Gravy Soup: humouring conformity and counterfeiting in A Rogue’s Life

In his Introductory Words to the 1879 novelisation of A Rogue’s Life, Wilkie Collins apologises to the reader if they find any undue levity in the work, or if they discern ‘a tone of almost boisterous gaiety in certain parts of these imaginary Confessions’ (iv). Instead, he indicates that it should be regarded as harmless, simply a ‘faithful reflection of a very happy time in my past life’ (Rogue iv). By stating that he wrote it while he was enjoying himself in Paris with family and friends including Charles Dickens, Collins is suggesting that A Rogue’s Life is really just a bit of fun, a frivolous light entertainment. This version of how to interpret the narrative is reinforced by concluding the Introduction in praising the Rogue because ‘he is never serious for two moments together; and he ‘doesn’t take long to read’ (Rogue iv).

The apparent dismissal of the novel, initially serialised in Household Words in March 1856, as something insubstantial by Collins himself might lead to the conclusion that it is of less import, or critical worth, than his other works. However I would argue that Collins’ use of humour carries significant meaning for all that the Introduction suggests that it is a lightweight, even fantasy, adventure. Collins is dissembling here: being roguish himself, he is the author who declaims his work as a trifle to evade censure or overly critical investigation, counterfeiting innocence. His use of humour in the work is performing the task of disguise, yet as the narrative unfolds, the reader is expected to see through this to the understanding that there is something serious at its heart. The observation that A Rogue’s Life is satire is not new, but reviewing the work through the lens of the particular mode employed, the picaresque via the commentary of Collins’ pícaro rogue, as well as contemporary comment on comedy and society, is worth doing for what it reveals about Collins’ exploration of criminal activities and their relevance to his wider social concerns, as well as reminding us that he was a very capable humourist. Much critical attention has, of course, been directed towards the ‘great’ novels, and to the serious subjects they engage, but A Rogue’s Life can sit comfortably alongside them: humour, after all, functions to direct us to the serious topics it appears to disavow. As can also be seen, both in terms of the subject matter as well as in his treatment of it, Collins engages with and anticipates the arguments that surface later in the work of Matthew Arnold, George Meredith and Henri Bergson about the purposes of culture and what it means to be human.

Although there is some dispute about the precise definition of the picaresque (Brack Jr and Chilton xxi), Close notes that in its origins in sixteenth-century Spanish literature, it is ‘the autobiography of a disreputable drifter, who tells of his ignominious parentage and upbringing, his employment as servant with a succession of twisters or charlatans, his acquisition of street wisdom … a ‘When in Rome’ philosophy, and his efforts to scramble up the social ladder to some kind of security and respectability’ (Close 16). As a mode of satire, the picaresque describes a series of adventures that befall the hero, exposing to humorous affect the frailties and failings of social and institutional forces, intended as they are to govern and direct moral and legal behaviour. The pícaro, whose observations of the world from their birth to later adulthood are presented as first-person memoir, is the cynical outsider who as a child becomes aware of their ‘isolation in a hostile world’ of adults against whom ‘stratagems of survival must be continually improvised’ as they age (Close 18). The picaresque novel, Close argues, offers ‘a perverted educational process’, whereby an individual is shown ways to survive in ‘a nasty world’ (19). The use of autobiographical form and memoir promotes a verisimilitude between the world represented within to that without the fictional frame, one which is revealed to the reader via parody, irony, punning and mock-epic sentiment as they become the ‘I’ of the narrator who learns that the only way to behave in the world is inappropriately.

