Wilkie Collins: Interdisciplinary Essays

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Developed from papers given at a Collins conference at the University of Sheffield in 2005, this wide-ranging collection contains sixteen essays divided into five sections: “Collins in Context,” “Collins and Art,” “Collins and Medicine,” “Collins and the Law,” and “Collins, Theatre, and Film.” The volume also includes an Introduction by Andrew Mangham and an Afterward by Janice M. Allan. Providing a rationale for the collection, Mangham explains the book’s aim: to show that interdisciplinary and intertextual approaches most effectively illuminate Collins’s writings (1). While this is certainly not a new idea and has become, in fact, a given in Collins scholarship, the principle is well supported by the essays gathered here. Like many conference collections, the quality of the essays is uneven, and some could be more fully researched and more effectively edited. Nonetheless, the volume is a welcome contribution to Collins studies. Although Mangham’s claim that critics “still appear preoccupied with the small sample of work Collins produced in the 1860s” (4) seems rather outdated, several of the essays included here usefully focus on lesser-known works and provide unusual pairings of Collins with other writers and visual artists.

Anne-Marie Beller opens Part I (“Collins in Context”) with “‘Too absurdly Repulsive’: Generic Indeterminacy and the Failure of The Fallen Leaves.” Examining the “structural and formal elements” of Collins’s 1879 novel, Beller attributes the “almost universal disparagement and neglect” of this work to its subversion and “hybridization” of generic categories (10, 12). She argues that the novel “often appears disjointed” but reveals Collins’s desire to disrupt aesthetic categories while also “destabilizing gender boundaries” (18). Beller’s association of particular female figures with particular genres is especially interesting and reveals the generic self-consciousness of the novel. Holly Furneaux’s “A Distaste for Matrimonial Sauce: The Celebration of Bachelorhood in the Journalism and Fiction of Collins and Dickens,” the second in this section, challenges those who foreground Dickens’s control and censorship of Collins’s writing in Household Words and All the Year Round. In Furneaux’s view, Dickens tactically interspersed Collins’s celebrations of “the unmarried man” with his own serials and, “far from repressing” Collins’s material, “prominently positioned” his subordinate’s “often controversial paeans to the joys of unmarried life,” the two sharing an interest in figures “who failed, or refused, to become accommodated within a rigid family model” (22-23). Furneaux usefully reminds us of the unconventionality that originally drew Dickens to Collins; yet in foregrounding their “mutual sexual radicalism” and the challenge it poses to “the normative family” (31-32), she downplays the conservative bent of both writers—their emphasis on the self-destructive psychopathology of angry spinsters (Miss Wade and Limping Lucy, for example) and the hurtful narcissism of confirmed bachelors (such as Ralph Nickleby and Frederick Fairlie). Turning from the collaborative to the cultural context of Collins’s writing, Tatiana Kontou considers the sensation heroine in relation to the female medium in “Parallel Worlds: Collins’s Sensationalism and Spiritual Practice,” showing how both sensation fiction and spiritualism place “acute emphasis on the politics of sex and gender” and use “theatrical or melodramatic narrative tropes” (38). Focusing on No Name and its “domestic actress,” Magdalen Vanstone, Kontou reveals the “false passivity” and the “alternate selves” that Collins’s heroine shares with the Victorian medium, both of whom “challenge the concept of ‘unnatural’ behavior” as well as the “notion of a single, concrete identity” (41). In approaching “Magdalen’s theatrics in terms of failed séances” (46) and noting how the heroine “ventriloquises herself” when playing Miss Garth (49), Kontou’s reading is especially compelling.

The essays in each of the remaining sections prove more closely interrelated than those on “Collins in Context” prove to be. Part II (“Collins and Art”) includes Clare Douglass’s “Text and Image Together: The Influence of Illustration and the Victorian Market in the Novels of Wilkie Collins,” and Aoife Leahy’s “The Face of the Adversary in the Novels of Wilkie Collins.” The first “reclaim[s] the image as a central part of the reading experience,” looking at illustrations for “Mr. Wray’s Cash- Box,” No Name and Armadale, and examines their power to complement and subvert the text—in the case of Armadale, “cementing [our] connection with Midwinter,” who “gaz[es] forward beyond the confines of the page” (70). In the second, Leahy uses Paton’s painting, The Adversary, and its demonizing of Raphael’s Apollo to help explain Collins’s own equation of Raphael’s ideal of beauty with “deceit and evil” (80-81), Godfrey Ablewhite supplying a case in point. Unfortunately, the reproductions found alongside these thoughtful discussions are rather poor in quality.

