The Decomposing Past and the Challenges to Modernity: Corporeal and Architectural Decay in Wilkie Collins

by Mariaconcetta Costantini

Wilkie Collins began his writing career at a time of economic, social and architectural changes, in which “Britain became the workshop of the world” (Pykett 31). The negotiation between conservatism and modernization was a distinctive mark of “those turbulent years of poverty and wealth, squalor and elegance”, whose “monstrous two-headed nature” emerged in architectural attempts to combine modern functionality with the revival of historical styles (Jordan 123). Victorian Gothic architecture was a result of these attempts to reconcile past with present, aesthetics with pragmatism, aristocratic tastes with capitalist demands. At the same time, however, its syncretism “dramatized a fundamental paradox” of coeval society: “fascination with the medieval inheritance in an age of progress” (Dellheim 1).1 Although they strove to merge tradition with innovation, the Victorians were still divided between conflicting aspirations and values, whose clash was inevitable in a rapidly transforming world.

On many occasions, the growing trust in progress fostered by the new culture of ‘manufacturing’ was counteracted by a morbid attraction for a past that kept returning in a variety of shapes. Nostalgically connected with lost ideals of beauty and leisure, the past was also evoked as a frightful revenant rising from the grave to endanger the on-going process of modernization. In the latter case, the return of the old was conceived and represented in terms of haunting: by refashioning Gothic paradigms (i.e., spectral figures, rotting corpses, decaying objects) Victorian writers expressed circulating anxieties about the resurgence of pre-industrial forces which posed a threat to contemporary notions of making and innovation.

Collins was a writer who gave voice to these anxieties. In a number of works, he used Gothic tropes of degeneration to stage the conflict between past and present. Two tropes in particular, the decomposing corpse and the half-ruined mansion, render the re-emergence of an uncanny past that confronted the Victorian champions of modernity. My aim is to explore the effects of Collins’s employment of such Gothic paraphernalia. Special attention will be paid to those fictional texts in which images of corporeal and architectural decay merge with one another. The disquieting correspondence between rotting bodies and buildings highlights, by contrast, the need for renovation and mobility in a world that aimed to progress but feared the resilient power of attraction exercised by old relics.

The Victorian clash of opinions about architectural standards was also a reflection of divergent class ideologies. If the stress laid on function derived from the solid philistinism of the industrial and entrepreneurial middle classes, the revival of past styles was connected with the declining aristocracy. Neither class was exempt from a moral and behavioural critique which extended to its architectural tastes. The ethical objections raised to laissez-faire economy were related to the vulgarity of the middle classes, who either lived in squalid suburbia or commissioned buildings characterized by a questionable stylistic eclecticism. On their part, aristocrats tended to be associated with Gothic castles and palaces in a state of dilapidation. While mirroring the social decline of their impoverished owners, these old dwellings acquired contradictory meanings: they were objects of aesthetic nostalgia but also symbols of ancient forms of autocratic oppression validated by privileges of birthright and inheritance.

These contradictions were caught by Collins, whose fiction offers interesting pictures of the forces of modernization at work in Victorian society. The son of William Collins, a conservative painter who depended on aristocratic and wealthy patrons, the young writer struggled to develop autonomous views of society and art at the beginning of his career. After publishing William’s biography in 1848 – a memoir in which he “judiciously avoided any explicit evaluation of his father’s work” (Dolan 13) – Collins distanced himself from William’s snobbery, reactionary ideas and outmoded idealization of society. His efforts to avoid paternal influence are evident in his early exploration of the intricacies of “modern life”, a phrase chosen as subtitle for his first experiment with sensation fiction, Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852).

Basil is set in the metamorphic reality of the 1850s, a decade marked by the socio-economic rise of the bourgeoisie and by aristocratic feelings of hostility. By fictionalizing the tragic marriage between the son of an ancient family and the daughter of a linen-draper, Collins not only exposes the dangers of cross-class relations in a society that was still prejudiced against change. He also, and notably, betrays his own indecision between progress and conservatism, since his representation of the petit-bourgeois milieu is visibly tainted with class bias. Although they are not spared criticism, the upper-class members of Basil’s family are portrayed in a more favourable light than the Sherwins and their circle, whose fraudulent conduct and moral degeneracy are “symptomatic of a system that equates civilization with capitalism” (Wagner 209).