In A Rogue’s Life, the eponymous Frank Softly narrates his adventures from birth into a middle class family to his adulthood, as he rejects the strictures of the role of dutiful son of a doctor to be an aspiring professional medic. Some of the difficulties of adhering to this ideal are also forced upon Frank because of a significant lack of family funds, and underpinning the whole tale is the clash that arises between the expectations and assumptions of status and the impossibility of achieving these without hard cash. Nonetheless Frank much prefers his life of adventure, and as the novel follows the picaresque lead in interweaving comedy, romance, epic and quest, these adventures bring both trouble and success. Jailed for debt and counterfeiting, he fails as a doctor but succeeds as a caricaturist, becomes an adept forger of Old Masters, yet for the first portion of the novel is pathetically unequal to the task of fearlessly attracting his love as the romantic hero should. The quest narrative is lampooned as Frank searches for Alicia in a coach called ‘The Red Cross Knight’. But this journey is a catalogue of improvisation, disguise and accidents, with Frank barely in control. Even the choice of coach is that of a hotel waiter, who could have picked the alternative ‘The Humming Bee’. As Frank remarks, ‘nothing was left for me but to trust to chance’ (Rogue 45). Alicia is finally found, however, by the simple expedient of knocking on the door of a cottage in the small (fictional) village of Crickgelly in Wales, and the whole escapade utterly undermines the trope of the heroic rescue of the maiden from the clutches of the villain in his castle. Frank then carries her off to Scotland, where he marries her in the irregular Scottish manner of simply stating that this is his aim, so that even this seemingly romantic resolution has a dubious legality for the English reader (Maceachen 127).

Yet, for all this, by the end of the narrative, Frank has achieved great economic and social status, and is publically feted having married his Alicia again. As we follow his adventures to their apparent conclusion in Australia, Frank paints a picture of himself there as ‘a convict aristocrat – a prosperous, wealthy, highly respectable mercantile man’ (Rogue 186), with servants, a barouche, and attending charity sermons. Frank is very much one who has survived on his wits, sometimes by chance, sometimes by aptitude, success achieved by legal means or otherwise, but always with an eye to his benefit, until he passes himself off finally as ‘respectable’. In keeping with the picaresque, Frank has learned how to survive, and indeed flourish, in the nasty world. His lessons in life are provided as much by negative example as they are by the positive.

The Introduction notes that Collins’ friends with him in Paris are ‘all associated with literature and art’ (Rogue iv), and the novel engages with the fraught questions of art forgery and the relevance of Old Masters to contemporary art, as well as the counterfeiting of coin. The particular reference to Dickens, moreover, serves to remind the reader that Collins and his literary ally certainly knew about the picaresque as a specific form of comedic literature that engages with at worst, criminal, and at best questionable behaviour, albeit that they use it in different ways. Dickens himself, a lover of the works of Tobias Smollett who had produced anglicised versions of the picaresque in the eighteenth century (Blount 13), draws on this mode for David Copperfield (1850) if in a more sentimental vein, and during the narrative of A Rogue’s Life Frank explicitly refers to the eponymous hero of L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, a French picaresque text by Alain René Le Sage (1715-1735) translated by Tobias Smollett in 1748. Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748) and Peregrine Pickle (1751) represent the shift Smollett himself took in the form in situating Peregrine Pickle as the offspring of a more well-to-do family than the unfortunate, and largely unregenerate, Roderick. This change enabled Smollett to expand his targets for satire across law, medicine, theatre, religion and politics when Pickle traverses the upper echelons with ease (Bartolomeo 266), as does Frank. A Rogue’s Life, then, contributes to the anglicised picaresque as a form that explores the social and cultural consequences of crime, refracted through contemporary anxieties about social status and appearances. Frank encounters characters representative of Collins’ own personal concerns about art and education, as well as the ambiguous figures who surface in The Woman in White published in 1860 only a few years after A Rogue’s Life. In both works the reader encounters the mannish woman and the fascinating villain. Alicia has a handshake described in terms that to the contemporary reader indicated a masculine honesty: ‘[s]he gave me a good, hearty, vigorous, uncompromising shake’ (Rogue 72), an idea more developed in Marion, while Doctor Dulcifer the overweight chemist predates the later Fosco. These multiple threads intersect, weaving through the humour and seriousness that render A Rogue’s Life much more than a simple, throwaway novelty.

There is a specific reference in Gil Blas to soup made from gravy, or meat juices, prepared by a cook who ‘excelled in every thing – her soups were exquisite, on account of her art in chusing and mixing the different kinds of gravy, of which they were composed’ (Smollett 64). This forms part of a meal of ‘delicate dishes’, courses that would have ‘stimulated the sensuality of a viceroy’ (Smollett 64). Frank, however, records a rather different repast. It starts encouragingly: ‘When we gave a dinner at home’ he says ‘we had gravy soup, turbot and lobster-sauce, haunch of mutton, boiled fowls and tongue, lukewarm oyster patties and sticky curry for side-dishes; wild duck, cabinet-pudding, jelly, cream and tartlets’ (Rogue 8). But, he adds, these are ‘[a]ll excellent things, except when you have to eat them continually. We lived upon them entirely in the season. Each one of our hospitable friends gave us a return dinner, which was a perfect copy of ours – just as ours was a perfect copy of theirs, last year’ (Rogue 8-9). Hospitality in this case is a matter of form rather than any considered thought and care.

