The foreshadowed life in Wilkie Collins's No Name.
--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
There is a little oddity at the beginning of Wilkie Collins's sixth novel, which everyone notices, a short Preface that ends by alerting his readers that the story they are about to read lacks suspense. It demands our attention as a kind of repudiation, because, by 1862, after the phenomenal success of The Woman in White, Collins's reputation depended upon his ability to hide secrets within elaborate plots. This was the bread and butter of the Sensational School, and he was rightly considered its leader. Somewhat perversely, then, he says, "The only Secret contained in this book, is revealed midway in the first volume" (xxi). Now most writers would shy away from such a bald declaration as this, even if they were not committed as Collins was to producing a type of fiction driven largely by the thirst for uncovering dangerous secrets. The very readers whom he had cultivated might lack the incentive to go forward. But he wanted to try new ground and to vary the form by which he appealed to his audience. Admirable, certainly, but smacking of needy rationalization when one meets it here. Something about this new book needed explaining. He felt it. The disappointed critics felt it. Was it "the struggle of a human creature, under those opposing influences of Good and Evil, which we have all felt, which we have all known" (xxi)?
Collins devotes two of the three paragraphs of the Preface to a discussion of character, and the critical response to the novel has turned almost entirely on these questions. The early reviewers pronounced Magdalen Vanstone an unappealing heroine, unworthy of her happy ending, and they judged her creator to have overstepped the bounds of morality in representing her story. It is only in the third paragraph that Collins comes to the plan of the story, and the lack of suspense; but this is undoubtedly where he has been heading all along. The core idea and chief oddity of the book, I believe, is this: "all the main events of the story are purposely foreshadowed, before they take place--my present design being to rouse the reader's interest in following the train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought about" (xxi-xxii). After the secret is revealed, No Name is not a novel of disclosure or discovery, but of inexorable movement toward a foreseen conclusion--with a single, important exception. A stranger, Robert Kirke, sees Magdalen once at a seaside resort, falls madly in love, and finds her by chance in London, one year later, when she is near death and about to be evicted from a poor lodging house. She has reached the end of her line. Her fall is complete. Without Mr. Kirke's improbable intervention, we are led to believe, she would have died, abandoned in the street.
As the title suggests, No Name is a highly self-conscious exploration of the consequences of losing one's identity, and as Jonathan Loesberg and others have argued, the "concern with identity and its loss" is the abiding theme of sensation fiction (117). Writers and readers in the 1850s and 1860s were preoccupied with the loss of class identity and social identity, which would result, many feared, in the merging of the classes. The particular frisson of the sensation novel is traceable, Loesberg says, to this fear (135). The "narrative of inevitable sequence" (117) that follows from the loss of name and home is clearly what Collins has in mind in the Preface, not mystery at all but shared knowledge. What kind of knowledge did Collins share with his readers that would have enabled them to follow the links in the chain of his carefully plotted narrative?
The earliest reviews of the sensation novel traced it quickly to its source: the newspapers. Margaret Oliphant even named a subgenre of sensation fiction the "Newspaper Novel" (501). Sensation novelists were inspired by real events, and readers were drawn in by the realization that these stories could be happening anywhere, to anyone. But as Christopher Kent has pointed out, "For the journalist, a prime touchstone of newsworthiness is the unusual and improbable" (273). Collins's Dedication to Basil (his first novel, published in 1852) is an index of the author's views on probability, and what is fiction-worthy: "Those extraordinary accidents and events which happen to few men seemed to me as legitimate materials for fiction to work with ... as the ordinary events which may and do happen to us all" (qtd. in Kent 264). It was certainly improbable that Magdalen's father would be killed in a train wreck the day before he intended to correct the deficiencies of a will nullified by his recent marriage to Magdalen's mother, and that Magdalen's middle-aged mother would die in childbirth only a few days after her husband. These events were merely a sensational pretext for something much more likely to happen to a middle-class Victorian woman: a shift in family fortunes that forces her to leave home. Collins does not expect his readers to foresee the specific circumstances that drive Magdalen into the world, but rather to anticipate what the loss of home will mean to a woman like the character he invents. If the events surrounding Magdalen's decline were improbable, how could the aftermath be foreseen, as Collins promises in the Preface? How could readers be expected to follow the "train" of circumstances to the foreshadowed conclusion? The answer lies in another kind of journalistic model--not the police reports or the agony column, but the expose.
On the first page of his London Shadows: A Glance into the 'Homes' of the Thousands, published in 1854, George Godwin invoked a narrative form that most literary historians now regard as the immediate precursor of the Sensation School: "Deep are the 'Mysteries of London,' and so environed by difficulties, that few can penetrate them" (1). If architect-journalist Godwin mimicked G.W.M. Reynolds's long-running serial of ten years earlier, The Mysteries of London, in his expose series on the homes of the poor, then it is not farfetched to consider that Wilkie Collins might be heir to both Reynolds and his journalistic offspring. By looking at these genres together, as homologous discourses belonging to a community of descent, we are better able to recognize how Collins's hard-to-place didactic novel, No Name, might be a novel about homelessness and finding home. Godwin's sensational glances into the homes of the poor prefigure the sensational treatment of fallenness, bankruptcy, and illegitimacy by his contemporary, Collins. Godwin correctly assumes--indeed he hopes--that the record of his visits to the poorest homes in London will provoke a public scandal, but it is not only the disgrace of national institutions that Godwin will bring to light: he will expose the complicated chain of influences that threaten private life. Collins has the same goal in No Name. The public will be shocked, because, in Stana Nenadic's words, "what is usual and expected [in a home] is gradually undermined" (146).