The moral gap between aristocracy and petit bourgeoisie is rendered by the architectural details associated with the two classes. As Tamara Wagner observes, Collins makes a particular use of the Gothic in this novel, since he depicts the suburbia in claustrophobic terms while insisting on the domestic feelings inspired by the protagonist’s ancient house (201). Although he did not endorse upper-class prejudices, Collins wrote a narrative that primarily exposed the moral debasement of the nouveaux riches. To underscore the negativity of their ethos, he blurred the confines between the familiar and the uncanny, the domestic and the Gothic. If Basil’s ancient house is the yearned-for place of happy family memories, the Gothicized neighbourhood of the Sherwins comes to symbolize the owners’ betrayal of the very domestic values on which middle-class ideology was founded.

After exposing the traps of “modern life”, Collins gradually came to terms with the idea of progress.2 InThe Woman in White, written at the end of the 1850s, he postulates the inevitability of change by opposing bourgeois comfort to the upper-class taste for antiquarianism and the picturesque. This contrast emerges in the interpolated journal entries penned by Marian Halcombe, who draws an ugly picture of Blackwater Park, the aristocratic home of Sir Percival Glyde. An untitled young woman, utterly dependent on the generosity of her rich half-sister, Marian upholds notions of utilitarianism and self-help. Her representation of the baronet’s estate, on her arrival at the Park, is in line with the “new emphasis on building function” and “on the rationality of structure” which gained prominence in Victorian architectural theory (Macleod 9). While reviving indigenous styles of the past, such as the Gothic and the Elizabethan, High Victorianism was in fact pervaded by a strong sense of the utility of buildings, which were planned to answer social needs. Such awareness is evident in the efforts to combine functionality with romance which were made by nineteenth-century architects. Their flexible use of historical styles and their restoration of old buildings mostly resulted in the creation of new edifices, whose main scope was that of meeting demands for convenience and usefulness.

The importance of this rationalist approach is strongly asserted by Marian, who describes both the Elizabethan and the fourteenth-century wings of the building in terms of darkness, filth, disgust and useless antiquarianism. Not surprisingly, she declares to prefer the redecorated Georgian wing of the building which, closer in time and taste to her age, grants comfort to its dwellers. The relief she confesses to feel, in watching this “habitable part of the house”, confirms her appreciation of conveniently restored buildings (Collins 1974, 225-6).

The contrast between utility and romance is underpinned by successive hints at the asphyxiating presence of “too many trees” around the house and at the “picturesque” appearance of Blackwater lake which, as its owner naively suggests, looks like a potential murder scene (Collins 1974, 227, 253-4). The latter reference, in particular, establishes a figurative parallel between the rotting estate and the decomposing body of the victim of a crime which might be committed on its soil. By creating a Gothic setting redolent of aristocratic violence, the narrator anticipates the oppressive role exercised by the upper-class characters of the novel, who later try to stifle the aspirations of the socially mobile protagonists. This class conflict comes fully to the fore in the episode of the temporary reclusion of Marian in the Elizabethan wing while she is affected by typhus fever (Bernstein 297). The short-term experience of imprisonment strengthens her initial dislike of the world of aristocracy and persuades her to align with Walter Hartright, the novel’s representative of the rising middle classes. In a later episode, the decline of aristocracy is symbolically confirmed by the correlation between bodily and architectural decay. In the course of his investigation, Hartright explores an old vestry to find the register in which the supposed wedding of Glyde’s parents was recorded. Described as “a dim, mouldy, melancholy old room” situated at the back of “an ancient, weather-beaten” church, the vestry that preserves the secret of the aristocratic villain becomes the locus of his tragic death during a fire (515-17). The correlation between the dilapidated building and the victim’s “stark and grim and black […] dead face”suggests the beginning of a new era in which the old parasitic classes are replaced by active men like Hartright (541).

