[Part 3 of the author's "Wives and Fathers: Fatherhood and Divorce Laws in the Victorian Novel"]
brief look at the welter of Collins’s novels reveals a high proportion of clandestine marriages, bigamous arrangements, and again and again an exposure of the inconsistencies of the law. In the early novel Basil (1852), the titular hero agrees to a clandestine marriage with a socially inferior young woman and to her father’s condition that he postpones consummation for a year. On the very day that his “probationary” year lapses, Basil discovers his wife’s infidelity, knocks down her lover in jealous rage, and suffers a nervous breakdown. Descriptions of such arrangements and in particular their somatic effects on the emotionally and mentally afflicted lovers recur in Collins’s novels — most likely because of their sensational appeal. Basil’s groping for sanity is one of the most elaborate and intense descriptions of a nervous breakdown in Victorian fiction. The “agony of nervous prostration” (300) commences on the day of his secret marriage; and when his wife’s adultery is revealed, he plunges into the temporary madness of brain fever: “‘Mad!’ — that word, as I heard it, rang after me like a voice of judgement. ‘Mad!’ — a fear had come over me, which, in all its frightful complication, was expressed by that one word – a fear which, to the man who suffers it, is worse even than the fear of death” (159-160). In Miss or Mrs? (1871), which contains perhaps the most detailed manual of how to conduct a clandestine wedding with a minor, the “law of abduction”, as it is repeatedly termed in the novel, stipulates that the lovers can marry secretly, but have to live separately until the girl is of age. As she conceals her marriage and has to submit to being taken for another man’s fiancée, the heroine becomes “positively haggard”, “pale and harassed; anxiety and suspense had worn her down to the shadow of her former self” (124, 203).
A clandestine marriage to the wrong twin is the climax of Poor Miss Finch (1872). The falsifying of birth and marriage records recurs in The Woman in White (1860), Armadale (1866), and No Name (1862). The latter furthermore explores the inconsistencies of the law, which are so unfathomable to the novel’s protagonists that the heroines’ father unwittingly disowns his children while trying to ensure their inheritance. After hearing of his wife’s death, from whom he has been separated for over twenty years, he can finally marry the woman he lives with, the mother of his two grown-up daughters, who are unaware of their illegitimacy. This marriage, however, annuls his will — and after their parents’ sudden death, the girls are left with no money and no name, a situation one of them tries to rectify by marrying her father’s heir under a false name. Marriage under an assumed name occurs almost in The New Magdalen (1873) and is at the centre of The Law and the Lady (1875), which focuses on the inconsistencies of criminal convictions in Britain. Tried for poisoning his first wife in Scotland, Eustace Macallan is proclaimed “Scotch free” as his guilt is “not proven”. Under an assumed name he marries Valeria, who commences married life by signing the marriage certificate with her new instead of her maiden name “– ominous, in my [aunt’s] opinion, of evil to come” (8). Neither this mistake nor Eustace’s deception in any way invalidate the marriage, but it evokes a sensational thrill: “Even then, in the days of my ignorance and my innocence, that curious outbreak of my aunt’s superstition produced a certain uneasy sensation in my mind” (9). When Valeria discovers her husband’s dark secret, it rests with her to prove his innocence: “Let me see for myself, if his lawyers have left nothing for his wife to do. Did they love him as I love him?” (109)
As in many of Collins’s novels, love and the law are pitted against each other; and love proves stronger. In The Two Destinies, which is his most emphatic affirmation of the spirituality of love, it is foremost the class-system and its notions of respectability as well as the law that mark the lovers as outcasts. Such treatments of love and lovesickness by a society that courts money and espouses respectability are the recurrent subject of Collins’s criticism. In The New Magdalen, even the law cannot force society to accept the marriage of a handsome minister to a former prostitute who has impersonated a young lady whom she believed dead. Their much tried love is regarded as a failure by society: “Gentlemen of the Statistical Department, add two more to the number of social failures produced by England in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and seventy-one — Julian Gray and Mercy Merrick” (298). In Miss or Mrs?, the heroine’s father is “so fond of money” that “any man who proposed to marry [her] — if he couldn’t match the fortune that [she] should bring him by a fortune of his own — would be a lunatic in papa’s eyes” (53). In Heart and Science, the marriage of the significantly named hero Ovid and his cousin Carmina is opposed by his greedy mother, a ruthless “modern” woman of science and society. Carmina’s father — one in a line of affectionate, weak, and bullied father-figures in Collins’s fiction — has left a will that stipulates that Carmina’s fortune, if she dies unmarried, will go to her aunt and guardian, Mrs Gallilee. This over-domineering mother-figure, who combines the Victorian craze for amateur-science with the demands of “fashionable” society, is not only juxtaposed with her victimised frail ward, but more significantly, with a series of weak and suppressed men. As her overworked, neurasthenic, son Ovid leaves to travel for his health, his mother enthusiastically takes over:
In her eagerness to facilitate his departure, she proposed to superintend the shutting up of his house, in his absence, and to arrange the disposal of the servants, if he considered it worth while to keep them. She even thought of the cat. The easiest way to provide for the creature would be of course to have her poisoned; but Ovid was so eccentric in some things, that practical suggestions were thrown away on him. 
