“The Woman in White’s Vestry Episodes: Reworking Journalism as Novelistic Discourse”

Julia Podziewska

This article locates the vestry episodes section of The Woman in White (1860) within the historicised context of the weeklies the Leader and Household Words to illuminate how, and the degree to which, Collins reshaped journalistic material to rework the formal properties of the novel. The episodes considered are those that reveal and account for the novel’s plot-propelling “secret” of a forged entry in a parish marriage register and consequent fraudulent possession of an estate and title. The constitutive formal properties of this narrative section are repetition from different points of view and multiple embedded narratives, distinctive usages first apparent here in this novel, that will become hallmark features in Collins’s subsequent novels. The vestry elements were informed, it will be argued, by Collins’s journalistic involvement and broader political associations with the two periodicals to which he regularly contributed articles and reviews in the years leading up to his writing the novel. Both paid close attention to the insecure manner in which public record keeping of documents – baptism, marriage, burial, and probate – were held by the ecclesiastical authorities, thus jeopardizing property claims. In turn the Leader’s reportage of falsified registers and Household Words’ more opinion orientated articles on church authority malfeasance (wrongdoing intended to injure) and misfeasance (neglectful wrongdoing) belong to a larger body of early- and mid-nineteenth-century critical response to the revelation that public registers kept at parish and church court jurisdiction levels were not fit for purpose, thereby corroding and hampering the administrative system that underpinned the wider social formation. Close attention to both journalistic and novelistic texts affords us the opportunity to see how Collins sought to “enlarge the range of [his] studies in the art of writing fiction, and to vary the form in which [he] make [his] appeal to the reader” (Preface to No Name xxxvi), through an engagement with both radical and reform debates. In short, the aim is to further our understanding of the narrative innovation for which Collins is renowned whilst demonstrating how this connects to his progressive political commitment.

Historically-orientated literary critical analysis has framed Collins’s fiction to give a high profile to its engagement with law and governance ever since Dougald B. Maceachen’s article, “Wilkie Collins and British Law” (1950), which is one of the first modern critical accounts of Collins’s work. In respect of The Woman in White, this most commonly weighs towards either married women’s property rights or the matter of power and the newly emergent mind-sciences in mid-Victorian England. Attention has yet to be paid to the way in which this novel draws on and engages with broader and all-pervasive topical concerns about the actual security, or rather vulnerability, of property claims at this time in relation to the regulation and the registration of property holders and property holding. This matter, repeatedly referenced in the novel, was extensively addressed by the press and in parliament where it was recognised as affecting all: men and women, rich and poor, people at home and abroad. The backdrop provided by this paper outlines debate over the safekeeping of public registers, above all as conducted in publications for which Collins wrote, in order to throw into relief the contours of the novel’s vestry episodes and thereby make more discernible the extent to which Collins reprocessed actual events to create a fictional world. This study thus departs from the manner in which the particular textual relationship between fiction and periodical press has been most comprehensively addressed in recent scholarship, that is Deborah Wynne’s (2001) and Catherine Delafield’s (2016) respective examinations of how fiction and non-fiction are juxtaposed in a periodical issue or run, and consideration of the roles of the reader, and the editor and publisher. Instead it approaches the fiction’s relationship to non-fiction through the optic of a writer who is active in two fields of mediated practice, as both journalist and novelist, examining the way themes and motifs are appropriated from one field of operation to be deployed in another.

Although I have termed the passages under analysis “the vestry episodes” this somewhat belies the extremely protracted manner in which the secret is discovered. This occurs within a chain composed of links of imbricating information, often viewed from different perspectives, stretched out over three issues of All the Year Round, in which the novel was first serialized (1859-60). The emission of information in overlapping waves, playing the story like a fugue, the same melody but in different keys, would become a mainstay of Collins’s subsequent novel writing. It is here in The Woman in White, the second of the serialised novels, that this narrative mode is forged.[i] The mode can in part be accounted for in terms of Collins’s cognisance of the serial publication reading experience, repetition as an aide memoire; but scrutiny of the novel within the context of safekeeping of ecclesiastical records reveals this narrative arrangement to be inextricable from the theme of the inaccessibility of records on which so much depends. The second narrative device which is likewise deeply imbricated with the matter of the registers is what I call embedding, that is a Chinese box series of reported speech or quotation within quotation. This technique has been overshadowed by critical focus on sequential multiple narration, often discussed in terms of linear multivocality or the dialogic. The narrative embedding that Collins first honed in this novel, then refined and deployed through the novels of the 1860s, is strikingly used in the first vestry episode (when Hartright is shown around by the parish clerk) to generate the very opposite sense to repetition from different points of view; instead, as used here, it evokes consensus and common ground rather than conflict. Holding in mind these two narrative devices, this article first examines journalistic treatments of the troubling phenomenon of ill-kept public records before moving onto the novelistic, in each case with some cross-referencing to the other, in pursuit of a better understanding of Collins’s narrative labour, as well as the broader interplay between different types of medium, genre and text.

