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The New Magdalen and the Rhetoric of Prostitution: Restoring Mercy Merrick’s Agency

by Laurie Lyda

Of Wilkie Collins’s oeuvre, The New Magdalen receives little scholarly attention and is often dismissed as a failed experiment of his later sensation fiction. However, the narrative, produced in serial, volume, and dramatic form, resonates as an artifact of Victorian anxieties about the “contagious” prostitute.1 Collins’s “Magdalen” is Mercy Merrick, who superficially appears to be a maligned Angel of the House—a woman who, except for her unfortunate past as a prostitute, constitutes the ideal Victorian lady. A close reading reveals that Mercy possesses agency and skillfully transgresses imagined boundaries of class and expectation, contradicting a solely beatific image. Because a Victorian audience was more comfortable with a maligned Angel as heroine than a calculating and ambitious woman, Mercy’s complex rhetorical construction undermines configurations of the “disorderly woman” within the cultural geography of the Victorian period.

Typically, Victorian rhetoric identified the prostitute as symptomatic of society’s degeneration and, consequently, cast her in the role of social scapegoat. In narratives, the prostitute character often died or was exiled from society, reinforcing the cultural message that a “fall” into prostitution ensures expulsion. Prostitutes were among the class of females who, by interacting in public, economic (male) spheres, were designated as disorderly by the patriarchal codes that constructed the imagined private/domestic and public spaces and configured the former as feminine. Defined by The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “disorderly” described persons or their actions as “opposed to or violating moral order, constituted authority, or recognized rule or method; not submissive to rule, lawless,” and by 1824, the term “disorderly person” indicated “one guilty of one of a number of offences against public order as defined by various Acts of Parliament” (OED). Legislatively yoking personal behavior and social expectation enabled the attempted regulation of the social and individual body, regulation that would include the Contagious Disease legislation and the establishment of refuges and Magdalen homes. Dominant discourse dictated that any degree of female disorderliness implied a capacity for greater offense, so the prostitute, as the extreme example of a disorderly female, was rhetorically constructed as exemplum: As prostitutes go, so may all disorderly women, regardless of their infraction.

In his portrayal of Mercy, Collins explores the disorderly female’s realm and the late nineteenth century’s growing urban paranoia about perceived threats to the domestic home and social body. Prostitutes’ association with city space and the corresponding large and diverse population that “encouraged a sexual paranoia with its promiscuous intermingling of ambiguous bodies” heightened the danger they embodied (Rosenman 13). Fear of ambiguity exacerbated concerns about the prostitute, considered a carrier of disease and moral degeneracy, and promoted her relegation to liminal space. The idea that “ambiguous bodies” (13) could gather together, that the female next to you might be a degenerate masquerading behind beauty and superficial manners, infecting a domestic space with public disease, heightened anxieties about identity. The questions of who a person was, where she belonged, and what she did within that space became increasingly important. Thus, Mercy, as a former prostitute who comes to inhabit a domestic space, is disorderly. Importantly, Collins also depicts her as an agent of disorder. It is this distinction that makes Mercy Merrick a significant figure in Victorian discourse about prostitution.

Each version of The New Magdalen adheres to the same core story and basic narrative structure: A nurse attached to a French ambulance, Mercy Merrick assumes the identity of Grace Roseberry after a shell burst seemingly kills the latter. The very names of the women—Mercy and Grace—create an ironic association; as the narrative proceeds, Collins depicts the former prostitute as both merciful and graceful, while the lady-by-birth lacks both qualities. Masquerading as Grace, Mercy becomes companion to Lady Janet Roy and subsequently engaged to Horace Holmcroft, a newspaperman from an established family. Mercy seems destined for a happy ending until Julian Gray, the clergyman who inspired her during a visit to the Refuge years earlier, arrives, accompanied by none other than the “real” Grace. Such a dramatic turn of events is not uncommon in sensation fiction, though Mercy’s history of prostitution is. Not only is Mercy a significant character—she is the central character. The sensation genre itself engenders Collins’s experiment: known for blurring lines and challenging borders, sensation fiction witnessed “the adventuress, much more prominent than in previous fiction, [begin] to blur into that of the heroine” (Hughes 262). While Collins tempers his experiment by narrating the print versions of the story in third person, rather than making Mercy the narrator, her centrality in each rendering forces the audience to engage with her character. Collins further challenges his audience by juxtaposing oppositional ideologies about prostitution. Mercy’s “fall” into prostitution reverberates with the cultural assumption that all women in the streets are vulnerable and the narrative structure suggests the formulaic arc of a fallen woman seeking restoration and/or redemption; in these ways, Collins endorses Victorian beliefs about a prostitute’s ability to transgress borders or masquerade. However, he also points to the inability of Victorian social codes to protect space or delineate boundaries, illustrating that society’s efforts to contain the disorderly prostitute do not work.