In Collins’s “vivisection-novel”, the title of which poises heart against science, her heartless, scientific attitude is of course significant. The villainous vivisectionist is the grotesquely tall, frighteningly thin, Dr Benjulia with his foreign name and gypsy complexion, yet his Faustian downfall is tragic, while there is only ridicule and contempt for fashionably scientific Mrs Gallilee. As I have shown in detail elsewhere, juxtaposed with the endearing hypersensitivity of the sympathetically portrayed characters, her “overpowering vitality” (127) is oppressive (Wagner, passim). It partly causes or at the very least exacerbates Ovid’s nervous exhaustion and Carmina’s nervous breakdown and hysterical paralysis. In an intriguing article on the novel’s conceptualisation of hysteria, C.S. Wiesenthal points out how neatly Carmina’s symptoms of partial catalepsy, simulated paralysis, vomiting, and amnesia fit into contemporary theories of cerebral localisation. In this sense, Heart and Science is not only about vivisection, but also about experimental psychophysiology, thus “addressing issues at the very cutting edge, so to speak, of contemporary Darwinian science” (257). Wiesenthal speaks of the novel’s heuristic model of hysteria, which reaches back to “the semantic origins of the disease in ancient theories of uterine displacement” — the rising of the “mother” (Wiesenthal, 258). At the first sight of her aunt and guardian, Carmina faints: “Before Carmina had recovered her senses she was provided with a second mother, who played the part to perfection” (Heart and Science, 66). Mrs Gallilee’s oppressive presence and the nervous shocks she repeatedly inflicts on her dependent niece not only dramatise the suggested causes of and current speculations on neurasthenia or nervous exhaustion and the emerging concept of hysteria, but they also tie in with the novel’s exploration of parenthood. As Mrs Gallilee plays the part of the second mother to perfection, she figures at once as the oppressive father-figure immortalised in Freud’s depiction of late nineteenth-century family life, the choking sensation of hysteria (the rising uterus or “second mother”), and as the embodiment of heartless, hypocritical society.
The harmless representation of the law, Mr Mool, on the other hand, is a blushing “human anomaly on the roll of attorneys” (Heart and Science, 74) who extends the novel’s indictment of vivisection to include flowers. Mr Sarrazin, the sympathetic and humane lawyer in The Evil Genius, is similarly presented as an anomaly. He romps with his own as well as with his clients’ children and is a defender of animal rights:
A wretched little fish appeared in the air, wriggling. […] ‘It’s in pain,’ the merciful lawyer added; ‘give it to me.’ […] Mr Sarrazin with humane gentleness of handling put it back into the water. ‘Go, and God bless you,’ said this excellent man, as the roach disappeared joyously with a flick of its tail. Kitty was scandalised. ‘That’s not sport!’ she said. (193)
In The Evil Genius, Sarrazin’s compassion for suffering animals simply accentuates the unexpected humanity of a lawyer. In Heart and Science, on the other hand, cruelty to animals is a central theme. Ovid’s anxious attempts to save the life of a beetle about to be crushed and Carmina’s hysterics over the accidental death of a stray dog are compassionately presented and contrast significantly with Benjulia’s secret vivisection in the name of science and Mrs Gallilee’s amateur dissections in the name of fashion. At the “scientific” dinner-parties of this “tender nurse of half-developed tadpoles” (Heart and Science, 127), half-dissected, headless frogs escape onto the staircase. The Gallilee household appears freakish and dangerous in many ways and not least of all because traditional roles in the household are topsy-turvy.
- Wives and Fathers: Fatherhood and Divorce Laws in the Victorian Novel
- Love and Law in Wilkie Collins's Fictional Families
- The Law of the Father: Victorian Sentimentality and the New Fatherhood
- The Victorian Custody Novel: Deceived and Deserted Daughters in The Evil Genius
- “Poor Lost Papa”: Old and New Fathers in Mid- and Late-Victorian Fiction
Last modified 16 November 2002