‘You must give up’: Gothic Detection and the Rhetoric of Protest and in The Law and the Lady

Just six days after Eustace Macallan of Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875) marries his new wife, he pleads with her to cease looking for clues regarding his past. He attempts to frighten her away from the truth, exclaiming, ‘Valeria! if you ever discover what I am now keeping from your knowledge—from that moment you live a life of torture […] if you stir a step further in this matter there is an end of your happiness for the rest of your life!’ (Collins 54–55). Believing that Eustace will return to her if she vindicates his blemished honour, and despite his threats, Valeria insists on acting as an amateur detective and courageously takes on an investigation of a cold case murder. A young, upper-class Victorian bride in the 1870s would have been expected to obey her husband and uphold propriety in the domestic sphere. However, Valeria challenges her husband’s authority by practicing detection against his wishes, and in the process, she manages to unearth shocking details that would have remained buried forever if not for her supposed indiscretions.

While The Law and the Lady has never garnered as much attention as Collins’s sensation novels of the 1860s, the work has received a reasonable amount of attention since the 1990s with the burgeoning of the fields of gender/sexuality studies and disability studies, as well as growing interdisciplinary interest in law and literature. Miserrimus Dexter—The Law and the Lady’s arguably most compelling character—along with his servant and cousin Ariel, provides rich soil for scholarly discussion of disability, gender-queer sexuality, cross-dressing and their impact on the story and heroine, Valeria. More recent works, such as Gwen Hyman’s Making a Man (2009), demonstrate this interest beyond the now-canonical examinations of gender, sexuality, and disability in Collins’s works by Lillian Nayder, Kate Flint, Tamar Heller, Lyn Pykett, and Jenny Bourne Taylor. On other scholarly fronts, as Emma Liggins argues, Collins’s ‘fiction of the 1860s and 1870s incorporated key developments in medico-legal perceptions of crime, casting doubt on dominant mythologies of femininity authorized by contemporary crime reports’ (9). We see this and other law-related considerations play out in reference to The Law and the Lady as scholarly studies of the courtroom, medical forensics, and police/detective measures of the novel have found homes in legal periodicals as well as literary.

This article takes a sideways approach to both disability and detection by returning to earlier concerns about the roots or overlap of the gothic mode in sensation fiction. I consider Dexter’s physical and mental disabilities not as the primary points of analysis, but as channels through which to consider Valeria’s engagement in non-traditional detective methods to solve the mystery. Collins uses Dexter as the medium for gothic energies in his text, and Valeria must fraternise with Dexter to solve a mysterious death. She must also negotiate Dexter’s ‘rotten and rambling old house’ with its shadowy corridors and grotesque art collections (Collins 228–31), his multiple personalities, and fragmented narratives. Rather than centre on Dexter’s body or mind as others have done, this article instead focuses on Valeria’s sampling of various methods of sleuthing by means of Dexter’s influence on the case. Collins suggests that, at least in Valeria’s case, women’s detective work, as a hybrid blend of intelligence, intuition, impulse, and obstinacy, functions more effectively than men’s rational detective science. Valeria works in concert with and in contrast to Sidney Poger and Tony Magistrale’s definition of a detective, someone who ‘searches for…knowledge of the identity of the murderer and the revelation of that identity both to the reader and to the society in which the murder took place’ (145). Though Valeria solves the murder mystery, by her own choice, Valeria’s discoveries remain hidden to the police, the public, and, most notably, her accused husband. Thus, it is arguable that, notwithstanding its place within the early detective genre, Valeria’s goal in The Law and the Lady was not the revelation of absolute truth after all, but rather the preservation of domesticity, which she arrives at by way of the preservation of mystery. Collins poses a Victorian-Gothic alternative to absolute truth; the novel suggests that the Gothicism from which Victorian sensation evolved maintains some attractive elements of mystery, problematising emergent ideals of scientific objectivity.

Collins, however, does not problematise all aspects of detection, and his 1860s novels help to familiarise a number of facets of mystery writing even before detective fiction’s conventions had been established as such. Collins meets many of the requisites of generic form outlined by Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941) and Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Simple Art of Murder’ (1944), such as starting with a crime and having an amateur or professional detective pursue answers to the case with a one-mindedness that surpasses all other potential plot distractions (Symons 13–16). Janice Law Trecker explains the ways in which Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), Armadale (1866), and The Moonstone (1868), with the ‘detective’s infancy…on display…are striking for both their similarities to the modern product and their differences’, and that these detectives and their cases ‘include many of what would become perennial facets of the mystery’ (338). She argues, ‘as far as characters and plot devices go, Collins had much of the ground covered long before the big sellers of today’ (338), thus confirming his status as a forerunner of traditional detective fiction. Still, to today’s readers more used to modern and formulaic detective fiction and its stereotypical sleuths, Collins’s detectives and storylines can feel rather experimental. This is especially the case in The Law and the Lady, with its protagonist being one of the first female detective figures in literature. Therefore, Collins is not compelled to construct a satisfying solution made by the lead detective: a verdict with finality, and, thus, closure to a case (see Auden 406–07 for discussion of these later expectations).