By the time The Woman in White appeared, poorly kept and unreliable parish and church court registers with sometimes inaccurate, incomplete and erroneous entries, all of which could impede lawful property transfer, had for several decades been a topic of concern. As early as 1812 a concerted effort was made to overhaul the administrative machinery of the jurisdiction with the Parochial Registers Act (52 Geo. III, c.146) (full title Act for the Better Regulating, and Preserving of Parish and Other Registers of Births, Baptisms, Marriages and Burials in England also known as Rose’s Act). It is worth noting that this piece of legislation was prompted by the familiarity of the proposing MP George Rose, the Treasurer of the Navy, with the plight of sailors’ widows unable to prove their marriages and claim the property to which they were due (Basten 44). Although in its final form this legislation much contracted the scope of the Bill initially proposed, it did at least kick-start transformation of a registration system that had been initiated by the Tudor Crown to authorise the power of the newly established Anglican church, amending it to nineteenth-century needs. By the time The Woman in White appeared, much had been overhauled to make registration and certification procedures better fit a modern, increasingly urban, capitalist social formation. Nevertheless, historical documents pertaining to the property claims of many still living remained in the hands of Church of England parishes, such as Collins’s fictional Old Welmingham, which had for centuries supervised the documentation of baptisms (not births), marriages and burials (not deaths). It was not until 1832 and the General Registry Bill that a proposal was forwarded to move registration out of the hands of the ecclesiastic authorities and to institute civil registration, activity that culminated in the passing of the Births and Deaths Registration Act (6 & 7 Will 4 c 86) of 1836.

This legislation was as much propelled by a desire to defend property rights as to document and thereby better govern a modern, increasingly mobile, urban and non-Church of England population as is made clear by terms of the Forgeries Act of 1861 (24 & 25 Vict c 98) (full title Act to Consolidate and Amend the Statute Law of England and Ireland Relating to Indictable Offences by Forgery). This consolidating statute of fifty-six sections collated under one title both the newer financial instruments, which it listed first, concerning transfer of stock, false attestation, making out false warrants, forging an East India bond, exchequer bills, banknotes, followed by older misdemeanours such as “forging marriage licenses” (Section 35) and “forging of registers of births, marriages and deaths” (Section 36). It was this legislation, viewing new and old transfer instruments through the same optic, which was debated in parliament as The Woman in White was thrilling the reading public. Topical disquietude about fraud and forgery (testified by works such as David Morier Even’s widely reviewed Facts, Failures and Frauds: Revelations Financial, Mercantile and Criminal (1859)), is stoked by Collins in his subtle deployment, as a key element in his plot mechanism, of the longer established, more familiar mode of property maladministration: ill-kept and insecure parish registers.

A case of “false entry,” “false in three particulars,” in a parish register was in 1855 detailed in the Leader (“Altering” 266). The incident that came before the judge was reported as one of ineptitude rather than malevolence. The accused, Dr Green, is reported as “a man of considerable literary attainments” who confessed to having made serious errors of judgement in dealing with how and when he filled in the registers. He blamed these on a combination of factors. First, his “never having practised my profession,” but having taken holy orders to fulfil the terms of an academic fellowship, “a reckless rashness to which I have ever been liable in doing the first thing that suggested itself to me.” Second, overwork: “I had six pupils preparing for Oxford and the Army”, or as the paper sympathetically phrases it, “he was so overwhelmed with literary labours” (a gentleman’s defence that results in mercy and a light punishment; twelve months without hard labour). His misdemeanours, he claimed, were simply the result of his trying to help the absent parish vicar by undertaking his duties, which – once he realised that he had wrongfully administered the marriage – he then compounded by lying to cover his mistakes and administering bribes for silence, fearful “of the dreadful prospect of felony, with fourteen years transportation”. Green had completed the register on 3 October, in advance of the groom’s arrival. The groom did not turn up. Consequently, the clergyman conducted the marriage on 5 October, but this compounded the unlawfulness as it took place before eight o’clock in the morning, the appointed hour from which marriages were authorised to take place. Further, Green bribed the parish clerk for keys to the register chest, and both the clerk and the groom for silence. We can here discern the seeds of Collins’s vestry episodes.

“Altering a Parish Register,” the report of the court case addressing the above recounted matter, appeared on 10 March 1855, that is during the time of Collins’s involvement with the leftist weekly the Leader (between 1851 and 1856), and between his writing of Hide and Seek (1854) and The Dead Secret (1857). His next novel would be The Woman in White.[ii] Several elements in the Leader report tally with the novel: first, the matter of a false entry in a register (Hartright uncovers a forged entry); second, the paper mentions punishment for felony (a key feature in Mrs Catherick’s testimony is her belated discovery that in abetting a forgery she had committed a capital crime); and third, a bribe ‘that paid the passage money to Australia’ of a young married couple. Percival bribes Mrs Catherick to keep silent with trinkets (only later, when her daughter Anne learns of and starts talking about a ‘secret’ does incarceration in an asylum come into play); and earlier in the novel, to secure Laura’s release from the asylum, a bribe sufficient to enable a nurse to set up a business with her fiancé is paid. The Australia and bribe theme will surface in Collins’s subsequent novel, No Name (1862), in which “the cost of a steerage passage to Australia for a man and his wife” is how lead protagonist Magdalen rewards the maid who teaches her how to act as a parlour maid (449).

The Leader evidently judged the false parish register case significant as it was briefly reported pre-trial alongside other such cases under the caption “Illegal Marriages” on 28 October 1854 (1016). That this particular incident was elaborated from a sparse report in the autumn of 1854 into such a dry comedy the spring of the following year may well have been connected to George Henry Lewes, the editor’s, conjugal situation. It was in during a trip to Weimar in the summer of that year, that despite not being married to Lewes, George Eliot decided to refer to him as her husband.[iii] The Dr Green case supplied Lewes with satirical grist for his radical and anti-establishment mill, the Leader. This journalistic poke at the legal system was made possible by a longstanding concern about the registers: what was being mocked was the authority invested in such a notoriously faulty system.