It is however in two shorter texts that Collins made the most powerful use of architecture in relation to class: the early story “Mad Monkton” (1853) and the later novella The Haunted Hotel (1878). Both narratives pivot around a Gothic building that embodies the obscurantism of the past – a building that is shown to be inadequate to the new times and is consequently destined to be abandoned or re-functionalized. Equally noteworthy, in the two texts, is the presence of corporeal images of decomposition, whose link with the decaying buildings substantiates the idea of an indispensable process of modernization.

Written in 1853, “Mad Monkton” appeared only two years later in Frazer’s Magazine after being denied publication in Household Words. Dickens’s rejection of the text is hardly surprising. Apart from telling a ghastly tale of persecution and hereditary madness, Collins associates the old world with images of putrescence which were likely to shock high- and middle-brow readers. The Gothic setting of “Mad Monkton” is Wincot Abbey, a Medieval monastery turned into an upper-class mansion at the time of the Reformation. A frightful old relic, Wincot Abbey exerts a negative influence on the Monkton family that has owned it for centuries. As the narrator states in the beginning, the family has “suffered for generations past from the horrible affliction of hereditary insanity”, a blight connected with a shocking “crime committed in past times by two [ancestors]” (Collins 1994, 39). A place of willing reclusion for many Monktons, who tend to conceal their hereditary taint, the Abbey also fulfils a thanatological function as the family’s burial site. The ritual returning of the bodies of ‘escaped’ members is justified on the grounds of a prophecy which ominously threatens the family with extinction: “When in Wincot vault a place / Waits for one of Monkton’s race / When that one forlon shall lie / Graveless under open sky, / […] Monkton’s race shall pass away” (60).

The protagonists of the story are the last heir of the family, Alfred Monkton, and an unnamed neighbour of his, who plays the role of narrator. From the start, Alfred is described as a strange young man who lives as a prisoner in the Abbey, spends his time perusing old manuscripts and is likely to be afflicted by madness. Unlike him, the narrator is an idle traveller who leaves college to amuse himself on the Continent. The two meet unexpectedly in Naples. Driven by curiosity, the narrator discovers the reason for Alfred’s journey: he is searching for the body of his uncle Stephen, the black sheep of the family, who was reported to have been killed abroad in a duel. A firm believer in the prophecy, of which he found a written record in the Abbey, Alfred is also persecuted by the ghost of his dead uncle which, he claims, appears to him in “the spasm of mortal agony” (62).

His description of the spectral figure underscores its hideous corporeality – an element untypical of ghost stories. Convulsed by pain and bleeding from its mouth, the “phantom” exhibits the well discernible features of “a dark-complexioned man […] with the death-glare in his great black eyes” (62-3). Its almost tangible physicality is connected with Wincot Abbey, which also tropes death with its “airless, awful stillness”, “rotting curtains” and relics “of bygone days” (64-5). It is no coincidence, therefore, that the ghost makes its first appearance in “one of the deserted rooms” (66) of the Abbey and, in Alfred’s interpretation, mutely ‘asks’ to be returned to its predestined burial site. What Wincot Abbey incarnates, in its double function of home and burial ground, is thus the doom of extinction faced by Victorian aristocrats in an age of movement and change. Obsessed as they are by a lineage corresponding to the corpses buried in the Wincot vaults, the Monktons are trapped in a house betokening their inability to adapt and survive.

Most probably, the bleak corporeality of the story was also inspired by the Victorian debate on the Burial Reform, whose advocates underscored the repugnant aspects of death to attain the removal of corpses from urban areas.3 A barbaric practice that evokes Victorian fears of contagion, the domestic interment of the Monktons shows the negativity of the old tradition in which it is rooted – a tradition of dangerous proximity between the living and the dead, which ‘infects’ the descendants and dooms them to extinction.