Influential to authors of later detective fiction, Collins’s measured style provides readers with the narratological time and space to make hypotheses and encourages vicarious play of the roles of detective, police, or jury. A master of suspense, Wilkie Collins took his time—painstakingly, it would seem—to unravel mystery at his own pace. Another thumbprint of Collins’s novels is the presentation of an abundance of seemingly rational evidence. However, the clues do his readers little good since he intermingles reliable hunches with numerous false leads, or ‘red herrings’. Carl D. Malmgren describes the convention of troubled interpretation of clues in sleuth stories: ‘The investigation is invariably “jammed” by contradictory signs and partial, misleading, or false decodings’; the investigator later ‘restores semantic order by dis-covering the motivation of signs (their non-arbitrariness)’ (120). Though some of these stylistic traits would become keystones of the genre, what sets Collins apart from many of his descendants is that he weaves suspense and false leads so tightly into his narratives that readers come to question the nature of the original mystery. Is it the criminal one must find or the crime one must reconstruct? Did a crime even take place? Much of the thrill of reading a Collins mystery is determining what the mystery actually is.

Such is the case in The Law and the Lady. The first volume of this three-volume novel could be considered a miniature mystery in itself, as Valeria, newly-married, must solve a small-scale case of mistaken identity in order to figure out what the much larger mystery (an unsolved murder) entails; in fact, the nature of the clues requires a solution to the mystery of identity before Valeria can discover that there was even a murder. This story-within-a-story, mystery-within-a-mystery pattern continues throughout the novel. Valeria must unravel these layers to detect the larger, more significant mystery, dodging false leads and corrupt evidence all the while.

The paradox of the novel’s resolution is that Valeria’s discoveries must remain private: although Valeria determines that her husband is not a poisoner or murderer (as was her steadfast goal throughout the narrative), she abstains from revealing the details of Eustace’s first wife’s death. No court verdict is overturned. No hearing or trial takes place. Valeria completely sidesteps the legal system and refocuses her attention on her family rather than vindicate her husband’s name publically, which contradicts her professed intentions prior to and during her detective work. Ironically, she must conceal rather than reveal her husband’s innocence in order to protect his feelings. At the conclusion, Collins leaves intact to most characters the mystery of who caused Sara’s death, though the case has been solved.

Often in detective narratives, the careful collection of logical clues leads a detective to attempt to construct the design and cause of wrongdoing, which rationalises the offense rather than criminalises it. Rational detection debilitates Coleridge’s Romantic prescription for the ‘shadows of imagination’, which is the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (490). More simply, rational detection renders disbelief unnecessary because logic solidifies each step of the case. In contrast, sensation fiction needs its readers to continue suspending their disbelief in order for devices of suspense to succeed. Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay wrote the earliest major discussion of the novel’s use of gothic detection, which she defines as a hybrid ‘mixture of sensational elements, detection and gothic themes and patterns’ (142). Solving a crime in this hybrid genre requires blurring the boundaries of reason, passion, and gothic irrationality and deformity. What is ultimately at stake in detection, the novel suggests, is this contest between gothic and rational detection. Collins collapses the authority of inductive reasoning by protesting rational detection.

The Scotch Verdict and a Rhetoric of Protest

Repeatedly in The Law and the Lady, and almost to excess, Valeria hears arguments against her attempts to resolve her husband’s case; this rhetoric of protest functions as the antagonists’ engine of complacency. The Law and the Lady treats resistance to detection differently than Collins’s more famous The Moonstone (1868). The Moonstone showcases false interpretations of visual evidence and the silence of crucial witnesses, such as the obstinately silent—she thinks loyal—Rachel Verinder, and the ill, indisposed Dr. Candy. This contrasts to The Law and the Lady, which lends a substantial voice to each key player, even including the law clerk who composes the proceedings of the court case. Rather than having too many silences, one might say, as in The Moonstone, The Law and the Lady has too many voices. Valeria proves to have more stamina for detection than The Moonstone’s Sergeant Cuff because she solves the case not merely by making inferences based on visual evidence, but rather by actively piecing together fragmented and seemingly illogical clues from conversations. In doing this, she must decide—really, decode—which voices speak the truth and which dissemble and deceive, including those of the court.

Without oversimplifying the text by calling it a protest novel, as others have long done (see Ashley 121), one can see that the Scotch verdict of ‘Not Proven’—as opposed to verdicts of ‘Guilty’ or “Not Guilty’—remains significant to the plot, and especially because it functions significantly in the preservation of mystery. The ‘Not Proven’ decision of the jury creates an ambiguous line between guilt and innocence, which forces those who accept the Scotch verdict to admit the grey version of ‘justice’ served to Eustace Macallan. Janice M. Allan explains the grey area as analogous to traditional law and order, calling Eustace ‘both/neither innocent and/nor guilty’ under this verdict (47). A trial of law, according to Allan, ‘would traditionally function as a revelatory reconstruction designed to produce order and meaning’ (47). But Allan asserts that Collins pens it as ‘another site of undecidability’ (47). Rosanna Cavallaro supplements this idea, stating, ‘So far from representing law as an instrument of closure and understanding, Collins offers a procedural outcome—neither guilty nor innocent—that is intolerable for its indeterminacy’ (9). Rather than voicing the injustice of the Scotch verdict through his heroine’s narration, Collins instead voices her unwillingness to accept her peers’ complacency regarding the ‘intolerable’ verdict, successfully executing what he practised inadequately in The Moonstone. Rachel Verinder’s silence in that novel temporarily consigns the detection of the crime to inadequate and even misleading evidence. Valeria, though subjected to Eustace’s departure (which reads much like Rachel’s voiceless obstinacy), refuses to let his absence keep her away from her task; in fact, it motivates her more. Collins rearranges how knowledge is narrated to accommodate two distinct types of voice (protest and determination). This arouses an atmosphere of suspense and anxiety to juxtapose detection’s logic against a female intuition that he aligns with gothic forms of detection. The Law and the Lady, in comparison to Collins’s 1860s’ mysteries, narrates more overtly the ways in which conservative social mores prevent and protest detection. Collins articulates Victorian anxieties by arming his characters with a rhetoric of protest against detecting anything about the disturbing nature of deformity and criminality. Valeria must use gothic detection in order to work around the protest and manoeuvre the fragments of evidence presented by Miserrimus Dexter, only switching to rational detection after exhausting Dexter as a useful source.

