Materiality – Introduction: “Hosts of odd, old-fashioned things”

Wilkie Collins Journal


Introduction: “Hosts of odd, old-fashioned things”

Kym Brindle

The Victorians are justifiably famous as collectors of objects. From ornaments, portraits, and furnishings to ferns, shells, minerals, butterflies, and more curious items like scientific instruments and taxidermy specimens: all manner of eclectic objects furnished the nineteenth-century bourgeoise home. As Jacqueline Yallop explains, during the mid-Victorian period “a trend for highly decorated parlours, stuffed with all kinds of pictures, statues and objects, became endemic: showing off a collection of curios sent out messages about social status” (26). Reflecting a trend for immersion in ‘things’, nineteenth-century fiction is a rich cabinet of material curiosities that proves representative of the mid-Victorian social landscape. This special issue of the Wilkie Collins Journal explores materiality and entanglements between object and subject in the fiction of Collins and his contemporaries, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Charlotte Brontë. Four essays examine the ways in which identity is articulated through forms of material culture. Contributors consider the significance of clocks and pocket watches, hairwork, Lady Audley’s accessories, and the connections that can be made between material objects and physiognomy effectively illustrating Ian Woodward’s point that the “performance of any identity […] relies on particular engagements with, and presentation of, objects” (152). In plots driven to solve family mysteries, sensational stories are told with things, and things always tell stories.

Rooms oppressively overstuffed with furniture and ornament are ubiquitous in Collins’s work, as seen, for example, in his fourth novel Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1852):

Everything was oppressively new. […]. The print of the Queen, hanging lonely on the wall, in its heavy gilt frame, with a large crown at the top, glared on you: the paper, the curtains, the carpet, glared on you: the books, the wax-flowers in glass-cases, the chairs in flaring chintz-covers, the china-plates on the door, the blue and pink glass vases and cups ranged on the chimney-piece, the over-ornamented chiffoniers with Tonbridge toys and long-necked smelling bottles on their uppers shelves, glared on you. (53)

As second son of “one of the most ancient” families in the country, Basil arrives as prospective suitor at the home of “a linen-draper’s daughter!” (33). He finds such fierce over-furnishing distasteful and intimidating and reacts with physical recoil: “the room would have given a nervous man the headache, before he had been in it a quarter of an hour” (54). Extravagant “new” things reinforce a “glaring” lack of cultural capital for the Sherwin family. The folly of the ‘wrong’ furnishings exposes “social prejudice” so powerful as to be “a principle – nay, more, a religion” (39) for Basil, son of a gentleman.  Reading materiality in this way contextualises the curiosities and clutter of the Victorians to support leading critical debates about sensation fiction’s concern with anxieties and divisions in nineteenth-century life.[1]

Collins’s expansive descriptions of personal possessions and interiors exemplify the profusion of objects that surrounded the Victorians in everyday life. We are arguably just as surrounded by ‘stuff’ in today’s commodity culture as the Victorians were, and our accumulated personal possessions mark us as consumers both individually and collectively.[2] But modern consumerism began with the Victorians and their reputation as obsessive collectors of furnishings and artefacts amassed and displayed from colonial enterprise is richly deserved. The celebratory eclectic spectacle of The Great Exhibition of 1851, with its twenty-eight thousand exhibitors from thirty-six countries and specially erected building in South Kensington, London was, as Yallop points out, “a symbol of mid-Victorian aspiration, manufacturing success and consumer confidence” (9). The spirit of accumulation and display is reflected within fiction and particularly notable during the mid-century when sensation fiction was at the height of its popularity. However, it is perhaps less the accumulation of objects that intrigues readers today, and more the embedded small items that focus the storyline and draw attention. Indeed, Diane Freedgood points out that: “the mid-Victorian novel is a particularly rich site for tracing the fugitive meanings of apparently nonsymbolic objects” (4). Small things – those “apparently nonsymbolic objects” – caught-up in descriptive material excess capture contemporary imaginations to develop our understanding of the Victorians and their world.