Alfred’s monomaniac relation with the Abbey reinforces the sense of impending doom. After losing his parents, he shows no interest in leisure activities, avoids the society of his neighbours and retreats into the “lonely old house” to live “as suspiciously strange and solitary a life as his father had lived before him” (42-3). His ‘self-entombment’ is confirmed by his penetration into the dark recesses of the building “which no living soul had entered before […] for nearly a hundred years!” (64). The two discoveries he makes in those abandoned rooms – the original text of the prophecy and the spectre – substantiate the deadly effects of his obstinate identification with the past. Instead of marrying his fiancée and starting a new life, Alfred falls prey to the fixed idea of granting family continuity through the recovery of Stephen’s remains. The very trip he makes abroad is paradoxically connoted in terms of isolation and immobility. Persecuted by a ghost that keeps him distant from the Neapolitan society, he is a mental prisoner of the Abbey and its gloomy symbolism, as proved by a special object he has taken with him: “a leaden coffin, magnificently emblazoned with the arms of the Monkton family, and inscribed with old-fashioned letters with the name of ‘Stephen Monkton’, his age and the manner of his death being added underneath” (57). Like the Wincot vaults, the coffin symbolizes a remote past that is delusively preserved through the post-mortem rituals of hunting, interment and genealogical re-inscription of fugitive family members.

Stephen’s cadaver is discovered in a remote area of Southern Italy by the narrator, who accompanies Alfred in the strange quest. Through his voice, Collins gives details of the putrescent remains that are found in a half-collapsed outhouse adjacent to a Capuchin convent. The awful smell perceived by the man anticipates the sight of the decomposing corpse: “a long recumbent object, tinged with a lightish blue colour all over, […] bearing a certain hideous, half-formed resemblance to the human face and figure” (79). Only vaguely reminiscent of a human body, the decomposing cadaver seems to fuse with the crumbling environment in which it lays: “[…] a corpse that had apparently once had a sheet spread over it−and that had lain rotting on the trestles under the open sky long enough for the linen to take the livid, light-blue tinge of mildew and decay which now covered it” (79). The convent itself is described as a dilapidated building punctuated and surrounded by emblems of mortality, such as a “slimy, green and rotten” cross “with a shocking life-sized figure in wood nailed to it” (76).

Confronted with the appalling materiality of the corpse, the narrator performs three acts of sanitation: he finds chemical assistance to block its further decay, has it placed into the emblazoned coffin and hires a vessel to carry it back to England. His attempts to restrain the agents of chaos are, however, doomed to fail. The shipwreck of their vessel, which sinks together with the coffin, proves the impossibility of restoring order through the ritual entombment of the uncanny. Even though the two protagonists escape death by drowning, the victory of the liquid element over the solid earth announces the end of the Monktons’s world. Unable to cope with his loss, Alfred dies of brain fever shortly afterwards. His premature death, which decrees the extinction of the family, turns the Abbey into a mausoleum that will host no future life.

The story closes with the narrator’s visit to the Wincot vaults in which Alfred is buried. Assailed by a “sense of dread” at the sight of the empty niche destined to Stephen, the young man leaves the crypt and hurries “into the sunlight and the fresh air” (104). His urge to escape the sinister Abbey configures him as a man of the new times. While Alfred is governed by an irrational desire to join the dead Monktons, the narrator makes what Kristeva would define an experience of individuation since he distances himself from both emblems of abjection (the corpse and the mansion).4 His contact with the loathsome reality of death produces an instinctual wish for survival, an aspiration to preserve his physical and mental health by ejecting the uncanny, as confirmed by the active role he plays in blocking the decay of the corpse. On the contrary, Alfred is governed by a morbid attraction to a past that stifles his vitality. His persistent apathy during the quest, his suicidal embrace of the sinking coffin which he aims to follow into the sea depth,5) and the nervous illness that kills him in the end, are manifestations of a death-wish that keeps him fettered to the macabre tradition of his family.

The diverging attitudes of the two protagonists are most visible in the conclusion. Unlike Alfred, who rests peacefully in the family vault, the narrator keeps apart from the decayed world of the Monktons and avoids meeting again his lost friend’s fiancée, who is “faithful to the memory of the dead” (104). Although he gives no clues to his future life, the unnamed protagonist shows a remarkable capability of adjusting to the changing reality of his times. A wealthy and lazy traveller in the beginning, he adopts a more active approach to life after meeting Alfred, whom he protects and helps to find the body. The roles of detective, amateur psychoanalyst and writer he plays, during and after their quest, configure him as a member of the leisure classes ‘converted’ to the industrious lifestyle of the rising bourgeoisie.

