Blind Love

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

The story of the composition of Wilkie Collins’s final work is almost as striking as that found in the novel itself. In the spring of 1887, soon after completing the revisions to the short stories collected in Little Novels and with several months left before he needed to start work on The Legacy of Cain for Tillotsons, Collins began to plan a new fifteen-part serial. Provisionally entitled “Iris,” this was to be a romantic tale of political intrigue set in Paris during the second exile of Napoleon following his defeat at Waterloo. However, the author’s health problems which were exacerbated by the summer heat, plus the difficulties of finding a periodical willing to accept a story of such awkward length, forced Collins to lay the work aside in late July with only one third completed. In December of the same year, at lunch with Nina and Fred Lehmann, he heard the inside story of an ingenious insurance fraud from the lawyer Horace Pym and appropriated it for future fictional use. By May 1888 The Legacy of Cain was complete, reports of the von Scheurer insurance trial had appeared in the press, and Collins’s agent A.P. Watt had made a deal for his next serial. This was to be a story in twenty parts for John Dicks’s penny paper Bow Bells. With Dicks’s popular readership in mind, Collins economically determined to tack on the tale of the insurance fraud case to the existing fifteen chapters of “Iris,” at the same time shifting the setting of the prologue from the court of Louis XVIII to rural Ireland during the “Land War” of 1879-1882. The initial working title was “His Money? Or His Life” in celebration of the insurance plot but this was soon changed to “The Lord Harry,” after the tale’s devil-may-care protagonist. Despite having to hand both the manuscript of “Iris” and Horace Pym’s detailed von Scheurer scenario, with his health failing on all fronts, Collins made slow progress on the story and the beginning of the serial run had to be pushed back. Shaken up in a cab collision in the winter, he had only written two-thirds of the narrative by the spring of 1889. A crisis was then looming in the form of Collins’s next serial which was scheduled to start in the Illustrated London News in July. The crisis was averted by Watt’s persuading Dicks to defer his demands (permanently as it turned out), and to let the ILN take “The Lord Harry.” Serving a rather more select middle-class audience, the owners of the ILN detected a hint of blasphemy in the existing title and forced the switch to Blind Love. More significantly, the change of periodical venue involved a shift to a serial in twenty-six parts, which necessitated a good deal of rejigging of the instalments. Collins then made the decision to dictate a detailed scenario of the unwritten chapters of the novel, primarily for his own use and that of the illustrator. However, the massive stoke that he suffered at the end of June ensured that he would not complete the story himself, so that the little black book containing the scenario was passed to Collins’s colleague Walter Besant. During his long series of collaborations with James Rice, Besant had had plenty of practice at turning plot summaries into narrative fiction, so on Collins’s death in September he was able to make a workmanlike job of completing the novel from Chapter 49. The fact that the novel exists at all is thus a tribute to the tenacious professionalism of Wilkie Collins as an author.

This new edition of Blind Love by Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox represents the fourth Collins novel to appear in the Broadview Literary Texts series. Three of these are lesser-known late works – the present volume, plus my own edition of The Evil Genius and that of Heart and Science by Steve Farmer, who also produced a fine edition of The Moonstone (reviewed in the Journal in 1999). The distinctive feature of the Broadview editions is the cornucopia of contemporary documents which accompany the texts of the novels, with the aim of encouraging students to read them in the material and discursive contexts in which they were first produced. Bachman and Cox’s Blind Love is exemplary in this respect. First and foremost, though, we have an impeccably edited text based on the Chatto and Windus three- volume edition of 1890 with Walter Besant’s preface, and accompanied by the original Forestier illustrations drawn for the ILN. Then we have the editors’ commentary found not only in the lengthy introduction but also in the explanatory footnotes to the novel. (Since the text in fact presents few difficulties for the modern reader, these are relatively few in number. Even so one or two struck me as rather tangential to the narrative itself – a lengthy paragraph on the importation of Cheddar cheese in Chapter 6 being a case in point.) At the end of the volume we are given eight substantial appendices, with half concerning the composition of the novel: Horace Pym’s notes on the von Scheurer case and reports of the trial in the Times, plus extracts from both the manuscript of “Iris” and the little black book. In addition there are not only records of the novel’s reception (in the form of obituaries as well as reviews), but also materials reflecting the novel’s engagement with the “Irish Question” (including cartoons from Punch) and the “Woman Question” (in the form of Mrs Beeton’s strictures on the duties of the lady’s maid). The relevance of all these documents is clearly outlined in the editors’ introduction.

The only significant doubt concerning the present edition is whether Collins’s last novel can bear the weight of this substantial critical apparatus. Against the rich tapestry of contextual material poor Wilkie’s last desperate effort can begin to look rather threadbare. As reflected in their discussion of Collins’s position in the debates on Home Rule for Ireland and the emancipation of women, the editors themselves seem rather divided on the quality of the novel. In the area of race and empire, they conclude that Lord Harry “embodies practically every stereotypical Celtic vice” (22) and thus that the novel as a whole works crudely to justify “Britain’s continued rule over Ireland” (21). As regards gender, however, the novel’s three main female characters (Iris Henley, Fanny Mere, and Mrs Vimpany) are presented as victims of “the patriarchal power structure … [who] refuse to submit to their destiny” (30), so that the novel is read as “Wilkie Collins’s final challenge to a Victorian domestic ideology that perpetuated gender inequalities” (23). On the face of it, such contradictory attitudes to questions of hierarchy seem unlikely to be found in the same narrative. For me the truth of the matter lies between these two extremes. The encounter between the “Saxon” Hugh Mountjoy and the “Celt” Lord Harry, rivals for the heroine’s affections, is presented in a far from one-sided way, and Iris Henley’s consistent preference for the latter must have some ideological significance. At the same time, while Iris, Mrs Vimpany, and, especially, Fanny clearly are distant relations of strong Collins heroines like Marian Halcombe, it seems something of an overstatement to read the end of the novel as a celebration of the three women’s finding “happiness and fulfillment with each other in isolation from the patriarchical power structure” (31). After a