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Representations of illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's early novels.

Illegitimacy was a prominent political, social, and literary issue throughout the nineteenth century, and is a theme that the sensation novelist Wilkie Collins repeatedly returns to in his fiction. Best remembered for his 1860 novel, The Woman in White, which heralded the beginning of the reading public's appetite for sensation literature, and his 1868 novel, The Moonstone, a defining text in the genre of detective fiction, Collins published twenty five novels as well as numerous short stories and plays in a career spanning over forty years. Collins's writing throughout his career served as a platform for his often unconventional views on marriage and the position of women in society as well as on the treatment of illegitimate children. Illegitimacy was a popular subject for Victorian writers, not only because of its value as a plot device, but also because of the changing laws affecting illegitimate children and their parents which kept the topic in the public eye. This essay will examine Wilkie Collins's engagement with the theme of illegitimacy in two of his early novels--Hide and Seek (1854) and The Dead Secret (1857)--focussing particularly on his examination of the social and legal issues that affected the illegitimate child and its parents.

A brief history of the legislation affecting illegitimate children and their parents is necessary to understand the backdrop against which Victorian novelists were writing. At the beginning of the century there remained in place an act dating back to 1609, which stated that "every lewd woman which shall have any bastard which may be chargeable to the parish shall be committed to the house of correction." (1) In 1810, a further act ensured that a woman could not be imprisoned for longer than one year, but in 1834 the Bastardy laws underwent a radical change. Up until this point, "any man charged by a woman as the father of her illegitimate child had either to contribute towards its maintenance, marry the woman or submit to imprisonment." (2) If the parents of an illegitimate child could not afford the cost of its upbringing, then the parish would provide financial assistance. A commission was set up to investigate the Bastardy laws, the result of which was The Poor Law Report of 1834. The authors of the report objected to the fact that a man could be punished based on a woman's allegations, and suggested that for a woman "a single illegitimate child is seldom any expense, and two or three are a source of positive profit" (261). The report argued that "the female in these cases is generally the party most to blame; and that any remedy, to be effectual, must act chiefly with reference to her" (270), a conclusion indicative of the sexual double standard and fear of female sexuality that prevailed in the nineteenth century. The report concluded that the Bastardy Laws "offer temptations to the crime which they were intended to punish" (477), and consequently recommended their entire abolition, thus effectively freeing the fathers of illegitimate children from any legal responsibility. Although the House of Lords amended the bill so that a woman could apply to the Quarter Sessions for maintenance payments from the father, the fact that a woman's evidence now had to be independently corroborated made it virtually impossible for such an application to succeed. (3) Furthermore, even if successful, the father of the child could no longer be imprisoned for non-payment, thus making it unlikely that the mother would receive any financial assistance. Although these reforms meant that an unmarried mother could no longer be imprisoned as punishment for beating an illegitimate child, their overall effect was to place the full responsibility for the child on the mother. Various amendments were made to the Bastardy Laws in the years that followed. (4) Affiliation cases were returned to the Petty Sessions in 1838, supposedly making it easier for the mother to apply for maintenance, but as corroborative evidence was still required, the difficulty in gaining financial assistance from the father of the child remained.

The legal system, which placed the entire onus of responsibility for an illegitimate child on the mother, did, ironically, provide some benefits with regard to the custody of the child. Just as a single woman was able to own property, whereas a married woman was not, so too was a single woman entitled to full custody of her child, whilst a married woman was denied even the most basic custodial rights. (5) As Laura Berry observes, "the child himself was in effect a form of property and so, like all other wealth in the marriage, belonged more or less exclusively to the husband." (6) In 1886 the Guardian of Infants Act appointed the mother as guardian upon the death of the father, but prior to this the rights of the husband over a child were absolute: he could, if he so chose, appoint a guardian other than the mother to take custody of the child in the event of his death, and the mother was powerless to prevent her children being removed (100). Similarly in the case of the parents separating, "the father's right to custody of his progeny was largely unquestioned and legally absolute" (98). However, in the case of an illegitimate child, it was the mother who had exclusive custody rights, regardless of the father's wishes: "Illegitimate children belong to the mother, and the father, even if avowed, cannot take possession of them." (7) Thus to bear an illegitimate child gave a woman an advantage over the married mother, whilst simultaneously inflicting social and legal disadvantages on both herself and her child. Not surprisingly, these contradictory laws became the subject of much feminist debate in the latter part of the nineteenth century, amongst both those campaigning for the rights of women, and those advocating the same rights for illegitimate children as were granted to legitimate offspring. In 1882 the feminist and campaigner Annie Besant--herself a disenfranchized mother--summarized the paradoxical and unfair nature of the laws:

[T]he law has no reverence for the tie between mother and child, and ignores every claim of the mother who is also a wife. The unmarried mother is far better off; she has an absolute right to the custody of her own children; none can step in and deprive her of her little ones, for the law respects the maternal tie when no marriage ceremony has 'legitimated' it Motherhood is only sacred in the eye of the law when no legal contract exists between the parents of the child. (8)

Although the law that granted full custodial rights to the mother of an illegitimate child offered the possibility of protection from a violent or unsuitable father, something denied to a legitimate child and its mother (as is demonstrated in Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), it also deprived the child of a number of rights automatically assumed by legitimate offspring. Annie Besant highlighted these inequalities: "children proceeding from an unlegalised union have not the same rights as those born in wedlock, do not inherit as of right, and have no legal name" (420). The consequence of the law was that an illegitimate child could only inherit if specific instructions were left in the form of a Will. If a father died intestate, any illegitimate offspring would be entitled to nothing, as they were not legally recognised as the deceased's next of kin. This inequality was further emphasised by the fact that if a father did bequeath any property to an illegitimate child, that child had to "pay a higher rate of duty" (9) than a legitimate child. Thus in the unlikely event of a father acknowledging his parental responsibility towards an illegitimate child, the child, under the oppressive legal system in place, was still penalised for the circumstances of its birth. Similarly, any child born out of wedlock was unable to claim any hereditary title to which it might otherwise be entitled. The fact that it was only men who succeeded their fathers in this respect allows for a comparison between illegitimate children and women in Victorian England: both were oppressed by a legal system that favoured the legitimate male.