Here, food is not something to enjoy for itself, neither nourishing nor pleasurable to the palate, but rather a matter of visibly correct status achieved only if the menu never changes but is endlessly repeated without variation. The fear is deviation and difference, and this is something that Frank comes to dread: ‘[m]y stomach used to quail within me, in those times, when the tureen was taken off and the inevitable gravy-soup smell renewed its daily acquaintance with my nostrils, and warned me of the persistent eatable formalities that were certain to follow’ (Rogue 9). Every aspect of the social round must be replicated in what Frank describes as ‘the same sheepish following’ of ‘genteel dinners’ that reminds him of ‘the remarkable adherence to set forms of speech which characterises the talkers of arrant nonsense’ (Rogue 8). Collins makes manifest in the horrors of social eating and empty small talk, the much wider fears around the disturbance of social expectations. The gravy soup, which in Collins’ narrative suggests a mood of pervasive, unpleasant drab brownness, becomes both laughable and repellent in equal measure.

The fear of deviation as difference, of failing to be what one should seem to be and the efforts required to hide this, is what Collins indicates throughout the novel as enabling both social counterfeiting and the actual illegal practices of fraud and forgery. This point is also articulated by Henri Bergson in his essay ‘La Rire’. Bergson explains his ideal as ‘[w]hat life and society require of each of us is a constantly alert attention … together with a certain elasticity of mind and body’ (Bergson 72), and inability, or indeed failure, to be alert is to generate bodily and mental sickness. It is the lack of character, ‘the gravest inadaptability to social life,’ moreover, that leads ‘at times to the causes of crime’ (Bergson 72). For Bergson the life well lived requires resistance to inflexibility and the avoidance of rigid practices and systems, a point also made by George Meredith in his novels of social satire, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) and The Egoist (1879), as well as in his ‘An Essay on Comedy’ (1877).

Both writers castigate instances of the pomposity of automatism in the habitual performances of manners and attitude, which they suggest can be corrected by subjecting instances of such behaviour to comedic treatment and laughter. Matthew Arnold also highlights his concerns about automatic behaviours in Culture and Anarchy (1869), although laughter is not his proffered solution. He represents culture as the antidote to ‘stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically’, since those who do so are ‘vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically’ (Arnold 5). It is precisely this attitude that is mocked by Collins in the rote consumption of the gravy soup. Although Collins writes A Rogue’s Life some time before the views expressed by Meredith, Arnold, and Bergson, in the novel he anticipates and connects with the wider concerns of the later nineteenth century about mechanistic and unthinking attitudes. Collins indicates that it is in the connections he identifies between the strictures of social habits presented as markers of social status and, for him, the parlous state of the art market, that assumptions about identities structured on appearance rather than substance serve to disguise deeper and perhaps more disturbing truths about those identities.

Nearly all the characters in A Rogue’s Life are counterfeit identities one way or another. Some are known only by the nicknames accorded to them by the tools of their trade, as are Doctor Dulcifer’s criminal accomplices Screw, Mill, Old File and Young File. Dulcifer’s own name, derived from the Latin meaning ‘containing sweetness’, disguises his criminal activities yet also reveals the manner of his own self-fashioning in the underhand marriage to his employer’s daughter, elevating him from servant to master. Frank’s grandmother is the widow of a baronet whose bloodline is that of the early Malkinshaws, ‘who were Rogues of great capacity and distinction in feudal times’ (Rogue 7). Her status is therefore based on an aristocratic lineage that belies an infamous past, much as will Frank’s standing as the convict aristocrat, and she is arguably no better than Dulcifer and his gang. Even Frank’s love, Alicia, is first secreted under the name of Miss Giles, and later in Australia she counterfeits the role of the ‘widowed’ Mrs Giles who ‘employs’ her convict-footman ‘Francis’. Frank’s rise from footman to respectable husband and landowner echoes Dulcifer’s own dubious social climbing, an act of doubling that is evident in much picaresque work.

