In 1852 Wilkie Collins wrote to his friend and colleague Edward Pigott: “I make no claim to orthodoxy. I am neither a protestant, a catholic nor a dissenter. I do not desire to discuss this or that particular creed but I believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.”1 Though this letter was written at a time when Collins was perhaps influenced by the beliefs of his evangelical parents, as Catherine Peters has shown (66-7) he had already shown himself willing to offend their religious sensibilities, and it seems reasonable to suppose that he was conscientiously expressing his own opinion rather than deferring to that of his family. However, prolonged and often minute discussion of “this or that particular creed” was not always easy to avoid in England in the 1850s and ’60s, as the evangelical movement came into very public conflict with the forces of secularism and Catholicism. The religious census of 1851 highlighted the national lack of church attendance; F.D. Maurice was dismissed from his post at King’s College in 1853 for expressing doubts about Hell; Darwin’s Origins of Species appeared in 1859; and the controversial Essays and Reviews were published in 1860. By 1865 treatises impugning the divine nature of Christ were being widely read. I will argue that a liberal Christian faith, vigorously opposed to sectarianism of all kinds, informed Collins’s thinking at this unsettled time.
It has long been noted that the issue of Collins’s religious beliefs is a problematic one, not least in the light of his respect for other religions such as Hinduism, and his interest in spiritualism. But although his novels allow interpretations of events that might have shocked the more conventionally devout of his time, none of the explanations proffered is technically incompatible with a Christian faith. For instance, Armadaleposits the question of second sight, but the spokesman for orthodox Christianity in the novel, the Reverend Brock, himself declares that supernatural experience is traceable to God. Again, the Hindu curse in The Moonstone is not invalidated, but Collins seems less concerned with its efficacy than with admiration for the Indians’ commitment to the demands of their religion.
Certainly Collins did not attend a public place of worship as an adult, and his own declarations suggest that his views underwent various changes during the course of his life. But the failure to attend church, unusual as it was, does not necessarily mean that he was uninterested in religion. The main sources for his few direct statements of belief are a collection of letters written in the 1850s and the written recollections of a friend in later life. His fiction does not provide the same level of overt religious debate as, say, that of the Brontes. But though Collins’s novels are not written primarily as religious works, it is possible to glean from them some idea of his personal beliefs. Written under the influence of an evangelical upbringing, his early novels are notable for allusions to Hell, a position that undergoes various modifications until it is finally undermined in the major novels of the 1860s. It is also significant that as Wilkie’s own death approached in the 1880s, he wrote with increasing feeling of the consoling nature of religion, and this again marks a shift from the 1860s novels, in which religious belief is directly related to temporal experience and hopes of eternal life are of secondary consideration.
Modern criticism has tended to bypass or deny this aspect of his writing, Kirk Beetz (24-5) being almost alone in allowing that Collins remained a devout Christian until the end of his life. In an article entitled “The Religion of Wilkie Collins,” Keith Lawrence begins by stating that “Collins consistently veils his personal beliefs” (389), and avoids any specific definition of his ideology. Catherine Peters (108) quotes the letters to Pigott in which Collins declares himself a Christian, but will only allow him to have been a freethinker, the implication being that his philosophy was bound by no doctrines and that he had no belief in an afterlife. Such assumptions have been perpetuated with the help of Collins’s friend Wybert Reeve, who caught him at a bad moment in 1873, on the evening of his brother Charles’s death. Reeve (460) records:
The death seemed to have made a strong impression on him, and led him to speak of a future state of existence, in which he had little belief. He was a Materialist, and urged that death meant a sleep of eternity; it was the natural end of all living things.