Valeria determines to do what is necessary to regain the loyalty of her husband by proving him innocent. Those closest to her—including her husband—are the only obstacles in her way. Valeria’s motives are clear, even though Collins feels as though he has to justify her actions in his prefaced ‘NOTE’. Valeria knows that saving her marriage depends on her success in solving the mystery, which hardly requires Collins’s explanation. As Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan argue, this ‘motive [of absolving a husband,] which was frequently [used] to prompt female sleuths into action’ in detective fiction of the period, ‘made [women’s] incursions into non-domestic and possibly dubious male preserves respectable—especially if the women in question acted as unpaid enthusiasts rather than career detectives’ (21). Preempting any rhetoric of protest among his readers, Collins does not take any chances with Valeria’s reputation and uses his preface to convince the readers of her good intentions, whether it is necessary or not.

But Collins does succeed in his ‘NOTE’ at differentiating between the ‘actions of human beings’ and the ‘laws of pure reason’ (3), which mark distinct boundaries. Dupeyron-Lafay contends, ‘Collins’s “Lady” would therefore embody the gothic (non-rational) side and “the Law” would stand for detection (pure reason), with the introduction of the gender perspective so frequent in gothic studies’ (143). Essentially, the rhetoric of protest takes on rational qualities of ‘the Law’ and belittles Valeria’s ambitions as irrational. Collins arms the language of Valeria’s family and friends with unexplained warnings and threats that strike a disturbing chord with the reader. One naturally wants to know why everyone insists upon leaving the case ‘Not Proven’.

The rhetorical strategies of Eustace, his mother, Benjamin, and Major Fitz-David grow more insistent as the storyline progresses. Mrs. Macallan implores Valeria, ‘If you value your peace of mind, and the happiness of your life to come, abstain from attempting to know more than you know now’ (Collins 43). Valeria’s old family friend, Benjamin, reiterates this same message nearly ‘word for word’ (Collins 47). Though he has no knowledge of the truth and nothing obvious to hide from his young companion, he counsels, ‘Leave things as they are, my dear. In the interest of your own peace of mind, be satisfied with your husband’s affection’ (Collins 47). Major Fitz-David completes the trio of protests with the warning, ‘If you have any doubt about your capacity to sustain a shock which will strike you to the soul, for God’s sake give up the idea of finding out about your husband’s secret, at once and for ever!’ (Collins 75). These narratives of protest imply that the discovery of truth—not the commission of crime or the unusual Scotch verdict—is the worst possible scenario.

Collins combines rhetoric of protest and panic as Valeria’s husband Eustace commands her to curb her curiosities. Using a threatening conditional statement (‘if you stir a step further in this matter’), Eustace warns Valeria, ‘you [will] live a life of torture […] Your days will be days of terror; your nights will be full of horrid dreams’ (Collins 54–55).  Kathleen O’Fallon observes of Eustace, ‘To his dismay, [Valeria] sets out to prove his innocence and clear his name’ (235). More accurately, to his horror (rather than hers, as he had warned) his wife sets out. When Valeria makes up her mind to exculpate her husband, the rhetoric of the other characters remains unjustifiably defensive. Even though Valeria hopes to save her husband and marriage, two respectable missions, those she trusts discourage her. After relaying her next plans to her uncle, he lashes out at Valeria: ‘you are conceited enough to think that you can succeed where the greatest lawyers in Scotland have failed. They couldn’t prove this man’s innocence, all working together. And you are going to prove it single-handed?’ (Collins 120–21). The rhetoric of protest in each of these seemingly disparate situations reveals a pattern of Victorian anxiety that erupts around the risk of certainty. There is a sense of safety in the Scotch verdict: Eustace is kept alive by the ‘Not Proven’ verdict, but nobody expresses concern about a different killer on the loose. ‘Not Proven’ indicates a sense of inconsequentiality because of the complacency it invokes. Except for Valeria, the characters tend to prefer ignorance to knowledge. Ironically, Valeria’s only support is a network of antagonists with an agenda to preserve mystery. Their reasons centre on not wanting to get to the bottom of the psychological abnormality that presumably underpins both criminality and deformity.

By voicing his characters with this rhetoric of protest against active detection, Collins disrupts Valeria’s path to truth but never her drive to prevail. The protests fall into two main categories. The first is against Valeria’s practise as a detective. Valeria’s friends and family remonstrate unsuccessfully against her unfeminine meddlings in a judicial murder case. As Cavallaro notes, ‘This investigation is against the express wishes of all—husband, family, friends—who see Valeria as precluded from that task by her status as a woman and a wife’ (6). But while Collins problematises the gender dichotomy, the protests against Valeria’s detective endeavours are less about gender roles and more about the disturbing nature of incriminating evidence and the disconcerting authority material evidence holds over conservative Victorian convictions. In Collins’s earlier detective narratives, and in most detection of the twentieth century as the genre matured, the reasoning required to determine the innocence of the wrongly accused is indistinguishable from that required to determine guilt. At the same time, it is a logic that legitimates the crime as a premeditated, rational activity, regardless of its illegality. Valeria’s more conservative counterparts (including the law) fear her participation in this type of reasoning because her methodology gives a voice to the crime, fragmented by the time that has passed.