Collins uses fictional names for some of the locations in the narrative, notably ‘Duskydale’ where Frank is, briefly and rather ill-advisedly, employed as Secretary to the Duskydale Institution. As is apparent from the nomenclature, this is a place of limited illumination, literally in its Lecture Theatre, and metaphorically in the failure of the Managing Committee to bring any life and humanity to the town. ‘Barkingham’, where Dulcifer owns a red brick house, is suggestive of any number of suburban towns on the outskirts of London, indicating that in such interchangeable sites nefarious operations may exist behind the façade of respectability. Rebecca Stern has noted of instances of domestic fraud, that ‘even the most modest home was a site of purchase, exchange, and employment’ so that ‘Victorian culture at large identified the home itself as a place of business’ (5). This is very much in accord with the dubious coinage ‘business’ run by Dulcifer. The ideal of the home as the haven of innocence is challenged, revealing the fragility of that ideal but also how the very belief in it functions to obscure and enable fraudulent practices.

Collins also, however, includes actual locations such as Shrewsbury, where Frank stays on his way to recover Alicia, and then Scotland, where they marry for the first time. There are also references to genuine persons. Frank mentions, with some sarcasm, the celebrated portraitist once president of the Royal Academy Sir Thomas Lawrence, (1769-1830). A self-taught artist, his reputation was bolstered by royal patronage but Frank describes him as ‘that accomplished parasite’ (Rogue 35) for being ‘the most artful and uncompromising flatterer that ever smoothed out all the natural characteristic blemishes from a sitter’s face’ (34). Such a comment indicates how low Lawrence’s reputation had fallen amongst those, like Collins, who favoured the Pre-Raphaelite credo of ‘truth to nature’, and that Lawrence’s status was based on, at best, misrepresentation, and at worst blatantly fraudulent practice. Peppered throughout the novel, too, are references to other artists, as well as Shakespeare and Marlowe. Dulcifer refers to himself as ‘Faustus’ several times, and Frank’s friend Dick, as he draws Frank into the lucrative world of art forgery, notes that ‘[s]ome men have a knack at making Rembrandts, others have a turn for Raphaels, Titians, Cuyps, Watteaus, and the rest of them’ (Rogue 41). Frank later recalls his many adventures with the quip ‘Shakespeare must have had me prophetically in his eye, when he wrote about ‘one man in his time playing many parts’’ (Rogue 79). This juxtaposition of the ‘real’ and the fictional, two seemingly distinct forms here woven together by Collins, paradoxically produces the ‘truth’ of the events and persons in the narrative. The reader can conclude that while Collins is fashioning his tale, he is still referencing and drawing on the external world experienced and understood by the reader. This is not, however, a comfort. If a fictional character can situate himself both within and without other fictions, and if an invented artist can reproduce the work of a once-living Master, then the satirical comment here reminds us that appearances are not what they seem.

It is by his own name, and in his own words, that Frank Softly reveals the pretence of everyone else around him: he is ‘frank’, more honest and more open than those family members who claim to care and those who pretend to status. Caught out by one of his caricatures of Lady Malkinshaw, whose ‘venerable features were unmistakably represented as belonging to the body of a large owl’ (Rogue 12), Frank says of his father ‘that I would save him the exertion of turning me out of doors, by going of my own accord’ (13). Collins’ use of irony underpins Frank’s view that ‘it obviously became my duty, as a member of a gentlemanly and peaceful profession, to leave the room’ (Rogue 13). As with the mode of caricature itself, Frank speaks an apparent truth, that medicine is a profession with the standing of ‘gentleman’, intertwined with a greater, underlying, truth that it is more a matter of assumed convention than reality.