The laws that discriminated against an illegitimate child and its mother in the nineteenth century were founded on moral objections, and these in turn attached a stigma to an unmarried mother and her offspring which was potentially as damaging as the legal disadvantages. The fact that this stigma attached itself primarily to the mother, rather than the father, of an illegitimate child is again indicative of the sexual double standard, which condemned a woman's sexual transgression whilst tacitly accepting male promiscuity. This view was expressed by Lord Brougham in the House of Lords in 1834: "though want of chastity was a crime, a sin in man, it was still greater in a woman, whose error corrupted society at its very root." (10) Paula Bartley suggests that the single mother "posed a threat to the social equilibrium," (11) whilst the unmarried pregnant woman represented "the living embodiment of immorality and an all too visible reminder of female sexual activity" (ibid.). The disgrace associated with illegitimacy attached itself to the child as well as the mother. Amongst the middle and upper classes at least, the bastard was a personification of the mother's sin. This is emphasised by the fact that in Collins's fiction the fallen woman is often illegitimate herself (12)--implying that she is irrevocably tainted by her own mother's sexual transgression and thus her own fall is inevitable. For women in particular, illegitimacy could act as a preventative to marriage, at a time when importance was still placed on family name and history. However, amongst the lower classes of society, where illegitimacy was the most common, there was far less of a stigma attached to it. As Sally Mitchell observes: "the poor could tolerate the raising of children by single mothers but those who aspired to something better could not; respectability was the dividing line." (13) The stigma associated with illegitimacy was dependent on a number of factors--class, gender, money etc.--but the predominating view, in some respects perpetuated by the literature of the time, was a strong disapproval on moral grounds of unmarried mothers and their children.

For Collins, the theme of illegitimacy was more than just a plot mechanism: through his fiction he continually questioned society's condemnation of the unmarried mother and her child, whilst simultaneously "portray[ing] illegitimacy as a figure for types of social exclusion and disenfranchisement." (14) Collins's interest in illegitimacy also had an autobiographical component: in 1869 he fathered the first of three illegitimate children by his lover Martha Rudd. His 1863 novel, No Name, represents the pinnacle of his attack on the Victorian legal and social system that condemned illegitimacy, but it was by no means the first of his works to confront this issue. His previous novel, The Woman in White (1860), included two illegitimate characters (Anne Catherick and Sir Percival Glyde), and his short story, "The Dead Hand," (1857), anticipates both The Woman in White and No Name in its treatment of illegitimacy. My discussion, however, will focus on Collins's engagement with the theme of illegitimacy in two of his earliest novels, Hide and Seek (1854), and The Dead Secret (1857), both published some time before he established himself as a successful writer with The Woman in White.

Although illegitimacy was a popular theme for Victorian writers, the bastard in literature dates back far beyond the nineteenth century. From Shakespeare's Edmund in King Lear, to the eponymous hero of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Harriet Smith in Jane Austen's Emma (1815), characters of unknown or illegitimate origin abound in the history of British literature. However, the controversies that surrounded the changes to the bastardy laws in the nineteenth century created an ideal atmosphere for the novelist's exploration of the social and legal implications of illegitimacy. As Jenny Bourne Taylor observes, illegitimacy "presented novelists with particular possibilities and problems." (15) Whilst many writers continued to use the topic merely as a plot mechanism, the increasing use of the theme paralleled increasing concerns and publicity about the issue. Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (1838) heralded a new wave of illegitimate children in literature, neatly paralleled by an increase in the birth rate of actual illegitimate children. (16) Dickens's attitude to Oliver is typical of that of many Victorian writers. The narrative condemns the illicit relationship that led to the child's birth, but sympathizes with the child himself: "Make restitution to an innocent and unoffending child, for such he is, although the offspring of a guilty and most miserable love." (17) Oliver's mother is subjected to the typical punishment for the fictional fallen woman--dying in the workhouse immediately after the birth of her child. A similar attitude is found in Bleak House (1853), in which it is Lady Dedlock, the mother of the illegitimate Esther, who suffers and dies, rather than her child. Dickens appears to dismiss the notion that Esther's illegitimacy inevitably mints her character: "I knew I was as innocent of my birth as a queen of hers; and that before my Heavenly Father I should not be punished for birth, nor a queen rewarded for it." (18) However, her physical disfigurement as a result of contracting smallpox is suggestive of her social impairment: the illegitimate woman cannot represent the ideal of Victorian femininity. In this respect, Bleak House prefigures Collins's treatment of illegitimacy in Hide and Seek, in which physical disability is used as a metaphor for social disability.

The fictional punishment for illegitimacy--inflicted almost invariably on the mother, occasionally on the child, but rarely on the father--prevailed throughout the nineteenth century: few single mothers survive to raise their children in Victorian fiction. A separation between unmarried mother and child was generally deemed necessary: sexually transgressive women were not to be granted any of the privileges of motherhood. Literary convention did not demand the punishment of the illegitimate child as it did the mother, but the concept of "a cloud of shame and disgrace" (19) hanging over the child predominated in both fiction and reality amongst the middle and upper classes. In Frances Trollope's Jessie Phillips (1843), the author neatly kills off all parties involved, implying that illegitimacy irrevocably mints father, mother and child. The novel sympathizes with the child's mother, a servant, rather than her lover, a squire's son, who callously kills the baby before accidentally drowning. Ultimately though, the death of the mother is also required in order to ensure that "both justice and morality are served." (20)

One of the first novels to seriously question the accepted social condemnation of the unmarried mother, and to challenge its readers to acknowledge the possibility of reformation, was Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853). Through her eponymous heroine's repentance, Gaskell suggests the hypocrisy of those who condemn her. Ruth is one of the first texts to explicitly condemn society's unforgiving attitude towards the unmarried mother and her child, and its attack on the prevailing stigma attached to illegitimacy anticipates later campaigns advocating the rights of the unmarried mother and her child.

