[Part 4 of the author's "Men in Tears: Moral, Physical, and Emotional Exhaustion in the Victorian Sensation Novel."]
he use of exhausted male bodies is only one side of the coin. In Man and Wife — Collins’s most vehement critique of fashionable muscularity and athleticism — it is the brutal athlete who collapses sensationally in the middle of a race. The novel is not a straightforward sensation novel, but one of Collins’s “mission-novels”, in which he rails against specifically selected ills of society, which nevertheless deploy the effective elements of sensation fiction – its emphasis on suspense, on a propensity to shock, on sensation. What is more, the didactic “purpose” of these mission-novels is ironically often overlaid both by this return to sensation plots and by other “missions”. Thus, Heart and Science, Collins’s intended arraignment of vivisection, also comprises assessments of the state of the art of neurophysiology and also of the changing concepts of hysteria and neurosis, as C.S. Wiesenthal has recently pointed out (257-268). Man and Wife is similarly both about the inconsistencies of the marriage laws in nineteenth-century Britain and about the “social question [of] the present rage for muscular exercises on the health and morals of the rising generation of Englishmen” (5). While the marriage plots give rise to sensational revelations of mysteries and to displays of shocked sensibilities and overstrained senses, it is the exposure of athleticism that is subject to repeated diatribes on the part of the third-person narrator as well as of various sympathetically presented protagonists.
The prologue emphasises a “strong personal contrast” between “a dashing, handsome man” with “energy in his face” and “an inbred falseness under it” and the “steady foundation of honour and truth” of his “short and light”, “slow and awkward” counterpart (11-12). The energetic man schemes to desert his wife by exploiting the legal loopholes provided by the incoherent marriage laws, while his “awkward” counterpart leaves the country and thus the world of the novel for good. His role in the book is to serve as a foil to his physically excelling and financially more successful false friend. Anticipating the tearful anti-hero, he is physically weak, unenergetic, and therefore also — predictably in the context of the novel’s identification of the healthy body with a corrupt mind — superior in moral/emotional capacities. Most significantly, the revelation of the men’s true nature is presented as a contrast between what the world sees and what an implied “special observer” detects — a detective of the body who is not fooled by its outward signs. “All the world” sees Vanborough’s energy in his face, but only “a special observer” (11) can detect his hypocrisy. Analogously, looking in Kendrew’s face, “the world saw an ugly and undemonstrative little man. The special observer, penetrating under the surface, found a fine nature beneath, resting on a steady foundation of honor and truth” (11). In sensation novels, physical attractiveness is frequently suspect — tying in with the exposure of the outwardly tranquil or harmless in domestic Gothic.
The ridicule of the stereotyped big rosy Englishman in The Moonstone highlights the emphasis on homebred villainy in the domestic Gothic and paves the way for the awkward and physically unprepossessing anti-heroes, whose delicate constitution contrasts forcefully with the hypocritical villain’s magnificent exterior. “Over six feet high”, with “a beautiful red and white color”, “a smooth round face” and “a head of lovely long flaxen hair” (57), Godfrey Ablewhite, the real thief of the Indian diamond, is a parody of the “Christian Hero” (183). His attempt to market his humiliation by the three mysterious Indians as a form of martyrdom is openly ridiculed. In Man and Wife, the “model young Briton of the present time” (68), Geoffrey Delamayn, resembles Godfrey, though in his case the misleading magnificent appearance does not so much conceal a cowardly moral weakness, but reveals fostered brutality. As it is explicitly put in the preface, Geoffrey embodies the “connection between the recent unbridled development of physical cultivation in England, and the recent spread of grossness and brutality” (6).
What the novel sets out to expose is the “Rough in broadcloth” (6), the result of a fashionable cultivation of a New Man who is meant to overcome the enfeeblement of which late Victorian theories of degeneration warn, but who Collins instead describes as an atavistic development. Nineteenth-century discourses of degeneration are linked to medical conceptualisations of vis nervosa, which explains Collins’ predilection for nervous — and even, like Ovid Vere in Heart and Science, neurasthenic — heroes as they pose such useful foils to the “model young Briton of the present time” (68). In Degeneration, Culture and the Novel 1880-1940, William Greenslade speaks of the “loose assemblage of beliefs which can be marked out as ‘degenerationism’” (2). The idea of degeneration, he argues, “was an important resource of myth for the post-Darwinian world” (1). Its manifestations informed popular culture on manifold levels even before the 1880s, which Greenslade takes as the starting-point for his analysis.
