[Part 5 of the author's "Men in Tears: Moral, Physical, and Emotional Exhaustion in the Victorian Sensation Novel."]

ilkie Collins’s Man and Wife not only sheds light on the controversies caused by popular health crazes in Victorian Britain, but also testifies to the complexity of the sensation novel’s engagement with medical discourses. The conscious interaction with medicine is undoubtedly mostly an exploitation of prevailing fears and concerns — such as of wrongful confinement in asylums, of being buried alive, of accidental as well as deliberate poisoning by experimental drugs, of vivisection, of the rest cure — which lend themselves well to sensational plots and Gothic effects. It is in many ways the didactic strain of some of Collins’s mission-novels that accounts for the use of medical detail to corroborate his arguments. Man and Wife remains nonetheless a sensation novel, in which attempted murder is presented with a ghoulish relish, and which is permeated by references to a superstitious dread as far as the “coincidences” of the marriage-plots are concerned. As in In A Glass Darkly, the question whether supernatural occurrences can be explained away by medical theories is left open. Sir Patrick wonders whether he is suffering from liver or from a premonition:

With every reason to be in better spirits than usual, I am unaccountably, irrationally, invincibly depressed. What are we to conclude from that? Am I the object of a supernatural warning of misfortune to come? Or am I the object of a temporary derangement of the functions of the liver? There is the question. Who is to decide it? How contemptible is humanity, Arnold, rightly understood! Give me my candle — and let’s hope it’s the liver. (410)

Despite its confirmation of medical discourses on the vital forces and their depletion by excessive physical training, Man and Wife nonetheless suggests that such explanations are perhaps too simple. Like many sensation novels, it is firmly embedded in the discourses of the law and of medicine, but the case histories it describes are full of “coincidences” that reaffirm superstitious dreads as well as suspicions of the reliability of legal and medical institutions. Medical diagnoses and in particular their unreliability at times simply serve as sensational paraphernalia, while at others they are intentionally disproved. The depressive delusions of the hero of The Two Destinies turn out to be telepathically transmitted calls for help, which reaffirm current discourses on mesmerism, while dismantling the medical diagnosis. The rational explanation in “Green Tea”, on the other hand, stands undisputed, but is juxtaposed with such harrowing descriptions of the demon that stalks the tea-drinker that they are clearly rendered inadequate to account for the victim’s death. In Man and Wife, the self-introduction of Geoffrey’s nervous system is described as a symptom of his physical exhaustion, though it is nonetheless directly caused by the eerie appearance of the dumb servant, who has a strange hold on him. Yet Man and Wife differs from the majority of sensation novels in that it details the physical and nervous as well as moral breakdown of the villain, while leaving its sensitive foils in perfect health, although – or perhaps because – they refrain from trying to look after it. Contrary to most sensation novels, in this story nervous irritability and moral sensitivity are not exactly the same thing, just as the maudlin endearments of the “giants with tears in their eyes” are sharply contrasted with the tears that honour the anti-hero. In his later novels, Collins returns to the defence of delicate and also sickly sensitive men of feeling, but in Man and Wife, the divorce of moral from physical health is an essential part of its exposure of Victorian health crazes. It is therefore an intriguing point of entrance into the sensation novel’s versatile use and abuse of fashionable medical discourses.

Related Materials


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Beer, Gillian. Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Lady Audley’s Secret. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. London: Folio Society, 1992.

Collins, Wilkie. No Name. London: Sampson Low, 1862.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. London: Folio Society, 1992.

Collins, Wilkie. Man and Wife. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Collins, Wilkie. The Two Destinies. London: Chatto & Windus, 1876.

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Oppenheim, Janet. “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Proust, A. and Gilbert Ballet. The Treatment of Neurasthenia. London: Kimpton, 1902.

Reade, Charles. Hard Cash: A Matter-of-Fact Romance. London: Sampson Low, Son & Marston, 1863.

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Wiesenthal, C.S. “From Charcot to Plato: The History of Hysteria in Heart and Science,” Smith, Nelson and R.C. Terry, eds. Wilkie Collins to the Forefront: Some Reassessments. New York: AMS, 1995: 257-268.

Last modified: 11 November 2002