Following the publication of Ruth, there appeared a spate of works engaging with the theme of illegitimacy: Barrett-Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), Dickens's Little Dorrit (1857) and Eliot's Adam Bede (1859) were just a few of the texts that appeared in the 1850s on this issue. Amongst the multitude of novels addressing the topic in that decade were Hide and Seek (1854) and The Dead Secret (1857), the first two of Collins's novels to include a theme which continued to permeate his work throughout his literary career. Both novels deal with the social ramifications of illegitimacy, specifically in relation to women, and in both texts Collins uses physical disability as a narrative device: as a metaphor for social disability in Hide and Seek, and to indicate moral deficiencies in The Dead Secret.

Hide and Seek and The Dead Secret have received relatively little critical attention, with critics tending to focus their attention on Collins's four major novels of the 1860s. (21) Both texts are generally acknowledged as introducing a number of themes which were to become closely associated with Collins's fiction, including the subjects of illegitimacy and disability, yet there has been comparatively little discussion of Collins's treatment of these issues in his early work. Contemporary and recent critics have pointed to Dickensian elements in both texts. (22) Hide and Seek in particular has been repeatedly noted for its similarities to Dickens's fiction. (23) Nicholas Rance, for example, rather scathingly dismisses it as "Dickens-and-water," (24) and indeed the novel lacks the sensational elements for which Collins later became renowned and which in many respects served to distinguish his work from that of his friend. It is perhaps the implication that Collins had not fully developed his own style at this stage of his career that accounts for the lack of attention paid to his early novels. Dennis Denisoff's discussion of the artist in Hide and Seek, Martha Stoddard Holmes' attention to disabled women's sexuality in Collins's fiction and Tamar Heller's exploration of the influence of the female Gothic on The Dead Secret have begun to redress the absence of critical discussion of Collins's early work, (25) but both Hide and Seek and The Dead Secret remain largely ignored in critical debates on Collins's fiction.

Hide and Seek was Collins's third published novel, (26) and already bears many of the hallmarks that later became synonymous with his fiction: hidden identities; secret pasts; suffering women; and a plot that is to some degree reliant on coincidence. As well as introducing the theme of illegitimacy to his work, the novel is also the first in which he depicts a character with a physical disability in positive terms--something that he was to return to a number of times in his writing. (27) However, whilst illegitimacy is a key theme in the novel, Collins's subsequent avid interest in the legal injustices associated with illegitimacy is not yet apparent: his exploration of the legal aspects begins in his next novel, The Dead Secret, continues in The Woman in White and culminates in No Name.

Hide and Seek tells the story of the illegitimate Mary, known as Madonna because of her resemblance to the paintings of Raphael. Following the death of her mother shortly after her birth, she is taken in by Mrs. Peckover, the wife of a circus clown. Seven years later, she is rendered deaf and dumb after falling from a horse whilst performing at the circus. Subsequently she is shown at the circus as "THE MYSTERIOUS FOUNDLING! [...] TOTALLY DEAF AND DUMB!!!" (28) where she is seen by the artist Valentine Blyth who becomes enchanted by her beauty and takes her home to be brought up by himself and his invalid wife. The main story takes place when Madonna is twenty-two. Blyth lives in fear of any member of her real family discovering her and taking her away, and keeps what little he knows of her past a secret. His young friend Zack, with whom Madonna is in love, brings a stranger, Mat Grice, to meet Blyth and his family, and Grice notices a startling resemblance between Madonna and his sister Mary, who left home years earlier after falling pregnant with an illegitimate child. It emerges that Madonna is the child of Grice's sister, and the half-sister of Zack--his father having had a brief affair with her mother as a young man. Zack's father, a devout Christian and pillar of the community, (29) repents his abandonment of Madonna's mother, and dies shortly after. Madonna continues her quiet life with her foster parents and her newly discovered family.

In its treatment of the unmarried mother, Hide and Seek is relatively conventional. Her death, shortly after the birth of her child and amongst strangers, is reminiscent of that of Oliver's mother in Dickens's Oliver Twist. When those strangers advertise for her friends and family following her death, they receive a reply from her aunt, Joanna Grice, that signifies society's intolerant attitude to the unchaste woman: "She was better dead than alive ... after having disgraced her father and her relations. As for the child, it was the child of sin, and had no claim on people who desired to preserve all that was left of their good name" (88-89)--an attitude which echoes that of the narrow-minded Mr. Bradshaw in Gaskell's Ruth. However, although Mary's aunt condemns her transgression, other characters, and indeed the narrative itself, are sympathetic towards her: "a poor, unfortunate, forsaken creature who's gone to Heaven if ever an afflicted, repenting woman went there yet!" (365). Mary is characteristic of Collins's fallen women in that she does not appear to belong to the class of women who in reality were the most likely to fall pregnant out of wedlock. Mrs. Peckover, relating how she discovered Mary with her baby at the roadside, states: "we saw somehow that she was a lady--or if she wasn't exactly a lady, that no workhouse was proper for her, at any rate" (80). However, Mary's fall is not excused by her innocence or naivete and although the narrative is sympathetic towards her, her death as punishment for her sexual transgression appears therefore inevitable.