Frank is cheerfully clear that he is compelled into a life of fraud, as is his nemesis, Doctor Dulcifer, and both commit actual crimes. Yet Collins represents neither character as worse than those who attract the greater criticism, the frauds in the worlds of art and social conventions and practices. Frank has redeeming and likeable qualities and ultimately achieves great success despite forgery being a capital offence at the time of the setting of the novel (the 1830s). Similarly Dulcifer, fascinating to both Frank and the reader, is never punished for his counterfeiting, evading capture to run a newspaper in America. Here Collins of course makes a jibe at the expense of journalism, and the implication of false news rather than any claims to truth-telling, but Dulcifer looks after the faithful Old File, employed to produce the paper. While this might seem to be an instance of self-preservation, Frank has already described Dulcifer as ‘generous’ with pay for his workmen. For Collins here, there is a moral quality to Frank in particular irrespective of his various identities, and even in the way that Dulcifer protects his daughter and close confederates. Although more overtly criminal than Frank, evident in his early involvement in acts of misrepresentation by the adulteration of food and drink, before graduating to counterfeiting coin, Dulcifer’s operations are exposed only because Screw informs on them to the Bow Street Runners, and Screw as an informer, a teller of true identities, is figured as far more morally reprehensible than his master.

Frank adopts a series of counterfeit personas in a series of money-making ventures starting during his school days, aware that his family may have social ‘credit’ but are in reality impecunious. Gifted early with a talent for caricature, he sells scurrilous portraits to school-fellows, something that he later does to and for fellow-inmates in prison. As an adult he achieves some financial success as a professional caricaturist, using the pen name of ‘Thersites Junior’, while apparently studying for medicine. Frank thereby counterfeits adherence to the path chosen for him by his father. But he simultaneously forges an identity based on a character appearing in Homer’s Illiad, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Thersites in these texts is both the butt and the source of laughter, who in the tradition of the wise fool given licence to challenge authority, can be seen to express the truth in exaggeration, much as does the mode of caricature. Bergson has noted of caricature that it serves to reveal distortions underlying the seeming regularity of features, and Collins embraces such a mode in his approach throughout A Rogue’s Life.

Collins caricatures the standing and self-belief of contemporary society. Frank describes his works as ‘the coloured prints in the shop-window, which disrespectfully illustrated the public and private proceedings of distinguished individuals’, (Rogue 11). With some glee he notes that ‘[l]ittle did my father imagine when, with great difficulty and vexation, he succeeded in getting me now and then smuggled, along with himself, inside the pale of fashionable society – that he was helping me to study likenesses which were destined under my reckless treatment to make the public laugh at some of his most august patrons, and to fill the pockets of his son with professional fees, never once dreamed of in his philosophy’ (Rogue 12). Frank here gestures to Shakespeare’s Hamlet who reminds, in Act 1, the rather upright Horatio of that which exists beyond his knowledge. This is a witty way of colluding with the reader in mocking the inability of ‘fashionable society’ to see the fraudster ‘smuggled’ in among them.

Forgery and counterfeiting were matters of considerable concern to Collins and his contemporaries. Rebecca Stern and Sara Malton have both recently explored the representations of forgery in nineteenth-century literature and popular culture. Malton notes how forgery disturbs assumptions about status, as well as economic and social credit (2). As she argues, ‘forged money is the result of neither legitimate labor or birthright’ (Malton 13). Forgery, Malton suggests, operates as a parody of capital (14), and so when legitimate capital is lacking, as it is for Frank, then forgery is the only way to raise any capital, fiscal or social. However, despite Malton’s suggestion that ‘[f]orgery …  invalidates the necessity of labor, generating money not from “authentic work,” but simply from nothing’ (13), in A Rogue’s Life Frank is actually rather industrious, even if much of his work is either felonious or, in the case of caricature, at least to some dishonourable. He is also clear, as he addresses the reader, that as far as he is concerned his family and heritage should have provided sufficient income, but their financial, if not social, impoverishment is itself a contributing factor to his life of crime.

The terms ‘forgery’ and ‘counterfeit’ are often used interchangeably, as Alice Beckett has indicated (37). Nick Groom, however, has provided a useful distinction between them, worth quoting at length: ‘A counterfeit is a facsimile copy. Coins or notes can be counterfeited, and a counterfeit Picasso would be an exact copy of a pre-existent work. Forgery, however, has no actual original source; it conjures the illusion of a source. A forgery of a Picasso would be an original work, but located in Picasso’s œuvre: it would be recognizably Picasso, a new Picasso, albeit painted by anyone except Picasso. In this sense, a forgery is like an impostor – or even a parasite’ (Groom 16). Forgery is a con, therefore, whereas counterfeit coins must replicate in their entirety any other coin of that denomination (Groom 16-17).

