairing of these two incongruous figures – similar in age yet strikingly different in appearance – not only enables Collins to further explore the elastic concept of age and its detachment from the body, but also allows him to portray the disturbing effect that cosmetics usage has in altering Mrs Milroy’s appearance:
Her head, from which the greater part of the hair had fallen off, would have been less shocking to see than the hideously youthful wig, by which she tried to hide the loss. No deterioration of her complexion, no wrinkling of her skin, could have been so dreadful to look at as the rouge that lay thick on her cheeks, and the white enamel plastered on her forehead (A 311-2).
The overly-made-up old woman is a ludicrous, pitiful sight which, as Collins is at pains to point out, would be much improved with the removal of the wig, powders and paints. However, this is more than the mockery of a lurid aging woman. The “hideously youthful wig” and thick “white enamel” not only point to the very absences that they are intended to fill (seemingly unnatural absences, in themselves, for a woman of Mrs Milroy’s age), but also exemplify the extent to which Mrs Milroy’s use of cosmetics form an attempt to preserve and fix a hyper-exaggerated version of her younger self and create an outward appearance over which she has control, in contrast to her hair loss and wrinkled skin. As with the young Lydia’s marketing of Oldershaw’s products however, the very visible use of cosmetics here only illustrates further the emptiness of a sense of identity linked to age, with the cosmetics working to fix an outward appearance of youth which is entirely unnatural and artificial. Blurring youth and age together until both are rendered meaningless, the smeared make-up on Mrs Milroy’s face collapses the boundaries of young and old, whilst the decaying state of her middle-aged body simultaneously reveals such states to be, in themselves, unstable and fluid.
The novel’s discussion of cosmetics does not entirely revolve around female characters however and Collins, significantly, considers the male equivalent of cosmetics usage and the figure of the elderly male body. The old clerk, Bashwood, like Mrs Milroy, seeks to hide his aging body behind false appearances – a “cheap brown wig” and a “neat set of teeth” (A 197) – although they are just as ineffectual, with the wig making “no pretence of being his own natural hair” and the teeth revealing to “all inquiring eyes, ‘we pass our nights on his looking-glass and our days in his mouth’” (A 197). Despite Collins’s repeated emphasis on his frailty and elderly appearance however, Bashwood also has a remarkably fluid relationship with age, like Lydia and Mrs Milroy. He is described as a “man with the wrinkles of sixty years in his face, and the manners of a child in the presence of strangers” (232); a confusing mixture of young and old which affects Midwinter, for example, in a way that he is “at a loss to account for” (198). For Midwinter, Bashwood subconsciously reminds him “of himself” – a strange comment given the age gap of forty years or more between them – and he sees the “plain traces of past misfortune and present nervous suffering in the poor wretch’s face” (198). Bashwood appears to carry within his own elderly appearance both the marks of age and the “traces” of his younger life, displaying the “manners of a child” and “wrinkles of sixty years”. It is noteworthy that Collins considers the aging male body in a way which is similar to his treatment of the two female characters, problematising both the concept of age itself – as Lydia and Mrs Milroy do – as well as drawing a direct comparison between these male and female bodies.
The physicality of his aged body, which is rendered particularly vividly, continues this complication of conventional ideas of gender, age and appearance. In a direct contrast to the concepts propagated by advertisements for female medical products, for example, Bashwood’s body betrays a messy indeterminacy, whilst Lydia maintains a calm exterior of solidity and control throughout much of the narrative. Bashwood’s “weak, watery eyes” (197) frequently run, either with tears (438) or in times of confusion, stress or embarrassment, whilst he also has the “deplorable infirmity of perspiring at the palms of the hands” (234). His “long-weakened nervous system” is highly sensitive (467), and his “fleshless cheeks” are reddened frequently and uncontrollably by a rush of blood (197): Lydia, in a letter to Mrs Oldershaw, describes him as turning “all manner of colours” as he “stood trembling and staring at me” (289). The characteristics that might be more readily ascribed to Lydia (tears, flushed cheeks, trembling) are displaced on to Bashwood, drawing the unlikely pairing of the two bodies closer together. Rather than simply feminising Bashwood however, Collins is instead perhaps hinting towards a likeness between the two – or a mediating common ground – directly opposing the “system of difference which marks off woman as essentially different from man” (Pykett 16) and taking issue with the medical polarisation of male and female bodies.
