Resurfacing Collins’s Basil

Jun 13, 2013 | Articles

The cinema, then, aims at transforming the agitated witness into a conscious observer. Nothing could be more legitimate than its lack of inhibitions in picturing spectacles which upset the mind. Thus it keeps us from shutting our eyes to the “blind drive of things.” Sigfried Kracauer, Theory of Film

Why are film directors and audiences attracted to historical subjects, “costume pictures,” and Victorian topics in particular? What leads talented directors and actors to take part in recent films like The Governess (1998, dir. Sandra Goldbacher), Angels and Insects (1995, dir. Philip Haas), Wilde (1998, dir. Philip Gilbert), or even Mary Reilly (1996, dir. Stephen Frears), where Julia Roberts plays the housemaid to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Clearly our Victorians are not the same as the Victorians of D.W. Griffith (with one foot in the period itself) or David Lean (whose adaptations of Dickens are still among the finest we have). Like earlier generations, no doubt, we are attracted to Victorian costume and manners for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do perhaps with cultural capital—the notion that we are taking part in “classic” culture, yet with a knowing, condescending look. Hence our satisfaction may be double and even contradictory, as we take pleasure in the sumptuous households and dresses, while at the same time we resist, nowadays, class- and gender-bias from our more and more enlightened perspective. One of our most recent and complex enlightenments, of course, is shown in sexual terms; and movies will show us the sex that Victorians would not—both for the sake of honesty (as in Wilde) and, no doubt, for the sake of titillation (as in the recent updated version of Great Expectations, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke [1997, dir. Alfonso Cuarón]). Many contemporary films make more than offhand use of sexual visibility as a way not just to satisfy expectations of the male consumerist gaze, but to contrast, often thoughtfully and pointedly, the openness of our own age with the repressiveness of theirs. ((In discussing The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles says, “Magnificent though the Victorian novelists were, they almost all (an exception, of course, is the later Hardy) failed miserably in one aspect: nowhere in ‘respectable’ Victorian literature does one see a man and a woman described together in bed” (Fowles, 17). This aspect, then, is remedied in both the novel and in the film scripted by Harold Pinter (1981, dir. Karel Reisz). On this point see also Morgentaler’s discussion of recent films on Victorian topics, and her comments on the particular problem of updating Victorian sexualities.))

Recent critical trends in various disciplines have described, on the one hand, the response to modernity in the nineteenth century, and on the other, the turn towards nostalgia and tradition at the end of the twentieth century. The moment when the nineteenth century turns pre-cinematic, mobilized perhaps by Baudelaire’s figure of the flâneur, is interestingly related to the moment when the late twentieth-century cult of the simulacrum reacts to the onslaught of visual phantasmagoria and disorientation, and stages a retreat towards the perceived stability of the past, and the Victorian past in particular. ((On the nineteenth century and modernity, see Friedberg, and Crary. Important critical works that take on institutionalized nostalgia and commodified memory in Britain are Wright, and Samuel.)) Wilkie Collins’s novel Basil (1852) and its recent film version (1998, dir. Radja Bharadwaj) provides an excellent opportunity to study this double junction: the Victorian confrontation with the modern, and the modern desire for the Victorian. ((The film I discuss throughout is that recently released on video by Kushner-Locke (1998). The film was never released in theaters; so except for a few showings at film festivals and on AMC Romance Classics, the work is “Straight-to-Video.” In the course of making the movie, there seems to have been substantial disputes between financial executives and the director (and also Christian Slater, one of the producers). The dispute is chronicled briefly by Andrew Hindes in the trade journal Daily Variety (13 Jul 1998). Piers Handling, the director of the Toronto International Film Festival, invited Basil to be shown there in 1998 (“We were impressed by its innovativeness, emotion, and beautiful performances”), but the Kushner- Locke company would not release its version. One of the conflicts, according to director Bharadwaj, was that chief executive Locke wanted more scenes of female nudity in the film; but she refused, and later attempted to remove her name from the film. So what I have to say about the video release applies, obviously, to that version; it may well be that “the director’s cut” would look rather different. Scouring through my various electronic resources, other than basic promotions and cast lists, I see very little other information available on this film.)) A description of the relationship between Victorian modernity and contemporary Victorianism is the goal towards which this essay travels.

