Reality’s Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins – Tennessee Studies in Literature vol. 41

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Collins’s work, as he famously noted in the Preface to Armadale, “oversteps, in more than one direction, the narrow limits within which [critics] are disposed to restrict the development of modern fiction,” and this new collection of essays aims to move beyond the narrow limits of the “sensation novel” and the time frame of the 1860s, to explore the full range of Collins’s aesthetic project. Reality’s Dark Lightranges from the relationship between Collins’s first “modern” novel Basil and the Pre-Raphaelite movement, to his uneasy relation to emergent forms of publication at the end of his writing career. However, while the editors stress that the volume incorporates a range of critical perspectives (xix), its principle focus is on Collins the subversive challenger of boundaries – both ideological and aesthetic – and on those aspects of his fiction which anticipate, at times uncannily, our own preoccupations with how power relations are undermined from within. Drawing variously on Freud’s own essay on the “The Uncanny” and on postcolonial discussions of hybridity, many of these essays investigate how Collins’s fiction embodies what Jonathan Dollimore (in Sexual Dissidence) has termed the “perverse dynamic,” in which the “other” is absolutely integral to the self, even as it remains trapped within a dominant/subordinate hierarchy. “Transgression” is by no means a new trope in Collins studies, but the forms it takes are explored here in some intriguing ways, particularly in relation to sexuality, disability and race.

In particular, Martha Stoddard Holmes analyzes how Collins breaks with dominant portrayals of various forms of disability, with their taint of degeneration, by refusing to consign his disabled heroines to passive, non- reproductive victimhood. In Hide and SeekThe Moonstone and Poor Miss Finch, she argues, Collins does far more than attempt a naturalistic portrayal of deafness, “crookedness” or blindness; he actively links the heroines’ ostensible handicaps to their position as desiring subjects, “exploring and disrupting cultural conventions of seeing, nonseeing and desire” (75). Rosanna Spearman writes and literally smothers the desire that Rachel may not speak; in Poor Miss Finch it is Lucilla’s blindness that enables her to develop as a sexual subject. Placing Lucilla in the context of contemporary discussions of hereditary transmission, Holmes argues persuasively that it is her normality, as a blind woman given full access to “courtship, marriage and motherhood” (62), that makes her such a radical figure.

While Holmes explores how the boundaries between the normal and the pathological are disrupted by the sexualized and domesticated disabled woman, Piya Pal-Lapinski investigates the intricate interconnections between exoticism and toxicity in the figure of the female poisoner. Reading Armadale and The Legacy of Cain in the context of mid-century medical debates and legal dramas, she offers a seductive interpretation of Lydia Gwilt’s hybridity – of her wandering, nomadic identity and complex textual and ideological position that is manifested in her use of poison as an act of resistance, finally turned, in a gesture of containment, back on herself. In Richard Collins’s discussion of ‘Bearded Ladies, Hermaphrodites and Intersexual Collage’ the perverse dynamic is again much in evidence. Placing Marian’s disturbing moustache against a background of contemporary freak shows and medical studies of hermaphrodites and unclassifiable nondescripts, he argues that it becomes “the focus of all the anomalies and contradictions of the novel” (136). While Marian’s “Medusa-like” visage reflects Walter’s own sexual ambivalence and anxiety, Richard Collins suggests, she also enables him to discover his masculinity and detective prowess. Thus Laura becomes the figure of homosocial exchange between Marian and Walter, even though Marian must be transformed from disturbing hermaphrodite to asexual androgyne to complete this exchange. A comparable process of transformation occurs in Karin Jacobson’s fascinating comparison of the Madeleine Smith trial and The Law and the Lady. Drawing on contemporary legal theory, she argues that both are “weird cases” hinging on the revelation and concealment of letters, that neither can easily be assimilated into legal discourse; and that Valeria, the detective heroine of Collins’s novel, becomes the “mother” of the law who attempts, albeit unsuccessfully, to mediate and control this weirdness. Here Miserrimus Dexter is the liminal figure who conceals and reveals Sara Macallan’s unhappy past and suicide, allowing Sara herself to become the buried abject figure that enables Valeria’s marriage to finally be legitimised.

The essays by Timothy Carens, Lillian Nayder and Audrey Fisch that focus on Collins’s treatment of empire tease out the slipperiness of “race” as a category and the intimate relationship between colony and home, “black” and “white,” domestic self and imperial other. While Carens draws on Freud’s uncanny and Homi Bhabha to focus (somewhat predictably) on The Moonstone, and Audrey Fisch extends this deconstruction of racial binaries to Miss or Mrs?Black and WhiteThe Guilty River and Armadale, Lillian Nayder argues that Collins moves through the more obvious representations of slavery and empire to explore how ‘race’ is constructed as an arbitrary category in Poor Miss Finch. Comparing Oscar Dubourg’s sudden transformation into a “blue man” (a term, she shows, then imbued with connotations of “misceganation”) with John Howard Griffith’s sensational expose of Southern racism in the 1960s Black Like Me, she offers an extremely thought-provoking analysis of how Collins denaturalises racial prejudice and “effectively pathologises the racist norm” (274).

I found many of these essays fascinating. But while they demonstrate that the very hybridity that caused Collins to be marginalized in the past is what speaks most clearly to us now, there is a danger that this too, can become a new kind of narrow limit, where Collins speaks against a monolithic “Victorian ideology” rather than enaging with its contradictions and complexities. Such overdetermined reading is paradoxically both challenged and taken to its logical conclusion in Albert D. Hutter’s wonderfully quirky reading of Fosco’s real fate in The Woman in White. Opening by exploring Fosco’s roots in Italian nationalist politics, he turns to the text and to the possibilities it opens for the reader to construct alternative endings. Fosco himself must have written his biography, therefore it could not have been his own body in the Paris morgue, he suggests: might the shape-shifting master of disguise, capable of the doubling and substitution of Laura Fairlie, have created his own body-double to evade the Brotherhood’s revenge? Surveying the theme of resurrection across Dickens and Collins, Hutter concludes with a suggestive discussion of the therapeutic possibilities inherent in the act of reading itself.

As Bachman and Cox emphasise in their introduction, Collins always in some sense saw himself as a realist in the complex sense of that term as being both rooted in and “beyond” sense experience. But his practice was also shaped by his aesthetic and economic contexts, and the first and last of these essays illuminate how he moved across and between different cultural circles as a bohemian artist and a commercial writer at the different stages of his career. Tim Dolin and Lucy Dougan unpick how closely Basil corresponds to and extends the Pre-Raphaelites’ ambivalence towards modernity; while Graham Law offers a nuanced discussion of the connections between the form of Collins’s late narratives and the expanding national and international literary market place that he both depended on and at some level despised. Law’s analysis of Collins’s uneasy position in late nineteenth century publishing practices offers a useful corrective to those who want to read him, always, as a dangerous radical, and Reality’s Dark Light still leaves much to explore in Collins’s oeuvre. But it is great to have this new collection, which will help place Collins, perverse or not, at the centre of the dynamics of Victorian culture.