Collins pursues a sequence of anticipated events that derive from a single, awful fact--his heroine's homelessness. Magdalen's nomadic existence structures the narrative, which is organized into seven scenes, omnisciently narrated, with letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings interpolated between them. The liminal space "Between the Scenes" always implies transit, because each new scene takes place in a different setting. The author's preoccupation with the centrality of home-existence in shaping one's identity is also indicated more subtly in his language, in his persistent use of "home" in hyphenated words to make new nouns. Like John Ruskin, whom he met in 1846 (Frick 13), Collins assigns profound moral significance to the idea of home and, like Godwin, consistently attacks the legal institutions that threaten its existence. Both Godwin and Collins utilize frequent shifts in perspective between public and private views, giving readers both a sense of the vastness of the problem and the means of connecting with the hidden poor more directly. Both writers want to make something that was hidden something that we have to look at. Both are investigators collecting evidence that will solve a social mystery. One can almost hear the echo of Godwin's warnings against the disease and social unrest being bred in London's dark places, when in No Name Collins describes the London vagabond as "the public disgrace of his country, the unheeded warning of social troubles that are yet to come" (210). Importantly, for both Godwin and Collins, these mysteries of the modern world can be solved. Both writers assert the sacredness of home in Ruskinian terms, as a space protected from an anxious and intrusive world, yet both transgress its boundary. The expose of an institutional problem through the exhibition of individual homes and individual lives pushes back the frontier of separation. The instability of the home that results from Godwin's efforts to reprivatize what has been made visible can usefully be compared to the difficulty with which private life returns following public scandal in the sensation novel. Unlike Godwin's London Shadows, however, the fictional No Name can do more than glance into broken homes; Collins carries his fallen heroine through to the reconstitution of home. Her home was unbuilt by the law, and it would have to be rebuilt on the foundation of a new kind of family.
The Journalistic Model: George Godwin's London Shadows
One of the most influential investigative journalists of the mid-nineteenth century was the architect George Godwin (1815-1888), who became editor of The Builder in 1844. The professional magazine had been founded in 1843, in the year after the appearance of Edwin Chadwick's Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population, and from the beginning there was an emphasis on social reform that could be achieved through conscientious building and urban design. In only the third number of that publication, a contributor wondered that "sinks of corruption" should be allowed to persist in a wealthy metropolis, when they are continually "obtruding ... upon the attention of every observer," when they are "inquired into--reported upon--shown in [their] tendencies to lead to crime, disease, and the general impoverishment." And yet, nobody ... is seen to step forward, and with a determined hand to sweep out of the heart and vitals of this great city ... these plague-spots, these pestilence-breeding institutes" ("Dwellings" 32). Reports like Chadwick's did make a difference, however, and when Godwin took over The Builder, he pursued a kind of investigative journalism (paralleled by Henry Mayhew in his more famous London Labour and the London Poor, a series originally published in the Morning Chronicle in 1851-52) that would create public outrage around a particular social problem. He justifies his project by saying that the poor "cannot make themselves heard unless the press speak for them," and though he admits that "there is amongst the very poor a strong feeling against intrusion," he will continue to "throw light on some of the black spots in the metropolis" until something is done to banish the darkness (London Shadows 1, 9).
In a span of ten years, Godwin published three books with this aim in mind: London Shadows (1854), Town Swamps and Social Bridges (1859), and Another Blow for Life (1864). The pattern is fixed in the first installment. London Shadows is organized as a tour, with each short chapter comprising visits to two or three locations in a single district. After sketching a scene of the street or collection of buildings, he glances inside the dark places, once even visiting lodging houses at night so that he can determine how many people actually slept there. Lest he might seem nothing more than an angry peeping Tom, Godwin consistently reveals his physical presence in the narrative, by referring to the reactions of the poor who happen to meet him, by reporting their conversations, and by including countless details of sights, sounds, and especially smells. In the first half of the book, Godwin is a melancholy guide and prophet of ill winds, who often characterizes himself as an explorer in a dangerous wilderness--"unknown land to many thousands" (21); in the second half, he returns to some places already visited, to verify the accuracy of his predictions, and to call more loudly for institutional reforms.
As a first step toward real reform, many urban planners recommended establishing a system of legal surveillance that would not only uncover unsafe conditions endangering the lives of the working poor, but would also expose the moral degradation of poverty. Godwin implies that fear of this knowledge, and of the ensuing public scandal, was hindering the investigations that might inspire swift correction: "If silence is to be observed touching abominations which demand reform, through fear of offending delicate sensibilities, instead of pointing them out and denouncing them, the abominations will remain" (Town Swamps 12). In a more dramatic recognition of national disgrace, Dr. Guy--an outspoken contributor to the debate on health and housing in the periodical press--proposes stretching London upon the rack, learning its secrets, taking a bird's-eye view, tracking "the footsteps of the pestilence which walketh in filth and darkness" so that "all the world will see what sort of a home for two millions of human beings this boasted centre of civilisation is" (505). The knowledge gained by first-hand observation could not easily be disputed. Both Godwin and Mayhew continually urged their readers to follow in their footsteps, to be witnesses to poverty. Traveling into the narrowest courts, peeping behind apparently respectable doors, and interviewing witnesses, these journalists exhibited not only the dirty secrets of the poorest homes, but of a criminal and criminalizing nation.
In London Shadows, Godwin was exposing what by the 1850s was an open secret: "thousands of our countrymen and countrywomen are condemned to exist in this metropolis in dens where cleanliness is impossible, and health and morals are alike speedily degraded; where children are educated downwards, and made criminals with little fault of their own" (Town Swamps v-vi). That last idea, with little fault of their own, becomes a keynote in Godwin's analysis, which sets him apart from many of his reform-minded contemporaries who believed they had to reform the poor before they went to the trouble of building them new homes (on the theory that bad people could not benefit from good houses). Near the beginning of Godwin's journey of discovery, he enters the room of a young married couple who live off one of the crowded, dirty courts of "the outwardly respectable neighbourhood" of Marlborough-street (London Shadows 2). Here and elsewhere, he typically describes the structure first, and then its contents, sometimes supplementing the verbal description with an engraving, representing in this case the condition of the inside and the outside of the house which the mother, father, and daughter share with several other families. Godwin invites the reader into their most intimate living space, where he recounts their sad history and projects to what miserable end they will likely come.