As remarked above, the matter of mismanaged parochial registers had been a press item long before the Leader article appeared. In Household Words this at first took the form of a short piece by its assistant editor and co-owner, W. H. Wills, “The Destruction of Parish Registers” (6 July 1850). Another four articles followed later that year, two a collaboration by Wills and Dickens, and two by Wills alone, in a series entitled “The Doom of English Wills” (28 Sept. and 5 Oct. 1850; 2 and 23 Nov. 1850). These pieces likewise address the safekeeping, or not, of important documents, in this case copies of wills held by the ecclesiastical authorities, dealing with Canterbury, York, Lichfield and Chester jurisdictions in turn. Although there are distinctive differences between the jurisdiction and size of a parish (which was directed to keep registers of baptisms, marriages and burials), and the nation’s 200 or more church courts (which registered wills), both administrative units were central to the lawful transfer of property, and in ecclesiastical hands at the time that the main events of The Woman in White are set, 1849-852. The potential for property claim problems is hinted at by the fact that “[u]ntil 1858 there were more than 200 church courts each of which kept separate registers of wills – there was no central index” (National Archive). As both parish churches and church courts had been charged, as is shown, with gross maladministration, this article joins parish and church courts equally as the context of “Percival’s Secret” and the vestry episodes.

Whilst Collins was writing for the Leader, from 1852 onward he also published in Household Words, and from 1856 was employed there as a staff writer. The periodical was the effective precursor of All the Year Round, giving audience as well as authorial and editorial continuity between the two publications. “The Doom” series concludes (though it does not start) by forcefully pointing out that malfeasance (and misfeasance) involving the storage of and access to wills threatened to hamper and endanger modern property transfer processes. Here at the culmination of the periodical’s three-month long investigation, wills are portrayed – just as the marriage register in the novel – as a critical element in the confirmation of property claims. For four non-consecutive weeks, the periodical series concentrated on showing how insecure, inefficient, and expensive was register-holding by the ecclesiastic authorities. It concluded with a paragraph saluting the first steps in amelioration, attributing these above all to the ethos and principles held by those who resided in places where speedy and secure property transfer was most imperative, the busiest of the manufacturing towns:

The thorough-going Manchester or Liverpool legatee would not endure […] the   impositions, delays, destructions, and muddling confusion of the will offices in the more easy going districts. Time with him is cash. What he wants he must have at once, especially if he pays for it. (Wills 23 Nov. 1850 205)

The position adopted by Household Words with regard to security of registers would be confirmed by the Cornhill thirty years later. “[O]ccasion […] for consulting the registers were multiplied” it averred, with “the increase of wealth and the unfolding of statistical science” (Whitaker 324). This observation signals one of the reasons for the novel’s continuing appeal: its ongoing relevance. That the matter of the registers remained a topic of interest when The Woman in White was first published, a decade after Household Words had initially addressed the matter (in 1850), is borne out by two events. First, 1862 witnessed the publication of a second edition of John Southerden Burn’s 1829 The History of Parish Registers in England, the very work that had first sparked enquiry into the registers, and that had resulted in a government commission reporting on Parochial Registers, namely, the 1833 Commons Select Committee. Second, the coming into force of the consolidating Forgeries Act of 1861 (24 & 25 Vict c.98), which included register forgery, as discussed above.

Connection between “Percival’s Secret” of forgery in the registers and wider debate about the easy misappropriation of property at the mid-century and the period leading up to it, has, as observed at the outset of this piece, been largely overshadowed by a literary critical concentration on other property, imposture, fraud and forgery matters such as Laura’s property rights as a married woman, her loss of identity, her relationship to Anne and incarceration as Anne. The vestry has been consigned to art history. Explanatory notes in the John Sutherland Oxford University Press edition of the novel (used here) link the scene of the dilapidated vestry, our first encounter with the building, to “the current vogue for church restoration” (509), citing an observation made by Richard Altick in The Presence of the Present (1991). Like observations are made in an earlier edition of the novel in which vestry detail is linked to Pugin and Carlyle (Sucksmith 620-621). The Broadview edition prefers the criminal to the constructural, focusing instead on the forgery rather than vestry architecture, twice mentioning it as a capital offence (Cox and Bachman 495). Accordingly, placing the vestry episodes instead within the context of periodical and other debate about parish registers and probate records enables a mode of reading that uncovers broader and more pressing associations that readers could have made and, more importantly, as was shown in earlier discussion of the Leader article, it throws light on how Collins deploys these devices to serve the plot mechanism; careless record keeping, insecure registers, a derelict building (about which more later) can all be traced back to matters that had long been aired and would continue to provide copy late into and long after the 1860s (Whitaker 1867 and 1879). Hence, attention to a vociferous body of early- and mid-nineteenth-century social criticism produced in response to revelations that public registers kept at parish and church court level were not fit for purpose, affords us a fuller grasp of Collins’s structuring of the section of The Woman in White that turns on the revelation of Percival’s secret. This non-fiction will be scrutinized before we attend to Collins’s transmutation of material.