The second category of protest deals with Valeria’s ‘inappropriate’ meetings with Miserrimus Dexter, an exceptionally unusual figure who provides her with many of the questionable leads and clues. Dexter is wildly charismatic, often mentally unstable, and confined to a wheelchair because of a physical deformity. Readers often remember him as ‘a quintessentially gothic character, and a grotesque one’ (Dupeyron-Lafay 145). Literally, Dexter is only the top half of a man; scholars speculate that Dexter has no male genitalia (for example, see Mangum 285). His role in the murder case is shocking and subversive by any measure, but it is most significant because of Collins’s depiction of insanity in conjunction with deformity. Valeria’s peers continuously discourage her from dealing with a mentally unstable and deformed man. They warn her of the potential danger in visiting and befriending the ‘mad’ Dexter, even though they know that he probably possesses the information Valeria needs to solve the mystery. Dexter is subject to intense scrutiny, particularly because he ‘lacks the healthy body and sound mind so valued in Victorian culture’ (Rosner 10). According to Cavallaro, the physical deformity of Valeria’s primary source of information ‘would ordinarily signal his complete unreliability as a witness’ (17). However, the warnings Valeria receives centre on Dexter’s unpredictability—or, in criminological terms, the undetectability of his psyche. Collins uses Dexter’s bodily deformity, thus, as a persistent and outward symbol of his inner, mental handicaps, though we have ample signs of those, as well. Dexter’s deformities act as barriers between normal social interaction and the irrationality needed to unravel the mystery of Sara Macallan’s death. Valeria must cross these barriers in order to obtain information, because no other character will stop protesting long enough to help her prove Eustace’s innocence.

Protesting the Monstrous Body

Valeria’s antagonists substitute rash judgments for viable excuses because the end desire is the same: to leave undetected what may disturb the status quo. The scientific advances of the nineteenth century were in many instances causing matters of religion and faith to be explained away. As in Shelley’s Frankenstein, detective fiction had the opportunity to explain evil motive and bodily dysfunction. However, Collins’s sensation fiction relies on older Gothic tropes to prevent the rationalising effects of inductive reasoning about human abnormalities. Collins’s rhetoric leaves shaky Victorian convictions intact while giving voices to the criminal and the differently-abled.

The moral circumstance of Dexter’s physical deformity is (potentially) too disturbing, so the antagonists argue that it is better for a young woman to leave him alone. They justify this bias against the physical indicators of his identity by arguing that Dexter’s grotesque body signifies his underlying mental condition. When Valeria asks her friend Major Fitz-David to introduce her to Dexter, he exclaims, ‘[t]he man is mad! […] In all England you could not have picked out a person more essentially unfit to be introduced to a lady—to a young lady especially—than Dexter. Have you heard of his horrible deformity?’ (Collins 191). When Valeria answers in the affirmative, and remarks that ‘it doesn’t daunt [her]’, Fitz-David retorts, ‘[d]oesn’t daunt you!  My dear lady, the man’s mind is as deformed as his body’ (Collins 191). The major’s answer implies confusion over which alarms him more—Dexter’s crippled body, or his mental state. The psychological imbalance seems to divert attention away from the more likely reason Fitz-David wants Valeria to stay away from Dexter—his grotesque half-body.

At one point, when Dexter fears that he may have given too much information to the woman detective, he adopts the rhetoric of protest that pervades other characters’ warnings: ‘There is no alternative left but to accept the facts as they are, and to stir no further in the matter of the poisoning at Gleninch’, he cries; ‘It is childish to dispute plain conclusions. You must give up’ (Collins 296). Dexter’s unease with his own participation in the case, and his awareness of Valeria’s determination to gather clues about his deviant past, influences him to protest along with those in her sanctioned social circle. The murder case aligns Dexter’s deformed body with a deep psychological, even criminal, abnormality—the kind of abnormality that prompts people to poisonings and suicides, and that the majority of society would rather not investigate too closely for the sake of an inconvenient Scotch verdict of ‘Not Proven’.

The language of Valeria’s confidants suggests that there is much more at stake than her husband’s honour, for such a husband is seemingly unworthy of Valeria’s effort. Even his mother says so. They protest throughout the novel, even before—and especially before, in Eustace’s case—Valeria knows that he has been tried for the murder of his first wife. Though desperately in love with and defensive of her new groom, Valeria is repeatedly romanced by the mysterious nature of Dexter, Eustace’s supposed friend. In contrast to Dexter, Kathleen O’Fallon names Eustace ‘surely one of the most completely worthless of [Collins’s] men’ (231–32), a remark that Michael Diamond echoes: ‘Valeria is “a far better man” than her feeble husband, Eustace. That she is so deeply in love with him is the least credible aspect of the novel’ (216). Craig and Cadogan call him a ‘spineless individual whose charm for Valeria and for women in general, though frequently mentioned in the narrative, is never quite convincing’ (21). Collins’s disinterest in Eustace’s embarrassing function as a husband or domestic patriarch, demonstrated by his absence throughout most of the novel, provides further evidence that the novel is not about his honour and especially not about him. Rather, it is about the woman—and the place of the woman—strong enough to love, fight for, and exonerate an undeserving man, and her agency to fraternise with other men in the process. Even more impressive is her ability to remain steadfast amid disapproval. The constructive tool of the rhetoric of protest, implemented by Collins into nearly every conversation in which Valeria takes part, drives Valeria to gothic detection and, in so doing, disturbs the reader’s faith in rational detection.

