Reversed perspectives : a re-examination of the later novels of William Wilkie Collins
Although a considerable amount of research has been done on Collins's sensation fiction, very little critical attention has been paid to his later novels. Of those critics who have chosen to consider his post-1870 fiction, the majority have dismissed it as so inferior to his early works as to be best passed over as quickly as possible. Some feel that, without Dickens to guide his pen, Collins was mcapable of writing anything worth reading; others suspect that the influence of Charles Reade was as detrimental to Collins's talent as Dickens's had been beneficial; yet more deCided that laudanum had fogged both his mind and his literary imagination. The purpose of this thesis is to refute these claims, and to establish that Collins's later works remain of great interest from both a literary and a social point of view. The thesis is divided into seven sections-an Apology, an Introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The Apology sets out to examine the modern hostility towards the novels written in the last two decades of his life, and to show how this frequently varies from contemporary opinion. As I do not ascribe to the theory that Collins's novels reveal a steady decline over the years, I have chosen not to adopt a chronological examination of his works, but rather a thematic one, which illustrates the consistency of his philosophy. The Introduction attempts to show that the difference between what is popularly called Collins's 'sensation' fiction and his 'thesis' novels is not so hard and fast as has often been maintained. It also introduces the ideas which will be developed throughout the thesis, namely that, by the sublation of many of the binary oppositions we have come to connect with Victorian literaturemasculine/ feminine, good/evil, hero/villain-Collins's works provide a reversed perspective on his society. Chapter 1, 'Good Girls', conSiders Heart and Science (1883), The Two Destinies (1876), and Man and Wife (1870). The second half of the nineteenth century was, for women, a time of upheaval; the Angel in the House had been superseded by her more dynamic and independent sister, whose inadequacy as a role-model was a frequent theme in much of the literature of the time. Whilst society was attempting to maintain the status quo by demanding that men be men and women subservient, these three novels stand out as defying-or, at least, ridiculing-convention on almost all gender-related levels. Chapter 2, 'Fallen Women', concentrates upon The Evil Genius (1886), The New Magdalen (1873), and The Fallen Leaves (1879). Collins was not the only author to deal with the subject of women who transgressed the moral code, but he was one of the few who had the courage to stand by his fallen women until the end. Rather than sentencing them to a penitential death, he allows them, reformed and unsullied by their previous degradation, to marry and reclaim their place in society. Moreover, he also shows that it is frequently those representatives of respectable society whose actions and attitudes are much more at fault than those of the women they choose to censure. Chapter 3, 'Wicked Creatures', is a long chapter which analyses '[ Say No' (1884), Blind Love (1890), The Legacy of Cain (1888), and Jezebel's Daughter (1880). Collins's deep-seated belief in the duality of human nature, which has already been suggested in the previous chapters, is here more fully explored. Just as his 'heroines' have been seen to defy their conventional roles, rising gracefully above the tribulations of pregnancy, prostitution, and persecution, so too do his villainesses flout the rules by which such wicked creatures should more properly be governed. His household devils are no more wholly demonic than his domestic angels are wholly sublime. Chapter 4, 'Other Men', discusses Poor Miss Finch (1872), The Black Robe (1881), and The Law and The Lady (1875). Not only were women expected by contemporary society to comply with an ideal, but men also found themselves being exhorted to conform to an active and dominant masculine archetype. The novels examined in this chapter shows the consequences of the failure to live up to these frequently impossible standards. Rather than adhere to the binary oppositions of selfless/selfish, wise/foolish, strong/weak, Collins presents his reader with composite figures who are, perhaps, truer to human nature than literature usually allows. The ConclUSion draws together the threads of the previous chapters. It also looks at Collins as a nineteenth-century writer with surprisingly modern ideas, and examines Collins's literary legacy, which is more usually to be found in the field of popular fiction.