It is significant that Collins chooses to accentuate the apparent permeability of Bashwood’s body in particular, given that this is a quality which was specifically used to divide male and female bodies. As Shuttleworth notes, associations between femininity, indeterminacy and permeability were founded on the notion that the instability of women’s bodies was inherently uncontrollable, whereas male health was predicated on a need (and implied ability) to retain fluids in a show of self-control and solidity:
Whereas the primary categories of male sexual disfunction in the Victorian era, masturbation and spermatorrhoea, focused on the male need to retain vital force and to extend capital only in productive fashion, the primary form of female pathology was that of the retention of internal secretions. While male health was believed to be based on self-control, woman’s health depended on her very inability to control her body (56-7).
Furthermore, Lydia’s association with poisonous substances in the text develops her position as one of power in relation to a male body which appears increasingly weak and porous: as Piya Pal-Lapinski argues, “the image of the female body in control of poison” is reminiscent of the figure of the “poison-woman” in Oriental scholarship, who was “able to penetrate and dissolve the permeable boundaries of the male body while remaining impenetrable herself” (Pal-Lapinksi, 108). Rather than Lydia embodying a “dangerous hybridity” (Pal-Lapinksi, 122) or appearing “unsexed” (Pykett 14) however, Collins’s depictions of Mrs Milroy and Bashwood alongside Lydia instead points towards the way in which all of these bodies display a hybridity, or embody qualities which are supposedly tethered to the opposite sex.
Cosmetics, and to a lesser extent poisons, then, are put to use here by Collins in undermining medical opinion which seeks to label and fix bodies with regard to age or gender, as well as cementing expectations of what constitutes young or old, male or female. Whilst Lydia frequently attracts critical attention and commentary, a comparison of her character with other, more minor characters in the text who share surprising similarities illustrates the wider aims that Collins can be seen as having here. What emerges from this is not only Collins’s dual interest in myths perpetuated about male and female bodies, but an argument which draws together disparate pairings of supposedly discrete entities in demonstrating the way in which isolating and diagnosing differences helps to asserts medical knowledge of, and control over, bodies.
The Law and the Lady, written nearly ten years later, engages more obviously with the legal discourse that it challenges through its use of arsenic and a well-known contemporary court case. Arsenic was propelled into the public consciousness with the trial of Madeleine Smith in 1857, who was accused of poisoning her lover with drops of arsenic in his hot chocolate. As in The Law and the Lady, Smith claimed that the arsenic was used for cosmetics purposes, and the trial concluded with the controversial Scottish verdict ‘Not Proven’ (Briefel). Collins’s text features further overlap with aspects of the trial as, like Smith, Sara orders the arsenic (purchased by her unsuspecting husband Eustace, later accused of her murder) on the pretext of using it as a form of pest control in the house and garden, rather than admitting to its purpose as a cosmetic. Eating arsenic to improve the complexion was discussed at length throughout much of the 1850s and into the 1860s. Originally documented by the Swiss naturalist Johann Jakob von Tschudi, who had observed Styrian peasantry in Austria ingesting it to improve their health and appearance, it was detailed in James F.W Johnston’s text The Chemistry of Common Life (1853). Extracts from this had also been serialised in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which described how “these young poison-eaters are generally remarkable for blooming complexions, and a full, rounded, healthy appearance” as well as providing information regarding the amount of arsenic taken, the frequency with which it was taken, and the practice of fasting prior to eating it (“The Narcotics We Indulge in – Part III”). Various other accounts circulated throughout the press, prompting a response by the surgeon W.B. Kesteven in a series of articles in the Association Medical Journal. Troubled by the content of such “pseudo-scientific articles” and the “dangers accruing to society from such want of caution and prudence in putting forth such startling statements on mere hearsay evidence” (Kesteven), Kesteven’s articles were, overtly, intended to prevent impressionable readers from taking up the habit yet, as Ian Burney highlights, Kesteven was also addressing concerns about how reports would affect the “credulous courtroom” (68). The high-profile trial of Joseph Wooler, for example, charged with poisoning his wife Jane in 1855, had been complicated by arguments that Jane was a habitual arsenic-eater (Burney 67). The facts of the case indicated otherwise, but the persistent interest in arsenic consumption remained, and responses such as Kesteven’s indicated the far-reaching influence and impact of writing on the subject.
