[Part 6 of the author's "Wives and Fathers: Fatherhood and Divorce Laws in the Victorian Novel"]

decorated initial 'A' t the end of The Evil Genius, Bennydeck steps in as a desired father-figure — the dead father’s best friend as a surrogate father — and thus frees Sydney, the childlike governess, from the adulterous and pseudo-incestuous relationship with Kitty’s father. Her role as his future child-wife is thoroughly acceptable — a role she shares with Dickens’s Little Dorrit in the eponymous novel as well as with the child-like prostitute Simple Sally in The Fallen Leaves (1879), Collins’s variation on the theme. In an article on The Old Curiosity Shop, Robert Polhemus calls the child-wife “a figure rising from childhood memories and longings” (5). Although Bennydeck’s nostalgic memories of the friend of his youth and also of little Sydney play a role in his “adoption” of the fallen governess, it is predominantly her nostalgia for the lost father-figure that rises from childhood memories.

The substantial section entitled “Before the story” — a characteristic device in Collins’s fiction — has, in fact, a threefold function: It compassionately details the early life of the “fallen” woman, contrasts a nostalgically remembered father-figure with maternal neglect and abandonment, and also invokes the fallibility of the law. The novel opens with a sarcastic description of a courtroom scene, as a bored jury condemns — falsely, as it turns out — Sydney’s father to death. The Honourable Roderick Westerfield is charged with casting away a ship under his command for the purpose of fraudulently obtaining a share of the insurance money and of possessing himself of Brazilian diamonds, which formed part of the cargo. The subplot of the diamonds resurfaces again to show the villainy of his brutish wife, who tries to solve the mystery of their disappearance not to prove her husband’s innocence, but to enrich herself and her equally brutish lover. They fail in this venture and find a gruesome death abroad. Most importantly, the family life of widowed Mrs Westerfield reveals a fatherless household in which the father’s favourite is cruelly neglected. Her “habitual neglect of her eldest child” (59) shocks the servants:

‘There’s no fireplace in the garret, ma’am. I’m afraid the little girl must be cold and lonely.’ It was useless to plead for Syd – Mrs Westerfield was not listening. Her attention was absorbed by her own plump and pretty hands. She took a tiny file from the dressing-table, and put a few finishing touches to her nails. (59)

Sydney in the lumber-room anticipates Sara Crewe’s sojourn in the garret in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess of 1905, originally published in a shorter version as Sara Crewe in 1887. Sara “looks out at the sky as if it spoke to her. The sparrows come at her call. The rat she has fed and tamed in her loneliness” (174). Sydney similarly tames a mouse as her only friend — “there were holes in the skirting-board; and from one of them peeped the brightly timid eyes of the child’s only living companion in the garret — a mouse, feeding on crumbs which she had saved from her breakfast” – and like Sara Crewe, she lives on her imagination: “Syd’s bright imagination was a better protection against the cold” (59-60). Ostracised in the garret, she stands in a tradition of locked-up children in nineteenth-century fiction, ranging from Fanny Price stored away in the little white attic in Austen’s Mansfield Park by a pompous patriarch ruled by a malicious mother-figure to orphaned Jane Eyre’s ordeal in the red-room and similarly fatherless David Copperfield’s imprisonment in his room on bread and water by the stepfather he has bitten. The rare happy glimpses of Sydney’s childhood are associated with her father. Highlighting her mother’s neglect, they underpin the novel’s emphasis on the significance of fond fatherhood. The adult Sydney finds “a little memorial” of her father: “Only some torn crumpled leaves from a book of children’s songs that he used to teach me to sing; and a small packet of his letter, which my mother may have thrown aside and forgotten” (223).

The novel opens with the loss of her father and concludes with her adoption by — and likely marriage to — a surrogate father-figure. Yet it is not only that her lack of parental and in particular paternal protection and affection causes her exploitation, but her nostalgia for the lost father is furthermore linked to Kitty’s loss. Sydney’s father dies because of the carelessness of the inattentive jury, but Kitty loses her father through a “cruel falsehood” (273): She is made to believe that her father is dead. The cruelty of this proceeding is stressed more than once: “The shameful falsehood which had led the child to suppose that her father was dead” (339). “The cruel falsehood which had checked poor Kitty’s natural inquiries raised an insuperable obstacle to a meeting between father and child” (273). The falsely bereaved child expectedly suffers from the confusions and contradictions of this loss. The silencing of her natural inquiries evokes the micropolitics of suppression that result in her passive rebellion: “Since the day when her grandmother had said the fatal words which checked all further allusion to her father, the child had shown a disposition to complain, if she was not constantly amused” (282). Kitty’s sly comments — anticipating Henry James’ Maisie — express the bizarre unnaturalness of the disrupted family life: “‘Oh, Uncle Randal, I’m so glad to see you!’ She checked herself, and looked at her mother. ‘May I call him Uncle Randal?’ she asked. ‘Or has he changed his name, too?” (238) Yet the text soon swerves away from the delineation of the child’s resistance and instead lapses into a heartrending melodrama as she encounters her “dead” father:

There was something in his voice that attracted her — how or why, at her age, she never thought of inquiring. Eager and excited, she ran across the lawn which lay between her and the brook, before she answered that gentleman’s question. As they approached each other, his eyes sparkled, his face flushed; he cried out joyfully. ‘Here she is!’ — and then changed again in an instant. A horrid pallor overspread his face as the child stood looking at him with innocent curiosity. He startled Kitty, not because he seemed to be shocked and distressed, she hardly noticed that; but because he was so like — although he was thinner and paler and older — oh, so like her lost father! […] She could only say: ‘You are so like my poor papa. In the instant when he kissed her, the child knew him. Her heart beat suddenly with an overpowering delight; she started back from his embrace. ‘That’s how papa used to kiss me!’ she cried. ‘Oh! You are papa! Not drowned not drowned!’ She flung her arms round his neck, and held him as if she would never let him go again. ‘Dear papa! Poor lost papa!’ His tears fell on her face; he sobbed over her. (342-343)

The novel rather unconvincingly concludes with the remarriage of the divorced parents. The wife forgives the adulterous husband; and the father forgives the mother for inventing his death in order to deny him access to his child. The happy end of the melodrama thus seems to be a return to reactionary conservatism, as the emphasis on the father’s rights can be seen to undermine the new divorce laws. Yet as I have tried to show, Collins does something radically different in asserting a newly emerging father-role. As expected in his fiction, the presentation of the father’s role and place is fraught with ambiguities. Too much time spent in the nursery can all too easily lead to an infatuation with the governess if not even to incestuous desire. Nevertheless, the new father-role fosters an expressive paternal love that is significantly different from a patriarch’s pride in his offspring. Moreover, the objects of the father’s love in Heart and Science and The Evil Genius are daughters. It is brutish Mrs Westerfield who favours her son, who might have succeeded to the estate of Lord Le Basque — which is why she married the lord’s younger brother in the first place – and resents her first child for being a girl. Charting a new form and significance of fatherhood, Wilkie Collins’s preoccupation with divorce and marriage laws includes a plea for the father’s rights in his exposure of the hypocrisies of Victorian family life.


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Collins, Wilkie. The Legacy of Cain. Stroud: Sutton, 2001.

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Horstman, Allen. Victorian Divorce. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Popenoe, David. Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1996.

Stone, Lawrence. Road To Divorce: England 1530-1987. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

Tosh, John. A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.

Wagner, Tamara S. "'Overpowering Vitality: Nostalgia and Men of Sensibility in the Fiction of Wilkie Collins," MLQ 63:4 (2002), 473-502.

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.

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Last modified 16 November 2002