The most prolific pamphleteer on the issue, William Downing Bruce, writing in 1850, summed up what he felt to be the crux of the register-keeping matter by deploying an idiom of distributive justice that had been used since the English Revolution. This can be seen in his lexical choice of “inheritance,” “hereditary interest,” “poorest’ and “community”:

these registers are the only title deeds of a large body of the middle and all the lower classes, and every hereditary interest which can be transmitted to them must thus be proved and defended. As in these commercial times the poorest man cannot foresee to what inheritance he may succeed, it would be difficult to find any member of the community excluded from a direct interest in this neglected but most important question. (Bruce 6)

The passage is taken from an eight-page campaigning open letter that Bruce addressed to the MP Monckton Milnes, a supporter of many radical causes, and moreover also a friend of Collins, in hope that the claims of the vulnerable would find a defender in parliament. Heavy emphasis is laid on loss of rights: “How many rights have been forfeited, or improperly adjudicated […] will […] never be duly estimated nor known?” (Bruce 2). Special attention is also paid to the losses that will probably be incurred by “those of our countrymen absent in their native land in our colonies,” engaged in “mercantile concerns or the necessary services of the state and the government” (Bruce 6). The rightful owner of the usurped Blackwater estate, “an officer in command of an East Indiaman” (56), springs instantly to mind. The sentiment expressed here differs markedly from that found in Burn’s History of the Parish Registers, the aforementioned antiquarian publication of 1829 that, republished in 1862, had initially spurred government investigation of ecclesiastic record keeping. Burn’s pro-establishment sympathies are revealed in a lexical orientation towards upper-class confirmation of birth right: “they [the registers] are now the main source whence all questions of descent and pedigree are to be decided” (Burn 204).

Reactions to Burn’s History, along with the findings of the government commissions that convened and reported on Parochial Registers, first the 1833 Commons Select Committee, and then the 1837 and 1857 Commissions enquiring into the Non-Parochial Registers (that is, for non-Anglicans) went on for many years. Direct reference to another instance of this type of enquiry, the Ecclesiastic Commission of 1832, would be mentioned in one of the Household Words’ series, Wills and Dickens’s “The Doom of English Wills: Cathedral Number Two,” 5 Oct. 1850, which examined the chaos of probate administration in ecclesiastical hands.

The detailing of the outrageous malpractice that was first publicised in the original 1829 History certainly made good copy. Burn mentions “a clerk […] hav[ing] been a grocer” using the register as “waste paper for wrapping up his grocery commodities” (40); “the late Curate’s wife […] had made kettle-holders of them” (41); “a tailor […] had cut out more than sixteen leaves […] to supply himself with measures” (42); “an old Parchment register, [was] sewed together as a covering for the tester of a bedspread” (42) and “daughters [of a Parish clerk] who were lacemakers, were allowed to cut it up […] to be used in their manufacture” (42). This itemization of outrageous practice would become a standard trope in reports about the registers. In 1850, Bruce would list some of the worst cases as ammunition in his fight for a radical overhaul of the state administrative apparatus. Several articles in Household Words draw on Bruce as their source text, but adapt his material to make a blunter political weapon. In 1879, when the Cornhill was still detailing the same examples, it is Burn rather than Bruce who is drawn on; the matter of the registers now appears resolved, as the article frames it as an historical rather than a current phenomenon (Whitaker 325). Collins, as we shall see, resists using the more risible examples in his depiction of the neglected registers in the Old Welmingham vestry.

Consternation about the parish registers fed into statutory reform. The Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 (7 Will. 4 & 1 Vict. c.22) called for a General Register Office to be established and a series of Marriage Acts tightening regulations for registration, including the Marriage Act of 1836 (6 & 7 Will. 4 c.85) that allowed for civil marriage. Thus, after 1 July 1838 matters in England were taken out of the hands of the parish, and instead civil registration was introduced for births, marriages and deaths. With this task undertaken by the same authority as was responsible for the decennial census, and within administrative units set by the new Poor Law legislation of 1834 (Nissel), it is evident that the primary purpose of the apparatus was state control of the aggregate and not the rightful claims of the individual subject. Hence problems of demonstrating lawful claims to property continued. In the first of “The Doom of English Wills” pieces (28 Sept 1850), Wills and Dickens are at pains to point out that it costs far too much for the average person to retrieve documents, and that the officers in charge of the registers treat their positions not as public offices but ecclesiastical sinecures:

[T]he Registrar, with deputies, and deputies’ deputies, are sinecurists on from sixteen to seventeen thousand pounds, to seven or eight thousand pounds a-year […] the whole system is one of greed, corruption and absurdity from beginning to end. (2)

Chapter 12 of Burn’s history, entitled “Of the Fee for Searches and Extracts,” displays a different class position and interest to Household Words in representing searches as unproblematic and uncostly. Collins would echo the reforming rather than conservative sentiment in the words he has Walter Hartright use in his preamble to The Woman in White: “But the Law is still, in certain inevitable cases, the pre-engaged servant of the long purse” (5), and in the vestry episodes he would go beyond this reformist position, to give a hint of radicalism.

The transfer of registration into the hands of the secular authorities did not completely solve the register problem. The church authorities still held documents recording events that had occurred prior to 1838, and accordingly, Bruce, Wills and Dickens would point out that many parochial registers had already been destroyed, and therefore claims could not be made even if affordable. The novel depicts the episode centred on the revelation of “Percival’s Secret” as taking place at the very time Bruce and Dickens were publishing on the insecurity of the registers, when they were still being destroyed, as government recommendations had not at that point yet been instituted (and this matter is brought up by the parish clerk in Collins’s novel, as we shall see). It is also evoked in Hartright’s words after the vestry fire: “all proof in support of any surmises of mine was burnt with the burnt register” (535). Wills had written that “those prior to that date [1838] are still in parochial keeping, to be torn, lost, burnt, interpolated, stolen, defaced, or rendered illegible at the good pleasure of every wilful or heedless individual of a destructive organisation” (“Destruction” 351). Collins, furthermore, makes much of this earlier history by having Percival commit the forgery in 1827, when such a felony was still a hanging offence (as Mrs Catherick’s letter to Hartright points out), and before the poor state of the registers had been brought to public attention. In addition, Percival has the date of the forged entry determined by a gap in the church register sufficient to hold his parents’ names, one that tallies with his birth in March 1803 (albeit as a premature infant, what Mrs Catherick terms,a ‘seven-months’ child’ (544)). One of the key amendments made to parochial register administration by the above-mentioned Rose’s Act of 1812 was the introduction of standardized schedules (register books), issued “by His Majesty’s Printer,” though “at the Expence of the respective Parishes” in which “every […] Entry shall be numbered progressively from the Beginning to the End of each Book […] and every such Entry shall be divided from the Entry next following by a printed line according to the forms contained in the Schedules […] and every Page of every such Book shall be numbered with progressive Numbers” (Act 1812). Collins sets Percival’s birth to pre-date this legislation. Each date is chosen with awareness. Note too that the changes that had been instituted by 1859-1860 were necessary but not sufficient; hence demands for reform continued in the periodicals and pamphlets, and arguably in the novel itself.

