Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementos in Wilkie Collins’s Fiction (2019) by Sabina Fazli

Sep 20, 2019 | Reviews

Jessica Allsop

Sabina Fazli’s Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementos in Wilkie Collins’s Fiction draws on a wealth of scholarship in order to address the particular function of material culture in some of Wilkie Collins’s lesser-known and -treated works. While the particularly potent nature of nineteenth-century object relations has been well established and analysed from a number of different perspectives, Fazli takes another look at Collins’s work in order to shed new light on the keepsake in particular, considered in context. The connection between the genre of sensation fiction and the keepsake makes for an interesting analysis that moves beyond detection, to take in questions of space, identity, memory, and narrative.

The introduction works to synthesize material from the earliest inception of the material turn in literary and cultural criticism, through to some of the more recent survey works, taking stock of Victorian material-cultural studies so far and reassessing the highly interdisciplinary field. Noting a range of references to and readings of The Moonstone (1868), Fazli then turns to address the short-story cycle After Dark (1865) and four novels by Collins: Hide and Seek (1852-6), The Dead Secret (1857), The Law and the Lady (1874-5), and The Two Destinies (1876), before drawing the threads of the analysis together and considering neo-Victorian responses to keepsakes in a short concluding chapter.

Sensational Things negotiates the complexities of vocabulary, where souvenirs, keepsakes, mementos, relics, and tokens are related without losing their specific sense as items connected to stories, memories, individual identities, and narratives that may be passed on or lost. Rather than a broad, panoramic view, Fazli’s single-author study focuses on particularly resonant combinations of items, their framing within the texts and in broader cultural terms. Intertextual links are noted, and the broader role of particular objects in literature and culture is explored. Close textual analysis, object biography, and metonymic reading combine to build a detailed picture of Collins’s keepsakes, highlighting their role in relation to memory, secrets, identity, gender, and genre. Patterns, doubling, pairing, and objectified bodies are figured in relation to the Gothic, detection, and key characteristics of the sensation novel. Beginning with hair in chapter one and returning to it in chapter seven, a focus on materiality and stories connects the whole.

These are narratives that play on the small, the easily lost or destroyed, drawing attention to the fragility of the trace. The hidden letter, the obscure box of mementos, the souvenir forgotten on a shelf are read as testifying to the omnipresence of the object category and a cultural understanding of things as available and transformable as keepsakes. The analysis addresses the keepsake in sensation fiction, subsumed into sensational plots thus far, drawing in a broader material-cultural landscape, from eighteenth-century sentimentalism, through memory and secular mourning, to the Great Exhibition, an increasingly scientific process of detection, and the advent of photography.

Particularly interesting, and perhaps worthy of slightly fuller emphasis, is the gendered element of the analysis. With reference to Talia Schaffer, amongst others, Fazli works to establish what needs to be done to make materials into keepsakes. With a strong focus on handicrafts, the domestic, and gendered collectables, the analysis connects the sensation novel, as a genre marked by unstable families and identities, and the vulnerable space of the home subject to influences and intrusions, to material things. Keepsakes, souvenirs, mementos offer both a clue to ‘true’ individual identity, in addition to a comment on wider discourses. The possibilities of expression beyond words, figured in a hierarchy that sees non-verbal, object-based communication placed beneath written communication, is related to both gender and class. Female collecting, understood as often private, and even invisible, links anxious fears for the family with objects that order and communicate stories, emotions, and the interior life of the individual.

Sensational Things takes up Arjun Appadurai’s reconsideration of the methodological fetishism that prioritizes social relations between people, Igor Kopytoff’s cultural biographies of things, Elaine Freedgood’s strong metonymic reading that sits with objects that bit longer and pursues them beyond the limits of the text, and Bill Brown’s Thing Theory, which focuses on subject-object relations and the ways in which things may draw into focus the instability of objects and identities, refusing to give up stories and information. The result is an intriguing exploration of Collins’s inflected response to keepsake culture, analysing how such mementos propel his sensation plots. In drawing attention to the particular importance of domestic objects for women and through conjunctions of objects complicating a straight trajectory from odd, dated male behaviours to photography and its role in the chain of evidence, Fazli argues that attending to keepsakes permits a challenge to dominant Victorian hegemonies. Rather than the closed objects of detective fiction, Sensational Things argues for the keepsakes in Collins’s fiction as more complex, temporally and spatially marked, often sentimental, and gendered, remaining open and unstable.

This is a well-written and meticulously ordered text, progressing in short, numbered subsections through the chapters. The plot of these lesser-known texts is briefly summarised, and the particular significance of the selected objects within this outlined. The introductory section is similarly useful for orienting readers who may not be familiar with the finer points of the material turn. While not necessarily comprehensive, this is a well-written and engaging book, of interest to those working on Victorian material culture, Wilkie Collins’s oeuvre, and sensation fiction.