The Victorian anxiety about pin-pointing a criminal’s intentions, or worse yet, rationalising them, compares to their unease around the disabled and deformed. Mary Rosner’s examination of this novel explains the foundation of Victorian concern about physical abnormalities. Relying on contemporary sources such as Charles Darwin, Henry Maudsley, and George Gould and Walter Pyle, Rosner details the nineteenth-century fascination with monstrosities and describes the deformed as the guinea pigs of both teratology and medical intrigue (9). Rosner writes, ‘[f]iction writers like Wilkie Collins took advantage of the monstrous as a site of multiple and disturbing responses’ (10). Kate Flint concurs, stating, ‘Wilkie Collins’s fiction repeatedly foregrounds a number of individuals who are challenged in their relationship to the material world’, namely the disabled or deformed (153). Valeria’s bizarre encounters with Dexter epitomise the theme of deformed layers in the text, because each of her conversations with him is riddled with true statements that are destabilised at the moment of their utterance by his psychological imbalance.

For Victorians, the potential actions of the cripple are like those of the criminal because physical mutation was still thought to be psychologically initiated (Flint 156). Flint argues that Dexter’s ‘physical limitations are to an extent compensated for by extraordinary mental capacities’ as an artist, poet, and musician (156). Flint sidesteps the severity of Dexter’s mental illness, describing him instead as ‘imaginative’, ‘a serious performer’, and ‘no freak-show exhibit’ (156), but Collins unabashedly characterises Dexter by his crazed antics. Dexter’s bouts of insanity are problematic, but his physical limitations are more so (Flint 156). The antagonists protest Valeria’s relationship with Dexter on account of his body, demarcating ‘normal’ from ‘abnormal’ and creating boundaries for Valeria to stay within. Although Valeria avoids stereotyping Dexter for his bodily or mental aberration, she maintains a vigilant caution and attentiveness in his company due to her general unease regarding his disclosures.

Without denying that Valeria’s husband might have killed his first wife, Collins downplays the consequence of this awful truth by writing Valeria as staunch in her faith of his innocence; meanwhile, he situates Dexter—as opposed to her potentially-criminal husband—firmly beyond the accepted social boundaries for Valeria. Dexter’s half-body disturbs Valeria’s peers far more than the impropriety of her refusal to annul her marriage. Valeria’s visits with Dexter and her participation in detection are intended for the same goal: to prove the innocence of her husband. Consequently, the antagonists’ rhetoric of protest against these two actions is directly related, and the language indicates that the protest is an indulgence in ambiguity.

The Scotch verdict—which they all strain to keep intact—in any other context would be a lack of verdict. Literally, Eustace’s criminality is proven to be ‘Not Proven’, so that the case closes by acknowledging formally the inadequacy of detection. Collins’s text insists that the preservation of mystery, and as a result the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, is consistently safer than solving the crime. It does so by making ambiguity function as a calculated response on the part of the authorities, a legally and socially legitimate refusal to get to the bottom of things. In this sense, Collins stages a socially authorised fear of detection that nearly equates to a fear of rationality. ‘The detective novel, as a literary genre’, argues Cavallaro, ‘has traditionally presupposed a legal culture in which the guilty can be identified and their crimes satisfyingly punished. […However,] Collins signals at the novel’s outset that established legal institutions have failed’ (1, 9). They have not been removed, though, from the forensic economy, which allows him to introduce characters who are complicit in this failure and unable or unwilling to envision other options.

Further evidence to support The Law and the Lady’s preservation of mystery is the discovery that no crime occurred, since the cause of death was suicide. This act of self-murder not only problematises the duality of guilt and innocence but also reiterates the ambiguity of murder. Eustace is liable only indirectly for Sara’s death, though he was the motivation. Never does Collins indicate that Eustace is completely blameless (just as the Scotch verdict claims, though for different reasons), though he is obviously not a murderer. Cavallaro posits that Collins’s purpose ‘is to resolve ambiguity into certainty’ (11), but the novel does not support such a reading explicitly or implicitly. Instead, the purpose is to present the attraction of ambiguity over certainty, which echoes the late-nineteenth-century backlash in England against Darwinian rationalism and absolute classifications about man’s origins (Larson 134). Valeria’s friends and family display deep-seated fears of knowing too much, and they act on these fears by protesting adamantly. Although no characters seem to believe that Valeria’s husband is guilty of the murder of his first wife, neither does anyone want to know who is. Ironically, neither can anyone know who is guilty without practicing gothic detection.

Gothic Detection

Valeria’s willingness to approach Dexter’s clues using alternative, gothic methods gives her an edge over the attorneys because her intuitive strategies are more successful than using reasoning skills alone. Dupeyron-Lafay outlines Valeria’s shift in strategies of detection from rational to gothic, and later back again, and sometimes using both when their benefits complement each other, as they naturally coexist (142, 143). Valeria under specific social and gendered constraints uses gothic detection—a conscious fluidity from logic and reason back to faith in supernatural means, her ‘suspension of disbelief’. This mixture of rational and irrational methods circumvents the rigidity of the law.