Although conventional, her death is also essential to the plot of the novel, which henceforth focuses on her illegitimate daughter. Madonna is one of Collins's most fascinating heroines, but her depiction is problematic to a feminist approach to his fiction. Interestingly, clear comparisons can be drawn between Collins's Madonna and Dickens's angelic women, in particular with Bleak House's Esther--also illegitimate, but, like Madonna, beloved by those who know her. The key difference between them is in their appearance: whilst Esther is left disfigured after contracting smallpox, Madonna is the "image of softness, purity and feminine gentleness" (51). The perception of the heroine as an angel is strengthened by Valentine's love for her, which borders on the devotional. He imagines that "deaf and dumb as she was with the creatures of this world, she could talk with the angels, and could hear what the heavenly voices said to her in return" (143-44). Catherine Peters concludes that Madonna emerges as "a totally blameless--and frankly rather dull--heroine." (30) In this respect the protagonist prefigures the more conventional female characters found in Collins's later novels, whose purpose is generally to provide a contrast to the character of the unconventional heroine, as is the case with Norah Vanstone in No Name (1862) and Blanche Lundie in Man and Wife (1870). But in Hide and Seek, the conventional heroine is not paralleled by a transgressive protagonist: Madonna is the novel's only female lead. In many respects her character emerges as a disappointingly stereotypical Victorian angel. A few years later, in the sensational 1860s, her beauty would no doubt have disguised a deceitful, manipulative character, (31) but in the more subdued 1850s, it represents a true reflection of her character. Peters suggests the conventional protagonist of Hide and Seek was possibly an attempt "to please Dickens," (32) with whom Collins was particularly close whilst writing the novel. However, Madonna is distinguishable from the stereotypical Victorian heroine as a consequence of the fact that she is deaf and dumb, and an examination of the effect of her disability on the presentation of her character allows for a much more interesting analysis.

Martha Stoddard Holmes's reading of Madonna's disability is interesting, if somewhat problematic. She suggests that

Collins bases his characterization of Madonna Blyth on ... Victorian cultural conventions that marked deafness as a bodily condition with emotional valence. While he identifies her impairment with pathos, however, he also explicates complex and disturbing erotics of pathos, making it clear that objects of pity are also objects of desire. (33)

This somewhat disturbing confusion between object of pity and object of desire is a recurrent feature in Collins's fiction. The Woman in White's Laura Fairlie, The New Magdalen's Mercy Merrick and The Fallen Leaves' Simple Sally all elicit feelings of both pity and desire from their respective rescuers. However, they all also eventually marry their rescuers, thus the "hero" generally gains sexual access to the woman he both pities and desires. This is not the case with Hide and Seek's Madonna, who is prevented from marrying the man she loves by the revelation that they are brother and sister, thus she remains at the novel's conclusion an idealised figure of femininity--both desirable and pure, and in this respect, she is not sexualised to the extent of many of Collins's other heroines.

The question arises of why Collins chose to depict a deaf and dumb protagonist. Given the fact of Madonna's illegitimacy, the possibility emerges that her disability is intended to serve as punishment for her birth. This idea finds support in the novel in the manner in which Madonna loses her hearing. As Martha Stoddard Holmes suggests, "It is tempting to see Madonna's literal fall as a repetition of her mother's figurative one" (77). The fall from the horse irresistibly suggests itself as a metaphor for Madonna's mother's sexual transgression: the falling girl representing the fallen woman, and the horse suggestive of an unbridled sexuality--thus implying that Madonna's fall is punishment for her mother's fall. However, taking into account Collins's repeatedly sympathetic depictions of fallen women and the fact that he later fathered three illegitimate children himself, it seems unlikely that he would have wanted to punish his protagonist for her illegitimate status.

Peters suggests that Collins's depiction of Madonna is the consequence of his desire to "advocate a positive attitude to handicap." (34) This is supported by the fact that Hide and Seek is the first of a number of Collins's novels to offer a sympathetic portrayal of disability, and would also explain why Collins, whose novels repeatedly feature transgressive, independent women, chose in this instance to depict a passive, angelic heroine: anything other than the Victorian ideal of femininity would have rendered his attempt to depict disability in a positive light impossible. However, given that a number of Collins's novels include distinctly negative depictions of disability, (35) it seems unlikely that Collins's primary purpose in depicting a deaf and dumb protagonist in Hide and Seek was to promote the rights of the disabled.

Taking into account the various depictions of disability in Collins's fiction, it would appear that rather than intending to promote a positive attitude to disability, Collins uses it as a narrative device: to suggest the moral deficiencies of a character in the case of his more negative portrayals, and in the case of Madonna, as a metaphor for her social disability--the consequence of her illegitimacy. Bleak House's Esther, whose physical disfigurement can be equated with Madonna's disability, is, like Madonna, an exaggerated version of the Victorian ideal of femininity--thus in both cases physical impairment can be read as signifying their illegitimate social status. Madonna is ostracised from other members of society by both her disability and her disreputable birth: her disability acts as a physical representation of her social position as an illegitimate Victorian woman. As Peters observes, her illegitimacy is "symbolised by her inability to speak." (36) Both her illegitimacy and her disability marginalize her character, just as Collins's more transgressive heroines are marginalized by their disregard for convention and abandonment of the traditional female role. Madonna's angelic looks and passive nature are to some degree effective in removing her from the peripheries of society, but her inability to articulate her own story renders her position within the narrative itself an illegitimate one. This is emphasised by the fact that other characters in the novel repeatedly, and often intentionally, exclude her by communicating only through speech, and not through the modes of communication in which she is capable of participating (writing and sign language). Often these communications directly concern her, but her disability renders her powerless to control what information she receives. Information may be casually exchanged in her presence without her being able to penetrate its meaning: "it's only a secret from Madonna, and we can talk before her, poor little soul, just as if she wasn't in the room" (166). Just as she is rendered silent by her disability, Valentine silences her past (her illegitimacy), requesting that his friends "consider her history before she came into this house as a perfect blank" (122), thus further emphasising her illegitimate status. When the identity of Madonna's father is eventually discovered, this too is initially concealed from Madonna: both she and her history are silenced by those around her. Valentine's motive for suppressing Madonna's history is his irrational fear that Madonna's natural family will discover her whereabouts and claim her from him: he appears unaware of the fact that her illegitimacy means that her biological father has no legal rights over her, and this is indicative of the confusion surrounding the illegitimacy laws in the nineteenth century. The effect of this suppression, however, is to further marginalize and silence her character.