But before reaching that goal, this discussion will have a more humble, practical purpose as well. For holding up even rather free adaptations (such as The Scarlet Letter [1995, dir. Roland Joffe]) to their source may help us to understand more completely what the original was about all along. Basil as a film is clearly not as successful as The Governess or Wilde, but neither it is not incompetent; the cast includes well-known and more than just good- looking players, such as Derek Jacobi as Basil’s father, Jared Leto as Basil, Claire Forlani as Julia Sherwin (Margaret in Collins), and Christian Slater as John Mannion. Just as Walter Benjamin claimed that we could find a wealth of meaning in a simple shop window, I would suggest that there are lessons to be learned even from theater that is not a masterpiece, and from its relation to an early Collins novel that, for what it does, is rather better than its reputation.

Key characters and aspects of the plot remain, but Bharadwaj has determinedly made a much less “sensational,” excessive Basil. One of the glories of Collins’s novel for fans, no doubt, is the way it conducts its various over-the-top frenzies among resolutely domestic settings (calling out perhaps towards directors like Roger Corman or Ken Russell); yet this film’s atmosphere is brooding, clean, and calm. Although we must know that Collins’s labyrinthine plots are not signs of incompetence, but basic to his created world, the film reins in the more “unbelievable” and “ridiculous” aspects of plot and character. Still, the exigencies of cinematic time-scale—the quasi-Aristotelian rule that everything must be over in about 120 minutes of spectator time—often require adaptations to sacrifice some thickness and complexity, and so we might take the simplifications to be pragmatic rather than disloyal.

Although we might indeed wonder why someone would choose such a relentlessly frenzied text and then proceed, rather methodically, to vacuum out the frenzy, there’s arguably more at the heart of Basil than nerves, and the film proves this by providing recurrently compelling “readings” of the book, now developed in far less panicky style. Where we might have expected jittery hand-held cameras or a camera rushing up out of darkness towards sudden light, in order to convey hypersensitive palpitation, here we have what might be termed “cool gothic,” slow pans and clean lighting. Are the younger actors themselves too cool to emote, to tremble? Not necessarily, for their less melodramatic playing may still capture the obsessiveness and monomaniacal patience of these characters. Bharadwaj reads Collins’s novel as a vicious circle, or triangle: the obsessive love of Basil for Julia (Margaret), the obsessive love of Julia for Mannion, and the obsessive hate of Mannion for Basil’s father (Julia calls it a “terrible circle”; Mannion says that “hate is but love’s twin”). Fatalistic drive is the keynote, rather than sublime, domestic horror. This “reading” usefully serves to underscore the strains in Collins that afterwards lead to Hardy, in contrast to the monstrous and Piranesian effects that descend to him from Mary Shelley and Thomas De Quincey.