Frank’s efforts for a dealer in forged Old Masters clearly fit Groom’s description of forgery. An artist friend of his, Dick, has surprised Frank by being always in funds, despite being an artist. Dick introduces Frank to Mr Pickup, the one point in the novel that jars modern sensibilities in Collins’ association of his Jewishness and dubious dealings as seemingly inevitable. But Frank is to produce ‘Rembrandts’ for Pickup, and in particular, as there was ‘a run on Burgomasters … my subject was naturally to be of the Burgomaster sort’ (Rogue 53). He produces a piece, eventually called ‘The Burgomaster’s Breakfast’ that satisfies Pickup, after which Frank starts on ‘A Burgomaster’s Wife Poking the Fire’ (Rogue 54). As their titles suggest, the very inanity of the subject matter marks their aesthetic worthlessness and the poverty of their contribution to the world of art, irrespective of the fact of their imposture and, for Collins, evidently a greater crime.

It is notable that in Collins’ critique it is the state of the art market that enables forgery, not the existence of a Mr Pickup per se. The buyers of art are themselves guilty of cupidity and stupidity. Dick comments ‘“Enlightened collectors of old pictures pour into the market by fifties, while genuine specimens of … any …Old Master you like to mention, only dribble in by ones and twos”’ (Rogue 40). Noting this significant gap between supply and demand, Dick adds ‘“Under these circumstances, what is to be done? Are unoffending owners of galleries to be subjected to disappointment? Or are the works of Claude, and the other fellows [Old Masters], to be benevolently increased in number, to supply the wants of persons of taste and quality? No man of humanity but must lean to the latter alternative”’ (Rogue 40). Such a view is more than a mere tongue-in-cheek observation, as Dick articulates Collins’ own, heated, dislike of much of the contemporary art world. The buyers mentioned by Dick are, of course, neither enlightened nor unoffending, nor do they exhibit any taste and quality, and none are guiltless. As Dick adds, ‘“Give them a picture with a good large ruin, fancy trees, prancing nymphs, and a watery sky; dirty it down dexterously to the right pitch; put it in an old frame; call it a Claude; and the sphere of the Old Master is enlarged, the collector is delighted, the picture-dealer is enriched, and the neglected modern artist claps a joyful hand on a well-filled pocket”’ (Rogue 41). Collins’ irony drips from the page, a companion to the ire he expresses in his review of works exhibited at the Royal Academy, particularly in how he sees the treatment of the modern artist dealing in modern subjects.

Collins’ review of the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of 1851 reveals many of his concerns about the status of art, elements of which resurface in A Rogue’s Life a few years later. Something of Collins’ attitude to Royal Academy exhibitions can be seen in Frank’s attempt to have his work shown there. Frank, trying to earn status and money paints two portraits, including a self-portrait to be sent to the Royal Academy Exhibition, observing that ‘I knew the institution with which I had to deal, and called my own likeness, Portrait of a Nobleman’ (Rogue 38).

The review appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in June, and Collins is not sparing in his critique, even of the work of friends and family, but reserving his most pointed comments on those techniques and subjects that he especially loathed. Throughout, anything that Collins considers demonstrates artificiality or mediocrity is highlighted. Such work is reviled for lack of harmony, exaggeration and over-mechanical technique. Those deemed to be the most lacking attract the most caustic comments: ‘[o]f the portraits this year’ he complains ‘it would be most charitable to say as little as possible’, that they depict ‘feebly-painted ladies and gentlemen, grinning and attitudinising like so many mountebanks’ (Exhibition 11). This is an echo of Collins’ attitude to the work of Lawrence already noted, reinforced when Dick informs Frank of what is required in portraiture to make a living: he says, ‘“[d]rawing is of no consequence; painting is of no consequence; perspective is of no consequence; ideas are of no consequence. Everything is of no consequence, except catching a likeness and flattering your sitter”’ (Rogue 29). So much so, that Collins claims in the review ‘how preferable are the daguerreotypes in the shop-windows! – they show us, at least, what the dignity and simplicity of nature really are’ (Exhibition 12).