Such a reading is validated by his distrust of the Catholic tradition. After informing the reader that the Monktons are “Roman Catholics” (43), he raises doubts on the superstitious convictions of his friend, who believes in the stories recorded by the Medieval monks once living in the Abbey. The old manuscripts he reads in the desolate rooms are vestiges of an age of obscurantism, which was swept away by the Reformation. The narrator’s dislike of this past comes fully to the fore in his critique of the primitive mores and views of the Italian monks he meets during his quest. The dogmatic reasons they give for leaving Stephen’s corpse unburied – “The slain man died, unabsolved, in the commission of mortal sin” (86) – are unacceptable to the Englishman, who cannot conceal his “disgust and horror” (85). By highlighting the contrast between the monks’ barbarism and his civilized perspective, the narrator suggests the importance of the English Reformation, which paved the way for the rationalism and the pragmatic culture of his age.

The Monktons, whose name frightfully puns on the former occupants of the Abbey, are thus connoted as the heirs of a primitive institution that was viewed with suspicion in the nineteenth century. The diffuse feelings of anti-Catholicism that pervaded Victorian society were often rendered in terms of persecution by writers, who reworked Gothic themes and characters popularized by Radcliffe and her fellow-novelists. Collins himself gave voice to the dominant aversion to the Roman Church and its followers. His response to the anti-Catholic panic of the 1850s is evident in “Mad Monkton”, in which he ‘demonizes’ the foreign Medieval culture obstinately preserved by an English family. It is noteworthy, however, that his views hardly changed in later years. Reservations about a Catholic tradition linked with foreign powers are overtly expressed in The Black Robe (1881), a novel that shares significant elements with the early story. In comparison with “Mad Monkton”, The Black Robe betrays a similar dislike of Catholic rituals and architecture, which are fearfully associated with images of decline and mortality. There are however fewer references to corporeal decay in the later novel, in which no decomposing cadaver is shown to ‘infect’ Vange Abbey or the Italian sites.6

Much more macabre is the correlation between corpse and building established in The Haunted Hotel, a novella Collins wrote in 1878 on his return from a tour of Northern Italy. Mainly set in a Venetian palace, this Gothic narrative dramatizes the clash between tradition and innovation, between corrupted noblemen and rising entrepreneurs who fight to expunge the horrors of the past from their world. In a similar way as in “Mad Monkton”, the discourse on class takes a disturbing physical form. Anatomical and architectural images of decomposition are insistently connected with the aristocracy, while the bourgeois characters work to sanitize and re-functionalize the crumbling buildings of the past.

The two social groups confront each other within one family, as proved by the tensions between Lord Montbarry, the eldest son and heir of a landowning stock, and his younger siblings, who object to his wedding and lifestyle. After marrying an ambiguous Continental noblewoman, Countess Narona, who is rumoured to have incestuous relations with her brother, Montbarry establishes dangerous ties with the world of foreign aristocracy: he moves to Venice, hires an old palace, hosts the Countess’s criminal brother, Baron Rivar, and is murdered by his villainous in-laws, who aim to the premium of his life insurance. To cheat the insurance company, Narona and Rivar convince an Italian courier dying of pneumonia to play the part of Montbarry, while the English Lord is poisoned, dismembered and partly dissolved in chemical substances. An accident prevents the Baron from melting the head of his victim which is put in a secret hiding-place of the palace constructed “during the last days of the Inquisition in Venice” (Collins 1999, 208).

Once again, Collins associates revolting anatomical parts with a building that incarnates the horrors of a past dominated by the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. The decomposing head concealed in the niche comes to symbolize these horrors. Explicitly linked with the Inquisition, it also evokes the degeneracy of the Borgias and the sinister practices of alchemists who, like Baron Rivar, were suspected of committing unnameable crimes in their pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone.7 The moral degeneracy implied by these references has an objective correlative in the “damp, mouldy, rambling old [Venetian] palace” (117) in which new atrocious acts are performed.