While Collins arguably uses disability predominantly as a narrative device in Hide and Seek (to highlight Madonna's dispossessed status), his first positive depiction of a disabled character is nevertheless of interest to the study of nineteenth century responses to disability, paralleling as it does increasing social concerns about those suffering from various forms of sensory deprivation. These concerns were high-lighted by the 1851 census, which was the first to attempt to ascertain the number of blind and deaf/dumb people residing in the United Kingdom. (37) Collins's positive depiction of a deaf mute in this early novel attests to the fact that those afflicted with blindness or deafness were the subject of greater concern and sympathy than those suffering from physical or mental disabilities in the Victorian era. David G. Pritchard accounts for this by suggesting that "their appearance did not occasion the revulsion which the physically handicapped produced, nor their actions the scorn levelled at the feeble minded." (38) This too is reflected in Collins's fiction: whilst characters suffering from sensory deprivation are generally depicted in a positive light, (39) those with physical disabilities, such as The Law and the Lady's Misserrimus Dexter, are often portrayed in a much more negative light.

Madonna's disability combined with her physical appearance creates a disturbing effect: the protagonist becomes a distorted ideal of Victorian femininity--beautiful but above all silent. Her disability helps to ensure her passivity and dependence on others. When she threatens to get over-emotional, it becomes necessary to "quiet her directly" (146)--to further silence the already mute woman. In this respect, then, Madonna's dumbness can be seen as a metaphor for the silencing of women's voices in Victorian society: her character epitomises the idea that women should be seen and not heard. The fact that she is unable to articulate her thoughts or express her opinions through the medium of speech places her at the opposite end of the spectrum to Collins's independent heroines--in particular The Woman in White's Marian Halcombe. The contrast between these two characters is further emphasised by the fact that Marian, unlike the beautiful Madonna, is considered ugly. (40) Interestingly, though, both Madonna and Marian Halcombe conclude their respective narratives as single women--unlike the majority of Collins's female protagonists who are granted the traditional Victorian ending of a happy marriage. Marian's independent status is a reflection of her protofeminist values, but the same is clearly not true of Madonna: she remains entirely dependent on Mr. and Mrs. Blyth as a consequence of her disability. Once again, the possibility that her dependent single status serves as punishment for her illegitimacy is unlikely: almost all of the illegitimate women depicted in Collins's later novels eventually marry. (41) As one contemporary reviewer observed, in Hide and Seek Collins renders the marriage of the protagonist an impossibility "as the hero and heroine are discovered to be brother and sister." (42) There is a sense of unease at this revelation, given that prior to discovering this, Madonna is clearly in love with Zack--signified by her gift to him of her picture of the head of the Venus de Medici (154). Their familial relationship obviously acts as a preventative to the development of any further romantic feelings, and consequently Madonna's love for Zack cannot be legitimated through marriage: it remains, like her status within the narrative, illicit. Madonna's birth, her disability and her love for the man who is revealed as her half-brother all contribute to her illegitimate status within the narrative. Collins's first portrayal of illegitimacy is thus sympathetic, but problematic. He does not condemn Madonna for the circumstances of her birth, but neither does he completely exonerate her: the revelation that Zack is related to her denies her the personal fulfilment that so many of his other heroines eventually find in marriage. (43) She remains, at the conclusion of the narrative, a passive, dependent stereotype of Victorian femininity, unable, as a contemporary reviewer noted, to "play a very prominent role, from her position and physical deficiencies" (44): she is both physically disabled, as a consequence of her deafness, and socially disabled, as a consequence of her illegitimacy. The sense of injustice that the reader feels at Madonna's situation is perhaps an early attempt by Collins to emphasise the injustice of society's condemnation of the illegitimate child, a theme further explored in his next novel.

The Dead Secret (1857), like its predecessor, includes a fallen woman and her child, as well as a character suffering from a physical disability. The fallen woman is Sarah Leeson, who gives birth to an illegitimate daughter after her lover dies before they are able to marry. Her childless mistress, Mrs. Treverton, raises the baby as her own, ostensibly to protect the reputation of her maid, but in reality to ensure her husband's love. On her deathbed, five years later, she dictates a confession to her maid, intended for her husband. Following her death, Sarah conceals the confession in a disused room, known as the Myrtle room, and her daughter, Rosamond, grows up believing herself to be the child of Captain Treverton and his wife. Fifteen years later she is happily married to the blind Leonard Frankland and has just given birth to their first child when they return to her childhood home (now the property of her husband) and she discovers the letter detailing the truth about her parentage. She confesses the secret to her husband, who overcomes his prejudices and accepts her. Together they return the money that she has falsely inherited to the rightful heir--who eventually gives it back to them. Rosamond is briefly reunited with her natural mother, whose mind has been affected as a consequence of the long concealment of her daughter's birth, and who dies after eventually hearing her child call her "mother." (45) Sarah is buried in her lover's grave (46)--finally reunited with the father of her child through death. Rosamond and Leonard are granted a "happy-ever-after" ending.

In spite of certain thematic similarities with Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret signifies a significant development in Collins's treatment of the subject of illegitimacy. Both the legal implications and social attitudes are explored in greater detail. Collins links the problem of illegitimacy to the issue of inheritance for the first time, something which he was to repeat in his next two novels (The Woman in White and No Name), and considers, through the character of Rosamond's husband, Leonard, the prejudices that existed against those who had "no claim ... to the honours of a family name." (47) However, perhaps the most significant difference between the two novels lies in their treatment of the unmarried mother. Hide and Seek follows a conventional pattern, in which the fallen woman sins, suffers and dies shortly after the birth of her child--ensuring that the sexually transgressive woman is unable to raise her child. Although this pattern is repeated in a sense in The Dead Secret, the unmarried mother is subject to twenty years of suffering before finding relief through death. Like Mary Grice in the earlier novel, Sarah Leeson is also denied the opportunity of raising her daughter--forced to watch another woman raise her as her own instead. The fact that Collins does not immediately kill off the unmarried mother following the birth of her child allows him to explore in detail the effects of the severed maternal bond on her character. His portrayal is full of pathos, and he ensures the reader's sympathy for the fallen woman. Sarah Leeson is not one of Victorian literature's typical unchaste women. Although she transgresses, it is with the man she intends to marry: she is the victim of tragic circumstances, rather than the orchestrator of her own downfall. At the time of her lover's death, the banns have already been put up announcing their intended marriage (326)--but for his unexpected death, their child would have been legitimate. That circumstance alone prevented Sarah from marrying creates more sympathy for her character than if she had merely abandoned herself to her lover with no thought of marriage (as Mary Grice and Gaskell's Ruth do).