Of particular relevance for the satire in A Rogue’s Life on art, the art market and forgery are the points Collins makes about the use of certain colours, notably yellow and brown (recalling the dread gravy soup, of course). Throughout the review, Collins criticises any tendency to darkness in colour, such as in his response to Family Worship by Mr. Johnson. Collins describes this painting as ‘the old story’, in that ‘the family party are all trying to look pious; and the effect of colour is of the usual “dim, religious” treacle-brown hue, which seems to be a staple commodity of all domestic-devotional pictures of this class’ (Exhibition 8). Linnell’s Woodlands is ‘too uniformly yellow and brown’ (Exhibition 11), Sir John Pakenham is warned to ‘beware of a tendency to dinginess and blackness’ (12) and Redgrave’s Flight into Egypt is condemned for being ‘one of those commonplace attempts to be solemn by dint of dingy blue, yellow and brown’ (6). Even Collins’ friend Augustus Egg is admonished for ‘a little tendency to yellowness in parts’ (Exhibition 7).

What A Rogue’s Life enables Collins to do is to rework his concerns about the inappropriate use of colour into the way he explores this as itself enabling forgery and misunderstanding of art. Dick tells Frank to ‘mind you are dirty and dark enough. You have heard a great deal about the light and shade of Rembrandt – remember always that, in your case, light means dusky yellow, and shade means dense black’ (Rogue 51). ‘The Burgomaster’s Breakfast’ is painted in ‘different shades of dirty brown and black’ with ‘a ray of yellow light falling upon the wrinkled face of a treacle-coloured old man’, (Rogue 53), a repetition of the point made about Johnson’s painting in the review. In his application of colour, the only difference for ‘A Burgomaster’s Wife’ is that Frank simply exchanges his previous palate of black and yellow for one of black and red.

As Frank, Collins points out that ‘trees were green in nature, and brown in the Old Masters, with ‘the latter colour not an improvement on the former’ (Rogue 46). It is not that Collins dislikes colour, since he declares in the review that ‘we look in vain for the simple arrangement and grand colour of our early school’ (Exhibition 11), but he means here the works of the early Pre-Raphaelites, by which ‘our foreign visitors may well learn to appreciate the excellence, the originality, and the cheering onward of English Art’ (3). He claims that ‘our greatest painters have vindicated their greatness nobly; and their younger brethren, the rising men of the profession, have, with few exceptions, made a marked advance towards a higher degree of excellence than they have hitherto reached’ (Exhibition 3). Indeed much of the language that Collins uses recalls directly the terms used by the Pre-Raphaelites themselves about their art such as the ideas of ‘the truth of Nature’ (Exhibition 4) and ‘purity and truth’ (Exhibition 6). Collins wrote to Holman Hunt in 1886 praising him for his use of colour, adding ‘you [Hunt] are nevertheless steadily doing good in teaching the people to see for themselves the difference between true art and false. Such a reform as this in the popular Taste works, as we both know, insensibly on the popular mind, and clears its way slowly through the thousand modern obstructions of conventionality and claptrap.’ (qtd in Andres 72). Such thoughts are an echo of those expressed by Frank/Collins in both the review and in the novel around the stultifying reliance on outmoded traditions.

In setting the novel against the points expressed in the review, it is clear that the unthinking appropriation of subject matter and misunderstanding of original techniques reveals the limitations of an art market that rejects the new in favour of an obsessive and uneducated reliance on the old. A number of pages are dedicated to Collins’ views, expressed via Frank, on the art world of the 1830s. The work of those he calls modern artists then, ‘these martyrs of the brush’ (Rogue 45), was he says condemned to be exhibited away from the public eye because ‘its freshness and brightness damaged it terribly by contrast with the dirtiness and dinginess of its elderly predecessors’ (Rogue 44). There is recognition neither of innovation nor of creativity, but rather new artists were at the mercy of collectors and patrons who ‘in matters of taste, at least, never presumed to think for themselves’ (Rogue 43), since the ‘only points selected for praise were those in which it most nearly resembled the peculiar mannerism of some Old Master, not those in which it resembled the characteristic of the old mistress – Nature’ (Rogue 44). Frank/Collins emphases the difference with the market now, since the more thoughtful and reflexive modern buyer is able to consider ‘little pictures of ugly Dutchwomen scouring pots, and drunken Dutchmen playing cards, dirty and dear at the price’ (Rogue 46), a point that of course returns the reader to Frank’s own grubby, but successful, efforts.