There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this account. But even such an emphatic expression of religious doubt at such a traumatic time is not inconsistent with Collins’s assumption of faith in his letters and fiction. What it does suggest is that he was, like others of his generation, troubled by doubt at times. In 1885, only a few years before his own death, he returns to this same issue, presenting such doubt as almost inevitable at times of bereavement:
Are there not moments—if we dare to confess the truth—when poor humanity loses its hold on the consolations of religion and the hope of immortality, and feels the cruelty of creation that bids us live, on the condition that we die, and leads the first warm beginnings of love, with merciless certainty, to the cold conclusion of the grave? (Collins “I Say No”, 53)
What is commonly accepted is that Collins both ridiculed and suspected evangelicals and Catholics. But this antipathy is all too often used to illustrate his supposed lack of interest in religion, just as his use of the theme of providence is perceived as a means of avoiding discussion. The following brief and largely unsupported analysis is typical of critical sidestepping on this issue: “it can be said that Collins’ interest in providence lay in the extent to which others believed in it, and found in it an adequate explanation of events” (Kent, 62). The article in which this statement appears is concerned with probability rather than with providence, but the author expresses the view in passing that Collins did not share his father’s belief in an active providence, but used it rather as a convenient term for encoding chance or probability.
Peter Thoms (107) acknowledges the importance of the theme of providence in The Woman in White andNo Name, but does not confront the issue of Collins’s personal belief; he suggests that “what the unorthodox Collins is enunciating is not necessarily Christianity but a mode of living based on its precepts of love, generosity and sympathy.” Providence is ultimately explained away in essentialist terms, as a benevolent but vague supernatural force. Thoms suggests that what it represents in the novels is a Carlyle an moral order represented by the idea, but not necessarily the presence, of God. In other words, according to this interpretation, the basic idea of an external moral structure is maintained, but providence remains only as a perceived pattern within which experience can be contained or through which it can be mediated in language. This view is illustrated by the way in which characters in the novels narrate their own experiences, imposing an order on their narratives by the invocation of divine control. This interpretation does not rely on the direct intervention of providence, because it is the discernment of an overall pattern that is considered to be of importance.
Thoms (123-4) further argues that the major novels written after No Name are not supportive of a providential view. In Armadale Midwinter’s response to the Christian faith urged by the Reverend Brock is perceived as:
not a passive act but essentially one of creative interpretation. Midwinter creates the purposeful design he sees by imposing meaningful closure on the sequence of the inherited story. He may feel that the final pattern is providential, but it is a design which he … helps to bring into being.
In this novel the underlying providential order is suggested, as has been shown by Zeitz and Thoms (498), by Major Milroy’s clock:
when Collins was writing Armadale the foundation of the design argument’s use of the clock metaphor—the idea that a clock reflects its maker—would have been one of the recognisable associations that the literary image of the clock might convey. Collins’s choice of the Strasbourg clock for Major Milroy’s model in Armadale strongly suggests that he wished to invoke the image of the clock as an “intellectual artefact” that illustrated ideas about the nature of the world.
But this interpretation surely breaks down in assuming that Collins uses the smaller clock to represent a lack of faith in a providential order. The Major’s clock plays marches in place of psalms, and the mechanism does not work effectively. But significantly the Major is seeking escape from domestic troubles in turning to his machine, and it could be said that he has attempted to reduce the workings of providence to a personal fantasy, in which he can control the overall mechanism. The Strasbourg Clock was designed to celebrate the natural order as ordained by God, while the Major’s offers only an escape from the world around him while positing himself as the sole creator. Collins had seen the original Strasbourg Clock while travelling with Dickens, and was not particularly impressed by its reductive symbolism. His writing emphasises again and again the importance of relating divine mysteries to human experience, rather than portraying them in incomprehensible and abstract terms, nor does he endorse simplistic systems of morality. Far from denying the divine order, Collins insists that its scope is beyond human comprehension.