Montbarry’s entrapment in the rotting palace is symptomatic of the decline of those members of his class who perpetuate a legacy of violence, dissolution and greed.8) The more obsolete their tastes, the sooner they face extinction, while their social roles are usurped by the lower classes. This reversal is ironically indicated by the courier’s personation of the dying Montbarry. While the low-class ruffian receives medical assistance and social recognition in the upper rooms, the English nobleman is imprisoned, murdered and dismembered in the underwater vaults of the palace. His brutal death is a form of punishment for his arrogant alignment with a dying tradition, exemplified by the corrupted nobility into which he marries. By preferring the “corpse-like” pale, black-eyed Narona (90) to his former fiancée Agnes – a fair, youthful and innocent Englishwoman –, Montbarry makes a tragic choice that seals his fate. What he reveals, by selecting a decadent adventuress as wife, is a morbid wish for self-annihilation that paves the way for his violent death.

Not much different, however, is the destiny faced by his murderers, whose efforts to survive are fatally thwarted. After committing the murder, the Baron vainly tries to modernize his knowledge of chemistry by travelling to the United States. Too involved in occult pseudo-sciences (222), he is symbolically expunged from the advanced nation, since he contracts a fever that kills him while he is investigating “into the present state of experimental chemistry in the great American republic” (153). On her part, the Countess is haunted by memories that stifle her vital energies. Afflicted by a pathological mania that drives her back to the Venetian palace, she revives her guilty past by obsessively writing and re-writing the story of the murder in the form of a play. Her inability to escape this vicious circle is confirmed by her sudden death. The stroke that kills her before the completion of her play is proof of her unwillingness to bury the dead, whom she keeps resurrecting on the written page.

Another indicator of her impasse is the place where she meets her death: the old Venetian palace, which has meanwhile been turned into a luxury hotel. In contrast with other characters, who prefer the restored version of the building, the Countess obstinately looks for traces of the past. Her wish to unearth the secrets of the building is not only betrayed by her revelation of the hiding-place of the severed head, which is recovered by Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwick. She also exhibits a morbid interest in the ghostly projection of the Lord’s head that haunts the hotel room in which he was murdered. The hovering head that appears to the Countess and Agnes is significantly described in terms of disgusting physicality, which is both environmental (its close link with the room) and corporeal (its decomposing features):


Mid-way between her face and the ceiling, there hovered a human head−severed at the neck, like a head struck from the body by the guillotine. […] The flesh of the face was gone. The shrivelled skin was darkened in hue, like the skin of an Egyptian mummy […] Thin remains of a discoloured moustache and whiskers, hanging over the upper lip, and over the hollows where the cheeks had once been, made the head just recognisable as the head of a man. (202)

The materiality of the apparition, which is enhanced by “its fetid exhalations” (203), confirms the sensationalism of Collins’s revision of Gothic topoi. In a similar way as he had done in “Mad Monkton”, the author replaces the evanescence of traditional ghosts with the horrid physicality of the corpse, “the most sickening of wastes” whose emergence threatens to dissolve the living’s sense of being and identity (Kristeva 3).9

The Countess’s death interrupts the dangerous resurfacing of the past which is definitely erased through Henry’s agency: he gives proper burial to Montbarry’s remains and resolves to carry “the terrible secret of the haunted hotel to the grave” (239). By officially denying the Gothic events occurred in the building, Henry brings to symbolic completion the architects’ work of restoration of the old palace. The central role he plays, at the end of the novella, configures him as a new man who takes the initiative and adapts to a rapidly changing society.

There is however a tinge of irony attached to his characterization. If it is true that his reticence protects his family members from the shocking revelation of Montbarry’s fate, it is equally true that it exposes his questionable morality in business matters. What comes to light in the course of narration is the fact that he invested money in the restoration and launching of the Venetian hotel. The economic interest he has in the venture casts a shadow on the real reason for his silence, which might be an expedient to protect his investment. This view is confirmed by his complicity with the hotel manager, who also dreads the economic consequences of the discovery of the head (212).

The ambiguities of Henry’s conduct are not dissolved in the novel’s conclusion. Collins undeniably sides with the young entrepreneur, whose capital is risked to re-functionalize the abode of a parasitic class. But he also exposes some weaknesses of the new culture of making and investment Henry comes to represent. One of the charges brought against it is lack of taste. On his arrival at the hotel, Henry watches his investment through the lens of drab materialism. The pleasure with which he observes “the artful mixture of comfort and luxury” does not derive from aesthetic considerations but is rather the result of his serious reckoning of “the coming dividend of ten per cent” he hopes to get (168). In subsequent paragraphs, the philistine want of refinement is connected with the tastes of an American customer, who proudly admits to prefer the modern comfort of a “gas-burner” to the visual delight of “antique decorations” (169).