The effect of her lover's death and her pregnancy on Sarah's character is profound. When recovered from the initial shock, "all her youth was gone, all her hair was grey, and in her eyes the fright-look was fixed that has never left them since" (327). However, it is arguably the removal of her baby by her mistress, and the concealment of the secret of her child's birth, rather than the consequences of her sexual transgression, that affect Sarah the most. Although, as a servant, she belongs to a social group who experienced one of the highest rates of illegitimate births, (48) it is her mistress, a former actress with a love of horse riding, who typifies the image of the sexually threatening female: "The horses! I want to ride ... I am mad for a gallop in the open air" (328). Their positions of "respectable" wife and "disreputable" servant girl are further obscured when they change places in order to disguise the fact that it is the unmarried Sarah, not the wife of Captain Treverton, who gives birth. Sarah is manipulated by her mistress into giving up her child: "do as I tell you now, or you are a lost woman ... I mean ... to save you, my faithful servant, from disgrace and ruin" (330-31). Tamar Heller suggests that Mrs. Treverton "attacks both patriarchal privilege and class hierarchies by fraudulently installing an illegitimate and working-class child as heir to the father's estate." (49) Whilst this may be the case, the narrative condemns rather than condones Mrs. Treverton's actions. Her premature death represents punishment for her moral deviancy: like Sarah, she cannot be allowed to raise a child begotten by immoral means. Both women are guilty of improper behavior and consequently Mrs. Treverton's death does not allow Sarah to regain the lost place of mother to her child. In fact it serves to entirely separate her from her daughter, as she is forced to either admit the truth of her mistress' deception to her master, or leave her position. Unable to confess to the grieving husband, she abandons her daughter and condemns herself to a life of suffering and distress: "trapped by the secret and isolated in the smaller illegitimate world it circumscribes [she] passes through life as a victim." (50) Even when Rosamond finally discovers the secret of her birth, Sarah is prevented from fulfilling the role of mother to her child: "I cannot, even now, think of her as a child should think of a mother" (289). When they are eventually reunited and she is finally able to speak the words "my child is my own again" (350), she is granted only a few hours to spend with her daughter before death ends her "weary pilgrimage" (360). Sarah Leeson is one of Collins's most complex characters: he insightfully depicts the profound effects of the loss of a child on the unmarried mother, in contrast to more conventional texts in which that loss is presented as an inevitable necessity. The presentation of Sarah as a victim precedes that of Anne Catherick in The Woman in White and Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone, and is an early example of Collins's ability to deal sensitively and sympathetically with female suffering.

The portrayal of the illegitimate daughter in The Dead Secret also signifies a move towards a more realistic characterisation. Unlike Madonna in Hide and Seek, Rosamond Treverton (later Frankland) is not an idealised angel, "not one of the puling, sentimental sort" (49), but independent and assertive, paving the way in many respects for Collins's more self-assured heroines. Furthermore, unlike Madonna, Rosamond's illegitimate status is not signified by any physical impairment, thus to some extent validating the position of the illegitimate daughter. In his next novel, The Woman in White, Collins would draw on his two previous heroines--Madonna and Rosamond--to create the passive and dependent Laura Fairlie and the independent quasi-feminist Marian Halcombe. In The Dead Secret, Rosamond is introduced to the reader as "a fine, buxom, warm-hearted, quick-tempered girl" (ibid.). She has recently married her childhood sweetheart, Leonard Frankland, despite him offering to release her from the engagement following the loss of his sight. Instead of accepting this offer, she willingly acts as his physical guide: "my eyes serve for both of us now" (66). In this respect, their marriage is reminiscent of Jane and Rochester's in Bronte's Jane Eyre: "I was then his vision ... Never did I weary of gazing for his behalf." (51) Leonard's affliction necessarily renders him dependent on his wife, thus reversing traditional Victorian marriage roles. His character is very different from the hypocritical Joanna Grice in Hide and Seek, but he does harbour an innate belief in the "distinctions in rank on which the whole well-being of society depends." (52) Initially Leonard appears to be Rosamond's moral guide, berating her for her quick temper and familiarity with those who rank beneath her socially. However, following the revelation of her illegitimacy, it is she who guides her husband "emotionally as well as physically." (53) As in Hide and Seek, disability is used as a metaphor in The Dead Secret. Leonard is shown to be not only physically blind, but morally as well. Contrary to her husband, Rosamond does not make class distinctions: "I can't help liking people who are kind to me, without thinking whether they are above my rank or below it" (73). The difference between the open-minded Rosamond and her narrow-minded husband is reflected in the physical appearance of her eyes, which are "brilliantly resolute" (69), contrasting with the blindness of her husband and indicative of her strength of mind and independence. By the conclusion of the narrative, Leonard's moral sight at least is restored, although Collins avoids a fairy-tale ending in which his physical sight is also recovered (as Rochester's is in Bronte's Jane Eyre).