Collins enforces the mutuality between place and identity by employing a plethora of spatial concepts in The New Magdalen, from Mercy’s loss of her “place” in society to Grace’s assured “position” with Lady Janet. Changes in place produce shifts in identity and vice versa. Some scholars, including Catherine Peters, critique The New Magdalen’s effect because it was “written with dramatization in mind, with limited settings, exits, entrances, critical encounters between pairs of characters, and much dialogue” (337). While the story’s world is, indeed, spatially constrained, I suggest re-reading Collins’s limited representations of material, domestic spaces as both “document” and “agency of cultural history” to expose the complications that underlie associations between space and identity and the ways in which those associations perform acts of norming and limning (Armstrong 23-4). The central actions of The New Magdalen are located within the domestic sphere, namely a frontier cottage and a manor house. The portrayal of Mercy’s successful traversing of these spaces speaks to anxieties that contagion, specifically the urban infection presented by prostitutes and prostitution, had infected private domiciles.

The first scene of The New Magdalen opens in “The Cottage on the Frontier,” a miller’s cottage appropriated by the French in the middle of a skirmish with the Germans. Archetypally, war represents and spreads chaos and disorder; in The New Magdalen, war has repurposed both the cottage and Mercy. As a former prostitute, Mercy herself is a disorderly figure, but in the chaos of war, only her function as a nurse matters.2 Collins meticulously describes the miller’s cottage that consists of two rooms, one of which is the bedchamber. While Henry Mayhew and William Acton identified “the single bed-chamber in the two-roomed cottage” as the root of the Great Social Evil, in The New Magdalen, such a cottage serves as headquarters for Captain Arnault and a hospital for his wounded soldiers (qtd. in Acton 182).  The edifice’s transformation includes removing the boundary of the wooden door that separated the sleeping and living spaces; this door is now used to carry wounded soldiers in from the battlefield. The bedchamber, with its wood fire, the miller’s empty sacks, solid walnut bed, and colored prints “representing a happy mixture of devotional and domestic subjects,” becomes Arnault’s ready room (Collins, New 8). A piece of canvas now separates this room from the kitchen that has been repurposed as an infirmary. Thus, private/domestic space is converted into public space, exemplifying the fraught and permeable boundaries contested throughout The New Magdalen.

The characterization of Mercy particularly challenges these boundaries. She is “tall, lithe, and graceful,” and “there was an innate nobility in the carriage of this woman’s head, an innate grandeur in the gaze of her large gray eyes and in the lines of her finely proportioned face, which made her irresistibly striking and beautiful, seen under any circumstances and clad in any dress” (Collins, New 10). With this introductory description, Collins establishes the nurse as a woman whose physical attributes make transitions of space (circumstances) and identity (dress) possible. We are also given foreshadowing as to her “real” location within the narrative from the description of her attire: a careful, neat uniform of black and white, “with the scarlet cross of the Geneva Convention embroidered on her left shoulder” (10).3 Like Hester Prynne, Mercy’s scarlet emblem identifies her to the public.4 Unlike Hester, though the cross invites questions about Mercy’s background and identifies her as a public figure, it also extends protection to her as a neutral figure on the battlefield. This is why, when the French are planning their evacuation, Mercy says she will stay behind with the men because “the red cross will protect me” (22). However, her neutrality exists only on the battlefield; when recognized as a former prostitute in everyday society, Mercy instigates discord.

Nursing was one of the limited occupations open to reformed prostitutes, as it, like prostitution, required interacting in the public sphere, albeit in a different manner. As Mercy explains to Grace, “Society can find a use for me here. My hand is as light, my words of comfort are as welcome, among those suffering wretches…as if I was the most reputable woman breathing. And if a stray shot comes my way before the war is over—well! Society will be rid of me on easy terms” (Collins, New 19). Under “normal” conditions, Mercy’s status as a former prostitute negates any attempt on her part to belong to society; she knows this, as her cynical but accurate view about the repercussions of a stray shot shows. Mercy is successful as a nurse and lives up to her name. While the role of angel in the house may be denied to her, the role of angel of mercy is not, and she ably provides solace to the seriously wounded men left behind after Captain Arnault and his men retreat from the advancing Germans:

A cry of delight welcomed her appearance—the mere sight of her composed the men. From one straw bed to another she passed with comforting words that gave them hope, with skilled and tender hands that soothed their pain. They kissed the hem of her black dress, they called her their guardian angel, as the beautiful creature moved among them, and bent over their hard pillows her gentle, compassionate face. (29)

Though Mercy represents the unknown and the unknowable, Collins portrays her as a woman who, despite her past, possesses grace and goodness; this portrayal would offer comfort to an anxious audience.