Kesteven’s articles not only relate to concerns regarding how court cases could be unfairly influenced by reports on arsenic eating, but also, in a wider sense, attest to an underlying disquiet regarding the validity of such trials and the conclusions they reached. Issues surrounding the arsenic-eating reports are woven into the plot of The Law and the Lady in several ways – most obviously through Sara’s interest in arsenic and her reading of “the book relating to the arsenic-eating practices of the Styrian peasantry” (The Law and the Lady 171) – yet the narrative explores much more than the Victorian fascination with arsenic in all its forms. With the novel’s challenge to the verdict of Eustace’s trial, the same concerns addressed by Kesteven re-emerge, as the narrative questions and problematises frameworks of legal jurisdiction, in a similar way to Armadale’s challenge to medically-regulated concepts of age and gender. Furthermore, the ambivalent role of arsenic as poison and cosmetic enables the narrative to explore the way in which discourse surrounding poisons legitimated a medico-legal penetration of the depths of the body, whether through autopsy, courtroom proceedings, or the minutiae of sensational press reports. This in turn leads Collins to examine the incremental changes between the body that is alive and dead through the description of Sara’s death, providing her with a fleshy corporeality and solidity which the other characters seem to lack, again inverting contemporary medical interpretations of the female body.
Press reports detailing poisonings frequently worked to a framework of moving “from the outside in”: accounts of trials would peel back the layers of the case, developing from initial information about the location in which the poisoning occurred, the layout of the room and the food or drink suspected of containing the poison to the ingestion of the substance and its resulting effects on the internal spaces of the body (Burney 25). Reports of autopsies at trials went even further in this respect. The trial of Sarah Westwood in 1843, for example, contained a testimony from the local surgeon who graphically related how the “quantity of arsenic in the stomach was so great that it could be removed from the coats of the stomach with a spoon” (Burney 26). Collins’s text replicates the way in which cases of poisoning invaded the body, turning it inside out for viewing by those in the court, as well as the masses that devoured the ensuing press reports, both with the descriptions of the court case itself and the vivid account of Sara’s painful demise. Importantly, however, the narrative also addresses issues of indeterminacy (in various forms) that chemical and toxicological tests sought to dispel. Post-mortem investigations of poison victims did not always produce such clear-cut results as the Sarah Westwood trial, and chemical tests for poisons which relied on the appearance of different colours to signify the presence of poisons were frequently muddied by the “alimentary canal’s typical mix of substances” (Burney 90).
Noticeably, Sara’s complexion is described in terms of the opposition between clear and indistinct appearances that chemical tests for poisons were predicated on. The nurse, describing Sara’s appearance at the trial relates that she had “one of the most muddy, blotchy complexions it was ever my misfortune to see in a person’s face” (130), whilst one of the central purposes of arsenic eating, as described by Sara’s friend, is “clearing the colour” of the complexion (171). The idealised complexion (and by implication, body) is clean, clear and bright, but for Sara the unfortunate reality is a “muddy” and “blotchy” appearance. Not only does this dichotomy of dark muddiness set against bright purity recall the medical advertisements for female pills, promising to clear the “dark obstructions within the body”, providing an “invigorating purity” and clear “surface appearance” (Shuttleworth 51), but it also alludes to the challenges faced by the various professional bodies seeking to demarcate poison within clear, fixed borders. Sara’s body and its “messiness” encapsulates the way in which framing structures were troubled by both substances and the bodies that ingested them, just as both male and female use of cosmetics in Armadale complicates the fixity of aging. The bodily fluids that escape from Sara as the arsenic begins to take effect develop this, alluding to the problematic proximity of the body to indeterminate marginal substances. Not only is her vomit described as “muddy”, again playing on notions of clarity and ambiguity, but the doctor is unable to interpret the strangely “frothy” substance that is “streaked with blood” as a sign for any known disease, muttering to himself, “What does this mean?” (136).