The preservation of mystery in The Law and the Lady relies heavily on the amalgamation of Gothic themes and detective tropes as a unified ‘gothic detection’ genre, but the mixture of these two forms of sensation within the plot has a deeper significance, too. Early in the mystery, Valeria voices her willingness to step out of convention to gather evidence. She reads the court case transcript meticulously (‘Nice reading for a young woman!’ Her uncle says, ‘You will be wanting a batch of nasty French novels next’ [Collins 121]) and thinks through the evidence using a step-by-step approach to answer critical questions about the case. Even during her reading, though, Valeria admits her shortcomings when it comes to the logical approach, confessing her jealousy of Mrs. Beauly; impatience with Schoolcraft and Lorrie for using Eustace’s private diary against him in court; and inexplicable partiality for Miserrimus Dexter, whose transcribed personality is charismatic, boisterous, and seemingly trustworthy. Valeria’s intuitive biases kick in, instigating an irrational gravitation toward emotional sleuthing, which leads to channels legal representatives would never use.

The most significant characteristic of Collins’s Gothic/detection combination is the self-policing Valeria must exercise to maintain control of both approaches. Because of the favourable depiction of Dexter in the court transcript, Valeria chooses—amid protests from her family and friends—to visit him and ask him about the case. Even after meeting him for the first time and witnessing his wild interpretations of Napoleon, Shakespeare, and Nelson, Valeria shocks Mrs. Macallan by expressing her wishes to see him again (Collins 206, 222). Dexter’s romantic fantasies translate into strength and imagination in Valeria’s mind. ‘I believe he really can be of use to me’, she declares to her mother-in-law (Collins 222). Mrs. Macallan, though, senses Valeria’s inexperience with detective work and worries that, rather than interviewing Dexter as a man of the law would, Valeria intends to ‘take him into [her] confidence’, relying on circumstantial evidence and intuition rather than the logic of the law (Collins 222). Valeria admits, ‘I dare say [visiting Dexter again] is a risk; but I must run risks. I know I am not prudent; but prudence won’t help a woman in my position, with my end to gain’ (Collins 222). By admitting and then dismissing these anxieties, Valeria shifts firmly from orthodox legal practise to gothic detection. The high stakes of losing her marriage motivate her to act intuitively—and thus impulsively—rather than rationally.

Valeria’s self-policing, then, comes in a non-traditional form; she must police herself against a natural unease about her methods. At their second meeting, Dexter takes advantage of Valeria’s emotional investment in the case, projecting culpability onto Mrs. Beauly as soon as he discovers Valeria’s jealousy of the beautiful woman (Collins 250–51). From the excitement of naming a suspect, Dexter announces, ‘My brains are beginning to boil again in my head!’ which confirms Valeria’s fears about his mental state (Collins 259). ‘The old madness seized on him again’ Valeria narrates, ‘I made for the door, to secure my retreat in case of necessity’ (Collins 259). Valeria purposely puts herself in disgraceful and potentially dangerous situations to investigate the murder, which goes against themes in nineteenth-century detective narratives in comparison to Gothic horror. According to Poger and Magistrale, ‘[In detection, n]o matter how horrible the crime, the detective is there to take charge of the situation. […In horror, …] the contemporary female must survive the rampaging monster largely without hope of a male rescuer’ (141, 146). In this pattern, the danger to Valeria is both modern and horrific. Valeria ‘must survive’ her meetings with Dexter ‘largely without hope of a male rescuer’—specifically her husband, the man she must rescue from an unfair verdict.

Valeria’s irrational style of sleuthing allows her to make surprising discoveries left undetected by Eustace’s attorneys and the Scottish police. Valeria comes to realise the value of information about the poisonings and the people staying at Gleninch at the time of Sara’s death as she continues to mull over her visits with Dexter to piece together her memories—and his—as evidence. Since the facts do not speak for themselves and cannot be determined from deductive reasoning, and since inductive reasoning puts unnatural constraints on her creative instincts, Valeria moves fluidly between rational and gothic detection, using whichever method suits her needs at the time. In The Law and the Lady, gothic detection is the only avenue to some of the most deeply hidden clues (specifically Sara’s concealed suicide letter, torn to pieces long ago and buried in the dust heap), which is what requires Valeria to continue her relationship with Dexter. This again relates to the horror genre, because ‘if the victim did not proceed into looking where he or she should not, then the monster might never have been released in the first place’ (Poger and Magistrale 148). Valeria functions as both the detective and the victim because of the situations into which she willingly puts herself. She allows herself to be victimised for the sake of gathering evidence. Valeria must break the rules of conventional detection or the case can never be solved and her marriage will be over.

Dexter’s mental capacity weakens through the course of the novel. Unable to deal healthily with the death of his beloved Sara and trapped inside a grotesque body and dilapidated house, Dexter’s mind twists reality into visions, stories, dramatic interpretations, and fleeting thoughts about the past. But even during this fragmentation, Valeria holds onto hope that Dexter will hold the key to detection. That is, she holds onto this hope until she discovers that Dexter really did hold the key—the physical key—that unlocked Sara’s sickroom, which places the blame more securely on him than on anyone else and halts Valeria’s solitary visits to him. Once the ‘monster’ is released, Valeria retreats from the gothic detective practises, even relinquishing the case temporarily to Mr. Playmore and Benjamin.