Collins’s construction of the narrative invites the audience to question Mercy’s so-called “innate goodness.” For instance, as a result of the skirmishing, those in the French cottage are in black-out mode. Repeatedly, Arnault cautions against opening the shutters, as the light from within the cottage will betray the headquarters’ position to German scouts. However, after an unpleasant verbal exchange with Grace, Mercy goes to the window, where she “unfastens the wooden shutter and looks out” (Collins, New 20). The “friendly darkness” that has hidden the French, as well as Mercy’s past, is lifting with the moon’s ascension: “In a few hours more (if nothing happened) the English lady might resume her journey. In a few hours more the morning would dawn” (20). This passage, particularly the parenthetical information, can be skeptically read as foreshadowing that something is, in fact, going to happen—and it does: shells begin falling near the cottage, and Grace, panicking, runs around the room seeking escape. A shell burst hits her as she tries to open the barred door that leads outside, but Mercy remains unharmed. Though it is an author’s prerogative to harm or protect characters, questioning Collins’s rationale furthers the conversation about Mercy’s role as an agent of disorder.

Mercy is not oblivious to the dangers of war, so why does she leave the shutters open? Did she desire death or was she attempting to draw the chaos of war directly into the room she shared with her nemesis, a woman with an honest reputation? Mercy’s internal dialogue reinforces the scene’s ambiguity: “Not five minutes since…I was longing to change places with you!…I wish I could change places now!” (Collins, New 25). Though Grace’s apparent death can easily be attributed to the happenstance horrors of war, we should consider that despite warnings, Mercy not only opened the shutters but kept them open while standing illuminated by the interior light. Paying attention to what Collins leaves out of The New Magdalen to make the story work reveals the moments where he downplays or only insinuates aspects of Mercy’s character, which may have prevented alienating his audience. For example, Collins never directly addresses Mercy’s ability to imagine beyond her circumstances, though this skill is subtly present throughout the narrative. Many expected a woman in Mercy’s position to penitently endure her situation and gratefully accept what, if any, help society chose to offer. But Mercy does not conform to such dictates, and the narrative clearly details her imaginings: “A strange fancy had sprung to life in her mind…That fancy of hers was not to be dismissed at will. Her mind was perversely busy now with an imaginative picture of the beauty of Mablethorpe House and the comfort and elegance of the life that was led there…” (Collins, New 30). Her ability to superimpose a vision of domestic sanctity and bliss upon the chaos of war emphasizes her dangerousness as a figure of public disorder; she can see beyond this chaotic space and its impact upon identity to what might be. And her location in a chaotic and disordered war zone affords her the opportunity to change her identity and re-enter society, consequently disordering society’s order.

After Mercy decides to assume Grace’s identity, Collins frames her subsequent careful self-scrutiny as gendered behaviour, thereby avoiding the suggestion that Mercy is calculating and aggressive:

The ineradicable instinct of the sex directed her eyes to her dress, before the Germans appeared. Looking it over to see that it was in perfect order, her eyes fell upon the red cross on her left shoulder. In a moment it struck her that her nurse’s costume might involve her in a needless risk. It associated her with a public position; it might lead to inquiries at a later time, and those inquiries might betray her. (Collins, New 35)

Besides directing a kindly interpretation of Mercy’s performative behaviour, this passage performs several functions: Collins’s use of the phrase “ineradicable instinct” reasserts Mercy’s femininity, countering the belief that prostitution unsexed women. Mercy’s concern about her “nurse costume” reflects society’s dependence upon physical cues to categorize people and reinforces the fallibility of such a system. If her nursing outfit is a “costume,” then Mercy sees herself assuming a role that is not in accord with her authentic self. And, lastly, the passage reveals that Mercy plans ahead and considers difficulties that may cross her path. While her spoken words suggest her role as a sympathetic character and victim of society, her actions consistently subvert the position(s) society has attempted to assign her. Reading Mercy’s “parenthetical” actions as ambitious counters the prevailing commonplaces that her speech reinforces. This dissonance exacerbates anxieties and resists the possibility of the tidy resolutions common to sensation fiction.

Anxieties about the integrity of domestic spaces figure importantly in The New Magdalen’s narrative world, which engages directly with the theory that prostitutes assimilate themselves as the wives and mothers of Englishmen (Acton 246). The urban paranoia about certain contagions, like the prostitute, had fully infiltrated the private, domestic spaces of the home. As Winifred Hughes argues, “the middle class home, which remained at the core of so much of Victorian culture, could no longer be counted on to function as a refuge from horrors or from the brutalities of an encroaching urban and industrial society” (“Sensation” 261). Collins’s move to place Mercy within Mablethorpe House, an “ancient mansion” in Kensington, a London suburb, plays to fears about the domestic sphere’s infection by corruption and degeneration. An audience familiar with the tropes of sensation fiction would have recognized that the home’s beauty and elegance belies dangerous secrets that will soon be revealed: by “criminalizing the Victorian home, the sensation novels succeeded in defamiliarizing it. Characters and readers could no longer take it comfortably for granted; instead they were forced to become increasingly suspicious of whatever looked most familiar and ordinary” (Hughes, “Sensation” 263). This cultivated suspicion encouraged the loss of sanctity and sense of safety often associated with the domestic sphere.