Poor as this place is, it is still a home; and there are several thousands of these struggling homes in London. It is painful to think what may be the next stage of this young couple's poverty. The husband may, perhaps, not get another situation as porter, or anything more profitable than the employment in which he is at present engaged. His family will probably increase. The various illnesses of his wife, and perhaps children, will cause his little property to be periodically parted with. The landlord will see when there is barely enough left to pay arrears of rent, and the cost of bringing an execution. The goods will be seized, and conveyed away to a neighbouring broker, and then the still young couple and children are thrown homeless upon the world. (6)
Godwin writes with dreary certainty because he has followed the links in the chain-the narrative of inevitable sequence--dozens of times, and the end is always the same: the lodging house "with all its horrors, vices, and temptations" (7). The same story is repeated, with variations, throughout London Shadows. The physical circumstances of the poor lead to the destruction of even the semblance of home-life. Their downward mobility takes them into places where even those who are "careful of proprieties, anxious to improve, sensitive against evil" cannot preserve "an orderly mind ... amidst darkness, dampness, disorder, and discomfort" (70). It is enough to foreshadow the end. They cannot be saved.
Like his journalistic contemporary Mayhew, Godwin conducted interviews, and invited confidences, but he was less interested in cataloguing or chronicling the lives of the poor than he was in projecting their dark future, a darkness that he constantly reminded his readers would grow to cover all of England. Not surprisingly, plague is one of Godwin's favorite metaphors (it is also, often, real), and the fear of contagion is one of his favorite tools of persuasion. For instance, the problem of human waste, when minutely described, would certainly have disturbed his middle-class readers, and in every chapter he takes care to reveal how close it always was to the dwellings of the poor and the play areas of their children; how waste had transformed the ancient streams and rivers of London into cesspools useful only for breeding diseases (even as water was itself becoming a scarce commodity); and how difficult it was to alter the situation without government intervention. Without proper drains, for example, "all lies on the surface;--heaps of the refuse of piggeries, cowsheds, and stables, vegetables, fish, &c." (39), a "magazine of dangerous material ... which only wanted the touch to destroy hundreds of lives" (38). While much of Godwin's ire finds its target in inadequate or uninformed institutional practices, at other times he invites the reader to regard him or herself as authorized to repair the injuries inflicted on the poor whose homes are not fit for human habitation (just as the word itself in the title is marked as unfit to describe the places it names). Godwin does not forget to sharpen the pain of his discoveries by depressing contrast: "The daintily dressed lady in the blue brougham now standing at the comer, scarcely guesses her proximity to so much 'dirt' and distress, though the nice face looks well disposed to pity and give aid, if aid were practicable" (29). He makes the reader responsible for reform, through this identification; but even as he tries to wake his reader's charitable impulses, he frightens her with the proximity of dirt and distress-with disease or plague. London used to be full of robbers, he reminds us, until one tried to rob the queen; and then the law was brought in to clear out the criminal element, and lights were put up to keep people honest, even in the dark. But dark places remain, he warns, which again threaten the healthy and prosperous. (1) Perhaps inspired by the Mysteries of London, Godwin recognizes that fear might get a quicker response from those who have the power to intervene.
Convinced that "It is time the whole truth were known" (27), Godwin often makes dramatic, even godlike gestures that force his readers to look at something they would rather not see: the room in Clerkenwell lacking a single stick of furniture, but where, "suspended from the roof, were small bottles of 'holy water'" (12) or "the body of a child without a coffin" in a cupboard, "shut up with the bread" (28). The most painful observations in London Shadows bring to light the discomforts of comfortless homes:
We have, Asmodeus-like, removed the front wall from the top to the bottom, that our readers may examine without fear, and at their leisure, the extraordinary and distressing scene it presents. Let us schedule its contents, beginning with the ground-floor front. There are no bedsteads, chairs, or tables, a few ragged clothes are drying before a little fire in the grate, above the mantel are a looking-glass about three inches high and some torn prints of the Crucifixion, &c.; in the cupboards, without doors, are pieces of broken crockery; a kind of bed in one comer, with children asleep; the floor rotten in many parts, the walls and ceiling sadly cracked. (17)
Like Ruskin, Godwin understands the moral value of sight. Details like "little fire," "looking-glass," "tom prints of the Crucifixion," and "broken crockery" invoke the shape of a home, with none of its comforts. Godwin's readers see a pathetic effort in this one-room dwelling to create the home-existence to which the inhabitants might have been accustomed, in some other time and place. As Collins says at the beginning of No Name, "Let the house reveal its own secrets" (3); narration becomes an act of seeing in the Ruskinian sense, where imagination reaches "by intuition and intensity of gaze (not by reasoning, but by its authoritative opening and revealing power), a more essential truth than is seen at the surface of things" (Ruskin IV:284). The approximation of a home seen in the sketch and "schedule" of contents would affect Godwin's readers more deeply than a photographic reproduction of the most unhomely house in all of London. Imagination endeavors to supply the missing beds, a stronger blaze, and solid walls; that it cannot do so links the reader uncomfortably with that poor room just furniture, warmth, and walls away from her own.
The repeated assertion that the splendor of London was only a facade swayed public opinion, as did dramatic evidence of the demoralizing effects of poverty. Tales circulated in the reformist (and "mysteries") press of women and men who had once been respectable, but who had been driven by circumstances into a degraded existence. A letter to the editor of The Builder, which describes "the effect of the dwelling itself' on a young female servant ("The Dwellings" 270-71), lent credibility to the notion that "homes [were] the manufactories of men" (London Shadows 1). When she was in service, her "attendance to personal neatness ... was very great; her face seemed always as if it were but just washed, and with her bright hair neatly combed underneath her snow-white cap, a smooth white apron, and her gown and handkerchief carefully put on, she used to look very comely" (270). Marrying, she left her position and moved into a cottage near her husband's work, which was a "mere [hovel] built of rough stones, and covered with ragged thatch." When the informant next sees her, after two years, "Her face was dirty, and her tangled hair hung over her eyes," and her cap was unwashed. Finding it impossible to keep such a poor home in order, she soon ceased to try. Removing to a better cottage, near her former mistress, she recovered her cleanly habits and kept her house neat.
