My Wilkie Collins Craze: February-April 2012

Basil (1852)

Not one joke. Seriously. Not one joke in the whole book. I can forgive Wilkie Collins a lot — his bland, pale, brainless and characterless heroines; his dumb, dull, serious and sanctimonious heroes, who fall head over heels in love with the ham heroines, preferably without having exchanged one sensible word with them — as I say, I forgive Wilkie Collins all of that most of the time, but not in this relentlessly joke-less book, with the palest, purest heroine of them all, aptly called Clara, with Margaret Sherwin, the swarthiest she-devil that even Collins invented, and with the most bloodless and slow-witted hero of the lot: Basil!


There are some outstandingly baroque, lovely lively characters in Wilkie Collins’ books who make up for all the miserably dull and dim-witted protagonists: swarthy, sexy Marian Halcombe of “The lady is ugly!”-fame — half-sister of the endlessly helplessly swooning heroine and one of the finest Victorian feminist characters ever; the hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, a delicious character nearly as good as Jane Austen’s Mr Henry Woodhouse; and, of course, the inimitable, vicious, eccentric, larger-than-life Count Fosco, his pet white mice crawling creepily over his enormously fat body — one of the most memorable creations ever; Gabriel Betteredge and his dog-eared and beloved Robinson Crusoe, one of Collins’ delightfully unreliable narrators; unforgettable Miss Clack and her hideous pamphlets, or rose-sniffing detective Sargent Cuff.
There are a variety of interesting and well-rounded female characters in Collins’ novels, including the first female detective in English Literature, Valeria Brinton in The Law and the Lady (1875) and Lydia Gwilt, the red-headed villainess in Armadale, still a fascinating character in our times, either as the protagonist of a marital tragedy, or as a favourite murderess.

It’s in the fireworks that is The Woman in White (1860) that a concentration of these baroque and strong creations characters appear.

Wilkie Collins invented the sensation novel. He took Gothic stories away from their ghost-filled castles and placed them into what he called “the secret theatre of home”. The result is infinitely more chilling, especially in the tales of domestic abuse that are at the heart of The Woman in White, but also, for example, of Man and Wife (1870), Collins’s first didactic work, which attacks both Irish and Scottish marriage laws as well as arguing the case for a Married Woman’s Property Act.

Glorious, glorious woman in White!
This poster was Dickens’s way around the dictum that no article in his weekly journals Household Words and All the Year Round was to be signed. To keep Collins on staff, Dickens agreed that advertising designed for booksellers’ windows could specifically ascribe authorship of his serialised novels to Wilkie Collins. Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham

Back to Basil, which was Collins’ second novel — and it shows. Even his later didactic novels, sensationalist, sexist and classist as they often are, are salvaged by a sense of fun which is completely lacking in Basil.

The relentless attack on the “nouveaux riches“: ordinary, fatally sexually attractive, swarthy she-devil Margaret Sherwin and her vulgar, parvenu, uneducated and greedy parents, gives us the full benefit of Collins’ classism and unchecked snobbery, unbalanced by humour and reinforced by the continuous and tedious comparisons with Basil’s educated, refined, aristocratic family and with his pale, golden-haired, sunshine-bright (I kid you not!) and unsexed sister Clara. Nothing here of the exuberance of Dickens’ hilarious couple Mr Alfred and Mrs Sophronia Lammle, just spiteful stereotypes and prejudices. To be fair to Collins, he never sinks to these levels again — I suspect that the artistic darkness-light theme made him paint the connected hoi polloi-aristocracy contrast starker than he intended.

What to say about Collins’ sexism — or that nauseating idealisation of woman that was at the heart of Victorian romantic love? It is here in Basil, and it is a constant in all Wilkie Collins’ novels. There is no artistic excuse for this, and the “sexual frailty” of men, which makes them such easy victims to femmes fatales, still serves — as late as 1884 — as an excuse for male bad behaviour and for more sanctimonious twaddle about women and their angelic forgivingness in I Say “No”.
Intelligent, resourceful women are either adventuresses & murderesses, or mannish — Marian Halcombe even has a mustache. They provide intelligent conversation but will remain spinsters. Collins, a polyamorous laudanum addict, should have known better. He probably did. As a matter of fact, I agree that The Woman in White is a feminist novel, and I hope Feminéma gets to write the screenplay for the mini-series. She’s right about the ending & the love-hate story between Marian and Fosco — and I would like to add that the lesbian half-sisters get to live together happily ever after, until death do them part.

From Armadale, not a must-read but still quite amusing — although this quote won’t probably endear it to female readers. Not to mention male readers, of course — there are occasions when the male mind accurately appreciates an appeal to the force of pure reason, and recognises blatant sexism for what it is … 🙂

“What are Marian and Count Fosco fighting over? The very soul and freedom of women.” Feminéma

The unreliable narrator. Collins’ use of voice is impressive, and never so impressive as in The Woman in White — narrowly followed by The Moonstone, where unforgettable Gabriel Betteredge and Ms Clack delight the reader with their opinionated and self-serving versions of the facts.
In The Woman in White, Frederick Fairlie, Mrs Catherick and Count Fosco are the most entertaining narrators, and they are equally untrustworthy. Fairlie’s hypochondria, Mrs Catherick’s spitefulness and the sheer brilliance and adorableness of Count Fosco, in spite of his villainy: each of the narrators lays bare their personality through their own words, and heightens the suspense through their narratives.

Swarthy she-devils and brainless heroes in Victorian gardens

The gloriously unreliable narrator in Armadale is stunningly beautiful and dangerous femme fatale Lydia Gwilt. T. S. Eliot wrote “The one of Collins’s novels which we should choose as the most typical, or as the best of the more typical, and which we should recommend as a specimen of the melodramatic fiction of the epoch, is Armadale. It has no merit beyond melodrama, and it has every merit that melodrama can have.” This would be true, but for the glorious creation that is Lydia Gwilt. Her account of her villainous behaviour is candid and astonishingly convincing, even as strong voices in the novel point out that justice and public opinion have gone soft on criminality. Through Lydia Gwilt’s bitingly sarcastic remarks, the vapidness and blandness of especially the hero of this melodrama become clear — and she seduces the reader into sympathising with her.

Angelic as well as diabolical characters, an immense sense of humour, extraordinary use of language and style — interesting observations on gender and social issues and on the system of law in Victorian times (Wilkie Collins had trained as lawyer before he became a writer) — conspiracies, insanity, sanatoria and madhouses, lost diamonds of Indian gods, suicides, abortionists, Italian counts and white mice, shipwrecks, disappeared heirs and red-haired villainesses, murder, abduction, laudanum by the bottle, not to mention unknown poisons in any amount — still I’ve been wondering during the last approximately 45 days — in short moments of lucidity — what kept me reading. How much melodrama can a body stomach?
I was hooked. I got addicted. I turned the pages and couldn’t get enough. I hopped from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, blindly hanging on to the writer’s hand. Collins himself reveals his greatest narrative trick, the secret of his own enduring appeal, in one of his letters. So beguilingly simple, so masterly executed — he took as his literary motto an adage of the musical hall: ‘Make them laugh, make them cry – and make them wait.’


4 thoughts on “My Wilkie Collins Craze: February-April 2012

  1. I just want to cuddle up to this blog post and never let it go. And Basil. Oh, Basil. I really like his crazy dream where he basically has to choose between his sister or his wife. Collins: not so subtle about the incest.

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