The authority of Mablethorpe manor is sanctioned by the reputation of its owner, “the childless widow of a long-forgotten lord” who is known by “everybody with the slightest pretension to experience in London society” (Collins, New 45). Lady Janet Roy’s authority benefits Mercy, for by accepting Mercy as Grace on sight, the society matron sets a precedent that others follow, even when the real Grace Roseberry instigates a confrontation. In the four months that elapse between scenes, Mercy essentially becomes Lady Janet’s “adopted daughter,” and adeptly fulfills her duties as companion. Mercy’s masquerade seems successful and only she knows of her identity “as the outcast of the London streets; the inmate of the London Refuge; the lost woman who has stolen her way back—after vainly trying to fight her way back—to Home and Name” (46). Additionally, in her guise as Grace, Mercy has accepted Horace’s marriage proposal. Once married and officially a member of the Roy and Holmcroft families, Mercy would have achieved true social transformation.

To achieve this end, Collins emphasizes Mercy’s quiet, loving demeanor yet also insinuates that she possesses agency and acts upon her own desires, such as using the identity of a dead woman to ensure a better future for herself. The suggestions that Mercy is self-motivated are embedded in the text, secondary to Collins’s protestations that his character is gentle, graceful, and kind. For instance, he begins the paragraph that details the sequence of events leading to Mercy and Horace’s engagement with a disclaimer regarding the former’s character: “Mercy had been mad enough to listen to [Horace], and to love him. But Mercy was not vile enough to marry him under her false character, and in her false name” (Collins, New 49). With this persuasive lead-in, the rest of the paragraph’s details are presented through a specific screen: Mercy loves Horace but will not injure his identity with hers. This lens informs the revelation that when Horace professed his love, he found “willing ears,” a phrase that intimates his advances were welcomed, implying that Mercy was willing to marry him despite her “depraved” background. The narrative’s immediate contradiction of the idea creates a textual slippage that results from the inability to “contain” the prostitute figure: A good woman who was a prostitute of no fault of her own would not willingly accept the advances of a good man (nor would she steal the identity of a lady, no matter the circumstances), yet a good woman would not be a prostitute. The conundrum confounds any true resolution for the narrative.

Though Mercy’s masquerade operates successfully within the environs of Mablethorpe, the references to her impending marriage with Horace expose dissonance. Horace often and unfavorably compares his fiancée to his role models for femininity: his mother and sisters who were “high authorities in his estimation” and “represented his deal of perfection in women” (Collins, New 58). He reminds her that it would be well to follow their example, as “They are not in the habit of speaking cruelly to those who love them” (58-9).  Mercy’s external and internal behaviors are disharmonic. While Mercy does ask for Horace’s forgiveness because “How should he know it, poor fellow, when he innocently mortified her,” her thoughts and emotions are unrepentant:

There was a spirit in her—a miserable spirit, born of her own bitter experience—which rose in revolt against Horace’s habitual glorification of the ladies of his family. “It sickens me,” she thought to herself, “to hear of the virtues of women who have never been tempted! Where is the merit of living reputably, when your life is one course of prosperity and enjoyment? Has his mother known starvation? Have his sisters been left forsaken in the street?” It hardened her heart—it almost reconciled her to deceiving him—when he set his relatives up as patterns for her. Would he never understand that women detested having other women exhibited as examples to them? (59)

Collins’s use of the rhetorical trope of inner dialogue draws attention to the difference between “being” and “seeming,” reiterating Mercy’s duality. Her actions (asking forgiveness and kissing Horace’s forehead tenderly) perpetuate the Angel of the House image, but her internal dialogue reveals only a superficial compliance. The inner dialogue emphasizes the disparity in life experience between females protected and insulated by social class and females, like Mercy, who were not. It also exposes, rather dramatically, the difference between internal and external worlds and implicates the duality of other women who outwardly conformed to the Angel of the House ideal.