I would argue further that direct intervention, and not merely the assertion of an overarching order, is crucial to Collins’s treatment of providential intent. In using providential intervention as a theme in his novels, Collins takes one of the evangelicals’ choicest weapons and uses it to subvert their judgmental version of Christian morality. Evangelical ideology stressed a providential plan based on intervention at every level from the personal to the national. In a novel such as No Name, Collins asks whether Magdalen is saved from suicide by chance or by providence, when she bases her decision on whether an odd or even number of ships will come into view within a given period of time. As far as the evangelical ethos went, an attempt at suicide would be sure to bring its own punishment, and certainly would not merit a divine interference concerning the number of ships passing a window—apart from anything else, gambling was regarded as a sin! Providential interference, commonly seen by the evangelicals in largely punitive terms, is here turned rather mischievously on its head, in the suggestion of God not only endorsing a gamble but “fixing” the outcome. Crucial to this famous scene is its deliberate engagement with evangelical doctrine, which might give pause to those who assume that the comical behaviour of evangelical women is alone of interest to the author. In the description of the last ship counted as a “Messenger of Life,” it is made clear to the reader that God has intervened to save her. She herself has yet to comprehend this: “‘Providence?’ she whispered faintly to herself. ‘Or chance?'” (Collins No Name, 409).
Ultimately it is left to Captain Kirke to assert the involvement of providence in the world of the novel. Kirke, whose name connects him with the church and whose father was once ‘the salvation’ of Andrew Vanstone, makes a miraculous appearance to save Magdalen from death as she lies ill with a fever. He has no hestitation in answering the question she herself had posed earlier in the novel: “‘What has brought me here?’ he said to himself in a whisper. ‘The mercy of chance? No! The mercy of God.'” (Collins No Name, 579).
Given the importance of this affirmation, it is worth considering the ammunition that has been brought to bear against it. Philip O’Neill’s seemingly formidable objection (178) is worth quoting at length:
This final accolade to Christianity may be interpreted as the ultimate acknowledgement of the … divine order of the world but it is rather flat and unconvincing when considered alongside the passage which describes how Magdalen rejects suicide … And while Kirke does answer Magdalen’s question, his all too succinct and complacent reply is a poor counter-statement to the very forceful passage where chance is given such room to operate. Kirke is allowed to focus on the mercy of God, but in the text, this belief in divine Providence is counter-balanced by this insistence on the role of chance.
And yet O’Neill fails to acknowledge at the start that Magdalen has deliberately invoked chance, whereas Kirke has been led to Aaron’s Buildings through no design of his own. More importantly, he misses the significance of Collins’s theological design—divine intervention operates within a context of chance and free will as opposed to being cataclysmically imposed. Thomas Vargish (21) details the way in which providence was popularly assumed to operate through the free action of human beings, and observes that throughout the nineteenth century instances of specific intervention were increasingly used in fiction: “The concept of providence itself becomes progressively less an image of order, regulation, grand planning, and more an intimate solicitude for human lives.”
Some clue to Collins’s interest lies in his having been himself brought up in an evangelical household, a fact which is often forgotten. Travelling on the continent as a child, Collins had been obliged by his father to attend weekly Scripture meetings and two church services every Sunday, where the family were preached sermons on the power of the Devil by an evangelical minister (Peters, 38). As was the case for many children of evangelical parents, “Sunday did cast a blight over the week” (Peters, 29), as it does for the young Zack in Hide and Seek. Zack’s sympathetic grandfather is exasperated at this system of restraint, which he feels to be wholly inappropriate; he himself advocates a more liberal system of religious education:
Let his morning service be about ten minutes long; let your wife tell him, out of the New Testament, about Our Saviour’s goodness and gentleness to little chidren; and then let her teach him, from the Sermon on the Mount, to be loving and truthful and forbearing and forgiving, for Our Saviour’s sake. (Collins Hide and Seek, 15-6)
The significantly named Mr Goodworth is obliged to defend himself against the imputation that he himself lacks religious conviction, as Zack’s evangelical father insists that such an approach is purely “rationalist”:
you think I’m wrong in only wanting to give religious instruction the same chance with Zack which you let all other kinds of instruction have—the chance of being made useful by first being made attractive. You can’t get him to learn to read by telling him that it will improve his mind—but you can by getting him to look at a picture book. … You admit this sort of principle so far because you’re obliged; but the moment anybody wants (in a spirit of perfect reverence and desire to do good) to extend it to higher things, you purse up your lips, shake your head, and talk about Rationalism—as if that was an answer! (Collins Hide and Seek, 16)
The old man’s ideal of religious education can clearly be taken as that of the author himself. In this fictionalised account, the religious zealot responsible for inflicting Sunday observance on the child ironically turns out to be hiding a discreditable past, for which he attempts to atone by increased severity in his religious practices. But this can hardly be taken as a critique of William Collins. Self-doubting to the point of morbidity, Collins Senior is presented in the memoirs written by his son as having been genuinely devout. The letters and journal extracts quoted suggest that he was a gentle and affectionate father, keen to stress to his children the value of moral behaviour rather than the effects of sin, as in this example to Wilkie and Charles of 22 August 1832:
Go on praying to God, through Jesus Christ, to enable you, by his Holy Spirit, to be blessings to your parents; and then you must be happy… A pretty long letter, methinks, for two suchshort fellows! However, I never regret any trouble I may have in doing anything for good boys. (Cited in Collins Memoirs, Part 2, 56-7)
This last sentence, conditional as it sounds, comes at the end of a long and cheerful letter about more secular topics which Collins Senior thinks will interest the children.