Godwin finished the sketch of the dead baby lovingly preserved in the humble pantry with this observation: "Truth is often less truth-like than fiction" (28). His invocation of the Mysteries of London at the beginning of his tour was not only a play on words accompanied by a promise to penetrate and solve these mysteries. He was also owning his generic precursor, just as Collins might have been owning his when he conjured the London vagabond as the harbinger of troubles to come. In her classic account of the genre, Anne Humpherys locates the mystery novel historically between the Newgate novel and the sensation novel, "[negotiating] the shift between these two genres, reflecting an unstable border in the mid-nineteenth century between the public and private spheres" (455). While the secrets in the sensation novel are primarily private in nature, Humpherys says, most of the secrets in the mystery novel "concern the abuses of institutions" (455). With institutional reform as an overt program of the mystery novel, especially in those by Reynolds, and in the period that "corresponds to the consolidation of economic and political power in the big cities" (456), the contemporaneous debate on housing reform would seem to provide a clear instance of mutually dependent discourses. The mystery plot often depended on "the contrasts of London," which Humpherys calls a "cliche for heterogeneous neighborhoods where old and new [or, indeed, rich and poor] exist side by side" (465). Godwin's expos6 provides an important middle term between the Mysteries of London and No Name, because it makes home life almost the sole determinant of physical, social, and mental well-being. But there is a problem with the mystery genre, with its emphasis on the abuses of institutions that also turns up in the reformist expos6: Godwin cannot conclude the narrative of inevitable sequence except by melodramatic intervention. He eschews this option, because he will not pretend that the institutional abuses have been resolved. Collins's fiction, like the mystery novel with which it has so much in common, can pursue the narrative chain to its end, and still bring about restoration, at least of an individual life. By contrast, Godwin gloomily observes, "It seems difficult to discover the climax of London poverty and destitution. In every depth there is a deeper still" (24).
"The Great Manufactory of Civilization," or Collins's Circumstantial View of Life
Godwin well understood what made London Shadows a publishing success, in spite of its painful content: "It is interesting to know what is going on around us, how our neighbours live, and what are the circumstances in operation to shape their character, and lead to actions which will work on others, and may on ourselves" (Town Swamps v). The wanting to see how our neighbors live has been a powerful force in modern times and certainly provided the fuel for the mid-Victorian expose's fictional counterpart, the sensation novel. But neither Godwin nor Collins was prepared to let interest or curiosity stand alone. London Shadows and No Name share a moral foundation--the belief that circumstances shape character and lead to actions--and a rhetorical approach: that casuistry, with the former necessarily giving rise to the latter, and to the familiar claim, "circumstances alter cases." (2) Collins's definitive statement of his position comes in "The First Scene," soon after the revelation of the novel's single secret--Mr, and Mrs. Vanstone were not married until a few weeks before they died--and just as the governess Miss Garth begins to realize how the alteration of their circumstances will affect the two Vanstone daughters:
Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression--hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of the liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation? Within these earthly limits, is earthly Circumstance ever the key; and can no human vigilance warn us beforehand of the forces imprisoned in ourselves which that key may unlock? (116)
Miss Garth is forced to reverse her habitual judgments of the two young women. Norah, the older, reserved, "dark" sister, responds in open, healthy ways to the double tragedy and disturbing revelations, while Magdalen, the mercurial, talented, "light" sister, becomes secretive, and outwardly mechanical and cold. Their habitual, or 'surface' nature had been "shaped into form by the social influences surrounding [them]" (116); the radical change in their circumstances might reveal the hidden Good in Norah and the hidden Evil in Magdalen, but in either case, the shape of the woman's character was referable to earthly circumstance. This was precisely the truth the writer in the Builder had elicited from the maid servant's tale. The particular circumstances of her life--especially of her home life--tended to bring out either the good or the bad elements in her character. And as Magdalen faces the loss of her parents, her home, and her social position, Miss Garth rightly fears turning the key on some previously undiscovered darkness lurking beneath the surface-glitter of her old favorite.
Even as Collins posits the existence of an inborn disposition, he argues that circumstance is still more powerful. The implication is clear: we have to make allowances for Magdalen, who is about to be overwhelmed, and, to use Collins's favorite visual motif in the novel, overshadowed by circumstances. The narrator's casuistical reasoning echoes the claim made by the lawyer Mr. Pendril, when he pleads for Miss Garth's compassion in the case of Mrs. Vanstone, who had lived for more than twenty-five years with Andrew Vanstone though she knew that he was already married to another woman: "Circumstances were against her from the first" (102). (3) This kind of reasoning would have been familiar to Victorian readers, even if they did not choose to regard it as casuistry, which was usually regarded negatively, as a mode of self-deception. It is an all-but forgotten branch of ethics today, but Andrew H. Miller has recently made the case that casuistry is endemic to the novel, featuring typically as a "performance" or "representation of practical ethical deliberation" (80). (4)
The narrator of No Name, as well as some of the characters, might therefore favor a mode of reasoning allowing them to explain why behavior condemned in most cases might be necessary in a particular case. Knowing that most readers would recoil from Magdalen's choice to pursue justice with the tools of the swindler (or from her mother's choice to be a mistress rather than a wife), Collins has to make the reader believe that the choice is taken from a narrowed range of possibilities, in order to evoke the sympathy that would be withheld in most (or all) comparable cases. And he has to believe that the reader is willing to wait for proof of his claim, and when it arrives, to be interested in reforming the legal circumstances that brought about Magdalen's downfall. (5) Godwin's reasoning in London Shadows is equally casuistical, with a similar goal in mind: "Lead [children] into good habits; imbue them with fight principles,--and their lives, in the natural course of things, will be in accordance with these habits and principles. Equally as a matter of course, will the lives of these poor outcasts follow the training they are now receiving. Knowing the seed, we know what the plant must be. It seems almost an injustice to punish for a natural result" (32). The evidentiary focus of London Shadows exposes a seemingly inescapable pattern of life, just as No Name reveals the injustice wrought by the machinery of institutions. It is only by taking into account variability and variation in the human experience that something like true justice can emerge.
As most critics of No Name (notably Deirdre David, Alison Milbank, and Jenny Bourne Taylor) have argued, Collins is careful to imagine Magdalen making her choices in a highly specified social environment. Early in the Second Scene of No Name, after she has left her physical home at Combe-Raven and the humbler refuge she might have shared with her sister and their former governess, Magdalen Vanstone meets Captain Wragge, who will become her partner in an elaborate plot to recover her lost fortune.