The sensation novel’s interest in the domestic Gothic denotes deployments of this myth as particularly useful. As Kelly Hurley puts it in The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle, the implications of Darwinism “were perceived as disastrous and traumatic — one might say “gothic” — by a majority of the population” (1). Fears of degeneration fit in neatly with narratives of hereditary murderous propensities as well as with the bodily indicators of villainy that become so central in the detective novel. Lady Audley’s angelic beauty, which accentuates the fiendish attributes that are at once concealed and eerily revealed by a pre-Raphaelite portrait, is part of this discourse on degeneration, as is the similarly seductive villainess Lydia Gwilt with her flaming red hair in Collins’s Armadale (1866). Collins’s novels — in particular his later novels — are intriguing in their subversion or redeployment of “degenerationism” as well as of other popular discourses. Most elaborately, The Legacy of Cain (1888) writes against phrenological readings of the body and against concepts of hereditary murder. The detective-figure of the book — a retired governor of a prison who tries to discover which one of a minister’s two daughters is the adopted child, the offspring of a convicted murderess — comes to the conclusion that he “absolutely refuse[s] to believe that [destiny] is a fatality with no higher origin than can be found in our accidental obligation to our fathers and mothers” (224).
In Man and Wife, the deployment of medical concepts is twofold, affecting the representation of athleticism both by arraigning it as a cultivation of atavism — an ironic effect of its ostensible fight against degeneration — and by delineating the collapse of an overtaxed athlete in great detail. The novel is, in fact, the first of Collins’s intentional “mission novels”. As it is put explicitly in the preface, the story “differs in one respect from the stories which have preceded it by the same hand. This time the fiction is founded on facts, and aspires to afford what help it may towards hastening the reform of certain abuses which have been too long suffered to exist among us unchecked.” (5) Its two juxtaposed missions include the marriage laws and physical education. The didactic intention of the second item on the agenda is twofold in that it seeks to expose both the moral and the physical dangers of the health craze in general and of athleticism in particular. Geoffrey Delamayn, the national hero of the Foot race, is “a magnificent animal”: “The modern gentleman was young and florid, tall and strong. [His] features were as perfectly regular and as perfectly unintelligent as human features can be” (61). Man and Wife dramatises the brute’s capability to commit murder and the athlete’s unexpected breakdown, sensationally presenting both the physical and the moral dangers of athleticism. Geoffrey’s admirers are comically presented as wailing over old-fashioned Sir Patrick’s diatribes:
Says a most infernal thing of a chap. Says — because a chap likes a healthy out-of-door life, and trains for rowing and running, and the rest of it, and don’t see his way to stewing over his books — therefore he’s safe to commit all the crimes in the calendar, murder included. (206)
The third person narrator explicitly shares nostalgically presented Sir Patrick’s view of fashionable manhood. The “cant of the day […] to take these physically-wholesome men for granted, as being morally-wholesome into the bargain” (69) is expectedly disproved. In Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain since 1800, Michael Roper and John Tosh speak of “a marked shift in the codes of manliness […] during the latter half of the nineteenth century – from the moral earnestness of the Evangelicals and Dr Arnold to the respect for muscle and might so prevalent at the close of the Victorian era” (3). Geoffrey is the result of this shift towards a physical education, “having won the highest popular distinction which the educational system of modern England can bestow – he had pulled the stroke-oar, in a University boat-race.” (61). The “growing admiration for the virtues of the aboriginal Britons” (69), meant to counteract physical degeneration, is exposed as a deliberate return to the brutality of “natural man”: “Geoffrey Delamayn was the natural man” (236) — sharing the uncouth brutality and scheming self-interest of his ancestors. That Arnold Brinkworth, the novel’s peripheral tearful anti-hero, is praised for his simplicity and his lack of the vices of the age — including the fashion for natural man — does not necessarily indicate an inconsistency in the novel’s presentation of theories of degeneration. On the contrary, it ties in with the exposure of the incoherence of the Victorian vogue for muscular Christianity. Julius, Geoffrey’s elder brother, serves as yet another foil to the fashionable ideal of a young man: “This degenerate Briton could digest books – and couldn’t digest beer.” (180)