The film version, implicitly and resourcefully, argues that the improbable, labyrinthine twists in Collins’s plot ultimately mask over, or reduce to, repetition and doubling. At first glance, it may appear that the whole budget has gone to pay off Christian Slater, since the interior of Basil’s family mansion consists, for the purposes of filming, almost entirely of the main staircase. ((Stairways are often used in classical cinema to reflect the strange twists and turns of anxious and psychotic minds. See Ryall, 44-45, on the use of stairs in an early Hitchcock film, with further references to German Expressionist cinema. The use of the stairway in Basil is obsessively repetitive, but far fromnoir.)) The film continues to return to the staircase, its red carpet and coats of arms: here the children watch as families pass through on a tour of their state, here both child and Oxford undergraduate Basil stumble at the foot of the stairs (in a rhyme underscored each time by the maidservant’s identical remark), and here finally Basil chases Mannion downstairs, out of the bedroom, and out of the house for a climactic dash to the ocean cliffs. Just so, there are drapes everywhere, not just around windows and beds, but framing the edges of the screen, and hung repeatedly down hallways. The plot goes this way and that, but the sets tend to collapse into themselves. The sets remind us that the plot is not progressing, but rather spiralling or repeating. A particularly effective set doubling occurs in Julia’s “apartment.” On the way in, we see with Basil a picture of Windemeer Hall (which later we learn was drawn by Ralph’s pregnant lover in a nostalgic moment; she later kills herself by aborting the child in a scene as violent and more shocking than the notorious beating of Mannion). What we see inside the apartment itself, then, once through the door, is again all staircase; but this time it looks like the outside steps to the family mansion have been re-built inside as a kind of garden. This is where Basil first finds Julia, languorously sitting about with her (emblematically) caged birds. ((Birdcages have a consistent iconography in nineteenth-century fiction, and are here drawn directly from the novel (Collins, 37).))

As the camera travels slowly up Julia’s strange staircase, we brush past white leafy fronds and also peacock feathers: the eyes on the feathers meet our gaze. The film thematically foregrounds seeing, which is not only a self-reflexiveness common to movies, but also, once again, an interesting reading of the psychology of sensation. The film’s narrative is structured far more linearly than the book, so we spend the opening fifteen minutes with the child Basil, as if this might be a recognizable Victorian Bildungsroman, such as Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre. But there really isn’t any development, since the logic of the film is that Basil always will be what he has seen. We see what the quiet, round-faced boy sees: his father, on the balcony, washing his hands of brother Ralph; his father kissing a woman beneath a tree (his mother tells Basil, “You did not see what you saw”). ((Our sympathy for Basil is much manipulated in the film, by having the father commit adultery, and before his son’s very eyes. Thus the father’s transgressions are seen as descending to his son (Jacobi gives a speech to this effect towards the end), and his paternal admonishments (outlandishly prideful in Collins) are now transparently hypocritical.)) These are contradictory primal scenes: the father’s expression of sexual passion, and the squelching of a brother’s passion by paternal authority. The convolutions of Basil’s adult life will always be framed by these origins. Later on the obsessive hatred of John Mannion is explained by this same visual logic; what little John Mannion sees (we watch this ourselves in a flashback) is his dead sister in a pool of blood— sexuality and passion crushed once again.

The sensation novel fires the body’s nerves, no doubt, but the sensation novel, Basil, begins and ends, psychologically and structurally, in the eye— focused upon the gaze, upon looking. The movie helps us to see this even more clearly. In the novel, the emblematic pair before Basil’s rapt attention (“the faculties of observation are generally sharpened, in proportion as the faculties of reflection are dulled, under the influence of an absorbing suspense” [192]) is Margaret and Mr. Mannion—all absorbing Beauty and mask-like Mystery. After his face is destroyed, Mannion underlines the symmetry for Basil: “My deformed face and her fatal beauty shall hunt you through the world” (251). It is true that narrative crises often cross over sense boundaries, as when Basil touches Margaret while riding the bus (“But how the sense of that touch was prolonged!” [29]), or when, above all, Basil hears Margaret and Mannion in the next hotel room together (“I listened; and through the thin partition, I heard voices—her voice, and his voice” [160]). But for the most part Basil’s suspenseful world depends on acuity and sensitivity of sight. Thus he introduces his father: “It was that quiet, negative, courteous, inbred pride, which only the closest observation could detect; which no ordinary observation ever detected at all” (5). Basil falls into obsessive love at first sight with Margaret on the bus; apparently his bus-riding is both habitual and characteristic:

I had often before ridden in omnibuses to amuse myself by observing the passengers. An omnibus has always appeared to me, to be a perambulatory exhibition-room of the eccentricities of human nature. . . To watch merely the different methods of getting into the vehicle, and taking their seats, adopted by different people, is to study no incomplete commentary on the infinitesimal varieties of human character—as various even as the varieties of the human face. (Collins, 27) ((There are similar passages (put to different uses) in Charles Dickens, “Omnibuses,” in Sketches by Boz(1839).))