Collins’s antagonistic characters represent both a gender bias and a complete, if unfounded, trust in the law. Valeria, though, shows that a woman in love can accomplish larger feats than any government. One of the most satisfying passages in the novel comes when the attorney finally realises this. Awed at the amount of information Valeria has gleaned from Dexter, Playmore considers the success of her unconventional methods, but he fears the risks they pose to her. He states, ‘in all human likelihood you prove your husband’s innocence by the discovery of the truth’, but ‘not even with your reward in view, can I find it in my conscience to advise you to risk what you must risk, if you see Miserrimus Dexter again’ (Collins 316). Valeria ignores Playmore’s warnings, well aware of the dangers without them. The discovery depends not on honest questioning and legal practises, but on Valeria’s resurgence into gothic detection one last time to try to save Eustace.

To the horror of her peers (especially Benjamin), Valeria uses Dexter’s demented stream-of-consciousness narratives to piece together the clues of Sara’s death. Dexter’s diseased mind causes his narratives to read as disturbing and mutilated texts, and Valeria takes it upon herself to decipher them. During one of his nonsensical narratives, Dexter’s final words, which ‘seemed to set interpretation at defiance’, turn into the evidence that will eventually lead to the solution once logic is applied (Collins 349). Although Benjamin, Mr. Playmore, and a team of employees—rather than Valeria—end up piecing together the hidden suicide letter at Gleninch (which absolves Eustace from active murder but not the culpability of Sara’s death), they are indebted to her intuition in solving the case and credit her for the discoveries made. Once Dexter’s text is transcribed and deciphered, his elevated importance to the case drops out of the novel, as do the gothic customs needed to piece together an irrational text.

Valeria sidesteps traditional legal conventions and creates her own hybrid blend of instinct and logic, which pairs womanly persuasion and intelligence with faith in the paranormal circumstances surrounding the ‘murder’ case. Valeria redefines detection to suit her own needs in order to solve the mystery outside of the rigid borders of rationality, but within reaching distance of induction when she needs the firmer guidance of the law. Because of the fractured nature of this case (with multiple mysteries and dead ends interwoven), Valeria discovers that gothic detection only goes so far; the case cannot be solved entirely through gothic means. A logical process of critical thinking must be applied to the gothic-derived evidence once it is available: ‘Nothing matters now but the facts’, says Valeria once the clues are in her possession (Collins 386). This is a stark change from her earlier refusal to think logically.

Valeria solves the case, but the solution presents more questions than answers about the disturbing nature of evidence. Even after Sara’s suicide by arsenic has been confessed through her farewell letter, Mr. Playmore and Eustace’s mother continue to protest. Playmore insists that ‘the last person living who ought […] to be allowed to see’ the suicide letter is Eustace (Collins 382). Despite withstanding protests for so long throughout the case, Valeria finally adopts this same rhetoric for herself. It is, for Valeria, an agonizing paradox because she ‘had devoted [her] life’ to clearing Eustace’s name: ‘There, on the table before me, lay the triumphant vindication of my husband’s innocence; and, in mercy to him, in mercy to the memory of his dear wife, my one hope was that he might never see it! My one desire was to hide it from the public view!’ (Collins 395). Valeria gives up her hope of rectifying the ‘Not Proven’ verdict in order to extract herself from the dreadful implications of the evidence which ‘sickened and horrified’ her (Collins 396). Although the suicide acquits Eustace from a legal obligation regarding the death, his lack of outward love for Sara was the motive of her suicide. Valeria gives Eustace the choice of whether to read Sara’s letter, but it is not an objective choice; Valeria convinces him that by not reading the letter, and not overturning his verdict, ‘[he will] be acting mercifully and tenderly towards the memory of [his late] wife’, and ‘making some little atonement for any pain that [he] may have caused her to suffer in her lifetime’ (412). There can be no atonement, since Sara died a miserable, lonely death, and Valeria’s pretenses about any such reparation speak boldly about her marital anxieties. The wife, newly reunited with the father of her newborn son, is consumed solely with hiding his implicit blame. She feels responsible for the outcome of the case (and, essentially, for concealing the legal allegations), since it was she who—despite earnest protest—collected the scattered evidence and raised truth from rubbish.

Miserrimus Dexter’s death at the conclusion of the narrative has equally disturbing implications, and Collins obliges the reader to look away from the deformed man’s pain just as Valeria does, since she is absent at the time of his death (407). She pities him, as the narrative admits many times, but fears the depths of his physical and mental abnormalities. ‘So that strange and many-sided life’, she muses, ‘with its guilt and its misery, its fitful flashes of poetry and humour, its fantastic gaiety, cruelty, and vanity—ran its destined course, and faded out like a dream!’ (Collins 407). By relegating Dexter’s life to a dream, she confines the senselessness of Dexter’s life to a safe place. She catalogs his insanity as a breakdown rather than as an acceptable form of daily living. During his life, Valeria endures Dexter’s deformity and dementia in order to pluck out evidence stored away in Dexter’s fuzzy memory, but she cannot bear his company or transcribe his gothic disability a moment longer than necessary.