Discussion above has pointed to how there was huge pressure for amendment, propelled by interests from all points on the social spectrum: reform, radical and conservative, alike. Depicting the register-holding vestry, Collins engineers his text to show a range of social levels. The common collective concern is placed side by side with disregard for the local, by the powerful at the heart of the metropolis, as we shall see below. Archival historian Philippa Levine contrasts English practice to that in France, where local archives were valued, observing that the new Public Record Office Act of 1838 (1 & 2 Vict. c. 94) was solely concerned with metropolitan and national records and not arrangements concerning the populace in the provinces and parochial issues (39). Further, it would not be until 1852 that the public were able to gain access to the Office; and, as has already been pointed out, the older records remained kept at parish level. Bruce, a radical reformer, was prolific in his campaign to secure better protection for the less affluent as can be seen from his claim that “registers are the only title deeds of a large body of the middle and all the lower classes” (6), a position with which occasional lines in Collins’s novels tally. The novelist’s sympathetic representation of servants indicates his equal commitment to justice for the dispossessed, hence Limping Lucy’s “the day is not far off when the poor will rise against the rich” (Moonstone 192), or an omniscient narrator’s observation of the hideous polarizing disparity of resource distribution in the Metropolis: “Here […] is the Writing on the Wall, which warns the monarch Money, that his glory is weighed in the balance, and his power found wanting” (No Name 188).

Security of title was of equal concern to large property owners as well, of course, and so the campaign for amendment gained support from the more conservative too. A review of Bruce in the Gentleman’s Magazine, which made appeal to “a middle to upper class public” (Ellegard 19), described it as a “pamphlet upon a subject of considerable importance” (515). The first Household Words piece to draw on Bruce, Wills’s “Destruction of Parish Registers,” echoed his sentiment about the registers as guarantors of the birth right of the very poorest but moderated his demands. It placed less emphasis on the less affluent majority than did the source text. The opening of the article takes wholesale key phrases (here italicized) from the source text:

 As the poorest man cannot foresee to what inheritance he may succeed through the       instrumentality of parochial records, so in their preservation every member of the community is more or less interested, but […] returns […] show […] a general feeling […] in favour of their destruction. (Wills, “Destruction” 351)

It then details the worst cases of negligence. Unashamedly taking from Bruce, crediting him as its source, it plays out in a very different key.

Bruce was fully in earnest; Wills writes largely for comic effect, lingering over the absurd when following the trope Bruce derived from Burn’s History, the enumeration of indecorous register use: “as wastepaper in a cheesemonger’s shop” or “to singe a goose” and found stuffed “behind some old drawers in the curate’s back kitchen” (Wills, “Destruction”  351). Nevertheless, subsequent Household Words’s articles on the registers adhere more closely to Bruce’s seriousness of purpose, but they do somewhat temper his argument. “The Doom of English Wills” drops its source’s lexical choice of the “hereditary” and “inheritance,” which Will’s “Destruction” piece had retained, substituting reference to time (or history) with reference to nation (or place). It likewise eradicates Bruce’s allusion to the “middle” and “lower” class gesturing instead to “all classes” in the nation. The difficulty and sometimes impossibility of tracing wills it argues:

affects not only the history and learning of the country […] but the legal rights and titles of all classes—of every man, woman, and child, rich and poor, great and small, born into this English portion of this breathing world. (Wills and Dickens 28 Sept. 1850 2)

The positions vis-à-vis the registers adopted by Bruce on the one hand and the editorial team of Household Words on the other, warrant reflection. Any attempt to prove a rightful claim required documentary evidence (as Wills and Dickens underscore), but at the same time, as Bruce iterates, those with the most meagre resources would be those least likely to be able to spend the time and money on tracking evidence of their rights. Bruce’s distinction between different strata of the property-owning classes intimates a politics of distribution. By contrast, Wills and Dickens frame their discussion of the registers in terms of technicality, the legalistic and the politics of administration. Certainly, Bruce was writing a pamphlet in the form of an open letter, whereas Wills and Dickens’s writings on the registers were one element in a commercial weekly that aimed at an inclusive audience. This goes some way to explaining why Wills and Dickens are far less partisan. They nevertheless remain adamant about the need for reform, but in a liberal fashion. This can be seen in their use of the device of a particular example: “An illiterate labourer,” runs the article, “tried to make the official understand that an uncle of his wife has, he had heard, left him a legacy,” and “he wanted to know the rights ‘o it” (Wills 2 Nov. 1850 126). The man is obliged to pay “probably a fifth of his weeks earning” for a search that brings up nothing, Wills writes, until the pamphleteer took up his case and “found that the poor man had been left small legacy.” This one reference made to disinheritance, taking the form of an individual instance, is anecdotal; by contrast Bruce shows the outrage to be systematic.