Matter issuing forth from the victims of poisoning was often startlingly strange, with accounts even existing of vomit burning holes through bed linen (Mangham 103). Any form of bodily matter which traverses the boundaries of the body is, according to Mary Douglas, problematic, challenging the structure of margins and boundaries and altering “the shape of fundamental experience”, and indeed the graphic descriptions of Sara’s body are perhaps so disturbing because they seemingly challenge the notions of the body as fixed and solid which so interest Collins (150). The fact that the substance expelled is unidentifiable, then, is even more alarming in this context, not only signalling Sara’s imminent (and unpreventable) death, but also betraying the realities of the body as ultimately uncontrollable and unknowable underneath the ideological structures which seek to define it. As Julia Kristeva states, substances expelled from the body always allude to the boundary between life and death on which existence is precariously balanced. The waste products that the body “permanently thrust[s] aside in order to live” attest to the proximity of the body to death, as the body must constantly “extricate itself, as being alive, from that border” (3-4). Sara’s death, then, not only undermines the positive discourse of chemical tests for poison, which aimed to stress the clarity with which poison could be identified, but also relates to the novel’s concurrent interest in troubling the borders of the body, and of life and death.
In her article on Collins and anatomical medicine, Irene Tucker builds on John Sutherland’s claim that the trial of poisoner William Palmer in 1856 influenced The Woman in White, arguing that both Palmer’s trial and The Woman in White hinge on “the presumption of the opacity of the temporal and cause-and-effect process of dying”, and I would argue that the same ideas can be applied to The Law and the Lady (151). Tucker suggests that the pairing of Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick in The Woman in White bears an important relationship to one of the central tenets of anatomical medicine: that the internal organs of the sick can be made visible, and understood, through viewing the opened-up bodies of corpses in post-mortems, directly correlating the body of the living with the dead and arguing that they are comparable. By aligning the body of Laura with Anne, and “detailing the temporal chain of cause and effect by which a sick body and dead one come to be substituted for one another” Tucker suggests that Collins insists we “attend to the gap (of time, of state) between being sick and being dead – precisely the period of transformation that anatomical medicine must exclude if it posits the standardized body as a theoretical first principle” (148). In The Law and the Lady, not only are we are forced to observe Sara’s death in a much more detailed way than Anne Catherick’s, as provided by the nurse’s courtroom testimony and Sara’s suicide note, but the doubling of the two wives, Sara and Valeria, similarly invites comparisons between the dead and the living.
Collins’s exploration of the boundary between life and death in both texts “lays bare a fundamental incoherence within anatomical medicine – the way in which its presumption that human bodies are essentially like one another must rest upon the notion that such bodies are static, impervious to change from within or without”, a concept challenged by the detail of Sara’s death (Tucker 151). Ways of seeing and understanding the body are again present as underlying concepts, as Collins challenges the “opacity” of the body that anatomical medicine presents by forcing us to look more closely at the marginal space between life and death in a different and more sustained way. The detail of the nurse’s account seems to prolong the period of Sara’s ingestion of the poison and gradual decline, whilst Sara’s own suicide note unearthed at the end of the novel forces us to revisit the scene, doubly examining the incremental changes in the body from life to death. The first symptoms include a “burning pain” in the stomach and repeated bouts of sickness (an “agony” that Sara relates as being “beyond my endurance” (393)), symptoms which are accentuated by another double dose of arsenic that Sara later takes. Her final hours are described by the nurse, who recalls how “her eyes looked sunk in her head; her skin was cold and clammy; her lips had turned to a bluish paleness” (138). As her condition worsens, she is “past speaking” and loses the use of her limbs, yet still remains conscious, before finally sinking into a “dull sleep” (138). The drawn-out scene is unsettling, and the slow advent of death is vividly rendered. The fact that the two doctors can only sit and watch alludes further to the problematic relationship between visibility and poisoning, as well as the concurrent challenge to anatomical medicine. Suspecting that Sara has been poisoned by another, their watch over her not only indicates the suspicious circumstances of her death, but also implicitly disputes the claims to knowledge that analytical medicine and discourse on poison make. Here, their observation of the body is, ironically, redundant, as they can do nothing to identify the cause of Sara’s illness until after she has died. Just as Armadale argues that male and female bodies cannot be understood by situating them as polar opposites, so The Law and the Lady shows that drawing living and dead bodies closer together is equally unreliable as a means to producing knowledge.