Small items of personal property can, for instance, be idiosyncratic markers of character, as evident for “that strange man” (219), Count Fosco, in The Woman in White (1860). “Master of everything” (248), the Count has a range of pet creatures: “a cockatoo, two canary-birds and a whole family of white mice” (219); his “little feathered children” (270) either crawl all over him or are kept captive in cages of his own design. Fluent and sophisticated, Fosco disguises plotting and villainy with delicate gifts of “bonbons” stored in “a pretty little inlaid box” (234) and handed round in polite company with an ingratiating smile. Hence, with contradictory material trappings, the Count takes shape as a man of puzzling ambiguities. Pet creatures, sweetmeats, and “magnificent waistcoats” (221) contrast with wily scheming to symbolise “the singular inconsistencies of [Fosco’s] character” (221). Woodward’s argument that “of course it is possible to picture the person without the object, but in thinking about [them], the person and the object go together (152; original emphasis), is apt for Fosco, whose large presence is metonymically fleshed-out with eccentric material trappings.

Material things go beyond shaping individual fictional characters, however. Objects taken for granted by the Victorians can represent the age more broadly for contemporary readings, with the everyday material infrastructure of nineteenth-century life taking on different meanings today. Indeed, Bill Brown suggested in his influential 2001 essay “Thing Theory” that things that were unremarkable to the Victorians can appear anachronistic and fascinating today. As Brown points out, “if things are what we encounter then a contemporary encounter with Victorian things will be quite different than their original impact” (5). Moreover, Brown acknowledges that Walter Benjamin earlier recognised that “the gap between the function of objects and the desires congealed there became clear only when those objects became outmoded” (13). A good example of this is paper. The Victorians took pen and ink and paper for granted, but this is significantly altering in our own, increasingly digital world. For contemporary readers, material production of writing practices, with postal conventions, and accoutrements of writing – bureaus, writing-cases, ink, and pen wipers has become increasingly outmoded. The extravagant materiality of paper and primary importance of putting pen to paper is consequently an appealing aspect of an increasingly anachronistic past for contemporary readers who reconstruct a world through language and imagination.

For fiction so closely reliant on epistolary formats for secrecy and disclosure, paper is unsurprisingly richly described in material terms in Collins’s novels. From routine letter-writing – “Give me pen, ink and paper!” cries Allan Armadale (Armadale 288), to more diverse descriptions of paper: wills, music books, note-books,  journals, diaries, railway timetables, tissue paper, paper with mourning borders, printed bills, paper parcels, and waste paper inadvertently discarded to bring about miscarriages of justice. Certificates of all kinds regularly appear and are important for resolving mysteries of birth, marriage, and death, and philosophy of character is even likened to paper: “we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper upon which can be written a disposition shaped by social influences” (No Name 63). Asa Briggs devotes a chapter to the subject of paper in his well-known study, Victorian Things, suggesting that “paper was so important that the Victorians themselves described their era as ‘an age of paper’” (22). This idea is central to Collins’s novels.

Desire provoked by outmoded objects is also a fundamental idea within Collins’s fiction. Objects marked with material evidence of long-time help answer questions asked of the past. For instance, heading for the abandoned “north rooms” (279) of Porthgenna Tower, Rosamond Treverton pursues a trail of discovery in The Dead Secret (1857) and eagerly observes “only think of the hosts of odd, old-fashioned things that we may find in these uninhabited rooms” (121). Decay in this Gothic space is represented with red wallpaper atmospherically rustling in “the dingy ruin of the scene” (265) to break the long silence of the past through material circumstance of discovery. The usual truncated trail of red herrings, obfuscation, anticipatory delay, followed by yet more delay culminates in discovery of a tiny piece of paper “folded up so small […] and hidden in such an unlikely place” (220). To get to this letter (hidden in a portrait frame), various characters negotiate a confusion of disused, broken, and obscure objects in a classic Gothic setting of decay and ruin. A performance of revelation unpeels layers and layers of paper before Sarah Leeson’s letter is found to reveal the long-held “secret of the Myrtle Room” (286). In this novel, as in so many of Collins’s works, characters ask a key question: “what precious things lie hidden in this paper?” (280).