The unraveling of Mercy’s masquerade only begins after Julian Gray arrives at Mablethorpe. When she discovers that Julian is the nephew of Lady Janet, she appears “perfectly panic-stricken” to Horace, “the personation of Grace Roseberry had suddenly assumed a new aspect: the aspect of a fatality” (Collins, New 60-1). Her journey to Mablethorpe takes on the semblance of a “hard pilgrimage” that has led her to “the man who had reached her inmost heart” and has brought her to “the day of reckoning” (241, 60-1). Collins designates Julian as Mercy’s spiritual point of reference, influencing her actions and checking her deceptions, and the narrative quickly builds to her climactic confession and its consequences. At this point, it seems that The New Magdalen may offer an allegorical warning: Disorderly females must inevitably repent and pay penance for their sins against morality and society.  As sensation fiction, though, the narrative resists such an easy ending.

The New Magdalen’s persistent referencing to Mercy’s performativity emphasizes that more is happening in this narrative than redemption. Her skill in transgressing boundaries leads to her being repeatedly called a “vile adventuress” by Grace; however, the OED defines “adventuress” in its nineteenth-century context as “A female adventurer; a woman on the look-out for a position,” and Mercy’s adaptability significantly relates to her experience with exclusionary and transitory spaces.  According to the rather clichéd personal history that Collins creates for his central character, her earliest memory is of life with a company of strolling players to which her mother belonged, which means that Mercy was essentially born into masquerade. During this happy period, she learned “the profession” and was performing for the public by the age of five:

I was the favourite pet and plaything of the poor actors. They taught me to sing and to dance at an age when other children are just beginning to learn to read…[I] had made my poor little reputation in booths at country fairs. As early as that…I had begun to live under an assumed name—the prettiest name they could invent for me “to look well in the bills”… learning to sing and dance in public often meant learning to bear hunger and cold in private. (Collins, New 231)

Mercy performed with the company until she was ten, when her mother died and the strolling company broke up. Though engaged with another company, Mercy did not fare well and, beaten for a mistake during a performance, the child ran away. In the ensuing years, she begged, worked for gypsies, gathered hop, sold matches, worked in service, and performed needlework—all livelihoods often depicted as leading to prostitution and other vice.

Collins’s depiction of the “misstep” that leads Mercy into prostitution is also clichéd. He renders starvation as victimizer and Mercy as victim instead of gifting her with the agency to prostitute rather than starve. After fainting in the street from hunger, Mercy is raped, though she does not know by whom or by how many; she only knows that she wakes once to a man coaxing her to drink a cordial and then wakes alone in an unfamiliar bed: “A nameless terror seized me. I called out. Three or four women came in whose faces betrayed, even to my inexperienced eyes, the shameless infamy of their lives” (Collins, New 237). After this, Mercy says that she is too ashamed to return to “honest” people and drifts into a life of prostitution. While the narrative omits extensive details of her life as a prostitute, it divulges that she has also been imprisoned for theft, though she claims that she was framed. The prison matron took an interest in her, however, and introduced her to the matron at the Refuge. Mercy states, “From this time the story of my life is little more than the story of a woman’s vain efforts to recover her lost place in the world” (240). And, in fact, the narrative revolves around Mercy’s locations and dislocations.

Throughout The New Magdalen, Collins draws upon Victorian society’s tenets about the necessity of possessing a proper character, without which one could not achieve a proper and stable “place.” For women, the need to carefully negotiate and maintain their character and social position was essential because “[they] live, poor things, in the opinions of others” (Collins, New 273). Once lost, society’s good opinion was difficult to restore, as Mercy discovered firsthand. After earning a character at the Refuge, she assumed the name Mercy Merrick. (Significantly, her “true” name is never revealed.) Placed in service, Mercy did well until her Refuge history was discovered, and she was dismissed. She then went to Canada and worked for an officer’s wife. It was a “pleasant, peaceful” position that led Mercy to wonder, “Is the lost place regained? Have I got back?” (17). She had not. After her mistress’ death, Mercy’s self-confessed fatal flaw—her beauty—raised suspicions about her relationship with her master. Forced to return to the Refuge, Mercy trained as a nurse and eventually found herself in the frontier cottage where the story begins.

Early in the narrative, Mercy ponders the futility of her circumstances: “Go where she might, do what she might, it would always end the same way…the shadow of the old disgrace surrounding her as with a pestilence, isolating her among other women, branding her, even when she had earned her pardon in the sight of God…” (Collins, New 30). Unable to escape this exclusion, Mercy’s decision to take on Grace’s identity seems, if not justified, at least understandable, as does her excitement at the opportunity: “What a prospect it was! A new identity, which she might own anywhere! A new name, which was beyond reproach! A new past life, into which all the world might search, and be welcome” (31). Because she believed Grace dead, Mercy’s appropriation of the other woman’s identity can be associated with a desire for self-betterment rather than anything mercenary. Collins drives the point home with additional evidence of Mercy’s reluctance to become Grace: Upon arriving in England, she tried once more to stop her masquerade and return to the Refuge, but she “stopped on the opposite side of the street, looking at it. The old hopeless life of irretrievable disgrace confronted me as I fixed my eyes on the familiar door; the horror of returning to that life was more than I could force myself to endure” (242). Mercy’s inability to subject herself to the horror of hopelessness and disgrace situates her as a sympathetic character, despite the narrative gaps that suggest otherwise.