Less indulgent is the journal which William Collins kept for his own benefit. Many evangelicals kept a daily record of their spiritual life, in which they analysed their own shortcomings in considerable detail. The extracts quoted from the journal in Wilkie’s memoirs must be assumed to show his father at his most introspective. On 27 March 1818 he writes:
This habit of smoking begets an inclination, and in fact a necessity, to allay the heat and dryness of the throat; and, as one smokes in the evening, liquor is always at hand; in addition to which, although I have given up snuff, yet the use of cigars and spiritous drinks would of course beget an inclination for their former companion: seeing all this, I hope I shall be resolute enough to resist the slavery of attachment to what it is best that I should hate. (Cited in Collins Memoirs, Part 1, 124)
His son, the bon viveur, offers no remark on this extract. More disturbing is William’s reaction to the family’s recurring financial difficulties, which he seems to have regarded as arising at least in part from his own negligence. In his journal William Collins wrote:
Notwithstanding my conviction that my troubles are real, and their number great, yet I feel that my desultory habits are adding to the list, (which is voluntarily and criminally incapacitating me for the performance of my numerous duties), and that my prayers for power cannot be from the heart, when the talents I already possess are suffered to lie idle until their whole strength shall be exerted against me; as the sweetest water becomes, under the same circumstances, first stagnant and then poisonous. Fearing consequences, which God of his infinite mercy avert, I once more implore his assistance. (Cited in Collins Memoirs, Part 1, 117)
This self-accusatory tone is consistent with the evangelical fear of the demon within and the punishment sure to follow all turnings aside from the path of duty. As the Reverend J. McConnell Hussey (3) was to remind his congregation at mid-century:
… while you are labouring to overpower the adversary without, you are painfully led to discover that there lurks a traitor within, who is striving, noiselessly and imperceptibly, to unbar the gates, and roll back the portals, for the enemy’s entrance.
Wilkie Collins’s reaction to the journal entry is revealing. Ignoring the doctrinal assumptions behind it, of which his upbringing must have made him aware, he assures his readers that his father was not the man to be so easily defeated, and that he was soon able to overcome his depression (Collins Memoirs, Part 1, 117). Respect for his father’s memory, and an expressed dislike of religous controversy, make an open disavowal of his doctrinal position impossible. What comes across from the commentary is that Wilkie regarded such outpourings as self-indulgent or morbid, while renewed vigour and determination are to be admired as an effective antidote. Though in later life Collins’s reaction to evangelicalism sometimes bordered on the hysterical—in one letter, he refers to a devout cousin for whose trust fund he was responsible, as a “pious bitch”—this aversion cannot be taken as a reaction against his father personally. It is far more likely that he is venting his rage at those fanatical associates of his parents with whom he came into contact as a child. In particular, he would have abhorred the constant references to Hell inseparable from evangelical sermons and tracts. Judging by a letter to Pigott of 20 February 1852 in which he acknowledges that the ultimate salvation of Satan is a “useful and interesting subject for Christians to speculate on” (Pigott Collection), it seems likely that Collins was himself a universalist, that is, he believed that belief that all mankind would ultimately experience salvation.
