he most memorable heroes of late Victorian fiction are figures inspired by the ideologies and aesthetics of muscular Christianity, a concept of noble and especially muscular manliness that in turn informed discourses of imperialism. Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, for instance, has not undeservedly been described as “a point of entrance into a masculine, masculinist worldview shaped by mid-Victorian social forces” (Hall, 4). Much more intriguing, however, are those heroes — or anti-heroes — who fail to conform to the muscularity demanded by the idea of muscular Englishness (or Britishness) propagated by imperial ideologies of physical superiority. These deliberate “failures” populate not the fiction set in exotic places, but the domestic Gothic of the Victorian sensation novel, a popular genre that flourished from the 1860s onwards, often intentionally juxtaposing the actuality of weak men at home with the ridiculed ideal of colonial superiority. The invasion of the English country-house by the Indian diamond in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) nicely dramatises the sensation novel’s introduction of the exotic into the domestic spaces of familiar, ostensibly tranquil, sites at home. Yet in that the biggest and most bouncing Englishman in the book figures as the morally weakest and most corrupt character, The Moonstone also negotiates a subversion of health crazes that becomes increasingly prominent in Wilkie Collins’s subsequent novels. Even while it reaffirms English domesticity, the novel effectively ridicules the big rosy Englishman. It is a text that focuses the transforming and multivalent interchange between medical and literary discourses. The presentation of science through literature is, as Gillian Beer has pointed out, not “a one-way traffic, as though literature acted as a mediator for a topic (science) that precedes it and that remains intact after its re-presentation” (173). The relationship is one of “interchange rather than origins and transformation rather than translation” (173).

The salutary exposure of the healthy hero recurs in Victorian sensation fiction. Dramatising the fostering of brutality by and the physical dangers of fashionable athleticism, Wilkie Collins’s controversial novel Man and Wife (1870) is evidence that the ideologies of muscular Christianity were viewed with scepticism even at their heyday. What has so far received very little attention is the protest against the figure of the strong hero — a protest embodied by the often neurasthenic “failures” that triumph in sensation fiction. This essay is an attempt to highlight the sensation novel’s use of medical discourses in its critique of fashionable concerns with and abuses of the body. After a brief look at the significant variety of the sensation novel’s use of bodies, I shall dissect the use of medical terms and contested narratives of sickness and sports in Wilkie Collins’s Man and Wife.

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Last modified 16 November 2002