The materiality of secrecy means that the most humble scrap of paper is never random; in fact, the scraps of paper – the oft mentioned ‘slips’ and ‘morsels’, tend to be the most important documents. The term ‘morsel’ is associated with food and appetite and suggestive of a very small amount of something that is often perceived to be especially desirable and scraps of paper are certainly prized in Collins’s novels. From the “morsel of note paper, carefully folded into the smallest possible compass” placed in Noel Vanstone’s hand, with strict instructions for secrecy, because “that morsel of paper gives you a fortune” (No Name 276), to Miss Milroy’s chance find in Armadale: ‘she discovered a morsel of paper hidden between the leaves of the blotting-book” (155) or, similarly, in The Fallen Leaves (1879), where “a morsel of paper was pinned to the prescription, containing some lines in a woman’s handwriting” (286). For Collins, the bigger the secret then apparently the smaller the piece of paper, and the greater profusion of objects that must be waded through to get to the morsel that matters.[3]

Clues traced on fragile paper or symbolically embedded within other objects reveal messages that have been lost, hidden, and disguised. Secrecy and transgression therefore find material expression in jumbled objects, which aid (or hinder) laborious trials and tribulations for investigators. Detection processes must consequently uncover layer upon material layer as, unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s famous “Purloined Letter” (1844), missing missives in Collins’s novels are rarely in plain sight. In The Law and the Lady (1875), for example, a valuable clue to the mystery of Valerie Brinton’s husband’s mysterious past is buried in no less than a ten-page description of objects and furnishings in Major Fitz-David’s home. A chest of drawers stuffed full of random objects is just one item that is listed in minute material detail:

The fifth drawer was in sad confusion. I took out first a loose bundle of ornamental cards, […] a box full of delicately tinted quill pens (evidently a lady’s gift); next, a quantity of old invitation cards; next, some dog’s eared French plays and books of the opera; next, a pocket-corkscrew, a bundle of cigarettes, and a bunch of rusty keys; lastly a passport, a set of luggage labels, a broken silver snuff-box, two cigar-cases, and a torn map of Rome. “Nothing anywhere to interest me” I thought, as I closed the fifth, and opened the sixth and last drawer. (71)

The previous four drawers had a clutter of contents listed in similar detail, but the sixth and last drawer contains fragments of a broken vase that proves a valuable clue to the mystery. In this way, the materiality – the ‘thingness’ of Collins’s writing colludes with ideas of excess as a leading characteristic of Gothic fiction. A saturation of things demands a process of reordering of disorder – a sorting through, selection, and discarding of clutter and red-herrings. Martin Swales asks “which bits of matter matter? When does a fact become a clue? The answer may be relatively obvious when a dead body is suddenly discovered. But other clues are hidden within the teeming profusion of everyday materiality” (xiv).  For those in the grip of “detective fever” (Moonstone 303) any object however trivial or random may be seized upon as a clue and collecting and ordering is necessary for problem solving.

Everyday objects therefore embed revelatory material qualities that are essential for sensation “novels with a secret” (Tillotson ix-xxvi). Swales further suggests that “central to the logic of the detective genre is an idea that profusion must yield to textual coherence. The interplay of opaqueness and intelligibility is […] at the dialectical heart of the detective story” (xiv). In fiction focused on solving mysteries, the social function of objects and aesthetic decoration, together with embedded material signs of age can supply clues to character, motive, and theme. Joanna Sofaer suggests that two approaches to materiality “what one might broadly categorise as the aesthetic and the social – are not necessarily mutually exclusive” (3). This issue therefore explores intersections between the aesthetics, social implications, and cultural consequences of material things for sensation culture.