Another source of worry is the unsentimental attitude of speculators, who firmly believe in the primacy of the cash-nexus. Their materialistic perception of reality is evident in Henry’s unfeeling view of the hotel as a mere object of investment. “‘A really promising speculation’” he tells Agnes who is disappointed by his heartless attitude:

His income as a younger son stood in need, as she well knew, of all the additions that he could make to it by successful speculation. But she was unreasonable enough, nevertheless, to disapprove of his attempts to make money already out of the house in which his brother had died. (149)

Despite her reservations, however, Agnes finally surrenders to the pragmatic worldview of Henry, whom she consents to marry after being long faithful to Montbarry’s memory.

The ironies attached to the renovation of the palace problematize the Ruskinian undertones of the novella. At first reading, the Venetian setting and the architectural details of The Haunted Hotel evoke the bond of aesthetics, history and ennobling labour established by Ruskin who, like Pugin and other Victorian theorists, praised true historical revivalism against the eclecticism and commodification of nineteenth-century architecture.10 What Collins seems to endorse is their view of the negative effects of progress. Rather than granting historical continuity, the renovation of the Venetian palace is in fact connoted as an act of erasure of the past, through which a medieval vestige is altered “to suit contemporary functional requirements” (Dellheim 83). At closer scrutiny, however, what appears as a critique of modernization and profit proves to be a more ambiguous reflection on Victorian architecture and revivalism. While showing how fictional investors commodify and vulgarize a symbol of history, Collins also suggests that the Gothic past they so significantly alter is no idealized age. The violent references to the Inquisition and the Borgias, the gruesome murder of Montbarry, and the frightful apparition of his head prove that the history associated with the old palace is more threatening than the coarse present of the sanitized hotel. This idea is confirmed by the fact that it is Henry Westwick, the unfeeling entrepreneur, who puts an end to the ghastly haunting of the past, and in so doing offers the only viable alternative to the Gothic past.

Cold-blooded and rational, Henry thus expunges the uncanny by performing actions that restore the borders between the living and the dead. His recovery, identification and proper burial of Montbarry’s head purges his world of the disquieting presence of a past that keeps returning in horrid shapes. Kristeva’s definition of the abject well applies to the spectral projection that haunts the hotel. “[Abjection is] what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-betweeen, the ambiguous, the composite” (4).11 To cancel the monstrous apparition, which continues to blur the line between past and present, Henry must learn to cope with the physical reality of death. The way he disposes of the rotting head discovered in the niche is significant. After yielding to a “morbid fascination with the ghastly object”, he masters his emotions, consults legal and forensic experts, and takes measures to remove the “shocking relic of humanity” from the hotel (213). By adopting a rational view of the ‘thing’, he neutralizes its unheimlich power and gives his contribution to the restoration of the old palace, which is definitely turned into a modern space of luxury and comfort.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Stephen. “Reading Blackwater Park: Gothicism, Narrative, and Ideology in The Woman in White.” Studies in the Novel 25.3 (1993): 291-305.

Collins, Wilkie. “Mad Monkton.” Mad Monkton and Other Stories. Ed. Norman Page. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

Collins, Wilkie. Miss or Mrs?, The Haunted Hotel, The Guilty River. Ed. Norman Page and Toru Sasaki. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Ed. Julian Symons. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Crosby, Christina. “Reading the Gothic Revival: ‘History’ and Hints on Household Taste.” Rewriting the Victorians: Theory, History and the Politics of Gender. Ed. Linda M. Shires. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. 101-15.

Dellheim, Charles. The Face of the Past: The Preservation of the Medieval Influence in Victorian England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.

Dolin, Tim. “Collins’s Career and the Visual Arts.” The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins. Ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. 7-22.

Hotz, Mary Elizabeth. Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.

Jordan, Robert Furneaux. Victorian Architecture. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. 1941. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Macleod, Robert. Style and Society: Architectural Ideology in Britain 1835-1914. London: RIBA Publications, 1971.