As well as enabling Collins to document the space between life and death and address the arguments made by anatomical medicine, as Tucker notes, the text’s complex narrative structure and compulsive return to the scene of Sara’s death allows Collins to explore how death itself is organised by medical and legal frameworks. The way in which the text considers such frameworks is best illustrated by the example of Valeria’s reading of the trial, an event which also develops the novel’s exploration of the fluid boundaries between life and death. After finding the copy of the trial and reading the first lines – “A Complete Report of the Trial of Eustace Macallan for the Alleged Poisoning of his Wife” – Valeria faints, and the following chapter is entitled, “The Return to Life” (94). Accordingly, Valeria’s description of regaining consciousness describes her experience as being akin to returning from the dead: she recalls, “my whole being writhed and quivered under the dumb and dreadful protest of Nature against the effort to recall me to life […] I faintly opened my eyes, and looked around me – as if I had passed through the ordeal of death” (94-5). The fact that Valeria’s fainting fit is described in this way not only foreshadows the subsequent, more detailed account of Sara’s death and the comparison between the static dead and alive bodies of anatomical medicine that Collins problematises, but also signals the novel’s complication of legal and medical documentation which seeks to order and affirm causes and circumstances of death. The typographical reproduction of the text of the trial’s title on the page, as well as the break in text with the introduction of the new chapter are reminiscent of the supposedly plain facts of life and death that Collins problematises, as well as serving as a visual reminder of the fact that it is a legal document. As with the bold, black and white capitals of the trial’s heading and the legal facts contained within, the “black and white” concept of life and death (and verdict of the trial itself) seem fixed and certain, whilst the separation of text for the new chapter similarly represents the break between the states of consciousness and unconsciousness that Valeria experiences. However, these plain facts are undermined. Rather than signifying a clear break or boundary, the new chapter proclaims the impossible – “The Return to Life” – and Valeria’s experience challenges the fixity of life and death, much as the bold title of the trial itself is later disproved.
This section of text, along with the disjointed temporal structure of the novel as a whole, indicates the underlying intent of the novel to challenge the same forms of medical and legal discourse that Armadale addresses, discourse which is premised on the ability to order and organise information as a means of making a claim to truth and knowledge. In addition to refuting the conclusions that the legal trial has reached, the narrative, and the detective work carried out by Valeria which drives it, provides an alternative to the medical and legal narratives that outline the cause of Sara’s death. As Peter Brooks, drawing on Walter Benjamin, has noted, death and particularly a knowledge of death is integral to narrative structure: “what we seek in narrative fictions is that knowledge of death which is denied to us in our own lives: the death that writes finis to the life and therefore confers on it its meaning” (22). Whilst Brooks is using this concept in a wider sense, the same underlying driving force is present in The Law and the Lady, particularly as a piece of detective fiction, with the need to determine the true cause of Sara’s death to resolve and conclude the narrative. Not only does Collins quite literally provide that knowledge of death, but through the structuring of Valeria’s detective work and the ensuing need to re-visit and re-tell the story, he implicitly challenges the manner in which medical frameworks seek to collapse and compress the space between life and death.