Additionally, Collins, in true sensation fashion, bequeaths Mercy with a mysterious family lineage that cannot be proven. Her mother was a young woman with prospects until a rash marriage with a family servant, which ended badly, and her father was “a man of high rank, proud of his position, and well known in the society of that time for his many accomplishments and his refined tastes” (Collins, New 230). In the chapter titled “Magdalen’s Apprenticeship,” Mercy attributes her fatal flaw of beauty to her mother and her pride and ambition to her father. Interestingly, Mercy does not acknowledge the theatre’s impact upon her life, though undoubtedly that knowledge instilled an awareness of the social graces and self-presentation required to “be” Grace. Mercy’s emphasis on her lineage suggests that her proficiency at masquerade is an innate skill. However, Collins crafts Mercy’s story as a personal narrative, and the events are only from her perspective and have no evidentiary support. The audience, then, should question the validity of Mercy’s disclosures and consider what she altered or even left out.

Collins also uses Mercy’s experiences to forge a secret frame of reference with his audience. When Julian first interacts with Mercy at Mablethorpe, and shares his views about society, he believes he is conversing with a lady who possesses little first-hand knowledge of the disparity between classes. He specifically describes his view of Kensington Gardens, which he found particularly stimulating:

For some time past I have been living in a flat, ugly, barren, agricultural district. You can’t think how pleasant I found the picture presented by the Gardens, as a contrast. The ladies in their rich winter dresses, the smart nursery maids, the lovely children, the ever moving crowd skating on the ice of the Round Pond; it was all so exhilarating after what I have been used to… (Collins, New 67)

However, Collins’s audience knows that Mercy can relate all too well. From her barren vantage point, she found society so alluring that she committed fraud to regain a semblance of her place. And even Julian, despite his radical politics, betrays the lens through which he views society with his adjective use: The agricultural district where he ministers is “flat, ugly, barren” yet Kensington is “exhilarating” (67). As a clergyman, Julian has the mobility to inhabit these different regions yet still “come home.” As he traverses these spaces, he carries and shares his political ideas, which according to some, like Horace, are disorderly and threaten to upset society’s status quo. It is these political views, however, that enable Julian to see beyond social boundaries and envision marrying Mercy once her past is known: “I have never been able…to see why we should assert ourselves among other men as belonging to a particular caste, and as being forbidden, in any harmless thing, to do as other people do” (68). Though Julian is speaking particularly about expectations of clergymen, his ideas transcend social position and his love of Mercy persists, even after he learns of her machinations.

While Collins could have easily continued Mercy’s masquerade as Grace, he does not. Instead, Mercy chooses to confess, a manifestation of agency—something Victorian society denied former prostitutes. Of all people, Mercy understands what Grace has lost, and she elects to “Restore the identity that [she has] stolen” rather than “shut [Grace] up in a madhouse” (Collins, New 169). By confessing, Mercy, who consistently shows her awareness of male interests, also chooses to lose Horace—and to gain Julian. When the latter proposes, she declares, “Am I fit to be your wife?…think of the black ingratitude…if I selfishly, cruelly, wickedly, drag you down to the level of a woman like me!” (257). With these words, Mercy assures Julian’s devotion, for he contests that “I raise you to my level when I make you my wife” (257). Mercy maintains her resolve to not injure Julian’s reputation, and she returns to the Refuge with the Matron, who has come at Mercy’s request to fetch her. Mercy’s actions throughout this course of the narrative can be read as her continued choice. Her interaction with the child, her “sister in adversity,” who is accompanying the Matron, underscores the significance of her decision to turn from Julian and to embrace “the rescued waif of the streets as consolation sent from God” (259). Mercy possesses full knowledge of her actions’ implications, yet “Hand in hand the two citizens of the Government of God—outcasts of the government of Man—passed slowly…into the night” (259). Though, superficially, a former prostitute is being expelled from the sanctity of the domestic hearth, throughout the scene, Collins emphasizes that Mercy has decided to leave. Audiences seeking the familiarity of reinforced social norms could easily overlook this point.

Throughout the narrative’s multiple locations and dislocations of Mercy, a true relocation never takes place, mimicking the perpetual displacement of the prostitute figure as constructed by Victorian society. Mercy’s characterization speaks to the audience’s need for her to be a maligned Angel of the House, rather than a sovereign agent: “Noble, exploited and longing for rehabilitation, she was, in spite of a poverty-stricken background, so well-spoken that she could effortlessly pass for a lady” (Peters 339). As a former prostitute, Mercy represents the unknown and the unknowable. The fear of the unknown permeates The New Magdalen, and depicting Mercy as a woman of grace and goodness comforts an audience whose anxieties are already being preyed upon by the narrative’s sensationalism. However, the incongruence of “a woman of the streets behaving like a lady” was “intolerable” (Hughes, Maniac 43). Thus, the threat of Mercy’s “disorderliness” extends beyond the imagined realms of Mablethorpe into the real world of Victorian society.