His first two published novels, Antonina and Basil, do contain vague references to an undefined future judgement, but this doctrine is shown primarily in its most beneficent aspect, of encouraging mercy on earth. In Antonina Numerian prays for his dying brother despite their former enmity, and in Basil it is the forgiving nature of the hero that leads him to visit his estranged wife as she is dying, on the grounds that she is going “before the throne of God.” Basil feels that:
The sole resource for her which human skill and human pity could now suggest, embraced the sole chance that she might still be recovered for repentance, before she was resigned to death. (Collins Basil, 288)
This concern with the meting out of post-mortem judgement betrays an obvious debt to the teaching of William Collins, under whose influence Wilkie’s mother likewise adopted evangelical beliefs. But such beliefs are not upheld, even in this most positive form, in Collins’s more mature work; Hide and Seek the worthy Mrs Peckover is convinced that Mary Grice’s seducer is already suffering eternal torment, but she is proved wrong when he is discovered alive and proves far less blameworthy than had been assumed. His only punishment is the temporal one of exile from his home, and even this allows him opportunity for repentance. Even in Basil (299) Margaret is allowed a last moment of remorse, as her husband prays by her deathbed. Symbolically the dawn breaks, offering hope as Basil “burst into a passion of tears, as my spirit poured from my lips in supplication for hers—tears that did not humiliate me; for I knew, while I shed them, that I had forgiven her.” Consignment to damnation is accepted as a possibility in these novels, but nonetheless human forgiveness holds out the hope of divine mercy.
Collins seems to have developed a more liberal outlook as his writing matured, and in his major novels of the 1860s he repeatedly subverts the idea of Judgement. He increasingly presents personal as opposed to vicarious atonement as not only redeeming but sanctifying—sanctification being the process by which human beings endeavour to come closer to Christ’s perfection by a process of emulation. In 1886 he praised Walter Scott as “a man whose very faults and failings have been transformed into virtues through the noble atonement that he offered, at the peril and the sacrifice of his life” (“Books Necessary,” 24). Many of the novels and stories relate to an individual moral regeneration set against a disapproving society. By employing female protagonists in many of his novels, Collins is able to demonstrate very clearly what he perceives as a flaw in the evangelical outlook. The heroines of his novels are judged more harshly by their society than are their male counterparts, and this allows them an insight into the tenuous relations between religious theory and social practice. Magdalen Vanstone is forced to abandon a career on the stage because its supposed immorality (an assumption that was condoned and reinforced by the evangelicals) has damaged her sister’s position. As a direct result, she is driven to marry her hated cousin in a sacrament that is shown to be reduced thereby to an act of prostitution. Fully aware that she will be condemned by the very zealots who have denied her an honest living and caused her to commit a real sin, she writes bitterly to her erstwhile governess: “‘What do good women like you, know of miserable sinners like me? All you know is that you pray for us at church.'” (Collins No Name, 481). The words “miserable sinners,” taken from the Book of Common Prayer, lose all meaning in this context, when spoken by someone who ignores the implication that sinners are unhappy and in need of pity. It is this detachment from the transgressor that Collins is most concerned with attacking, insisting on the saving role of Christ in relation to personal sin. For Collins it is possible for sin not only to be forgiven, but to give way to virtue.
The erring central figure in both No Name and Armadale is not only forgiven, but becomes a moral focus capable of ennobling virtue. Lydia Gwilt’s redemption in Armadale is redolent with Christian tradition. Realising that she has been poisoning her husband and not the hated Armadale, she rescues him and dies in his place, thus transforming a criminal act into an atoning sacrifice. The radical nature of this sacrifice is made clear by Barbara Gates’s appraisal. She points out that until 1880 suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground, such was the general conviction that to take one’s own life was the ultimate sin. In social terms then, Miss Gwilt’s suicide is unforgivable in a way that the intended murder would not have been. As Gates explains (304), suicide was seen as:
an audacious personal challenge to the will of God in which human justice could never really interfere. Thus if murder caused sensation among the Victorians, suicide was a source of anxiety and disgrace.