As well as disproving the initial verdict of the trial in a very obvious way, the narrative also serves to destabilise the ability of medical and legal discourse to assert a claim to knowledge in a more covert way; an issue which prompts a return to problems with the “credulous courtroom” and lack of trust in the authority of legal proceedings that Kesteven’s articles allude to (758). In disproving the ability of the law to order information in the correct way and reach the “right” verdict, Valeria’s reassertion of the order of events not only challenges the authority of such professional frameworks and their claims, but also invalidates our ability to trust in the veracity of any narrative structures. Such medical, legal and even literary narratives are all attempts, as Brooks notes, at “organizing and interpreting the world”, with states of sickness, aging and death falling under this heading, yet the plurality of such narratives – and the possibility of alternative ones, as the novel demonstrates – ultimately undermines any claims to truth or accuracy (xii).
In addition to the link made between Sara and Valeria, Sara shares similarities with Lydia, most obviously due to the direct connection with cosmetics but also through the way in which her body is presented – a representation which returns to the image of the female body perpetuated by cosmetics adverts. In addition to the drugs swallowed by Sara to improve her complexion, cosmetics play a significant role in The Law and the Lady, yet the use of powders and paints by many of the text’s characters seem to give them a strange vacuity in contrast to the tangible physicality of Sara’s body. As Briefel has noted, Valeria is peculiarly nondescript heroine: she is “not at all the sort of person who attracts attention in the street” (Law and the Lady 10), she “fails to strike the ordinary observer at first sight” (11) and even signs her name incorrectly when signing the marriage register, writing her husband’s surname rather than her own (8). She appears to be “a non-entity, on the verge of fading off the page” (Briefel). It is only through using cosmetics – skilfully applied by the chambermaid – that she gains entrance to the house of her husband’s friend, Major Fitz-David, and begins to uncover the details of the crime that Eustace is accused of.
Briefel uses such points to illustrate her argument that femininity in the novel is “an absence covered by paint”, yet the descriptions of Sara and her body can be seen as contradicting this. Whilst Valeria’s recourse to pearl powder only seems to reinforce her insubstantiality and point to the lack that she is trying to cover, Sara’s consumption of the arsenic, and the vivid evocation of her body’s reaction to it, emphasises her corporeality and secures her a presence in the novel, in both a very physical sense and also as the ghost of the “other woman” who haunts Eustace and Valeria’s relationship (Law and the Lady 105). The crucial difference in the characters’ use of cosmetics is that, whilst Valeria seeks to temporarily change the surface appearance of her skin, Sara consumes a drug which she hopes will physically and permanently alter the appearance of her skin and complexion, making her body, and her body’s reaction to the poison, graphically present in the text. Her ingestion of the poison – and aim to control the invisible fluids beneath her skin which muddy her complexion – appears to promote the contemporary medical ideas which drew on qualities of fluidity and permeability to signal indeterminacy and infirmity, yet the physicality of her death scene complicates this. Rather than attesting to the fluid, uncontrollable insubstantiality of the female body, Collins’s very graphic representation of Sara and her dying body draws on the same discourses which use bodily “messiness” to subjugate femininity as unstable and subverts them, reaffirming the corporeality and tangible solidity of the female body.
Both texts, then, use poisons and cosmetics – problematic and indefinable substances in themselves – to highlight the essentially fluid and fluctuating states of bodies, but more importantly, to pose challenges to the medical and legal frameworks which sought to dispel such indeterminacy as a means to cementing their own knowledge and authority. By problematising the classification of bodies into contrasting or comparable entities, Collins lays bare the tactics by which medicine sought to organise and authorise its own knowledge and understanding of the body, whilst the ability of legal proceedings to accurately and reliably reach an account of the “truth” is similarly questioned. Through his exploration of the marginal areas between supposedly polarised states of existence, Collins builds to complicate what appear to be the most indisputable facts surrounding the body, of matters of gender, age and youth, and life and death.
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Redefining Bodies and Boundaries in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale and the Law and the Lady
by Helen Williams
The Wilkie Collins Journal 12 (2013)