The Fiction of Geopolitics: Afterimages of Culture, from Wilkie Collins to Alfred Hitchcock

by Christopher GoGwilt

Review by Steve Dillon

In the argument of this book, “twentieth-century paradigms of geopolitics” relate to nineteenth-century concepts of culture (3), and the title points to the idea that “discourses of geopolitics are constituted and sustained through essentially fictive forms” (7). The “fictive forms” that sustain geopolitics here are both novelistic and cinematic, and GoGwilt studies novels by Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) and Olive Schreiner (The Story of an African Farm), before moving on to writings by and portraits of R.B. Cunningham-Graham and a final chapter on sabotage in Joseph Conrad and Alfred Hitchcock. The author of The Invention of the West: Joseph Conrad and the Double-Mapping of Europe and Empire (Stanford, 1995), GoGwilt is particularly interesting on images associated with cartography and geography, and his first chapter, which treats the probably unfamiliar but important figures of H.J. Mackinder, Friedrich Ratzel, and Elisée Reclus, will reward readers interested in a different way of approaching nineteenth-century culture. GoGwilt is also to be thanked for good discussions of Schreiner, who is only now gaining some of the critical attention that she deserves, and of Cunningham-Graham, another relatively unknown character. Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone, in fact, is probably the most canonical and most familiar work under inspection here, so productive has been the machinery of Wilkie Collins studies in the last ten years. Since the focus of this Journal is on Wilkie Collins, it is on that chapter that I will primarily center this review, although I will certainly encourage the reader to have a look at GoGwilt’s opening chapter on “the geopolitical image,” which makes for an interesting comparison to the brilliant use of maps in Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel: 1800-1900 (Verso, 1998).

At “the heart of the overall argument,” as GoGwilt puts it, is an emphasis on the visual image: this “provides the opportunity for reexamination of the long ‘ocularcentric’ tradition of European enlightenment thinking” (7). Thus GoGwilt aligns his project with that of Jonathan Crary, in Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (MIT: 1996).1 Crary’s main predecessors in his extraordinarily detailed and wide-ranging work are Foucault and Benjamin—the two outstanding pioneers, perhaps, in the field of nineteenth-century visuality. GoGwilt’s methodology is more eclectic, less theoretical, in comparison with Crary. In his chapter on Collins, GoGwilt begins with a brief discussion of “culture” in Matthew Arnold and then lingers over a painting by David Wilkie, Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of the Sultan Tippoo Sahib, after having captured Seringapatam (1790). David Wilkie is Wilkie Collins’s godfather, after whom he was christened, so we have both a family and a thematic connection from this picture to the book. Painters and painting are touched on frequently in Collins, not surprisingly, since his father, William Collins, was also a painter, and Collins’s first book writes his father’s memoirs (1848). GoGwilt treats well the role of the “paint-stain” in The Moonstone, the smear of paint that implicates Franklin Blake in the theft, but he is more interested in the “stain” than the “paint,” the “blot” on culture—a “story of dirty linen,” as D.A. Miller calls it.2 One might, however, have pursued the “painterly” dimensions of the novel further, regarding the “smear of paint” as not only a metaphor for scandal but as a species of allegory on aesthetics. Readings of The Moonstone which foreground and provide the particularities of British imperialism already, in effect, regard the book as an allegory, and so one might read the allegory both ways, pursuing the interchangeable figures of politics (stain) and aesthetics (paint) with equal diligence.((The readable grammar of political allegory in Collins’ “romance” (following on Scott) is emphasized by Ian Duncan, “The Moonstone, the Victorian Novel, and Imperialist Panic,” Modern Language Quarterly 55 (1994) 298-9.))  The aesthetics of the sensation novel work away from the monumental and towards the impressionistic, so that one might think further about the “decoration of the door,” which occupies so much of our attention in the first part of the novel, and link that image perhaps with notions of memory, or Franklin Blake’s complete lack of memory (“I threw a dozen portraits, at least, of the man with the piebald hair . . . into the wastebasket” [335]. It is not surprising that Collins’s novels will blur and blot Arnoldian divisions of culture, since they do not so much look back to the pastoral scenes of his father as look ahead (with a more melodramatic aspect) to the expressions of moment and light in Whistler (whose Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was regarded by Ruskin as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”).

I have argued elsewhere that the study of nineteenth-century visuality would benefit by focusing on architecture and interior design over against our current tendency to look at the pre-cinematic.3 GoGwilt rightly, I think, situates The Moonstone in the tradition of a “country-house novel,” as related in Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City. GoGwilt writes, “as with Collins’s other novels of the 1860s, the social space of the English country house provides a prime location for plotting troubled family legacies” (62). As a student of the visual and the territorial, GoGwilt could, once again, much more rigorously pursue the associations of interior space in The Moonstone. Not only is the “boudoir” with its decorated door an object to which the narrative returns, so is the library (“‘What might you want in the library at this time of day?’ I inquired” [86]). As D.A. Miller points out, in detective fiction “the layout of the country house [is] frequently given in all the exactitude of a diagram,” and every room in The Moonstone radiates with memory and significance. “I wish certain parts of the house to be reopened, and to be furnished, exactly as they were furnished at this time last year” (381), commands Ezra Jennings, in order to re-create the original crime scene. GoGwilt could do more, then, to help us to envision maps of the Victorian household, which are just as weighted, figurative, and “geopolitical” as the maps of Europe. In his attention to interior design, as with painting, a more focused approach to Victorian visuality might have been more productive.

GoGwilt’s chapter on The Moonstone is a good discussion, but not as detailed, focused, and original as essays by D.A. Miller, Tamar Heller, and Ian Duncan.4 Other parts of GoGwilt’s book do help us organize and see things differently, but his Moonstone, in the end, seems a little too familiar. Collins is a clearly a central figure in the multiple discourses of Victorian visual culture and there is still much interesting work to be done in this new and developing field.


  1. Page references to The Moonstone in the text refer to Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (New York: Bantam, 1982). Another recent discussion of the visual in the nineteenth century is Kate Flint, The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000). []
  2. D.A. Miller, “From roman policier to roman-police: Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone” in The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988) 34. []
  3. Steve Dillon, “Victorian Interior,” Modern Language Quarterly 62 (2001) 83- 115. []
  4. Tamar Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic (New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP, 1992). []

The Fiction of Geopolitics: Afterimages of Culture, from Wilkie Collins to Alfred Hitchcock by Christopher GoGwilt

Reviewed by Steve Dillon

ISBN: 0- 804-73726-6
Stanford University Press
pp. xiii + 265

The Wilkie Collins Journal 04 (2000)

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