The revelation of Rosamond's illegitimacy strips her of her identity, and consequently she "embodies Victorian women's legal and economic identitylessness." (54) In his novels exploring illegitimacy, Collins repeatedly focuses on the namelessness of the illegitimate child. In The Dead Secret this point is emphasised by the fact that the protagonist not only carries the surname of the man who is not her father, but also the Christian name of the woman who usurped the place of her mother. As a consequence of her illegitimacy, she is not entitled to the name of her natural father, and in fact by the time she discovers her real parentage, she is married and bearing her husband's surname, therefore unable to take her natural mother's name. She is literally nameless: the only name she is entitled to bear is that of her husband, and that, from a feminist perspective, indicates the dispossession of women's identity. For Collins, the inheritance of a name is as significant as the inheritance of property--both problematic issues for the illegitimate child.

The disinheritance of Rosamond as a result of her illegitimate status shows Collins employing a relatively common plot device. As a consequence of the law that meant that no illegitimate child could inherit by right, (55) the themes of illegitimacy and inheritance inevitably left much scope for plot manoeuvring--something which Collins took full advantage of: in The Dead Secret, Rosamond cannot inherit Captain Treverton's property because she is not his natural child; in The Woman in White, Percival Glyde cannot automatically inherit his father's property because his parents never married. In both cases, the father figure dies intestate, thus ensuring his "child's" disinheritance. When Rosamond returns the money she has falsely inherited to the rightful heir, her illegitimate status and lack of identity is confirmed: she loses her name, the ancient family history upon which her husband placed so much emphasis, and her material possessions. By one of Collins's typical twists of fate, her husband remains in possession of her childhood home--his father having previously purchased it from Captain Treverton. Although the inheritance plot in The Dead Secret is somewhat contrived (with the otherwise miserly brother of Captain Treverton returning the inherited money to Rosamond and Leonard, despite them having no legal right to it), it nevertheless marks a significant development in Collins's exploration of the issue of illegitimacy that he was to return to and expand upon in his later novels.

Collins's repeated linking of the themes of illegitimacy and inheritance, first introduced in The Dead Secret, is particularly interesting in light of his own later experiences as father to three illegitimate children. As his fiction demonstrates, Collins was clearly aware of the detrimental effects on illegitimate children of dying intestate, and carefully constructed his own will in view of this, acknowledging himself as the father of Martha Rudd's three children and ensuring that his illegitimate children inherited his wealth, unlike many of the illegitimate characters in his fiction. (56)

Collins raises important issues in The Dead Secret, as far as illegitimacy is concerned--particularly in relation to the subject of inheritance. However, the somewhat trite "moral" that ultimately emerges from the novel is that "love and truth" (57) are of far greater importance than social rank and family name. Sarah Leeson's suffering can be read as punishment for the deception she practices, rather than for her sexual transgression. Rosamond, unlike her mother and Mrs. Treverton, recognizes the importance of the truth, and, after discovering the hidden letter detailing her true parentage, confesses the fact of her illegitimacy to her husband, rather than concealing it from him. She would "rather die, forsaken and despised, than live, deceiving him" (284). Through confessing the truth, Rosamond saves herself the lifetime of pain and suffering that her mother has endured as a consequence of her concealing the truth, and is rewarded with a fulfilling marriage, in stark contrast to her mother's loveless union. For Rosamond, the sins of the parents are not visited on the child, and her illegitimate status does not act as a preventative to a happy life.

Whilst the conclusion of The Dead Secret is idealized, and Madonna's portrayal in Hide and Seek problematic, the introduction of the theme of illegitimacy in these two novels is nevertheless significant. It marks the beginning of Collins's exploration of a topic that would continue to permeate his work throughout his career. Although it was a popular theme for many Victorian writers, Collins's detailed examination of the social and legal implications of illegitimacy suggests a preoccupation with the subject that extends beyond the average author's concerns about character and plot. In his later years (post 1860s), Collins became known as a purpose writer, campaigning through his novels for a number of causes. (58) Hide and Seek and The Dead Secret demonstrate that Collins's concern with society's attitudes permeates his work throughout his career. His use of disability as a metaphor for social invalidity and moral blindness in these two early novels is particularly indicative of his disapproval of society's condemnation of the illegitimate child. In his next novel, The Woman in White, a more realistic portrayal of the problems facing the illegitimate child emerges, and Collins continued to engage with this theme throughout his literary career, revising and expanding on ideas first introduced in these two early novels--in particular, the effect of society's condemnation on the unmarried mother, and the legal implications for the illegitimate child, particularly in relation to the inheritance of both property and name. An examination of Hide and Seek and The Dead Secret thus confirms that his merit lies not only in his four major novels of the 1860s, but in his earlier works as well.

University of Wales Swansea


(1) The Poor Law Report of 1834, ed. S. G. and E. O. A. Checkland (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1974), 259.

(2) Joan Perkin, Victorian Women (London: John Murray, 1993), 178.

(3) Ursula Henriques, "Bastardy and the New Poor Law" in Past and Present, vol. 37 (1967): 103-29.

(4) Ibid., 117f.

(5) The first Married Women's Property Act was passed in 1870 (see Marjie Bloy, "Victorian Legislation: a timeline" at The Victorian Web [2002], landow/victorian/history/legistl.html.)

(6) Laura Berry, The Child, The State and the Victorian Novel (U. Press of Virginia, 1999), 98-99.

(7) Barbara L. S. Bodichon, "A Brief Summary, In Plain Language of The Most Important Laws of England Concerning Women, together with A Few Observations Thereon" in TheDisempowered: Women and the Law, ed. Marie Mulvey Roberts and Tamae Mizuta (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995), 9.

(8) Annie Besant, "Marriage: As It Was, As It Is, and As It Should Be" in The Sexuality Debates, ed. Sheila Jeffreys (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), 420.

(9) The Bar Sinister and Licit Love. The First Biennial Proceedings of the Legitimation League, ed. Oswald Dawson (London: W. M. Reeves, 1895), 223.

(10) Lord Brougham cited in Henriques, 111.

(11) Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860--1914 (New York: Roufledge, 2000), 105.

(12) For example, Mercy Merrick in The New Magdalen (1873), Simple Sally in The Fallen Leaves (1879).