Basil begins voyeuristically, but soon finds himself in flames of love. Margaret lifts her veil, and Basil rapturously describes her face: “My powers of observation, hitherto active enough, had now wholly deserted me.” His eyes draw him powerfully towards her youth and beauty, but it is a stunned vision: “Those were the days when I lived happy and unreflecting in the broad sunshine of joy which love showered around me—my eyes were dazzled; my mind lay asleep under it” (108).

Vision is, then, the sense above all others in this sensation novel, but it is always a dazzled, half-blinded sight. The catastrophic imagery of Basil follows the same archetypal, repetitive logic as Oedipus the King. ((In Basil’s ‘Letter of Dedication,’ Collins writes that certain elements ‘add to tragedy’ (Collins, xxxvi). A contemporary reviewer notes that ‘The fatality of the Greek tragedians broods over the drama’ (Page, 46). )) First Oedipus can literally see, but he is blind to his circumstances, then Oedipus blinds himself, to ward off the burning light of truth. The blind prophet Teiresias emblematically rules this play. Thus even though Sophocles’ drama provides the perfect example for an Aristotelian fall of total ruin and reversal, the conviction remains that Oedipus is the same on both sides, that there is no difference. The play is about, precisely, reduction and collapse: the three roads that meet at the killing of Laius, the clues that cause relentless Oedipus to discover himself as the murderer, and above all, Jocasta’s womb, where Oedipus both emerges and returns.

Like Teiresias, who according to myth turned between female and male, Mannion’s crushed face might be taken as the visual counterpart to Basil’s mixed, repetitive logic. In the brutal attack Mannion loses the sight in one eye; then Basil begins narrating Part III (the book’s halfway point, in fact, following on his realization of the truth) : “when the blind are operated on for the restoration of sight, the same succouring hand which has opened to them the visible world, immediately shuts out the bright prospect for a time” (168). Even though there may appear to be an absolute change between Basil’s hope for wedded bliss and the horrors of shame that come upon him afterwards, in a substantial sense Basil’s head swamps with the same frenzies both before and after the hotel room revelation. The palpitations and tremblings of Basil’s secretive, loving lust feel a lot like those generated later by shame and fear. Basil is all trembling—trembling under a dozen different names. Both before and after recognition, then, blindness and insight are all mixed up. The only clarity, as we shall see, resides in Basil’s perfect sister, Clara.

This veiled, half-blinded, repetitive visuality so characteristic of Basil is represented most completely by the plot of Mannion’s face: both before and afterwards his face is a mask. Although he may appear entirely different at the beginning and at the end—trusted secretary vs. outcast monster—in fact his face is equally impenetrable either way, and in each case hides bloodthirsty revenge. At their first meeting, Basil thus describes Mannion: “the calm, the dead-calm face of the man beside me—without one human emotion of any kind even faintly pictured on it—I felt strange unutterable sensations creeping over me” (122); and Basil will expend much effort staring on Mannion, attempting to see past that stony exterior. Later, the monstrous disfiguring is simply a different version of the same mask, and although horrible, it does not stop Mannion from continuing to carry out conspiracies and revenge. Mr. Turner, as Mannion is later called, has really not turned away from his original, angry man. 

While recalling one of Basil’s spectacular nightmares, where “fiend-souls [are] made visible in fiend-shapes” (124), Dorothy Goldman reads Mannion’s monstrous appearance as a Victorian version of Spenser’s Redcrosse unveiling Duessa: “Basil has exposed the inner man” (in Introduction to Collins, vii). Yet are we to think that Mannion is a monster? More monstrous than Basil? Are Mannion’s justifications entirely monomaniacal delusions and madness? For we see Basil too behave in sudden, bizarre, extreme ways; we see him, in his turn, obsessively lie, wait, and conspire; we see him take justice into his own hands, decide on homicide, and then premeditate brutal maiming. The film version of Basil makes all kinds of effort to gain back our sympathy for Basil, which reminds us, after all, how unsympathetic the book’s “hero” really is. Mannion’s story, perhaps, is not as sympathetic as the one told by Frankenstein’s monster but in the exaggerated terms of Collins novel, its outrageous fervor should not blind us to Basil’s own duplicity and cruelty.

