Wilkie Collins (Twayne’s English Authors Series)

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

This volume is a timely guide for the “beginning” student of Collins. Although several substantial biographies of Collins have appeared since the 1970s, critical comment has until recently been surprisingly sparse. As information about the writer’s somewhat eccentric domestic arrangements began to emerge, the sensations of Collins’s own life became a focus of comment and were used to explain the peculiarities of the novels. Lillian Nayder therefore understandably declines to discuss the novels in terms of Collins’s life, providing a succinct biography at the start instead. Her purpose, she says, is to discuss the novels thematically, downplaying the over-neat patterns of achievement and decline that have been keyed in with his oscillations between his two “wives,” and his supposed descent into final illness and addiction. Her book offers a new focus on Collins, providing a mine of useful information, for example, on matters such as the novels’ legal and publishing contexts.

In order to foreground the themes of race, class and gender she discerns in the novels, Nayder sets out to link well-known works (The MoonstoneThe Woman in WhiteArmadaleNo Name) with less-known, more didactic ones (The Dead SecretMan and Wife and Heart and Science), focusing on what she sees as Collins’s ideological aims. This leads to her central thesis: that Collins’s apparently radical social criticism invariably ends in retreat.

Despite her evident enthusiasm for Collins, she sadly concludes that Collins has “blunted his critique,” “scapegoat[ed]” his characters, or “reinscribe[d] the gender [class or race] norms he criticizes.” While she demonstrates that Collins was to some degree concerned with social issues, and while this does provide a formula for grasping Collins’s work as a whole, it is impossible to avoid the sense that Collins is being asked by Nayder to meet some fairly anachronistic demands.

This is a pity. One wishes she had not allowed her enthusiasm for Collins, and her careful research into matters such as the mid-century debate on married women’s property rights, to be strait-jacketed by modern political imperatives. What I missed was the experience of reading Collins, the textual details that remain in the memory. The most striking aspects of his novels are not his plots, which are impossible to remember (but which Nayder does outline for us very competently), nor indictments of class/sex/race tyrants. They are extraordinary, even grotesque images—the legless Miserrimus Dexter’s sexual assault, the ditherings of Miss Finch’s blue-faced lover. They are moments of textually contrived shock or terror—the confrontation with the “dead” Laura Glyde over her tombstone, for example, or the dream sequence inArmadale.

It is on the question of gender relations that Nayder is undoubtedly most interesting, but it is also here that I find myself, finally, doubtful about her readings. She suggests that Collins’s reformist critiques exposed “the marital strife and domestic horror in the middle-class Victorian home,” although a glance at Lawrence Stone’s Broken Lives indicates that domestic horror was the monopoly neither of the Victorians nor the middle-class. It was surely that class’s urge to self-analysis and improvement that created in its writings a discourse for the description of its own “diseased state.” We need thus to tread carefully with distinctions between discourse and assumed historical reality. Novelists like Collins and Braddon were not so much concerned with revealing that domestic realities were shockingly different from the literary idealizations of woman and the family, but rather with offering the obverse of such impossible, manufactured icons—that is, a parallel set of improbabilities; what Peter Brooks describes as “the logic of the excluded middle.” Collins does not, after all, aim at the kind of desolating realities we find in Gissing. He gives us bizarre characters, sudden violence and astonishing reversals. The extremes of Collins reassure the reader that familiar ideals are still in place—the hero returns to the colourless Laura or the forgettable Miss Milroy. But extreme plots also lead to implausible endings: can Walter sustain his ménage with the imbecilic Laura and mustachioed Marian? How can the sex-obsessed Basil end up in his sister’s arms? Implausibility here is not necessarily loss of nerve. Collins’s treatment of his sensational topics is not based on close reference or social science; it arises out of experiment with conventional novelistic discourse.

Within the volume’s format there is obviously a limit to what can be covered, and Nayder has chosen not to deal with questions of narrative structure and language. In dealing with ideologies, however, it is difficult to avoid the business of narrative voice, as Tamar Heller’s essay on The Moonstone in the recent Macmillan Casebook demonstrates. Basil, which Nayder reads as a critique of patriarchal class structures, is a first-person narrative. And it is because it is in Basil’s own voice that the hysterically religiose conclusion, peppered with dashes, questions and exclamations, so stretches credulity. Again, Collins’s innovatory employment of a variety of voices and texts in The Woman in White, confuses any apparent allegiances to class/gender hierarchies; these embedded narratives also counterbalance the sensationalism of the novel, suggesting a humdrum framing world of train timetables, shops, and policemen—Collins’s especial and permanent contribution to the genre.

The melodramatic aspects of Collins are in fact played down by Nayder, as are his connections with fellow sensationalists such as Braddon and Le Fanu. She asks us instead to re-examine our ideas of literary value in relation to Collins and recognise the “ideological labours” his fiction performs. Nayder has herself performed a valuable service to students in putting together so much contextual research in one succinct volume. My regret is that she has burdened herself with a rather Victorian notion that a novel’s value lies in its missionary, reformist zeal. I could have wished that her own “mission” had not so often been allowed to temper her enjoyment.