Pykett, Lyn. Wilkie Collins. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2005.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2009.

Wagner, Tamara S. “Sensationalizing Victorian Suburbia: Wilkie Collins’s Basil.” Victorian Sensations:Essays on a Scandalous Genre. Eds. Kimberly Harrison and Richard Fantina. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State UP, 2006. 200-11.


  1. In the same chapter, Dellheim observes that the Victorians’ “relationship to the medieval past was ambivalent: On the one hand, many Victorians wanted to eliminate what they saw as the vestiges of feudalism; on the other, they were fascinated by medieval motifs, themes, and symbols” (13). []
  2. “Basil’s experience is ultra modern” observes Laurence Talairach-Vielmas, whose reading of the novel gives evidence of Collins’s transposition of traditional Gothic topoi into “the world of commerce, speculation and consumption”. 25-6. []
  3. On these themes see, among others, Mary Elizabeth Hotz, Literary Remains. Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009). []
  4. See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1941). []
  5. “[…] he was crouched upon the coffin, with the water on the cabin floor whirling and splashing about him, […]. If the ship sinks, I shall know that the fatality is accomplished, and shall sink with her.” (97 []
  6. Set in Vange Abbey, a country house standing on the ground of an old monastery in ruins, The Black Robe features an upper-class man, Lewis Romayne, haunted by a spectral voice and surrounded by deceitful Jesuits. The conflict between conservatism and progress dramatized here is a variation of the clash between past and present represented in “Mad Monkton”, which is equally set in an old abbey suggestive of Catholic decay. Instead of a corpse, however, it is here a ghastly voice that haunts the owner of Vange Abbey and obsessively reminds him of a murder he unintentionally committed in France. The places where the voice is most oppressive are at first the country house and, later, the religious buildings in which the protagonist serves as a priest after his conversion and move to Rome. All associated with the Catholic Church, these buildings are the sites where Romayne’s health rapidly deteriorates before his premature death. In other words, they are the sites in which he gradually becomes a corpse as a result of his self-annihilating conduct. In a similar way as “Mad Monkton”, The Black Robecloses with the victory of the forces of modernity. Although the protagonist is killed by his attachment to an old-fashioned faith, the scheming Jesuits are defeated by the champions of Victorian rationality who prevent Vange Abbey (and symbolically England) from falling back into the hands of the Roman Church. Their legal defeat and expunction, in the novel’s end, amounts to an act of symbolic renovation of the old building which, appropriately cleared of the vestiges of an oppressive age, can suit the requirements of its new English owners. []
  7. As Laurence Talairach-Vielmas has demonstrated, Countess Narona “recalls the archetypal fifteenth-century Italian lady” because of her familiarity with poisons and her suspicious (possibly incestuous) relationship with her brother. Wilkie Collins, Medicine and the Gothic 127. []
  8. It is interesting to notice that Lord Montbarry is repeatedly accused of avarice by his enemies – a vice that was historically attributed to the selfish, parasitic nobility of old Europe. “My lord […] hates parting with his money” (117) observes the courier, who is later echoed by the Countess: “She can only answer that her noble husband […] now appears in his true character, as one of the meanest men living.” (225 []
  9. In the same paragraph, Kristeva explains that the corpse “does not signify death”; it is death and violently reminds the living subject of all forms of physical waste that he or she “permanently thrust[s] aside in order to live”. []
  10. For some contradictions inherent in Victorian Gothic revivalism see Christina Crosby, “Reading the Gothic Revival. ‘History’ and Hints on Household Taste”, 101-15. []
  11. The abject connotation of the past, in The Haunted Hotel, is strengthened by the references to the presumed incestuous relation between Narona and her brother. If we agree with Kristeva (and with Freud before her) on the idea that “incest” and “death” are two basic taboos in human societies (58), it is not difficult to see that the offensive behaviour of the two siblings casts a dark shadow on the old world of aristocracy they represent. []

The Decomposing Past and the Challenges to Modernity: Corporeal and Architectural Decay in Wilkie Collins by Mariaconcetta Costantini
The Wilkie Collins Journal 11 (2012)

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