Basil and Mannion are inextricably linked, in the logic of the novel and in our judgment. As Lillian Nayder (33) and Tamar Heller (76) point out, they are doubles, who have lived similar careers as writers, and have been overwhelmingly influenced by their fathers. In a famous essay, Paul de Man discusses the exchanges between autobiography and defacement, noting that the “figures of deprivation, maimed men, drowned corpses, blind beggars, children about to die, that appear throughout The Prelude are figures of Wordsworth’s own poetic self” (de Man, 73). Basil’s “autobiography” (for such he calls his prose in Letter III, “From the Writer of the foregoing autobiography” [337]) of obsession and deceit depends on the disfiguring of Mannion to reveal his own guilt, his own loss. After attempting to elude his father’s proud, surveillant gaze for the first half of the book, it is no wonder, and indeed almost reasonable, that Mannion’s gaze haunts him for the second half. Mannion’s monstrous mask does not reveal his own inner, evil soul, so much as justifiably linger over all who try to keep foul secrets. Thus Margaret also bewails: “Water! Water! drown me in the sea; drown me deep, away from the burning face!” (294)

It seems to me that the disfiguring of Mannion’s face is the interpretive crux of Collins’s novel. I hope to have shed some light on the first question: what is the significance of Mannion’s monstrous face? His face implies more than a revelation of his own character, I hope we can agree. Yet we may pose further questions related to this scene. What should we make of the circumstantial details of the attack? And, lastly, to Wilkie Collins, son and biographer of a well-known painter, what is a face? 
For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the face is by definition that which expresses the human, otherwise it is a mask. The expressive face, above all, repeats God’s fundamental prohibition: “Thou shalt not kill.” The face to face look expresses human commonality and sympathy (see Robbins). In this light, watch how carefully Basil characterizes his pursuit of Mannion:

He looked up and down, from the entrance to the street, for the cab—then seeing that it was gone, he hastily turned back. At that instant I met him face to face. Before a word could be spoken, even before a look could be exchanged, my hands were on his throat. (Collins, 164) 

As so often in this novel, the actions are described in terms of seeing and looking. Note how Basil describes his own avoidance of the gaze, of human contact, on his way towards murder. He meets Mannion “face to face”, yet almost impossibly, “even before a look could be exchanged.” Basil does not want just to kill Mannion, but kill his human looks; he flings him “face downwards” on the road, to beat out the very “semblance of humanity.” He refuses not only to exchange a word, but even a look, for the face in Collins is as full of language as any book, and even Mannion’s iron visage may speak “don’t kill me” if looked upon.