All her little experience of society, had been experience among people who possessed a common sense of honour, and a common responsibility of social position. She had hitherto seen nothing but the successful human product from the great manufactory of Civilization. Here was one of the failures--and, with all her quickness, she was puzzled how to deal with it. (157-58)
This is a rare condemnatory description of Wragge as a failure from a narrator who more often seems to be aligned with the garrulous, rascally swindler. The notion of the homeless, migratory Wragge as a failure widens the gulf between Magdalen and the temptation he represents. They are defined by the place that made them, as if they'd been stamped with a factory seal. The production of Magdalen included "a common sense of honour, and a common responsibility of social position," something lacking in Wragge, a doctor's son who had early lost both his parents, and who had chosen subsequently to live by his wits, instead of seeking respectable employment. Although Collins does not revert to Wragge's history later in the novel, he does make Wragge a kind of spiritual father for Magdalen on her downward journey. A stable and prosperous home, carefully drawn by Collins in the First Scene, gave Magdalen the benefits of upper-class communal life until the age of eighteen--too soon for her to take the step every Victorian woman was expected to take from her father's house to her husband's. When she is disinherited, she loses more than money, house, and fiance; she loses her sense of honor and social responsibility, too.
She is walking on the ancient walls of York when she meets Wragge, "her face set towards the westward view"--toward sunset and the fading of the light--"a castaway in a strange city, wrecked on the world!" (155). Collins often places Magdalen, as he might a figure in a painting, in such a way that the viewer is meant to pity her--castaway and wrecked, "in the lovely dawn of her womanhood" (155). Magdalen's extraordinary pallor is forever being contrasted with the shadows surrounding her, which accumulate and lower as the narrative proceeds. Shifting fortune eclipses all the brightness the reader sees in the First Scene--thriving in a happy home, acting in amateur theatricals, falling in love for the first time. She becomes "an unfathomable mystery" to Norah and Miss Garth (126), as she begins to hide herself from the light and from everyone she ever knew (127, 161, 224). There is only her purpose-recovering the lost fortune--to guide her; but she calls it a "blindfolded journey," no longer caring where the purpose takes her (168), even when she feels it as "the first fatal step downwards" (179). She follows Wragge to Rosemary Lane, a "dismal" street where "[v]ery little light enters" and the "cheap lodging-house" where he lives with the child-like giant Mrs. Wragge (148). For the first time in her life, perhaps, Magdalen enters a dwelling that does not belong to a member of her own class, and she is immediately conscious of her physical dislocation. "The sordid contrast which the place presented to all that she had been accustomed to see in her own bedchamber ... shocked that sense of bodily self-respect in Magdalen, which is a refined woman's second nature" (176). We are certainly meant to read this as a second fall. If the original sin of living together without the benefit of marriage was her parents', then hers constitutes a perverse variation. Magdalen does more than accept Wragge's aid in her scheme; she accepts him in a version of the rite of marriage: Captain Wragge says, "'Place your departure from York, your dramatic career, and your private inquiries under my care. Here I am, unreservedly at your disposal. Say the word--do you take me?' Her heart beat fast; her lips turned dry--but she said the word. 'I do.'" (181). While most readers were probably horrified at Magdalen's seduction of Noel Vanstone--a declared selling of herself in marriage--it is this first sinister step downward that marks her irreversible movement away from home and family.
Magdalen's spurious husband, Wragge, has been formed by his "vagabond life" (183-84), the sort of man who keeps a book of "Skins To Jump Into" (263). He trains Magdalen to develop her own repertoire of identities, which she first exhibits in private theatrical entertainments, described by Wragge "between the scenes." The novel's seven scenes likewise display a repertoire of Magdalen's shifting identities within the larger society. In the first scene she is Andrew Vanstone's daughter, the child of privilege and fancy, exemplified by her Elysian bedroom at Combe-Raven; in the second scene at York, she is the solitary castaway, salvaged by Captain Wragge. In the third scene, she uses the skill acquired during the months of home-theatricals to impersonate Miss Garth, a disguise that allows her to visit Noel Vanstone in Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth, and to plead her case for the first and only time. Collins begins the scene with the picture of the "hideous London vagabond ... the unheeded warning of social troubles that are yet to come" (210), a Ruskinian commentary on "the monarch, Money" (211), and a portrait of decay: "And here ... on the site where thousands of lights once sparkled; where sweet sounds of music made night tuneful till morning dawned; where the beauty and fashion of London feasted and danced through the summer seasons of a century--spreads, at this day, an awful wilderness of mud and rubbish; the deserted dead body of Vanxhall Gardens mouldering in the open air" (211). Like the previous settings, this place, too, makes Magdalen. Disguised, she is an unwanted double, a ghost to trouble the simple mind of Mrs. Wragge and "a nameless, homeless, friendless wretch" (236) to herself. Her real voice speaks through the North-country woman's disguise, for just a moment, in defense of her own actions. To Mr. Vanstone she declares, "It is your law--not hers. She only knows it as the instrument of a vile oppression, an insufferable wrong. The sense of that wrong haunts her, like a possession of the devil. The resolution to right that wrong bums in her like fire" (236). This display of casuistry, the verbal representation of her thoughts, is rare (and in this case it betrays her to the diabolically clever housekeeper, Mrs. Lecount). More often the narration forces us to follow the train of her thoughts, which usually display a horror of herself, and her actions, and which climax before her marriage to Noel Vanstone, when she considers suicide. In this manner, Collins creates a link between his character and his readers, by showing that underneath Magdalen's hard exterior, she shares their humanity, and reacts as they do--it is only Circumstance that has made her bad.