But Miss Gwilt’s act is accompanied by a prayer for the mercy of God, and she believes that she is saving her husband future unhappiness by dying in his place. Her increasing dissatisfaction with herself, and her attempt to overcome her criminality in marrying Midwinter, suggest that Miss Gwilt, like Dickens’s Sydney Carton, is likely to be receptive to religious promptings. Her gesture of atonement is a literal attempt to make amends for the harm she has done. Gates (308) affirms that “Without doubt, Lydia Gwilt’s eventual suicide is intended as atonement.” In making this atonement, Miss Gwilt not only displays repentance, but becomes a martyr. She has already displayed humility in asking Bashwood’s forgiveness, and as she dies she appeals to God in terms that force the reader to reassess the nature of her criminal past: “‘Oh, God, forgive me!’ she said. ‘Oh, Christ, bear witness that I have suffered!'” (Collins Armadale, 807).The narrative approval accorded to this character inevitably drew down the wrath of the orthodox. But inArmadale it is the orthodox who are shown to be hypocritical, whilst Lydia Gwilt ultimately repents and becomes worthy of salvation.
Respectfully discreet about evanglicalism in his biography and rather less so in his personal correspondence, Collins was able to make a very penetrating commentary in his fiction through the detached medium of caricature. Miss Clack’s “Servants’ Sunday Sweethearts Supervision Society” in The Moonstone, might have sounded suspiciously familar to his mother, who in his father’s lifetime had been a member of the “Servants’ Charitable Bible Society.” On a more sinister level, the philanthropist Godfrey Ablewhite, so beloved of ladies’ committees, is shown to have a dangerous power over vulnerable women like Miss Clack, who are encouraged to sublimate their sexual response to him in religious rapture. Only Rachel Verinder is impervious to Ablewhite’s charms, and she has no connection with the meetings at which he speaks. At the end of the novel he is shown to be a thief and a philanderer, who has used religious oratory to maintain a respectable veneer. Above all it is this use of evangelical religion to gain social status to which Collins objects. A passing reference to Wesleyanism in No Name (211) suggests that he respected genuine religious convictions, however much they differed from his own; in Lambeth “the followers of John Wesley have set up a temple, built before the period of Methodist conversion to the principles of architectural religion.” The accusation that the Methodists were becoming more concerned with the chapels themselves than with the congregations who attended them is referable to the process of consolidation that was taking place in Dissent at this time. As Alan D. Gilbert (157) explains:
… the once dynamic movement had assumed a more sedate character by the early Victorian period. The emphasis was now on maintaining, consolidating, and capitalising upon the strong position achieved during the initial phase of mobilisation: Anglican competition was now more fierce, and in any case there was now a huge internal constituency requiring pastoral care and demanding new varieties of religious-cultural satisfaction.
Furthermore, Nonconformity was beginning to attract middle class congregations, and Collins saw this new respectability as detracting from its earlier independence and fervour.
Collins clearly desired to replace Old Testament wrath, so greatly favoured by the evangelicals, with a liberal ethos based on the teachings of the New Testament. In other words, his religious views were focused on love and mercy rather than on fundamentalist doctrines of sin and retribution. He would not have agreed with the evangelicals’ insistence on the literal truth of every word in the Bible, which led to acceptance of doctrines such as the eternal punishment of unbelievers. But one view he did share with them was a suspicion of Catholic teaching. The controversial Catholic Relief Act, which allowed Romanists a degree of religious freedom, had not been passed until 1829, and during the next two decades evangelicals were particularly interested in converting Roman Catholics, “exposing” the Church of Rome in “its true nature as the Antichrist” (Lewis, 189). In 1839 the newly formed Protestant League had asserted in its “Statement of Views and Objects” that:
the grand object with the Roman Catholic in all parts of the islands, at the present moment, is the destruction of the Established Church, which forms the chief, if not the only obstacle to the re-establishment of Popery. (Publications of the Protestant Association, Preface)
The Papal Aggression of 1851 played a major part in stirring up popular as well as evangelical sentiment. Suspicion of Jesuitical spying and intrigue within the sacred confines of the family was exacerbated by religious tracts designed to prove the licentiousness and cruelty of unmarried priests.
In 1854 the Pope’s Proclamation of the Immaculate Conception (which held that Mary was free from original sin at the time of her conception) was received in England with horror. Ultra-Protestants felt their doctrine of Atonement under attack, protesting:
Man must be seen to be what he really is by nature, a lost, undone, miserable being, who has no power of helping himself, otherwise the favour that God shall bestow upon him, will be only the means of propping up a lie, and of making him more effectually than ever the slave of the devil. (Recent Decree, 4)
In plain terms, if it were possible even for Mary to be free from original sin, then the doctrine of Christ’s saving Atonement, dying for the sins of mankind, would become meaningless.
Steering clear of the excessive reaction shown by evangelical thinkers, Collins nevertheless had little sympathy with the Pope’s assertion of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. In December 1854 he wrote to Pigott:
Now what shakes a man’s faith?—an outrage on his common sense. … But how can that affect individual Romanists—or Romanist congregations. Does any Papist make use of his reason when he lets his Church give him his religion? … Does not every good Papist who will not let his father, brother, wife, or children, rob him of one particle of his common sense if he can help it, voluntarily hand that common sense over altogether to the keeping of his Priest whenever his Priest asks him for it? … What is there in the Immaculate Conception to outrage millions of people who believe (if one may abuse the word by using it in such a sense)—who believe in “The Real Presence”? When Smith, a lay Papist, believes that if he gives money to Jones a clerical Papist to pray his soul out of Purgatory, Jones will succeed if Jones prays fairly up to his terms, what in Heaven’s name is there in the Immaculate Conception to stagger Smith? (Pigott Collection)
It is of course unlikely that Collins was adhering to a doctrine of original sin in so writing. More likely to have exasperated him is the inconsistency of the Pope’s maintaining such a doctrine for the entire human race bar one. His contempt for the idea of communion bread and wine literally becoming the body and blood of Christ, contained in the doctrine of Transubstantiation, (which he rather carelessly confounds with “The Real Presence,” the idea that Christ is present in a metaphysical sense in the bread and wine), links him with the tradition of anti-Catholicism which held Romanism to be more superstitious than mystical. Nor is he entirely fair in his presentation of Jones praying Smith out of purgatory. This supposition was attacked by Luther in the sixteenth century as a corruption of Catholic doctrine. (The idea is rather that a priest prays for a soul already in purgatory, for which it is customary to pay him a monetary tribute, or “mass stipend.” Smith could not pay in advance for a mass to be said for his own soul.)2 Collins also betrays a common fear of the power of Catholic priests in assuming them to possess a greater influence on a man than his own family. The dangers of such influence were to appear in his later fiction, most famously in The Black Robe, in which a convert leaves his Protestant wife in order to become a priest.
The claim that Wilkie Collins was indifferent to religion and did not believe in God must be questioned in the light of the few direct comments he made, and the concern he shows in his novels to subvert evangelical thought on specifically religious grounds. The misconceptions surrounding his beliefs can be traced to a telling observation in an essay by the Reverend James H. Rigg:
A century ago, a deist might be a Bishop, and a Unitarian stand high in preferment in the Anglican Church. But things are different now. Then, out of Methodism, there was scarcely any earnestness extant, whether in religion or aught else. Now, the world is full of energy, and the age teems with earnest spirits. Now, sincerity, whether in error or in truth, for evil or for good, is counted the ‘one thing needful,” and earnestness is rated as heroism. (Rigg, 122)
Could it be perhaps that Collins was accused of irreligiousness, not for what he did or did not believe, but for a supposed lack of earnestness adduced from his habitual reticence on the subject? And could it also be that subsequent generations have made similar assumptions about him, through a misplaced assurance that anyone of serious beliefs in mid-nineteenth century England was only too anxious to share their convictions in pamphlet form?