The first essay in this special issue, entitled “‘Pondering on that little circle of plaited hair”: Hairwork, Materiality, and Identity in Wilkie Collins’s Hide and Seek (1854)” by Heather Hind, is an examination of the materiality of hairwork as a means of identification and encoding of identity. Hind argues that both speculation and uncertainty are introduced by the form the object takes, which can be recognized as “a bodily fragment, a trace” for unravelling identities. This idea is further explored in the second article, “As Plain as Print”: Physiognomy, Clothing and Written Texts in the Sensation Novel of the 1860s”, as Sarah Lennox focusses her analysis on Collins’s The Woman in White and Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Henry Dunbar (1864).  Lennox considers socially-constructed identity with a radical critique of physiognomy. She examines the ways in which clothing in Henry Dunbar organizes the appearance of a gentleman, and further considers material objects as markers of artificiality. One example is Lady Audley’s hatbox, which has a peeling label that Lennox argues serves as “a metonymic replacement for Lady Audley’s body”. The materiality of a name in print also contributes to incarcerating Laura Fairlie in an asylum in The Woman in White.

The third essay by Hannah-Freya Blake is entitled ‘“Stupid Clocks and Pocket-Watches: Defunct Time-Pieces in Lady Audley’s Secret and The Woman in White”. Blake considers the broken clock tower of Audley Court as symbolic of Robert Audley’s character and development of “manliness”. She develops further argument for the material significance of ornamental pocket watches and their contribution to presenting deceiving identities. Blake explains that the three central duplicitous characters in Collins’s mystery own distinctive pocket watches and, in diverse material ways, their time-pieces come to symbolise the fraudulence of their characters. Moving from fraud to morality, the fourth and final essay considers materiality and character construction in Jane Eyre (1847). In “Styling the Self: Exploring Identity Formation through Clothing in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre” (1847), Jessica Banner examines the relationship between bodies, clothes and morality extending the logic of Victorian excess to female dress clothing and accessories as markers of class and individual identity to consider the “language of clothing for women’s social roles”. Banner suggests that dress is a powerful indicator of moral strength and it organises a space to delineate Jane from other women in the novel. Collectively the four essays in this special edition examine diverse aspects of material things in the works of Collins and his contemporaries to consider the presence and function of objects and their aesthetic and cultural performance in nineteenth-century fiction.


Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. (ed.). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audleys Secret. Wordsworth, 1997 [1862].

——. Henry Dunbar. Victorian Secrets, 2010 [1864].

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Things. Penguin, 1988.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin, 2010.

Brown, Bill. ‘Thing Theory’. Critical Inquiry, vol.28, no 1, Autumn 2014, pp. 1-22.

Swales, Martin’. ‘Introduction’, The Art of Detective Fiction. Eds. Warren Chernaik, Martin Swales, and Robert Vilain. Palgrave, 2000.

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. Penguin, 2004 [1864-66].

——. Basil: The Story of Modern Life. Oxford University Press, 2008 [1852].

——. Fallen Leaves. Wildside Press, 2004 [1879].

——. Hide and Seek. Oxford University Press, 2009 [1854]

——. No Name. Penguin, 2003 [1860].

——. The Dead Secret. Oxford University Press, 2008 [1857].

——. The Law and the Lady. Penguin, 1998 [1875].

——. The Moonstone. Oxford University Press, 1999 [1868].

——. The Woman in White. Penguin, 2003 [1860].

Fazli, Sabina. Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementoes in Wilkie Collins’s Fiction. Universitätsverlag, 2019.

Freedgood, Diane. The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. University of Chicago Press. 2006.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Purloined Letter”, in Tales of Mystery and Imagination. CRW Publishing, 2003 [1844].

Sofaer, Joanna. Material Identities. Blackwell, 2008.

Tillotson, Kathleen. “The Lighter Reading of the Eighteen-sixties”, Introduction, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Penguin, 1969.

Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. MIT Press, 1992.

Woodward, Ian. Understanding Material Culture. Sage. 2007.

Yallop, Jacqueline. Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World. Atlantic Books, 2011.



[1] Sabina Fazli’s recently published timely study entitled Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementos in Wilkie Collins’s Fiction (2019) looks at memory and the material turn in Victorian studies to examine keepsakes and souvenirs and the ways in which material objects are entwined with events and biographies.

[2] For an examination of the ways in which things are used and circulated in social and cultural settings, see Arjun Appadurai (ed.). The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

[3] “Morselation” a term adopted by Anthony Vidler in his work The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (1992) can be usefully adapted here to explain the fragmentation and fetishization of lost objects of desire (78).


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