The exposes of George Godwin and other social reformers had established clear reciprocity between the individual and the place where he or she lived: "homes are the manufactories of men,--as the home, so what it sends forth" (London Shadows 1). For John Ruskin, the disinheriting of the Vanstone children and the selling off of their life-long home Combe-Raven would have been as much a dishonor to the father as an injustice to his daughters-"When men do not love their hearths, nor reverence their thresholds, it is a sign that they have dishonoured both" (VIII:227). And indeed, it is strong paternal affection that drives Magdalen Vanstone to resist bitterly the law "which calls girls in our situation Nobody's Children" (125); to achieve her long-term goal of restoration, she recasts the disinheritance as a horrible freedom, exploiting the loss of identity afforded by illegitimacy, and sacrificing all further contact with her sister, her friends, and her class. Collins emphasizes her ability to disappear, to adapt, to form an alternative family-capacities that were deplored and feared by Miss Garth who denounced her former charge's new career as an actress as "nothing more than a means of freeing herself from all home-dependence, and of enabling her to run what mad risks she pleases, in perfect security from home-control" (143). Almost obsessively, Collins creates new hyphenated nouns that include the word home ("home-experience" , "home-existence" [102, 293], "home-training" , "home-control" , "home-wreck" ), but always with a serious purpose-highlighting the structure of feeling that binds persons to places, and keeps them grounded-and often with the intention of contrasting home-dependence with self-dependence, the latter noun equated exclusively with Magdalen herself or with her erstwhile adviser, Captain Wragge.
Magdalen's self-dependence comes to exemplify her fallen condition. Like the young family visited by Godwin in London Shadows, Magdalen puts herself beyond respectable society, as soon as circumstances deprive her of home-existence. It is not her poverty that marks her--because she chooses to leave the home offered by Miss Garth--but her lack of "home-control." (6) Protecting and guiding Magdalen in the plot against her father's relations is Captain Wragge, a "moral agriculturist ... who cultivates the field of human sympathy" (169). He introduces the bright young woman into the lower stratum of the petty criminal, and the depressing environs of the cheap lodging house; he leads her into what Godwin calls the "swamps and pitfalls ... in the social world which need bridging over, to afford a way out to the miserable dwellers amidst degradation and filth" (Town Swamps 1). Magdalen, in fulfillment of the "sad and sombre dignity" (9) of her name, must traverse the dark ways before being recuperated by Captain Kirke, who fashions a new home for her and reconstitutes her family with providential authority. (7)
No Name mingles issues of architecture and family in domestic scandal with special vividness. As long as the family unit maintains its literal boundaries, its members are untouched by scandal. Such protective measures are generally furnished by the home space, wherein family secrets are guarded and, as was commonly asserted in the period, identities are manufactured. As Ruskin famously declared in Sesame and Lilies, published only three years after No Name,
This is the true nature of home--it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in. (XVIII: 122)
If, as was often the case in the Victorian sensation novel, home fails to shelter its inhabitants from danger, temptation, and error and brings them into contact with the outer world, the family structure itself destabilizes. Undermined by the indiscriminate application of an unjust law, home-dependence, in its positive sense for Magdalen, has been stripped of its efficacy. Powerless to produce the stable identity that defended her from public disgrace, the family home no longer prevents the disorderly mixing of classes or preserves the daughter's body from dangerous contagion.
The collapse of class boundaries that had been preserved by clear spatial markers might at first seem liberating for the confined Victorian woman; yet the loss of house protection and the prolonged exposure to the sordid struggle with poverty compromise Magdalen's fine constitution as much as does the execution of her long-term plan of criminal vengeance. In learning to see herself as one of the most vulnerable constituents of an asymmetrical social order, Magdalen, whose "matchless health and strength" (9) had sustained her through the initial period of her exile, yields to the deleterious effects of a nomadic existence.
Two incidents in Magdalen's re-education as a woman without name or connections merit special consideration. Nearing the culmination of her revenge plot in "Fourth Scene," in Aldborough, Suffolk, where, in the persona of Miss Susan Bygrave, she has convinced Noel Vanstone to marry her, Magdalen tries to distract herself with the contents of the newspaper. In her former life, its more lurid stories would not have claimed her attention, but, in her existence as a criminal, the narrative of an execution exerts a peculiar fascination over her. The printed confession of the jealous farm-laborer reveals how the deed had turned on the chance of a plow's falling point to earth. The part played by chance in the murder of a woman, and the temptation to end her own life according to the whim of chance, worry Magdalen to the point of distraction (403-05). Her implicit identification with both the working-class criminal and working-class victim indicate just how little home-dependence remains when her faith in self and family becomes a grim belief in accident. The regular appeal to chance in No Name might seem discordant with Collins's freighting of circumstance, but it is only a counterpoint, which throws the main melody into sharper relief.
Another, more explicit instance of Magdalen's disregard for the boundaries that once ordered her life can be read in her exchange of identities with the maid servant, Louisa, in "Sixth Scene," in the morally ambiguous territory of St. John's Wood, a suburb of London. After Noel Vanstone's death, though she has become "Somebody's Wife" (484), Magdalen again fails to inherit her father's money. Driven to still more extreme measures, she conceives a desperate final plot to regain what should have been entailed on her and her sister. Her success depends on gaining entry to a country house using an identity not her own. Negotiations with her maid commence thus: "I wish to speak to you on equal terms. Whatever distinctions there might once have been between us, are now at an end. I am a lonely woman thrown helpless on my own resources, without rank or place in the world. I may or may not keep you as my friend. As mistress and maid, the connection between us must come to an end" (495). Magdalen's self-effacement before her social inferior hints at the nature of her plan: she will learn to be Louisa. Privileges of birth lose value when they can no longer be exercised, and Magdalen's entitlement to respect from her employee turns on nothing more than "[wearing] a silk gown, and [having] a sense of her own importance" (503). Significantly at this juncture in the narrative, the intermittent epistolary contributions of minor characters betray fear that Magdalen will "be the cause of some public scandal, this time, which may affect her innocent sister as well as herself" (507). Magdalen's persistent refusal to live quietly and respectably in reduced circumstances (like so many other single, middle-class women in a period of rapid social and economic transformation) grieves her friends who fear that she will drag them all beyond the pale. In fighting for her rights as a daughter, Magdalen joins the class that seems to possess no natural rights.
The perception of immorality in the lower classes, especially those without any fixed place of residence, inspired social commentators like Henry Mayhew to classify this condition as "savage" or nomadic: "The hearth, which is so sacred a symbol to all civilized races as being the spot where the virtues of each succeeding generation are taught and encouraged, has no charms to them." The father abides in the tap-room, Mayhew continues, and the mother considers the house "only a better kind of tent" (43). But the children of such parents do find alternative families, as Magdalen does in Captain and Mrs. Wragge. Arguably it is Mrs. Wragge who preserves the home-feeling in Magdalen and gives her a home-existence, keeping alive in her a latent sense of honor and social responsibility. When the plot to seduce Noel Vanstone is complete, and Magdalen loses (for a time) her surrogate family, she takes the final step downward into "self-profanation" (359,406). What she calls self-profanation or self-condemnation (332) is really her second (perverse) marriage and one even less likely to constitute a new home-existence. In fact, she has moved into the final destructive phase of her project; not only has she thrown off the last ties of a home-existence, but she has also robbed her enemy of his. In "Fifth Scene," in Baliol Cottage, Scotland, Noel Vanstone's loss of comfort and security lead inexorably to his death (440). He was already weak in mind and constitution; Magdalen's plot finished him. Though the reader is not meant to have any sympathy for Noel Vanstone, this is the heroine's greatest, and most unforgivable, crime. As long as Magdalen is an off-stage actress, she is like the eclectic villas Ruskin despised--always wearing a mask, lacking an organic connection with the walls that surround her. And like the villas of the nouveaux riches, she wears masks in order to cross class boundaries. She has long believed in her wits as much as Wragge does; it is what makes her go over to him. They are both self-dependent. Only when she dispenses with such disguises, and becomes once again, home-dependent, can she be saved.
A reviewer in the Athenaeum complained that while there was much to admire in Wilkie Collins's No Name, "Too small is the amount of healthy air let into the picture" (H. F. Chorley, unsigned review, Atheneum 133). However, Collins cannot admit the healthy air until the consequences of Magdalen's homelessness have been fully played out, until her destruction is all but irreversible. The brinkmanship here might be equated with sensationalism except that the narrative of inevitable sequence is, for the most part, unexciting, as Collins promised in the Preface. When some healthy air, in the shape of Robert Kirke, is finally let into Magdalen's life, the reader breathes more easily, too, relieved that she won't take the final step downward, and that society's mechanical injustice won't have claimed one of its more brilliant victims. At least this is what some readers, like the reviewer in the Atheneum, must have felt. Others, like Mrs. Oliphant, would have denied Magdalen "a good husband and a happy home" after "a career of vulgar and aimless trickery and wickedness" (Mrs. Oliphant, unsigned review, Blackwood's Magazine 143).
Toward the end of No Name, Kirke, the captain of a merchant vessel, comes across a woman being evicted from Aaron's Buildings, a lodging house in a "poverty-stricken street, the squalid mob round the door" (576). He glances inside the open door, and recognizes a sadly-altered Magdalen, "the woman whose beauty was the haunting remembrance of his life" (575). That remembrance and his strong sense that God had sent him for her salvation prompts Kirke to the unconventional action--though to him, significantly, it was not so--of paying her back rent, and taking two more rooms in the place, which he will occupy. The illness attacking her mind and body have been environmentally induced--she has experienced both physical deprivation and moral degradation. Kirke brings comfort into the poor rooms, transforming them into a home, with books and a little decoration. Architectural reformers like Godwin understood that there was more to a home than sturdy walls, sanitation, and ventilation: "Besides remedies of evils referred to, we want also more colour in our houses, more pictures or prints, flowers, and a garden,--the effect of these on the spirits, and so on the health, the thoughts, and the habits, is greater than some imagine" (Another Blow for Life 95). As she begins to mend under Kirke's steady care, the members of Magdalen's alternative family--Captain and Mrs. Wragge--arrive to cheer her. She dresses simply, now, in muslin; her "plain straw bonnet had no other ornament than the white ribbon with which it was sparingly trimmed" (608). Addressing her protector, whom she has learned to love despite a twenty-year gap in their ages, Magdalen says: "I suppose this street is very ugly ... and I am sure nobody can deny that the house is very small. And yet--and yet, it feels like coming home again" (608). Stripped of her ambition, no longer a wanderer, Magdalen articulates the ideal of a home--a place where one is loved, to which one can always return.
Collins does not restore his heroine to her vast property in the country, nor does she win back her lost fortune (her more virtuous, self-effacing sister marries the heir). Yet he gives his readers an indication of how we all might live, what Ruskin calls the "true human state of life to be striven for" (XVIII:458). It is unquestionably a happy ending. But some readers questioned whether home-existence--private life--could or should have been restored after the heroine's double exposure, first as a homeless and nameless orphan, and then as a scheming actress on the public stage. What made the happy ending especially troubling was Collins's insistence that Magdalen's sins were somehow "justified by law" (Oliphant "Sensation Novels" 143)--a law that Collins believed had been cruelly applied in the disinheriting of the two sisters. Perhaps Mrs. Oliphant would not have been as severe in her ban on persons who were, in one way or another, polluted, had she been reading, instead of fiction, George Godwin's equally sensational accounts of all-too-real pollution, both moral and environmental, in the poorest sections of London.
The course of architectural reform suggests, however, a problematic relationship between privacy, or what Collins terms home-control, and the exposure of domestic secrets for the public good. Without providential intervention (Kirke's virtuous voyeurism), we are left with the impression that Magdalen would have come to the tragic end foreshadowed by the combination of legal injustice and bad choices that made her homeless and nameless at the start of the novel. The reader, both in Collins and in Godwin, is encouraged to intervene in order to avert the foreshadowed conclusion. The narratives of Collins and Godwin, by their very structure of selection, invite us to consider the absence of providential intervention in all those homes where the inhabitants will not be saved. No one glances inside, as Captain Kirke or George Godwin did, and the foreshadowed lives play out as anticipated-to ignominious death and degradation.
In tracking the common interests and structural dynamics of these texts, it is clear that narratives of social reform and sensation novels converge and become mutually intelligible around the middle of the nineteenth century. Social reformers adopted the sensational style of the newspapers. The social-problem novel became more sensational and less psychological, as it accepted the circumstantial view of life disseminated in the writings of social reformers. The social reformers saw social mysteries that could be solved by intervening in private life, while the sensation novelists saw private mysteries that might be solved by social intervention. This convergence in social reform writing and sensation fiction augured an end to private life, which would ever after become the subject of statistical analysis and averages and census and intervention--all with the belief in the public good of glancing into private homes.
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
Chorley, H. F. Rev. of No Name, by Wilkie Collins. Atheneum 3 Jan. 1863:10-11.
Collins, Wilkie. No Name. 1862. New York: Penguin, 1994.
David, Deirdre. "Rewriting the Male Plot in Wilkie Collins's No Name." Wilkie Collins. Ed. Lyn Pykett. New York: St. Martin's P, 1998. 136-48.
"Dwellings for the Working Classes." The Builder 1 (Feb. 1843): 32.
"The Dwellings of the Poor." The Builder 1 (July 1843): 270-71.
Frick, Patricia. "Wilkie Collins and John Ruskin." Victorians Institute Journal l 3 (1985): 11-22.
Godwin, George. Another Blow for Life. London: William H. Allen & Co., 1864.
--. London Shadows: A Glance at the "Homes" of the Thousands. London: George Routledge & Co., 1854. Rpt. New York: Garland, 1985.
--. Town Swamps and Social Bridges. London: Routledge, Warnes & Routledge, 1859. Rpt. New York: Humanities P, 1972.
Guy, W. A. "The Sanitary Commission, and the Health of the Metropolis." Fraser's Magazine 36 (1847): 505-17.
Humpherys, Anne. "Generic Strands and Urban Twists: The Victorian Mysteries Novel." Victorian Studies 34.4 (1991): 455-472.
Kent, Christopher. "Probability, Reality, and Sensation in the Novels of Wilkie Collins." Dickens Studies Annual 20 (1991): 259-80.
Loesberg, Jonathan. "The Ideology of Narrative Form in Sensation Fiction." Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 115-37.
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. 1861-2. Intro. Victor Neuburg. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Milbank, Alison. Daughters of the House: Modes of the Gothic in Victorian Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1992.
Miller, Andrew H. "Reading Thoughts: Victorian Perfectionism and the Display of Thinking." Studies in the Literary Imagination 35.2 (2002): 79-98.
Nenadic, Stana. "Illegitimacy, Insanity, and Insolvency: Wilkie Collins and the Victorian Nightmares." The Arts, Literature, and Society. Ed. Arthur Marwick. London: Routledge, 1990. 133-62.
[Oliphant, Margaret.] "Sensation Novels." Blackwood's 91 (1862): 564-74.
Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.
Ruskin, John. Works. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London, 1903-12.
Starr, G. A. Defoe and Casuistry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1971.
Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988.
(1) In a rare moment of humor, Godwin illustrates his point about pollution with a cartoon involving two sheep. The first sheep, "A stranger clean from the country," says to the second sheep, "An inhabitant of Hyde-park," "Thou beest wondrous grim, sure!" The Londoner replies, "To this complexion ewe must come at last" (London Shadows 58).
(2) Quoted, without attribution, in the OED's main definition. Abraham Lincoln definitely used the phrase in a speech, 10 July, 1858, but Bartlett's attributes the line to a Canadian judge, Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796-1865). Since Defoe had used virtually the same words in 1705--"Circumstances, Time, and Place alter things very much" (Starr 113)--I assume it was a common phrase and that the OED chose not to attribute it to any one person.
(3) The full quotation is revealing: "Circumstances were against her from the first. She was unhappy at home. Her family and friends occupied no recognized station in life; they were mean, underhand people, in every way unworthy of her. It was her first ball--it was the first time she had ever met with a man who had the breeding, the manners and the conversation of a gentleman. Are these excuses for her, which I have no right to make? If we have any human feeling for human weakness, surely not!" (102). Mr. Pendril excuses the former Miss Blake's decision by saying that she was unhappy at home; he also credits Miss Blake with saving Mr. Vanstone from a career of self-destruction: "she restored him to that happy home-existence ..." (102).
(4) Miller's principal examples come from George Eliot, who wrote in The Mill on the Floss, published in 1860, only two years before No Name: "The casuists have become a by-word of reproach; but their perverted spirit of minute discrimination was the shadow of a truth to which eyes and hearts are too often fatally sealed: the truth, that moral judgments must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot" (517). There is no better defense of casuistry, and both Miller and Start quote this passage.
(5) In The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins, Catherine Peters portrays a man who might very well have been personally interested in the legal questions behind the disinheritance in No Name. He supported two commonlaw wives and their children throughout his life, never marrying either.
(6) The lesson of "First Scene," even with its compounded tragedies, is one of the power of habit in home-existence. As Miss Garth carries on after the death of her employers and friends, she realizes that custom is stronger than death (83). Norah's ready submission to grief and to the routines of home-existence enable her to recover more quickly, and to recognize that her home is with those who survive the wreck, Miss Garth and Magdalen; but Magdalen's mechanical, cold responses, and rejection of ordinary life after tragedy make submission impossible. Indeed, she is "recklessly bent on forgetting her old home-existence" (293).
(7) There are several signs, packed together midway through the novel, that Kirke will play a significant role in her life. He appears to her in a dream the day after their first and only meeting in Aldborough before the final scene at Aaron's Buildings in London: "The bold black eyes of that man who stared so rudely at me yesterday evening, seemed to be looking at me again in my dreams" (290). At this point in the narrative, she has made the fateful decision to trick Michael Vanstone's surviving heir into marriage, and Kirke appears, as if to turn her away. Again, while at Aldborough, she encounters Kirke's nephew who brings her "a sense of relief ..., the reviving tenderness ... the dawning hope" (399). Finally, a vision of what may be Kirke's ship saves her from suicide. She is counting ships, waiting for another to appear, imagining she has abandoned her life to chance, when it appears. Her words, "Providence? ... Or chance?" and subsequent peace before the accomplishment of her darkest deed, herald the eventual coming of Kirke as salvation when he says "to himself in a whisper. 'The mercy of chance? No! The mercy of God'" (579).
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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