The overall title, “The Doom of English Wills,” indicates that the prime concern of the All the Year Round quartet is the loss of documentation, a technical matter; the subtitles – “Cathedral Numbers Two, Three and Four” signal where the problem resides. Modern scholarship by Harry Stone reveals that extensive revision was undertaken on the first article in the series, testifying to the weight Dickens accorded this issue (Stone 1969). This quartet would be followed with regularity by others calling for statutory reform, individual acts and an overhaul of the whole legal system. This would be a standing feature of Household Words and later All the Year Round. The connection between “The Doom” series and subsequent articles is intimated by a phrase used to evoke the problem of register searches in the first article, “he may as well try to find […] a needle in a haystack” (3), and a title used several years later in a piece by Wills and John Oswald Head calling for structural overhaul of the whole legal system: “A Needle of Sense in a Haystack of Law” (1858).

The account above outlines the discursive and actual context within which a dilapidated vestry and poorly kept registers originally appeared, registers requisite for Percival’s forgery and an unmaintained vestry for his death by fire. Scattered reference to the novel so far has demonstrated how historical registry features are constituent of the plot mechanism – careless record keeping, insecure registers, and general disrepair of the vestry. Dickens, as co-editor and co-owner of the periodicals, would have been sensitive to any representation of register keeping that might appear given the attention he had already accorded it. Collins too, as a close friend and regular contributor would have been cognisant of the journals’ (or more likely Dickens’s) line on statutory reform of the registers and the juridical system more broadly. Further to this, Collins was – as mentioned – a friend of Monckton Milnes, the MP to whom Bruce had addressed his open letter on the registers, the publication with which this discussion began; both Bruce and Collins were political radicals, and Milnes was sympathetic to many radical causes (Lycett 210; Lehmann). Aware of the concerns about registers Collins gives them a key position in his plot. It takes only a small bribe and some sweet-talking for Percival to gain entry to the vestry (just as in the Leader we read of it taking just a few shillings for Dr Green to get his parish clerk to open the register chest, and then hold his tongue) to add his parents’ names to the marriage register; no official second register has been kept, as was policy. Although the 1812 legislation had repeatedly underscored that “fair Copies of all Entries […] shall be made […] on Parchment […] and […] be transmitted […] to the Registrar of each Diocese” (Act), Collins suggests that this statutory obligation had not penetrated the sleepy Hampshire parish of Welmingham, as the son of the late vestry clerk refers to his father’s duplicate as “his favourite hobby” (519). And finally, a hampered lock leaves Percival unable to escape the burning vestry. Let us now turn to examine more closely not simply what resemblance there is between the non-fictional and the fictional, but how Collins engineers these broader social concerns into his novel.

The revelation of “Percival’s Secret,” the divulgence of his parent’s marital status extends over six issues, from Week 30 (16 June 1860), when Hartright “master[s] all the information Marian could afford on the subject of Percival’s family” (465) up to Week 36 (28 July 1860), the point at which, after Percival’s death, Hartright hears details about “the [lawful] heir to the [Blackwater Park] estate” from a talkative local.[iv] Marian’s comment in Week 30 informs Walter of why Percival’s father, Felix, lived on the continent; not the frequent mid-nineteenth-century reason of insolvency, but his deformity, his love of music, his radicalism (465-66). We can read this seme as ironing out the problem of why this landed estate is not tied up in an entail (Felix “had no country tastes of any kind […] no attachment to the estate” (466)), and thus why the Blackwater Park estate and title is exposed to this type of fraud. It also gives a perspective on the Glydes that will be countered later from a radically different class position by former servant Mrs Catherick. This information about the Glydes’ status and property is in turn replayed in the following issue, Week 31 (23 June 1860). Hartright speaks to Anne’s friend Mrs Clements who recalls Percival coming from “foreign parts” and “in mourning” (477). Until read with hindsight, this detail feels incidental, as in this episode the attention of Mrs Clements and her interlocutor, Hartright, is firmly on Mrs Catherick’s relationship with Percival, and the possibility that he is Anne’s father. The next issue, Week 32 (30 June 1860), Hartright meets Anne’s mother, Mrs Catherick, in a scene that pre-figures the discovery of Percival’s illegitimacy and fraud, by means of yet another recapitulation of the parentage motif; this time it displays class-based contested meaning:

“Sir Percival is a powerful a man – a baronet – the possessor of a fine estate – the descendent of a great family –” [says Hartright]

She […] suddenly burst out laughing.

“Yes,” she repeated, in tones of the bitterest, steadiest contempt. “A baronet – the possessor of a fine estate – the descendent of a great family […]” (500).

Later, once Percival’s illegitimacy and fraud have been revealed, in yet another instance of Collins using the plotline to re-render the same story events, in Week 35 (21 July 1860), Mrs Catherick will send Hartright a letter explaining her involvement in Percival’s scheme, a point at which the text is most explicit about forgery and fraud – and the difference in punishment between the present (the novel’s present of 1848 and the first readers’ present of 1859/60) – and the past, 1827, when forgery was still a capital offence. Again, Percival’s parentage will be mentioned, this time in even greater detail, and from a different ethical and class position. Mrs Catherick is sympathetic to the illegitimate: “I thought him hardly used. It was not his fault [his parents] were not married” (544). Within a broader context of publication and events, it becomes possible to see a deep historical underpinning of the novel’s narratological device of repetition from different points of view, here the diverse and conflicting.