In order to make sense of these Victorian anxieties about criminality and deformity, Collins preserves aspects of the mystery at the conclusion of the novel. Only Dexter knew the whole story of Sara’s death, but Collins silences him long before Valeria’s team pieces together Sara’s suicide letter. Even before his exit, when Valeria deciphers part of his spoken narrative, she fills in the incomprehensible portions with assumptions. Likewise, after Benjamin and Mr. Playmore reconstruct the letter, they must use Valeria’s clues to figure out the context and its meaning, filling in holes ‘with what appeared to be the meaning of the writer’ (Collins 390). Everything ‘detected’ by Valeria and her helpers could have been unveiled by Dexter, had his illness not obstructed his narratives, or had Valeria been willing to continue to sit (and sift) through his illogical narratives. Collins gestures to a modern view of psychology in his expression that there are some things one cannot know. Although the reader presumes Dexter possessed the evidence for the entire case, Collins is not willing to disclose Dexter’s entire narrative. He deems the depths of Dexter’s disabilities and emotions too disturbing to relate in their entirety. The novel’s ending is so problematic and unfinished that Collins must have steered deliberately away from finality in order to preserve his audience’s tacit protest against disturbing information.

In ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, W. H. Auden writes, ‘[i]n the detective story the audience does not know the truth at all; one of the actors—the murderer—does; and the detective, of his own free will, discovers and reveals what the murderer, of his own free will, tries to conceal’ (407). But these expected tropes of later detective fiction were not yet normalised, thus Collins uses The Law and the Lady to experiment within the young genre. The murderer (Sara) does not try to conceal her death but rather explains her motives vividly. It is the detective who must conceal what the murderer has revealed about herself. Collins’s exploration of these deviances signifies his uneasiness regarding the material that might be detected and, ultimately, its impact on Valeria’s marriage and domesticity.

The Law and the Lady abandons gothic detection at its conclusion in favour of the safety of methodological reasoning. Collins uses this novel to work through a deep discomfort with the origins of disability and criminality, treating them almost indistinguishably throughout a majority of the narrative. The insistent push for answers meets its end with ample evidence to solve the case, but Collins trivializes absolute truth for the sake of preserving the unknown and the comfort therein. The rhetoric of protest in The Law and the Lady combats not the goal of detection but rather the finality of it. Collins’s characters do not want injustice; they simply fear that the truth about criminals is worse than suspicion of them. Likewise, there is something distinctly terrifying about understanding twisted minds or bodies—much better not to know, to leave them at the margins of hermeneutic work. The preservation of mystery in The Law and the Lady allows Collins to preserve the sanctity of Victorian unrest concerning the unknown realm of abnormality. Though the method of inquiry transfers from gothic detection to rational detection near the novel’s end, the Gothic revival is ever apparent in the conclusion. Collins revives Gothic tropes to assert that there are places inquiry should not go and spaces detection cannot penetrate. Collins’s rhetoric of protest against detection, then, finds its greatest challenge in the fact-obsessed Victorian readers, to whom he writes, ‘if you ever discover what I am now keeping from your knowledge—from that moment you live a life of torture’ (54)

Works Cited

Allan, Janice M. “A Lock without a Key: Language and Detection in Collins’s The Law and the Lady.” Clues 25.1 (Fall 2006): 45–57. Education Database. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

Ashley, Robert. Wilkie Collins. New York: Roy Publishers, 1952. Print.

Auden, W. H. “The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the Detective Story, by an Addict.” Harper’s Magazine May 1948. Web, 20 Dec. 2016. http://www.harpers.org/archive/1948/0033206.

Cavallaro, Rosanna. “Solution to Dissolution: Detective Fiction from Wilkie Collins to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Texas Journal of Women and the Law 15 (2005): 1–41. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Biographia Literaria.Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Eds. Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004. 372–552. Print.

Collins, Wilkie. The Law and the Lady. 1875. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.

Craig, Patricia, and Mary Cadogan. The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Print.

Diamond, Michael. “The ‘Sensation Novel’.” Victorian Sensation. London: Anthem Press, 2003. 189–217. Print.

Dupeyron-Lafay, Françoise. “The Paradox of Gothic Detection in The Law and the Lady (1875) by Wilkie Collins.” Anglophonia 15 (2004): 141–52. Print.

Flint, Kate. “Disability and Difference.” The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins. Ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. 153–67. Print.

Larson, Edward J. Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. New York: The Modern Library, 2004. Print.

Liggins, Emma. “Her Resolution to Die: ‘Wayward Women’ and Constructions of Suicide in Wilkie Collins’s Crime Fiction.” Wilkie Collins Society Journal 4 (2001): 5–17. Print.

Malmgren, Carl D. “Anatomy of Murder: Mystery, Detective, and Crime Fiction.” Journal of Popular Culture 30.4 (Spring 1997): 115–35. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

Mangum, Teresa. “Wilkie Collins, Detection, and Deformity.” Dickens Studies Annual 26 (1998): 285–310. Print.

O’Fallon, Kathleen. “Breaking the Laws about Ladies: Wilkie Collins’ Questioning of Gender Roles.” Wilkie Collins to the Forefront: Some Reassessments. Eds. Nelson Smith and C. R. Terry. New York: AMS, 1995. 227–39. Print.

Poger, Sidney, and Tony Magistrale. “Poe’s Children: The Conjunction of the Detective and the Gothic Tale.” Clues 18.1 (1997): 127–50. Print.

Rosner, Mary. “Deviance in The Law and the Lady: The Uneasy Positionings of Mr. Dexter.” Victorian Newsletter 106 (Fall 2004): 9–14. Literature Resource Center. Web. 21 Dec. 2016.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder. Second edition. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985. Print.

Trecker, Janice Law. “Wilkie Collins’s Sleuths and the Consolations of Detection.” Midwest Quarterly 54.4 (Summer 2013): 337–51. EBSCOhost. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

Please follow and like us: