Authors in Context: Wilkie Collins

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Lyn Pykett’s lucid new contribution to the study of Wilkie Collins is part of a series entitled Authors in Context, published by Oxford University Press and designed to provide students and other general readers with a manageable introduction to important authors. The series, which “examines the work of major writers in relation to their own time and to the present day,” takes its place alongside several other introductory guides that publishers have favoured of late. Such introductions will surely be welcomed by literature students, particularly those faced with long Victorian novels and the additional difficulty of coming to terms with an increasingly diverse body of historical and critical material, and in general I think that books of this sort are a good thing. They are, however, extremely difficult to write: authors not only have to make complex and extensive material accessible for students; they have to negotiate reviewers, fellow academics, and other experts on the subject in question, all of whom want to hear something new and all of whom are quick to note what has been left out.

I will certainly be recommending this volume to my own students. Aside from anything else, it is full of helpful material: chapter one offers a brief biography, the next two chapters examine the social and literary context, chapter four through six are thematically focussed, and the final chapter “recontextualizes” Collins by considering the afterlife of his work, with special reference to adaptations and criticism. As my brief description of the chapter headings indicates, the book has plenty of appeal beyond its student audience—I, for one, found myself thoroughly engaged by the material covered. Pykett is at her best when she pursues thematic discussions, all of which are built around thoughtful close readings of Collins’s work. The discussion takes in a wide range of writing by Collins; inevitably, the texts treated at greatest length are The Woman in WhiteThe Moonstone and Armadale, yet considerable space is given to other novels such as Basil and The New Magdalen. While all the thematic issues addressed by Pykett are handled with the confidence and deftness one would expect from an experienced commentator on Collins, the strongest and most dynamic textual readings are those relating to gender and marriage, reflecting Pykett’s particular interest in this area. Chapters six and seven, covering, among things, science and adaptations, are also very stimulating, and I suspect that they will encourage readers to undertake further work in these important areas. Whether or not this extends to anyone taking on Pykett’s challenge for a musical version of The Moonstone, is another matter. With a mischievous gesture to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent adaptation of The Woman in White, Pykett writes: “As far as I know, there are no plans to stage a musical version of The Moonstone. However, one could envisage some splendid song opportunities for the lovelorn Rosanna Spearman, the embittered Limping Lucy, and the garrulous Miss Clack. Moreover, Franklin’s opium-induced re-enactment of the theft of the diamond has distinct balletic possibilities” (204).

Although the book should be considered a success, it is not without its faults. The decision to separate consideration of the social and literary context from the subsequent thematic readings of the texts seems odd. Some of the material overlaps and threatens to become repetitive, and a number of the claims made in the section on social context are too detached. No-one would argue that “[a]lteration, invention and competition” are “Victorian keywords” (29), but the recognition of this needs to be rooted in a more extended discussion if it is to avoid sounding too general. The problem is less to do with the synopsis of nineteenth-century history that the book provides, which seems perfectly reasonable, and more to do with the implication of the structural division of chapters, that historical background somehow precedes textual discussion. In recent years cultural and literary historians have gone to great lengths to blur the division between text and context; rightly, I think, for, as Pykett makes clear in chapters four through six, the most effective way to deal with the interaction between history and text is to consider them in combination. The other major weakness of this book concerns its relative neglect of criticism published after 2000. Graham Law’s Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press (2000), which sheds new light on Collins’s readership, is referred to in the footnote to a paragraph on newspaper syndication but does not make it into the bibliography, while there is no mention at all of Caroline Oulton’s Literature and Religion in Mid-Victorian England: From Dickens to Eliot (2003), despite its extensive discussion of the theological implications of Collins’s novels. Nor does Pykett acknowledge the existence of Lillian Nayder’s Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Victorian Authorship (2002), Maria Bachman and Don Richard Cox’s essay collection Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins (2003), or indeed any material from the Wilkie Collins Society Journal—New Series.

The problems with structure and the absence of any reference to key recent works of criticism do not, ultimately, detract from the value of this book. As I began by saying, writing an introductory guide is an extremely difficult task, and, on the whole, Pykett rises to the challenge commendably. Anything that helps orientate and introduce a new generation of students to the work of Wilkie Collins, an important nineteenth-century writer who still does not always receive the recognition he deserves, is to be welcome, not least because, as Pykett begins her book by reminding us, he offers “a curious combination of respectability and social fragility, of orthodoxy and unconventionality” (1).