While sensation fiction was designed to evoke a crescendo of heightened emotion, including anxiety, the formula’s tidy endings soothed the nerves of overwrought audiences. The Woman in White, for instance, ends with the tableau of Walter and Laura Hartright and Marian Holcomb and the married couples’ newborn son. Though the anxieties generated by the text are far from extinguished, the frame of the new family dynamic gives the audience a sense of resolution. The New Magdalen resists such an outcome, though the serial, volume, and dramatic forms of the narrative all end with the marriage of Julian and Mercy. How they get to this resolution, however, differs.

Both the serial and volume versions include an epilogue consisting of correspondence between Horace and Grace, as well as extracts from Julian’s diary. While we do not hear from Mercy again, the epilogue material can be viewed as a testament to her agency, rather than its denial. Horace and Grace, for example, speak of Mercy’s actions as a deliberate attack upon society, and while Julian is, at times, condescending when writing of his wife, he also reveals that, whether he realizes it or not, Mercy acts of her own volition, such as when she questions the landlady without his knowledge. The deliberate juxtaposition of Horace and Grace’s vitriol with Julian’s sentiment also directs readers to consider their own response to the narrative—with whom do they identify and why?

Through Horace, we hear of Julian’s resignation from his curacy and his subsequent work in a London Mission that is “notoriously infested by the most desperate and degraded set of wretches in the whole metropolitan population…hardly ever completely free from epidemic disease” (Collins, New 265). Julian falls ill during this time and nearly dies; in his delirium, he calls for Mercy, and the local doctor encourages that she be sent for. After Mercy nurses Julian back to health, she accepts his marriage proposal. The shared correspondence ends with Horace’s outrage and disheartenment (270-1). Julian’s diary excerpts discuss the marriage, focusing on a ball arranged by Lady Janet to celebrate the union. Though many attend, all young women are left at home to protect them from the situation, and after this slight, Julian declares that he and his wife shall emigrate to the “New World”: “So closes my connection with my own country…We shall find five hundred adventurers like ourselves when we join the emigrant ship [to the New World], for whom their native land has no occupation and no home. Gentlemen of the Statistical Department, add two more to the number of social failures produced by England…” (277). With this declaration, Mercy Merrick’s story ends. While readers know that Mercy has already lived abroad and endured scandal and innuendo over her history and reputation, suggesting that an uncertain reception awaits the Grays, the narrative’s concluding emphasis upon Mercy’s ability to transgress borders—to start over in the New World—offers a final rejection of Victorian social codes that presumably protect space and delineate boundaries.

Collins purposefully made significant changes to The New Magdalen: A Dramatic Story, in a Prologue and Three Acts to thwart “stealers of plays” (Baker, et. al. 393). In comparison to the serial and volume versions of The New Magdalen, the dramatic version has the more contrived ending: Mercy confesses; Horace recoils and exits the stage; and Grace reclaims her identity and exits. Then, Mercy and Lady Janet share a moment of reconciliation onstage, as the former repents and the latter forgives: “My child! I gave you a mother’s love. What is there that a mother’s love cannot forgive?” (Collins, New Magdalen: A Dramatic Story 80). The two embrace, and Lady Janet exits. Only Mercy and Julian remain onstage, and they share a romantic exchange. She reminds him of what he will face: “The scorn of every creature you know will strike at you through me” (80-1). But he declares that they will leave England and “find a home among new people, in a new world” (81). Julian places the responsibility of his happiness upon Mercy: “It rests with you and you alone, to make the happiness or the misery of my life” (81). Every resistance Mercy offers, Julian counters, and according to stage directions, takes Mercy in his arms and delivers the last line: “What can the world give me in exchange for You?” (81). This romantic declaration touched a chord with audiences, as The New Magdalen was one of Collins’s most successful theatre productions. It is also a rather trite ending, ignoring the complications that are at least partially addressed by the epilogue in the serial and volume versions. However, suspension of disbelief works in Collins’s favour with this tidy ending, as it satisfies the audience and smoothes over any lingering fears about the unknown invading the Victorian home. The play suggests that, if an imposter does invade the home, her actions are justified, and she will be of higher moral fiber than many who, by birthright, inhabit the space.5