‘The Burgomaster’s Breakfast’ is sold to ‘a venerable connoisseur, blessed with a great fortune and a large picture gallery’ (Rogue 54), but no genuine art knowledge since he ‘was in raptures with the picture – with its tone, with its breadth, with its grand feeling for effect, with its simple treatment of detail. It wanted nothing, in his opinion, but a little cleaning’ (Rogue 54). His buyer ‘had far too high an idea of his own knowledge as a connoisseur to incline to the opinion that he had been taken in’ (Rogue 56). The suspicions of the buyer’s relative, however, forces Frank to counterfeit a cleaning liquid actually intended to erase the painting, and the ‘Amsterdam Cleaning Compound’ ensures that the forgery is ‘dissolved’ without trace. The label of ‘Amsterdam’ of course continues the pretence that the painting might have a genuine provenance.

Malton suggests that the forger has an ‘allure’, and in being ‘the consummate peddler of seductive lies’, emerges as ‘an emblematic, if subversive, figure of social and financial relations in the Victorian period’ (8), much as do Frank and Dulcifer. Stern argues that ‘Fosco blurs the line between criminality and art’ in The Woman in White (129), and so too does Frank, even if he is less the villain of the piece. He may be driven to forgery because of financial need, but he works hard at his creativity. Both Frank and Dulcifer are reminders of Groom’s point about the imposter and the parasite: Frank who is both and yet not an imposter, and Doctor Dulcifer who is more parasite than imposter. But because both of them are rogues, engaged in adventures that should result in appropriate punishment and even death, they evade the expected retribution with some skill. There is no comforting restoration of the moral order, perhaps because as Frank comments, society loves a rogue. If neither Frank nor Dulcifer are properly punished for their transgressions, where does the failure of society lie? Collins suggests that it is in the automatic and unthinking actions of those who are in positions of responsibility that the gap opens to allow the miscreants in, and for them to profit. In The Adventures of Gil Blas, the reader is exhorted both to draw conclusions but that they may well be castigated for attempting to do so. Gil Blas tells his reader a short story about two scholars, noting that ‘if thou perusest my adventures, without perceiving the moral instructions they contain, thou will reap no harvest from thy labour’ (Smollett 9), yet ‘The Author’s Declaration’ states ‘I declare to these mischievous readers, that they will be to blame, if they apply any of the pictures drawn in this book’ (Smollett 7). Where is the reader to go for restorative justice? They are left to make their own choice.

At the start of his narrative Frank comments that ‘I have been, am still, and may continue to be, a Rogue’ (Rogue 1). As he ends his account he claims that he is ‘no longer interesting – I am only respectable like yourselves’ (Rogue 188), suggesting collusion between reader and writer in roguery and imposture, both within and without the text. But as he warned us at the outset, he can return to his old ways. His status is always contingent, not least because as a figure of the modern world, he must always be alive to opportunity, and those who survive best are those who can play the game. He is not respectable, it is a sham, but as A Rogue’s Life makes evident, if the reader learns this lesson, they too may don respectability in the nasty world revealed by the picaresque, and invent and reinvent the exterior as befits their situation.  What the novel indicates too, is that this is both a humorous and serious matter, that there are some frauds, for Collins, more heinous than others.

Collins/Frank sees more hope in the art world now, not least because the artist of new work is alive to vouch for its genuineness and that new buyers are ‘not to be easily imposed upon, for the article they wanted was not easily counterfeited’ (Rogue 46). But he acknowledges that forgery will still continue in some way: ‘The posterity of Mr Pickup still do a tolerable stroke of business (making bright modern masters for the market which is glutted with the dingy old material), and will, probably, continue to thrive and multiply … the one venerable institution of this world we can safely count upon as likely to last, being the institution of human folly’ (Rogue 47). It is ‘the feebly-buttoned pocket of the patron, and the inexhaustible credibility of the connoisseur’ (Rogue 45) that enable the criminal, and it is not to be wondered at that there are rogues in the world.

Works Cited

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Groom, Nick. The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature. Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador, 2002.

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