Collins may have been reticent about his faith, but he was as devout as he was liberal, as his writing demonstrates. He believed himself in the didactic power of fiction, writing of Dickens in 1886 as one of the great teachers: “My own ideas cordially recognize any system of education the direct tendency of which is to make us better Christians” (“Books Necessary,” 24). The few critics who accept that Collins did retain recognisably Christian beliefs in his adult life, would probably place him in the Broad Church tradition. But this is not entirely helpful, in that such a definition encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs. It is tempting to define Broad Church belief in negative terms, for instance by setting it against the more definitive evangelicalism. But such tenuous definitions leave more liberal thinkers open to false comparisons, such as occur when Collins is called a freethinker. His letters to Edward Pigott in the 1850s reveal a reluctance to discuss points of doctrine simply because he feels such debate to be damaging to a common belief in Christ as Saviour and as the Son of God. These were the central tenets of his religion, and as he wrote to Pigott, “I hate controversies on paper, almost more than I hate controversies in talk” (Letter, Monday [16 February] 1852, Pigott Collection). But as has been seen, he was more aware of contemporary doctrinal debate than is often credited, and where he does raise a particular issue he is quite ready to offer his own opinion.
In 1860 Jowett (303-4) argued:
The same fact cannot be true in religion when seen by the light of faith and untrue in science when looked at through the medium of evidence and experiment. … As the idea of nature enlarges, the idea of revelation also enlarges; it was a temporary misunderstanding which severed them. … It may hereafter appear as natural to the majority of mankind to see the providence of God in the order of the world as it once was to appeal to interruptions of it.
This readiness to mediate faith through scientific discovery would have appealed to Collins, who believed that faith was severely tested by any outrage on common sense. But he disapproved most strongly of the rationalist idea that religion should give way to a scientific or secularist view of the world. In Heart and Science, the ironically named Mrs Galilee has a nervous breakdown, because she has placed her faith in science rather than in religion. At the moment of collapse (309), she cries: “‘Will somebody pray for me? … I don’t know how to pray for myself? Where is God?'” This outcry was surely not written by a materialist with no belief in life beyond the physical, as Reeve would have us believe.
As Collins himself began to feel old, one of his worthy characters, old Benjamin in The Law and the Lady, launches an indignant protest against ideas. In a satirical outburst that is not only out of character, but has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, Benjamin betrays his creator’s own aversion to the “cant” of materialists and freethinkers who believe in the all sufficiency of science in explaining the human condition:
let’s hear the new professor, the man who has been behind the scenes at Creation, and knows to a T how the world was made, and how long it took to make it. There’s the other fellow, too … the bran new philosopher who considers the consolations of religion in the light of harmless playthings, and who is kind enough to say that he might have been all the happier if he could only have been childish enough to play with them himself. Oh, the new ideas, the new ideas, what consoling, elevating, beautiful discoveries have been made by the new ideas! (Collins The Law and the Lady, 321)
The jab at agnostic thinkers who concede the positive value of religious faith, while holding it to be practically untenable, is particularly topical. T.H. Huxley for one was using just such arguments in the 1870s, and was to declare in his essay “Agnosticism” 1889, the year of Collins’s death, that:
No man who has studied history, or even attended to the occurrrences of everyday life, can doubt the enormous practical value of trust and faith; but as little will he be inclined to deny that this practical value has not the least relation to the reality of the objects of that trust and faith. (Huxley, vol.5, 214)
This was emphatically not Collins’s position.
Approving of scientific advance provided that it did not displace religion, Collins was not usually willing to discuss the details of his own belief. Quite simply, he wished to avoid any damaging appropriation of religious discourse that might serve to alienate fellow Christians, as he felt evangelical and Catholic dogmas did. His faith was individualised in the sense that he did not attach himself to any particular group, refusing to define himself in terms of a prescribed set of doctrines. He was a liberal Christian, in the sense that he avoided fundamentalist reliance on the Old Testament whilst maintaining a personal commmitment to God, particularly through the teaching and ministry of Christ on earth. In Miss or Mrs? (79), a short novel written towards the end of his life, Collins allows an old woman to reprimand her young companion’s fear of death, in words that might stand as a testament to his own faith: “God has been good to us. We are in his hands. If we know that, we know enough.”
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