Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction

by Leila Silvana May

Review by Helena Ifill

Leila Silvana May’s Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction begins with the assertion that secrecy is crucial in fiction not only because it can drive a plot (through the reader’s desire to reveal the secrets it holds, and through narrative or characters’ strategies to reserve those secrets and maintain suspense), but because it is crucial to subjectivity and the structuring of society. The fundamentality of secrecy in fiction parallels, May argues, its position in real life, since both the individual sense of self, and individuals’ ability to interact sanely and respectfully with each other, are reliant on people’s capacity to withhold information about themselves, and the discretion of others concerning that information – both not looking too closely, and politely pretending that they do not know half as much about other people as they actually do. Viewed in this light, secrecy can be viewed as constructive and positive. These claims are grounded in the work of two sociologists, the nineteenth-century German Georg Simmel, who “sees a socially valuable creativity in the dynamics of the veiling of the truth” (21) and his twentieth-century follower, Erving Goffman, whose most useful addition to Simmel’s ideas (for May’s purposes) is the claim that “all performances – or presentations of the self – are deceptive, and cannot be otherwise” (27). May defends her choice of Goffman over a more commonly referenced theorist such as Judith Butler because of his insistence that “all identity”, regardless of gender or other defining characteristics, is a performance (31, emphasis in original). “In Goffman,” May explains, “the main secret is not that of one’s true identity, but that one has no identity other than the protective and intrusive set of performances that is one’s battle armor” (29).

May chooses Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) as her sample sensation novel and considers whether “there is, after all, a true self behind the actor” that performs the part of Lady Audley (123). The performance of identities (often shifting identities within a single character, such as No Name’s Magdalen Vanstone, or Armadale’s Lydia Gwilt), and the uncertainty surrounding a stable core self, are topics that will be very familiar to Collins scholars. Jenny Bourne Taylor’s hugely influential In the Secret Theatre of Home (1988), for example, claims that in sensation fiction the stripping off of the performers’ masks reveals that “the mask is both the transformed expression of the ‘true’ self and the means of disclosing its incoherence. In the process identity itself emerges as a set of elements that are actively constructed within a dominant framework of social interests, perceptions, and values” (8). May also touches on thoroughly discussed questions such as whether or not Helen/Lucy is really insane, whether or not Lady Audley’s Secret is conservative or radical in its treatment of class issues, and Robert Audley’s potentially homoerotic attraction to George Talboys. While the chapter on Lady Audley is therefore a useful and up-to-date contribution to sensation fiction studies (it would make a fine addition to a seminar series reading list, for example), it is not the most thought-provoking chapter in the book.

What makes the book really interesting is its breadth and the varied types of secrets (and their disclosure) that May identifies in very different Victorian genres, beginning with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), moving through W. M. Thackeray’s satirical Vanity Fair (1848), to sensation fiction (Braddon), historical fiction (taking Edward Bulwer Lytton’s 1838 novel Leila: or, The Siege of Granada as an example), and ending with Arthur Conan Doyle’s fin-de-siècle Sherlock Holmes stories. In each case May discusses both “plot-driven secrets” (which she calls MacGuffins, after Alfred Hitchcock (5)) and what are described as “structural secrets”, which consist of “information that is subliminally available but which has not been gathered and presented publicly in a systematic form” (40). These structural secrets are often “secrets in broad daylight”, things which “were known by most adults” but rarely openly discussed (181). In Lady Audley’s Secret, for example, the MacGuffins relate to Lady Audley’s true identity and mental state, and the real fate of George Talboys, but the structural secrets relate to class relations, and the way in which the social hierarchy is maintained by the upper class’s willingness to close ranks and maintain their secrets rather than pursuing more open (potentially shameful) justice. It is easy to translate this to a consideration of Collins’s fiction: on the one level we can ask, for example, how was the Moonstone stolen and by who?; on another level we can tap into unspoken truths concerning imperialism (the origins of the Moonstone) or class (the death of Rosanna Spearman). May’s ideas are therefore useful for facilitating a consideration of what secrets are at work within and around a text, how they are disclosed, and to whom – one of May’s repeated conclusions is that even if a plot seems to lead to a conservative solution, merely representing the bad behaviour of supposedly respectable people and social groups is a rebellious act of disclosure.

A recurring strand in the book concerns what May calls “the orientalizing of secrecy” (142). The Victorian fascination with the supposed “secrets of the Orient”, and their associations with eroticism and violence, meant that secrets in a range of genres were referred to alongside, or using the language of, the Western perception of the Orient, very often making reference to The Arabian Nights (the Victorian reception and treatment of which is interestingly discussed in chapter 5).  From casual references which liken Vanity Fair’s duplicitous Becky Sharp to a “the most hardened Arab” (100), to images of literal and metaphorical veils, to more sustained allusions to the stories of Scheherazade, May convincingly shows how in “the nineteenth century the association between orientalism and secrecy becomes so familiar that […] the thought of secrecy often leads to orientalist images” (102). May pushes her point a little too bluntly at times – for example the claim that because “veiling, particularly in Victorian culture, connotes Oriental exoticism and eroticism” means that the veiled nun in Villette is “curiously eroticize[d]” (5) could be worked through more convincingly. Nevertheless, when thinking about Collins’s choice of gem in The Moonstone (for example) and its central role in the mystery of the novel, May’s ideas prove very relevant.

May is very (sometimes rather aggressively) critically engaged, and responds thoroughly to other scholarly approaches which may challenge her own readings. She also clearly enjoys the twists and turns of her own argument. Her questioning, for example, of whether “the Sherlock Holmes stories work primarily in the service of conservative causes” (198), weaves back and forth through the actions and intentions of participants on a fictional and a non-fictional level (Watson, Holmes, Watson’s readers, Holmes’s upper-class clients, Conan Doyle, his middle-class readers, and the real aristocracy). May also relishes the potential contradictions and tensions in the literature she analyses: more than once she suggests that a novel may undermine the author’s own beliefs. She claims, for example, that Brontë’s (and Lucy Snowe’s) dualistic prizing of a private self that ensures subjectivity is challenged by Lucy’s perceptive scrutiny of others, her ability to accurately read their ‘inner selves’. This results in several invigorated discussions which acknowledge the complexities of Victorian fiction, and the society they represent, not to mention modern critical responses to them.

It is intriguing to consider the overarching question of whether secrecy allows society to function, and whether this is reflected in sensation fiction. In novels where the plot is so often driven by the promise of the revelation of secrets, it is important that we are not told too much too soon (as that would spoil our fun), and often parts of the truth are withheld from certain characters to ensure their continued wellbeing (in the closing pages of Armadale, for example, Ozias Midwinter assures Allan that he does not need to know the secrets of their family history, and by doing so maintains his friend’s innocent optimism). Indeed, secrets in their many forms, their role in Victorian fiction and culture, and the performative nature of identity are so central to Collins’s fiction that Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction will be conceptually and thematically relevant to many working on his narrative strategies, his representation of interiority and interpersonal relations, and his social critiques. The book is important in that it can assist us to consider how Collins’s fiction fits within wider literary and cultural contexts, and to think more deeply about the (open) secrets which underpin the ‘plot-driven secrets’ that can be so easily taken for granted when reading sensation fiction.

Works Cited

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

Secrecy and Disclosure in Victorian Fiction by Leila Silvana May

Reviewed by Helena Ifill

ISBN: 978-1-4724-8439-0
pp. 242

The Wilkie Collins Journal 14 (2017)

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