Yet still, there is something more than the expressively human in these faces. There is something more contextual, more temporal, even ideological. Let us read Basil as “the face of man in the age of mechanical reproduction”: the unreadable, stoic face is the modern face, and Basil yearns nostalgically for the aura of the expressive face. It is not just to contrast Basil with his previous, historical romance,Antonina (set in fifth-century Rome), that Collins subtitles the novel, “A Tale of Modern Life.” Basil himself kicks against the age-old name and all its tyrannies (“Our family is, I believe, one of the most ancient in this country” [2]), and omits his family name from the autobiography; yet he ultimately returns to his household, the “old home” of the past with Clara. ((Of Basil’s conclusion, Jenny Bourne Taylor writes: “Basil’s final recovery and reassimilation into the family with which the story concludes is firmly set ‘in the shadowed valley of Repose,’ and here home becomes a safe place, an asylum, but also a kind of pastoral stasis—a place outside history, outside narrative itself” (Taylor, 77).)) A writer himself of historical romances, he cannot bear to look at the newness of North Villa, “the eye ached looking round it” [61]). Everything glares at him, a bright, shiny surface, with a new-moneyed but superficial dazzlement later transfigured by Dickens into the Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend. Basil crushes Mannion’s face into a “newly mended” road: it is newness, modernity, and the future which dehumanize. Amid the “wretched trivialities and hypocrisies of modern society,” aptly named Clara is the woman who feels deeply and expresses her feelings, unlike those women who ape the “miserable modern dandyism of demeanor, which aims at repressing all betrayal of warmth of feeling,” and who “labour to make the fashionable imperturbability of the face the faithful reflection of the fashionable imperturbability of the mind” (20). It is no coincidence that Basil’s temptations and crises occur around images of modernity: on the omnibus, and in a hotel “in the neighborhood of a great railway station” (158) Mannion’s imperturbable face is the mask of modernity, which conceals the furious patience of class resentment, and Basil grinds that face into its double, the surface, or resurfacing of modernity—face to face, surface to surface—and then retreats, in his turn, to the ancient, pastoral realm of Cornwall (see Nayder, 32-3).

Collins’s sensation novels of the fifties are contemporary with Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life(written 1859-60), and may be read as equally vigorous, if more figurative, accounts of the confrontation with urban modernity. The “shock” of experience that Simmel and Benjamin point to as characteristic of modern city life must be related to the sensationalistic poundings of Collins’s mid-Victorian urban gothic. Yet important differences need to be drawn. Collins’s sensationalistic “moment” of ecstasy and terror is always linked to the past, is romantic and terrible. Baudelaire’s “modern” moment of disorientation and ecstasy also points backwards, in a way, and is named the “animal ecstatic gaze of a child,” yet this primality is that which regains innocence upon confronting “something new” (Baudelaire, 8). FollowingRambles Beyond Railways (1851), which emblematically contrasts the “beyond” of Cornwall with the technological modernity of the railroad, Collins continually uses the archaic Cornish landscape to create confrontations with modernity. In The Dead Secret (1857), for example, the rebuilding of Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall sparks the flames for a hypersensationalistic detective story. The frayed nerves and chaotic disorientation of Collins’s sensation novels mirror urban chaos, but Collins, in effect, flees in panic from that chaos. By contrast, Baudelaire’s hero of modernity, the flâneur, plunges into the crowd, and loses himself ecstatically in its immense energy. Baudelaire, inspired by the gothic tales of Poe, manages to push himself still further through the horror and debris, to come out the other side, now accepting modern life in all its kaleidoscopic plenty.

Yet even as Basil retreats from the shocks and masquerades of the modern, given the repetitive and fatalistic nature of this text, it will come as no surprise that this withdrawal to the past is itself shrouded in ambiguity and doubt. What sort of past is this? Expressive, domestic Clara, pointedly linked with Basil’s lost mother, loves Basil and shows her love constantly throughout the novel. Notably, Basil’s brotherly feelings for Clara are as intense as his sexual feelings for Margaret, and Basil dreams of the two women paired with one another. Given that the tradition of gothic in which Collins works often resorts to a variety of incest plots, some overt, some suggested, Tamar Heller cannot be far out of line when she sees a subliminal sexual relationship between Clara and Basil (63-5). ((Here Heller also points out Clara’s connection with the lost mother, and thus with the past. Related studies of incest in literature include Perry; Hudson, and Irwin.)) The world of Basil is caught in a temporal double-bind. Forward is adult sexuality, but also the lying, modern mask; backward is the loving, domestic past, but collapsed in on itself narcissistically. The film version, interestingly, seems to substantiate this reading of the doubtful family home. One of the film’s most unnecessary adaptations (it would seem) is to make Clara a half-sister to Basil. Thus when Basil is first aroused by Mannion’s cynical, experienced sex talk, he goes first after Clara, kissing her on the stairway. One might take this alternative version as merely indecorous titillation, but I prefer to understand it as a serious interpretation of the siblings’ notably intense relationship in the novel.