(13) Sally Mitchell, The Fallen Angel: Chastity, Class and Women's Reading 1835-1880 (Bowling Green U. Popular Press, 1981), 17.

(14) Tamar Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic (Yale U. Press, 1992), 132.

(15) Jenny Bourne Taylor, "Representing Illegitimacy in Victorian Culture" in Victorian Identities: Social and Cultural Formations in Nineteenth-Century Literature, ed. Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys (London: Macmillan Press, 1996), 134.

(16) Peter Laslett, "Comparing Illegitimacy Over Time and Between Cultures" in Bastardy and its Comparative History, ed. Peter Laslett, Karla Oosterveen and Richard M. Smith (London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1980), 63.

(17) Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, ed. Ella Westland (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1992), 327-28.

(18) Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 473.

(19) Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (Oxford U. Press, 1996), 161.

(20) Mitchell, 23.

(21) The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868).

(22) See Catherine Peters, The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins (London: Martin Secker and Warburg Limited, 1991), 158; Unsigned Review of Hide and Seek from Bentley's Miscellany, July 1854 in Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage, ed. Norman Page (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 58; W. M. Rossetti, Review of Hide and Seek from Morning Post, July 1854 in Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage, 60; Sue Lonoff, Wilkie Collins and his Victorian Readers (New York: AMS Press Inc., 1982), 44.

(23) The novel is in fact dedicated to Dickens, and Catherine Peters suggests it may be as a consequence of this that the "Dickensian tag" (Catherine Peters, Introduction to Hide and Seek, x) has attached itself to Hide and Seek.

(24) Nicholas Rance, Wilkie Collins and other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991), 9.

(25) Dennis Denisoff, "Framed and Hung: Collins and the Economic Beauty of the Manly Artist" in Reality's Dark Light: The Sensational Wilkie Collins, ed. Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox (U. of Tennessee Press, 2003), 34-58; Martha Stoddard Holmes, "'Bolder with Her Lover in the Dark': Collins and Disabled Women's Sexuality" in Bachman and Cox, Reality's Dark Light, 59-93 and Heller, 1-12.

(26) The first novel Collins wrote--Iolani, or Tahiti as it was--was not published in his lifetime (see Andrew Gasson, Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide [Oxford U. Press, 1998], 85). His first published novel was Antonina (1850), followed by Basil (1852).

(27) See, for example, The Dead Secret (1857) and Poor Miss Finch (1872).

(28) Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek, ed. Catherine Peters (Oxford U. Press, 1993), 56.

(29) Similar hypocritical characters make repeated appearances in Collins's novels: for example, Michael Vanstone in No Name (1862), Lady Lundie in Man and Wife (1870) and John Farnaby in The Fallen Leaves (1879).

(30) Peters, Introduction to Hide and Seek, xiii.

(31) As Lady Audley's does in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), and Lydia Gwilt's does in Collins's Armadale (1866).

(32) Peters, Introduction to Hide and Seek, xiii.

(33) Martha Stoddard Holmes, in "'Bolder with Her Lover in the Dark': Collins and Disabled Women's Sexuality," 63-64.

(34) Peters, Introduction to Hide and Seek, xix.

(35) See, for example, Miserrimus Dexter in The Law and the Lady (1875) and the Lodger in The Guilty River (1886).

(36) Peters, Introduction to Hide and Seek, ix.

(37) See David Buxton, "The Census of the Deaf and Dumb in 1851" in Journal of the Statistical Society of London 18.2 (June, 1855): 174-85.

(38) David G. Pritchard, "The Development of Schools for Handicapped Children in England during the Nineteenth Century" in History of Education Quarterly 3:4 (December, 1963): 215-22.

(39) The notable exception to this is the sinister figure of the deaf-mute Lodger in The Guilty River (1886).

(40) Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 24.

(41) The Woman in White's Anne Catherick is the other notable exception.

(42) Unsigned review of Hide and Seek from Bentley's Miscellany, July 1854 in Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage, 59.

(43) Although Collins was skeptical about marriage, he generally depicted happy marriages for his transgressive heroines--something that can be read as an indication of his belief that sexual deviancy was not the unpardonable sin that Victorian society perceived it to be.

(44) Unsigned review of Hide and Seek from Bentley's Miscellany, July 1854 in Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage, 59.

(45) Wilkie Collins, The Dead Secret, ed. Ira B. Nadel (Oxford U. Press, 1997), 350-51.

(46) The burial of Sarah Leeson in her lover's grave, to which only her initials and the date of her death are added, foreshadows the burial over thirty years later of Caroline Graves in the grave of her lover, Wilkie Collins. Collins's gravestone bears no inscription for Caroline (see Peters, The King of Inventors, 432).

(47) Collins, The Dead Secret, 362.

(48) See Laslett, Bastardy and its Comparative History, 56.

(49) Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic, 2.

(50) Peter Thoms, The Windings of the Labyrinth (Ohio U. Press, 1992), 44.

(51) Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, ed. Michael Mason (London: Penguin Classics, 1996), 500.

(52) Collins, The Dead Secret, 73.

(53) Ira B. Nadel, Introduction to Collins, The Dead Secret, xxii.

(54) Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic, 2.

(55) See Besant, "Marriage: As It Was, As It Is, and As It Should Be," 420.

(56) Collins divided his estate between his two mistresses, Martha Rudd and Caroline Graves. Following their deaths, his wealth passed to his three children by Martha and Caroline's daughter by her first husband. While Collins thus ensured his children inherited his wealth, his will failed to prevent Caroline's daughter's husband exploiting her and effectively stealing most of Collins's fortune. See William M. Clarke, The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (London: Allison & Busby, 1988), 193.

(57) Collins, The Dead Secret, 362.

(58) For example, Man and Wife (1870) is an indictment of the marriage laws, whilst Heart and Science (1883) attacks the practice of experimentation on animals.
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Author:Cox, Jessica
Publication:Philological Quarterly
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Date:Mar 22, 2004
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