Repetition from different points of view is not the only way that Collins uses the plotline to re-render the same story events and represent a chorus of different voices in relation to the matter of the insecure registers; he also deploys embedded narrative, or quotation within quotation. Critical commentary rarely omits mentioning Collins’s use of multiple narration but it is less forthcoming about the extent to which he employs it in the form of embedded rather than sequential narration. Too often critics have taken the novel’s opening court-room scene metaphor at face value, including the directive that protagonist’s testimony is “given from their own knowledge” (5). In No Name narrative embedding serves a crucial role in the novel’s generation of concurring and well as contested meaning around the issue of property rights. A prime example of how Collins felicitously embeds narration to show consensus in The Woman in White occurs in Week 33 (7 July 1860). In this vestry episode it is deployed to render a sense of agreement about the importance of secure registers (such as we have seen earlier in discussion of non-fictional consideration of the registers). Hartright is driven to the church in Old Welmingham by Mrs Catherick’s reaction to the words “the vestry of the church” (501) in the previous scene; the building he enters is depicted in a fashion that clearly imbricates with the debate detailed above, and in a fashion that exposes how Collins transmutes his materials to push at the boundaries of novelistic narrative form. Three factors in this episode bear elaboration: the characterisation of the clerk as garrulous, his embedded narration and the attributes of the vestry.

First, the clerk’s talkativeness. Whilst there is a logic to Collins’s order (first, Hartright meets the parish clerk, the holder of the vestry keys, and subsequently, they enter the building), this sequence of events also enables the text to set off a chain of reference to and a series of examples of the clerk’s garrulousness, a trait with a broader narrative purpose. Not only will he be described as a “loudly talkative old man” (507), which pairs with the phrases “chattering on” (508), “the old man’s talkativeness” (510), and Hartright’s resolution “to give the old man no more opportunities of talking” (511) until he has finished examining the register, but there is a direct transcription of his flow: both are imperative for the operation of the text. They create a verbal clutter amidst which words and phrases can be hidden. For example, as the two men enter the building, reference is made to the hampered lock, in a seemingly throwaway fashion, and as a dramatized element too: “‘I’m obliged to bring you this way, sir […] This is a perverse lock […] I’ve mentioned that to the church warden fifty times over at least”’ (508); the broken lock will later prove a key element in the plot when it prevents Percival from leaving the burning building. Likewise, the clerk chatters on about ecclesiastical administrative negligence, about how nothing has happened to restore the building although:

Six gentlemen dined […] made speeches, and passed resolutions, put their names down, and printed off thousands of prospectuses. Beautiful prospectuses, sir, all flourished over with Gothic devices in red ink […it] ended in a dispute […] The money dribbled in a little at first […] and after that, there wasn’t a halfpenny left. (508)

The account is strikingly like contemporary reports, especially Malcolm Meason’s 1860s articles of fraudulent financial practice in All the Year Round, showing bodies of men setting up fraudulent joint-stock companies, all fancy prospectuses and little else, an association that foreshadows the fraud and forgery that are about to be revealed. These are just two examples of the clerk’s elaborations. The lexical profusion of the passage – in terms of both Hartright’s depiction of the clerk’s speech and the represented speech itself, operates as a synecdoche of the cluttered, untidy chaotic vestry, which in turn stands for chaos of ecclesiastical governance, an account of which was given above.

Collins depicts the church vestry with a “litter of dusty papers” (508), “heavy and mouldy” “atmosphere” (508), backwardness and general dilapidation, blamed by the parish clerk on a shortage of funds from London: “‘we’re in a lost corner – and this is an untidy vestry,’” “‘Not like London – is it, sir?’” (509-510). He thereby repeats the very same concerns about “the abstraction, loss, and careless custody of registers [that] is constantly going on” according to a barrister cited in a Household Words article a decade previously, in 1850, especially, with reference to official documents held outside the metropolis.

The episode fully rehearses these apprehensions, voicing them in a Chinese box of concern about parish registers. The embedded narration is first shown as Hartright’s interior thought: “I was struck by the insecurity of the place.” It is secondly seen by his interrogation of the clerk: “Is that considered a sufficiently secure place for the register […] Surely, a book of such importance as this ought to be protected by a better lock, and kept carefully in an iron safe?” (510) (words that echo paragraph V of Rose’s Act of 1812: “Register Books […] shall be safely and securely kept in a dry well-pained Iron Chest […] within some dry, safe, secure Place”). The next, third embedding appears in the parish clerk’s response: “Those were the very words my old master was always saying years and years ago.” Fourth and finally it is shown through the clerk quoting his old master, ‘“Why isn’t the register […] kept in an iron safe.’ If I’ve heard him say that once, I’ve heard him say it a hundred times” (511). The parish clerk’s ramblings about the man at fourth remove, the vestry clerk, convey how as a solicitor the latter was concerned with due process, he “kept a copy of this book, in his office in Knowlesbury,” and “had it posted up regular […] with the fresh entries here” (511), (words that resonate with paragraph VII of Rose’s Act: “Copies of the Registration Book […] shall be […] transmitted […] to the Registrar of each Diocese […] on or before the First Day of June in every […] Year”). The copy proves crucial to the narrative: it is in the Knowlesbury office that Hartright will discover “a blank space” where in the parish marriage register there is a (forged) entry. This method of narrating a quotation within a quotation gives a firm sense of general consensus about the importance of register security. The passage about a London enterprise purportedly concerned with renovation, but coming to nothing, evokes in addition to commercial ventures, dissatisfaction with both ecclesiastic and government processes too.