While Collins enacts a turbulent and confusing confrontation with modernity, by contrast, the film version of Basil exudes an airy confidence in its re-enactment of the Victorian. Like many recent adaptations, the film claims an authority over sexual matters that the Victorian novel presumably did not have. The film turns all the male characters into straightforwardly sexual beings; “You are a man now, I can speak to you of a man’s passions,” says Derek Jacobi as Basil’s father”; “God knows, I know their force.” Mannion explains his attraction to Julia: “I was a man, with a man’s appetites.” The audience, I take it, is supposed to, if not admire, then at least comprehend the biological destiny that drives the obsessions of the plot. Yet although “sex” is spoken more clearly and visualized in more detail than in Collins’s novel, this cinematic sexuality still seems terribly constrained, made routine and commonplace by all these matter-of-fact confessions. The overall atmosphere of handsome young people dressed in handsome costumes is, in the end, more fuzzily romantic than seriously sexual, enough so that, before descending into the world of video rental, Basil aired happily enough on the AMC Romance Classics. And that the cast is so young—Jared Leto, Clair Forlani, Christian Slater—makes the catastrophic decisions seem more like youthful indiscretions. The adaptation makes Mannion and Basil into youthful “buddies,” where Mannion gives Basil warnings (he hates the father, but not Basil) and kills himself out of remorse (“I never meant to harm you!”). The film implicitly claims to be more honest and sensible than the repressed, melodramatic Victorians (our tyrannical fathers), but our articulate, scrupulous honesty has the effect of reducing the power and mystery of sexuality. Collins—more accurately?—keeps the strangeness and sheer danger of sexual relationship, and offers no easy alternatives, sympathies, or explanations.

The contemporary Victorian film is and is not a nostalgia film. We may, in part, admire or yearn for the more orderly social codes of the Victorians, but ultimately we see more limitation than idyll. A recent, very interesting nostalgia film, Pleasantville (1998), provides a good indication of contemporary taste. A young man and his sister time warp into their TV set (assisted by Don Knotts) to a “perfect” 1950s world. This world is lovable and quaint, but terribly repressed, and the addition of passion and sexuality slowly turns the black-and-white town, piece by piece, to splendid color. The ending surprises somewhat, in that the sister ends up staying (she began by loathing this archetypally un-cool place) and the boy returns to present reality (it was his favorite television show, after all). But the final result is that the movie has it both ways: nostalgia and anti-nostalgia at once, cute and sexual, sentimental and political. The film Basil,too, wants us to sympathize with its “rebellions” against Victorian oppression, at the same time that it gives us the serene pleasures and pastoral scenery of masterpiece theater (this Ralph lives out in a country farm, where, after all his mistakes, he finds “the possibility of happiness”). Eternally young and passionate, we are in control of our pasts and presents; we love our enlightened modernity and the way we can make history over into ourselves. Collins’s Basil offers us neither alternative, neither a confident present nor a trouble-free past, and it is on this absence of choice and control that our more knowing, free gaze, in its various overly assured and flexible historicisms, refuses to look.

Works Cited

Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life.” In The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne. New York: Da Capo, 1964.

Collins, Wilkie. Basil. Ed. Dorothy Goldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.

Fowles, John. “Notes on an Unfinished Novel.” In Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings, ed. Jay Relf. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Friedberg, Anne. Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Hudson, Glenda A. Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Irwin, John T. Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner.Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-Facement,” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Morgentaler, Goldie. Review of Jane Campion Portrait of a Lady. In The Gazette [Montreal] (22 Feb 1997) Hl.

Nayder, Lillian. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne, 1997.

Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Perry, Ruth. “Incest as the Meaning of the Gothic Novel.” In The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 39 (1998) 261-78.

Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Ryall, Tom. Blackmail. London: BFI, 1993.
Samuel, Raphael. Theatres of Memory, Vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. New York: Verso, 1994.

Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988.

Wright, Patrick. On Living in an Old Country: The National Past in Contemporary Britain. London: Verson, 1985.