Wilkie Collins’s Lo scrigno di Mr Wray, ovvero la maschera e il mistero. Una storia di Natale (2019)

Apr 15, 2021 | Reviews

Wilkie Collins’s Lo scrigno di Mr Wray, ovvero la maschera e il mistero. Una storia di Natale (2019), edited with an introduction by Mariaconcetta Costantini, translated by Emilia Carmen Cavaliere

Chiara Scarlato

The voice of Wilkie Collins still proves to be original and innovative in the twenty-first century. His works continue to raise scholarly attention, while attracting a large readership throughout the world. A proof of this abiding interest is the recent Italian translation of Collins’s second novel, Mr Wray’s Cash-Box, or The Mask and the Mystery. A Christmas Sketch [Lo scrigno di Mr Wray, ovvero la maschera e il mistero. Una storia di Natale], edited by Mariaconcetta Costantini and printed by the Edizioni Libreria Croce in Rome. Originally prefaced by two different notes by Collins (respectively, included in the editions of 1851 and 1852), Mr Wray’s Cash-Box is an exceptional case of the Victorian novel or, more precisely, an exceptional case of the Victorian ‘Christmas story’.

As Mariaconcetta Costantini underlines in her Introduction to the volume, the composition of Mr Wray’s Cash-Box was deeply influenced by Collins’s close collaboration with Charles Dickens, whom he first met in the spring of 1851. After the publication of his first work of fiction, the historical novel Antonina (1850), which followed the biography in memory of his father, the painter William Collins (1848), Collins decided to try his hand at the Christmas tale genre popularized by Dickens, reworking its style, objects, themes, and tropes. The result of this experimentation was the sentimental novel Mr Wray’s Cash-Box – a work of fiction that deserves attention both for its unusual structure and for the readerly responses it generated at the time.

Well accepted by reviewers and literary critics, it did not have the same good fortune with the growing mass of Victorian readers who were changing their tastes and expectations. Costantini attributes this partial failure to two main factors. First of all, she notes that the novel did not satisfy the readers’ appetite for sensational tales, which – increasingly whetted by journalistic chronicles – made them crave for stories of oppression, crime, and violence. Secondly, she lays stress on a ‘mistake’ Collins made in the introductory note to the first edition, in which he clumsily unveiled the novel’s core mystery – the mystery of the cash-box –, thereby spoiling the surprise and suspense that the text was meant to produce.

The problems created by this spoiler were soon perceived by the young author. For this reason, in the note that introduced the second edition, Collins cancelled the previous reference to the cash-box and replaced it with the allusion to a conversation on literature and art he had had with friends some years earlier:

The main incident on which the following story turns is founded on a fact which many readers of these pages will probably recognise as having formed a subject of conversation, a few years back, among persons interested in Literature and Art. I have endeavoured, in writing my little book, to keep the spirit of its title-page motto in view, and tell my ‘honest tale’ as ‘plainly’ as I could — or, in other words, as plainly as if I were only relating it to an audience of friends at my own fireside. (Mr Wray’s Cash-Box, Introduction)

The relationship between reality and fiction mentioned here invites a reflection on the narrative experimentation Collins conducted in Mr Wray’s Cash-Box. Instead of choosing a setting that is spatially and temporally remote, as he had done in Antonina, the young author opted for an English context closer to his readers’ experiences, and he employed three main narrative strategies to produce effects of realism, namely: the use of an omniscient narrator; repeated addresses to the reader, who is involved in a sort of real-life communication; and some references to real facts and people embedded in the novel’s plot, such as those to John Kemble, a real nineteenth-century actor turned into a secondary character. Other noteworthy aspects are the many textual allusions to theoretical questions concerning the value and originality of art works and the psychological elements of Mr Wray’s characterization, which betray Collins’s early interest in the convolutions of the human psyche.

To briefly sum up the plot, Reuben Wray is an old, mediocre actor retired from the stage who has developed an obsessive admiration for William Shakespeare. The other main characters featured in the novel are the two members of his strange family: his lovely and affectionate granddaughter Annie and Martin Blunt, aka “Giulio Cesare”, a carpenter previously employed in the theatre world who issecretly in love with Annie. Thanks to a reference letter written by Kemble – in the period in which they were both working at Drury Lane Theatre in London –, Wray gets the chance to support himself and his family by giving private lessons of rhetoric, pronunciation, and diction after his retirement. The quiet life of the little family is, however, interrupted by a mysterious event that forces them to leave Stratford-upon-Avon and move to Tidbury-on-the-Marsh, a fictional town also mentioned in Collins’s short-fiction collection After Dark (1856).

Their mysterious escape from Stratford is linked to another secret concerning the contents of a cash-box, which the old man carried to Tidbury. With remarkable ability, Collins manages to keep both mysteries unsolved for a while. In Chapter Four, however, Wray makes an important confession to Annie and Blunt. What the box contains is a mask of William Shakespeare, which he shaped after gaining access to the statue of the bard in Stratford and secretly taking a mould off it. The cash-box, which is kept jealously locked by the old man, fires the imagination of two local thieves, who assume that it contains money and valuables. During the robbery, however, they discover the mask and destroy it in a violent outburst of rage before leaving the house. The loss of the treasured object provokes a catatonic state in Mr Wray, who falls prey to despair and develops a bizarre mental issue that makes him compulsively strive to fix the mask again.

The old actor is saved by a resolute action performed by Annie, who, helped by Blunt and Matthew Colebatch, the local squire, who becomes a family friend, decides to create another cast of the mask. Convinced of having only had a long and terrible nightmare, Mr Wray miraculously regains his mental health and spends the Christmas dinner with his family and Colebatch. The final dialogue between Mr Wray and the squire includes a meta-literary reference to the genre Collins had chosen to develop in this novel, as Colebatch suggests that they should remember the experience “as nothing but a STORY FOR A CHRISTMAS FIRESIDE!” (“come se non si trattasse d’altro che di una STORIA DI NATALE da raccontare davanti al camino!”; 142). This passage is particularly interesting if we consider that the first reference to Christmas only appears in the eighth – and third to last – chapter of Mr Wray’s Cash-Box. The novel’s distance from the classic structure of the Christmas story genre further complicates its classification, shedding light on the innovative elements Collins added to the genre.

Another aspect of novelty is the active function fulfilled by Annie, whose characterization anticipates Collins’s daring portrayal of heroines that challenge dominant gender norms. A close reading of the novel confirms that Annie is indeed the only character that takes action to find positive solutions for the family’s problems. This view is substantiated by her centrality in the novel’s illustrations, produced by John Everett Millais, which, as Costantini observes in the Introduction, interact with the text, “playing a crucial intersemiotic function” (“svolge un’importante funzione intersemiotica”; xxvi). Indeed, the illustrations question ideas of female passivity. Portrayed while she is helping the clumsy and tall Blunt to tie his new neckcloth, Annie not only acquires strength and physical dominance, she also confirms her unwonted function of protector of the male members of her family. Much more than a Victorian Christmas tale, Mr Wray’s Cash-Box is a multifaceted text that deserved being rediscovered and studied in our age. The publication of Lo scrigno di Mr Wray evidences the interest that this early Collins novel is still capable of raising in twenty-first-century readers and scholars, who, both in England and abroad, can enjoy its detailed exploration of human emotions and desires, its innovative characterization, its structural complexity, and its thought-provoking treatment of meta-artistic issues.