Hartright’s description of the vestry, lined with “heavy wooden presses, worm-eaten and gaping with age” (508) and scattered with “a litter of dusty papers” (508), resonates with the phrasing used by Burn, Bruce, Wills and Dickens in the contemporary register debate outlined above. Mention has been made of how the “Destruction of Parish Registers” in Household Words on 6 July 1850 cites Bruce in documenting registers “in a damp place under the staircase, and in a shameful state of dilapidation;” “among a quantity of wastepaper in a cheesemonger’s shop,” used “to singe a goose;” “in a tattered state, behind some drawers in the curate’s back kitchen;” “their scattered leaves at the bottom of an old parish chest” (351). Critical focus on Percival’s illegitimacy has rarely probed the property issues at stake in his forgery and fraudulent adoption of identity, issues thrown into relief when the registers debate is recognised. The opening line of the 1812 Act proclaims the centrality of property in register reform: its purpose is to “greatly facilitate the Proof of Pedigrees of Persons claiming to be entitled to Real or Personal Estates” (Act), and this is certainly what Bruce stressed. Furthermore, entitlement is what Collins’s text draws attention to in the striking line given by Hartright on his discovery of “nothing,” “a blank space”, a “space that told the whole story!”: “he was not Sir Percival Glyde at all, […] he had no more claim to the baronetcy and to Blackwater Park than the poorest labourer who worked on the estate” (592). This bringing together of both ends of the social spectrum will be repeated word for word in No Name, indicating its significance in both novels’ regimes of ethics and value. This indicates Collins’s break from an established inheritance trope. Inheritance (alongside Empire) was deployed in the novel of the 1840s as an “individual solution” when “there could be no general solution to the social problems of the time,” as Raymond Williams observed in The Long Revolution when demonstrating how significant socio-cultural patterns compose a structure of feeling (67). “[T]he unexpected legacy,” and leaving for a new life in the Empire, he contends, operate “at the level of magic” (65). A decade or two later, Collins moves on from, even reverses, this “unexpected legacy” device in his deployment of a fraudulent inheritance claim, and loss of inheritances more generally. Certainly, there is a “magic” element in the vestry episode as Percival’s death irons out a plot difficulty, but for the most part, the unauthorized and illegal inheritance charges the text with association to actual, broader property concerns and rights.

Percival is burned alive in the vestry during an attempt to destroy evidence of his forgery by a knocked-over-candle that consumes a “litter of dusty papers” about which the clerk had grumbled, his escape prevented by the oft mentioned hampered lock, about which the clerk was equally as ignored. The episode which offers us Hartright’s (retrospective) report after the first day of the inquest into Percival’s death positions the horrendousness of the immolation to overshadow Hartright’s rumination on what he would have done with his knowledge had Percival not been killed. Would he have kept quiet about it in exchange for a confession about the conspiracy that swapped Anne for Laura, or would he have put property rights above Laura? The hypothetical is never pursued as the plot is arranged to keep Hartright from facing any such dilemmas that might complicate his marriage to Laura. As such, he is also given lines that distance him from his adversary. Stating his belief that “the robbery of the right of others was the essence of Sir Percival’s crime” (539), Hartright reflects and concludes: “Could I […] keep the right heir from the estates, and the right owner from the name. Impossible […] In common honesty and in common honour I must have gone at once to the stranger whose birth-right had been usurped” (539).

Out of the context of the registers more broadly, the sentiment Hartright expresses seems to condone the established social formation and its pattern of property distribution. With awareness of wider and more longstanding debates about the registers a less reactionary sense is conveyed by the notion of the right heir, right owner and birthright. Collins went on to probe the notion of rightful claims time and again in the wake of The Woman in White, albeit leaving behind legacies made problematic by the registers and focusing instead primarily on provisions made in wills in No Name, Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). The fiction that most strikingly turns on the role of fortuity and inadequate legal apparatus in property claims, however, came very soon after the publication of The Woman in White and in the same periodical too, namely, the less well-known short story first published in the 1861 Christmas number of All the Year Round as “Picking Up Waifs at Sea” (25 Dec. 1861 593-601). This concerns the mixing of two infants born to the emigrating Smallchild and Heavyside families on the appropriately-named Australia-bound ship, “Adventure,” with the role of chance in inheritance, rather than justice or quality, further underscored by the re-titling of the story for publication in 1873 alongside Miss or Mrs as “The Fatal Cradle.”

Looking at the direction Collins’s fiction takes after The Woman in White helps us assay the significance of the vestry episode, a section that when explored within the context of broader and more long-term debate about ecclesiastical records intimates that so much pertaining to the distribution and rights in property rests on insubstantial foundations, grounds that defy justice and fairness. Collins did not, however, completely leave behind the matter of parochial registers and the vestry. Adapting the novel for the theatre, in 1871, Collins divides the stage on which the play opens in two, having “[t]he action take[] place partly in the burial-ground of Old Welmingham Church, partly in the vestry of the church” (The Woman in White: A Drama). Two decades after the novel was first issued, the insecurity of the parochial registers is once again transformed by Collins for dramatic narrative impact. Whereas earlier he developed repetition from different points of view and multiple embedded narrative to place deep within the text what we discover is the trigger to subsequent action, the falsified entry, this time, positioned in a Prologue, Percival’s tampering is deployed as a trigger to events that are to ensue in the following four acts. In both cases, Collins’s creative work was propelled by his work as a journalist, his familiarity with reporting and opinion pieces on the registers, and his involvement with radical and reform causes.

 

Notes

[i] The first was The Dead Secret, published first in Household Words in 1857.

[ii] For details about Collins’s involvement with the paper see Kirk H. Beetz. “Wilkie Collins and The Leader.” Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 15, no. 1, 1982, pp.20–29.

[iii] Thanks to Nancy Henry for pointing out this tally of dates.

[iv] Although my page references are to the OUP edition of the novel, here I refer to the serial as published in All the Year Round and accessible at http://www.djo.org.uk/ to give a sense of how Collins structured his text to control the initial readership’s temporal experience.

 

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