Five essays comprise the third section on “Collins and Medicine”: Andrew Mangham’s “Mental States: Political and Psychological Conflict in Antonina”; Jessica Cox’s “Reading Faces: Physiognomy and the Depiction of the Heroine in the Fiction of Wilkie Collins”; Amanda Mordavsky Caleb’s “Questioning Moral Inheritance in The Legacy of Cain”; William Hughes’s “Habituation and Incarceration: Mental Physiology and Asylum Abuse in The Woman in White and Dracula”; and Greta Depledge’s “Heart and Science and Vivisection’s Threat to Women.” While Depledge links Collins’s representation of medical treatment and vivisection in Heart and Science to gender politics and the oppression of women, working-class women in particular, Hughes distinguishes Collins’s relatively “neutral” handling of the asylum and its moral management of the mentally ill in The Woman in White from that of Bram Stoker, who more clearly indicts the “presiding physician” in Dracula (145-46). The two novels are linked by “the uneasy interface between curative therapy and manipulative abuse,” Hughes argues, yet Collins holds “those outside of the medical profession” responsible for the wrong done to the institutionalized Laura Fairlie (145). For Mangham in his approach to Antonina, the political significance of mental illness lies in the parallel between imperial fall and insanity as Collins represents them—by means of the mental breakdowns of Goisvintha and Ulpius—with madness “a complex vehicle for expressing the author’s ambivalent attitude toward the political instabilities of the 1840s” (98). Whereas Mangham seeks to distinguish his approach from the “gender-preoccupied argument” of Tamar Heller (98), meeting with partial success, Cox explores the ways in which Collins sometimes frustrates gendered expectations in drawing on the pseudo-science of physiognomy. For Cox, Collins questions Lavater’s misogynistic theories in The Legacy of Cain; for Caleb, he uses the novel to challenge theories of inherited madness and criminality, “suggesting that individuals have the ability to defy their parental inheritance through individual moral strength” (123).

In Part IV, contributors approach “Collins and the Law” from three directions. In “The Scotch Verdict and Irregular Marriages: How Scottish law Disrupts the Normative in The Law and the Lady and Man and Wife,” Anne Longmuir contrasts the “irrationality” and “savagery” of Scottish law with the order and reason or its English counterpart, calling attention to “Collins’s interest in the heterogeneous nature of the British state” (166-67). Her analysis of legal uncertainties in the two novels and the ways in which these destabilize identity is original and insightful, although it makes English law sound overly coherent and too highly valued in Collins’s eyes. While Longmuir discusses the ambiguous and tentative quality of marital status under Scottish law, Lynn Parker examines the seemingly “irrevocable” (198) nature of sibling bonds in “The Dangerous Brother: Family Transgression in The Haunted Hotel.” As Parker observes, the indissoluble strength of these ties is illustrated by the selective hauntings of Collins’s ghost story. Yet the novella also challenges these privileged bonds by revealing “the potential for familial exploitation” and the possibility of “incest predicated upon sisterly self-sacrifice” (202), complicating the division between sibling and marital relations, as did the debate over the Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill. In “Collins on International Copyright: From ‘A National Wrong’ (1870) to ‘Considerations’ (1880),” Graham Law compares two essays on the issue of international copyright, placing them in their immediate contexts, foregrounding the “sophistry” of Collins’s stance, illuminating “the private motives” behind his arguments, and cleverly identifying the first article as itself a “piratical” publication (188, 185).

The final section, on “Collins, Theatre, and Film,” includes Richard Pearson’s “‘Twin-Sisters’ and ‘Theatrical Thieves’: Wilkie Collins and the Dramatic Adaptation of The Moonstone,” Janice Norwood’s “Sensation Drama? Collins’s Stage Adaptation of The Woman in White,” and Stefani Brusberg-Kiermeier’s “Detecting Buried Secrets: Recent Film Versions of The Woman in White and The Moonstone.” Making a case for Collins’s plays, too often dismissed by critics, Pearson foregrounds their success on the stage, despite “Collins’s anxieties about dramatic authorship” and its illegitimacy (211), describes his dramas as “twin- sisters” to the novels, without which “we see only part of the scene” (209), and focuses on the dramatic version of The Moonstone, its notable deviations from the novel, and its potential to “sully” Collins’s literary identity (220). Norwood provides a history of stage adaptations of The Woman in White and considers Collins’s own in relation to the genre of “sensation drama,” prominent elements of which he “deliberately avoided,” instead pointing toward “the more psychological dramas” of the late 1800s (226, 229). Considering recent film versions rather than nineteenth-century adaptations, Brusberg-Kiermeier uses the work of Victor Shklovsky to show how these films heighten sensation among viewers, enabling them to experience Collins’s novels “in a defamiliarised way” (238).

In her Afterward, Janice M. Allan emphasizes the liminal in Collins’s writing and the challenge it poses to boundaries of various types. Crossing disciplinary lines as well as those of literary genres and periods, the essays here address and often value Collins’s complexities of meaning as well as his ability to destabilize meaning itself, aptly seen by Allan as “a source of exciting possibilities” for readers and critics (258) and a powerful source of attraction in Collins’s work.