Contrary to most sensation novels, Man and Wife does not dispute the medical opinion of athleticism, but deploys it as an argument against popular conceptualisations of muscular Christianity. The relationship of sensation novelists and Victorian practitioners is otherwise mostly a hostile one. Charles Reade writes in his preface to the publication of Hard Cash in volume-form that its madhouse scenes “have been picked out by certain disinterested gentlemen who keep private asylums, and periodicals to puff them [and] a little easy cant about Sensation Novelists” (iii). In Man and Wife, a reliable and respectable physician is juxtaposed with Geoffrey’s trainer, whose medical knowledge is extensive, but is only used to further his own interests. Observing the deterioration of Geoffrey’s vital energies, his trainer’s only reaction is to “hedge” his bets by secretly backing his opponent: “‘Another of ’em gone stale!’ said the trainer, looking round again at the sleeping man. ‘He’ll lose the race.’” (345) The self-interest of this medical “advisor” is contrasted with the unsolicited advice of the physician, who cautions Geoffrey out of humanity, as he backs Sir Patrick’s diatribe against the moral effects of athleticism: “There is a Physical objection to the present rage for muscular exercises of all sorts, which is quite as strong, in its way, as the Moral objection” (217). Delamayn’s end justifies both their fears as he collapses at a crucial Foot race and also plots murder. His sensationally detailed downfall at the race moreover dramatises the physician’s warning “of the important physiological truth, that the muscular power of a man is no fair guarantee of his vital power” (218):
Delamayn swerved on the path. His trainer dashed water over him. He rallied, and ran another step or two — swerved again — staggered — lifted his arm to his mouth with a hoarse cry of rage — fastened his own teeth in his flesh like a wild beast — and fell senseless on the course. […] There the conquered athlete lay: outwardly an inert mass of strength, formidable to look at, even in its fall; inwardly, a weaker creature, in all that constitutes vital force, than the fly that buzzed on the window-pane. [495-496]
Sensationally dramatising how a man is broken by athletic exercises, the novel uses the medical differentiation between sheer bodily strength and the vital forces, which is central to Victorian medical discourses. The contrast between the conquered athlete’s outward mass of strength and his (moral and physical) weakness ties in with the sensation novel’s fondness for deceptive appearances. Geoffrey’s semblance of physical health not only camouflages his moral baseness — as does Godfrey’s in The Moonstone — but it also belies the depletion of his vital forces. His physical exhaustion is moreover juxtaposed with a similarly concealed derangement in his nervous force, the vis nervosa. Outwardly stolidly indifferent, he is shaken by the sensationally described appearance of a dumb servant. The strong national hero, poised against the sensitive nervous (anti-) hero Arnold, is confronted with the effects of his nervous system without being able to deal with this onslaught: “His nervous system had suddenly forced itself on his notice, without the slightest previous introduction, and was saying (in an unknown tongue), Here I am!” (242). His struggle is comically presented, as are his attempts to quieten his guilty conscience by exercising with his dumb-bells — “the new remedy for stimulating a sluggish brain” (173).
What is more, the tears “that told of [Arnold’s] heartache, and that honoured the man who shed them” (274) contrast not only with Geoffrey’s parodied attempts to stifle his nervous irritability and emotional turmoil with cold baths and exercise, but also with his admirers’ questionable emotional investment in both the men and the horses that run races. As Geoffrey agrees to run instead of an athlete who has already “gone stale” — thus prefiguring his own fate — he is “hailed, in maudlin terms of endearment, by grateful giants with tears in their eyes” (184). Their desertion of stale athletes contrasts sharply with Arnold’s heartsick sorrow when he discovers his friend’s baseness. Their maudlin endearments have nothing to do with affection, just has Geoffrey’s concern for a racing horse, of whose dreaded relapse he speaks “in a voice broken by emotion” (99), has nothing to do with love of animals, as his cruelty to his mother’s pet dog clearly shows (171). The allegiances as well as the appearances of these fashionable muscular heroes — and consequently also the presumably ennobling results of a physical education — are exposed as a sham.
- Victorian Heroes in Sickness and Health
- The Sensational Use of Medicine
- Conclusion: The Fictional Uses of Victorian Medicine
Last modified: 11 November 2002