(Re)producing The New Magdalen across multiple genres was more than a business strategy. By doing so, Collins ensured a broader conveyance of its progressive messages to an audience base. The dramatic version’s success, coupled with the print versions’ readership, exposed audiences to a complex central character who was also a former prostitute. The New Magdalen, in all of its versions, both contributed to and was influenced by the Victorian discourse about prostitution. Challengingreaders’ assumptions about who the prostitute was and where she belonged, the narrative superficially enforces clichéd notions about “fallen natures”—for instance, the belief that all unchaperoned females in the streets of a great city after nightfall were prey for “Want” and “Sin” (Collins, New 15). But a closer reading demands recognition that Mercy possesses agency and self-determination. The New Magdalen is not a simple redemption tale; Mercy’s story transgresses the imagined boundaries of space and identity to re-invent the heroine as dynamic and capable, rather than as a maligned Angel of the House.  This re-envisioning subverts the condescension and control that often motivated Victorian rhetoric about prostitution and presents a revelation: Disorderly women were capable of “ordering” themselves after all.

Works Cited

Acton, William. Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns with Proposals for the Control and Prevention of its Attendant Evils. 2nd ed. 1870. London: Frank Cass, 1972.

“Adventuress.” The Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. John Simpson. 2009. Web. 05 April 2011.

Armstrong, Nancy. How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900. New York:

Columbia UP, 2005.

Baker, William and William M. Clarke, eds. The Letters of Wilkie Collins Volume 2 1866-1889. New York: Macmillan, 1999.

Baker, William and Andrew Gasson, Graham Law, Paul Lewis, eds. The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters, Volume I, Letters 1831-1864. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005.

Brake, Laurel and Marysa Demoor, Eds. DNCJ: Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. Gent: Academia Press, 2009.

Collins, Wilkie. New Magdalene. Champaign, IL: Book Jungle, 2008.

____. New Magdalen: A Dramatic Story, in a Prologue and Three Acts. London: William Clowes and Sons, 1873.

____. Woman in White. Ed. Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox. Broadview: Ontario, 2006.

“Disorderly.” Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. John Simpson. 2009. Web. 05 April 2011.

Hughes, Winifred. Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s. New Jersey: Princeton
UP, 1981.

____. “Sensation Novel.” A Companion to the Victorian Novel.  Eds. Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture. Malden, MA:    Blackwell, 2005. 260-278.

Judd, Catherine. Bedside Seductions: Nursing and the Victorian Imagination, 1830-1880. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988. Print.

O’Connor, Karen. Gender and Women’s Leadership: A Reference Handbook. Vol. 2. London:
Sage, 2010.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1991.

Rosenman, Ellen Bayuk. Unauthorized Pleasures: Accounts of Victorian Erotic Experience.
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.

Sutphin, Christine. “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints: Augusta Webster’s A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and Women’s Sexuality. Victorian Poetry 38.4(2000):511-32.

Walkowitz, Judith R.  Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. New York: Cambridge UP, 1980.


References

  1. The narrative was serialized from October 1872 to July 1873; the novel and play versions were published / produced in 1873. []
  2. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale initiated the transformation of “nursing from the Dickensian image of the nurse as a drunk or prostitute and shaped it into an emerging profession”; see O’Connor 713. However, Nightingale’s reforms could not neutralize the sexual politics associated with nursing. As Brake and Demoor argue, “The well-documented shift from an occupation drawn from domestic servants, paupers and prostitutes to a preponderance of educated middle- and upper-class women also meant that the identity of nursing was fraught from within its ranks as well as pressurized from without” (462). Also see Judd’s Bedside Seductions: Nursing and the Victorian Imagination, 1830-1880. []
  3. The marking of a red cross on a white background identified the medical personnel, transports, and equipment indiscriminately aiding wounded and sick military personnel on the battlefield, per the accords of the 1864 Geneva Convention.  []
  4. Hester Prynne is the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850. []
  5. The dramatized version of The New Magdalen exaggerates Grace’s harsher qualities, which heightens its depiction of Mercy as a maligned Angel of the House. However, perhaps Collins did not fully intend for this polarization. In a February 1882 letter to William Winter, Collins wrote about French actress Aimée Desclée who had wanted to play Grace: “‘Develop the character a little more, in the last act,’ she said to me, ‘I will see that the play is thoroughly well translated into French – and I will make Grace, and not Mercy Merrick, the chief woman in the piece. Grace’s dramatic position is magnificent: I feel it, to my fingers’ ends. Wait and see!’ She died poor soul, a few months afterward, and Grace Roseberry will, I fear, never be properly acted now” (Baker and Clarke 444). It is worthwhile to consider how a more complex and dimensional Grace would have impacted audience interpretation of Mercy and the play overall. []

The New Magdalen and the Rhetoric of Prostitution: Restoring Mercy Merrick’s Agency by Laurie Lyda
The Wilkie Collins Journal 12 (2013)

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