[Part 2 of the author's "Wives and Fathers: Fatherhood and Divorce Laws in the Victorian Novel"]

decorated initial 'W' ilkie Collins’s repeated exposure of laws and the law in his novels, his interest in what can be termed the “domestic Gothic” of the Victorian sensation genre, and his deeply ambiguous stance towards marriage have become a critical commonplace. But when they are analysed, it is usually with reference to his sympathetically portrayed anti-heroines, while his (anti-) heroes and specifically the deeply ambiguous function of fathers in his fiction have been ignored. Collins’s quintessentially sensational treatment of clandestine weddings, unhappy married life, bigamy, adultery, illegitimacy, divorce, and the inconsistencies of marriage and divorce laws ties in with the popular appeal of the sensation genre; and yet, the diatribes that run through his later “mission” novels cast a different light on prevailing attitudes to topical issues in the Victorian age.

His own bohemian domestic arrangements with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd in a form of non-marital bigamy or morganatic family, which he kept carefully concealed, testifies to a liberal, but also chauvinistic, understanding of sexual and domestic relationships. He was a fond father to his illegitimate children and an equally affectionate pseudo-stepfather to Caroline Grave’s child from her broken marriage. A contradictory personality, Collins was at once bohemian and domestic, radical in his exposure of inhumane laws and deeply conservative in his preference for a cosy domesticity, for a non-marital, but bigamous, and yet intrinsically bourgeois home-life. Although his novels sensationally dramatise the domestic horrors of family life thinly camouflaged by the hypocrisy of respectability, they nonetheless tend to end with a wedding. Especially his later works endorse domestic felicity in a bourgeois household rich in children — although the children need not be the offspring of this celebrated union. The Evil Genius not only combines a sympathetic portrayal of an adulteress with a critique of divorce laws, but furthermore juxtaposes this concern for both the “fallen” and the betrayed woman with an emphasis on the significance and rights of fatherhood. Far from simply defending conservative attitudes towards the new divorce laws, Collins attempts something radically different in asserting a newly emerging father-role. This reconfiguration of fatherhood fosters an affectionate paternal love that is notably different from a patriarch’s interest in the continuation of the male line.

In Collins’s repeated engagements with marriage laws and married life, the radical and the reactionary are characteristically intermingled. The recurrence of a detailed and critical treatment of marriage and divorce laws is indeed conspicuous, though it owes its prevalence perhaps more to the sensation novel’s interest in bigamy, adultery, and invalid marriages and the concomitant potential for murder, concealment, and mistaken identities. The most famous murderous bigamist is of course the titular villainess of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861), who attempts to murder her first husband as his reappearance after his initial desertion stands in the way of her social advancement. Collins’s The Black Robe (1881) is not only a — characteristically — more ambiguous, but also an elaborately plotted treatment of two entwined cases of bigamy, in which it is expectedly the law with all its confusions, inconsistencies, and loopholes that is cast in the role of the villain. Shortly after Lewis Romayne’s marriage to Stella Eyrecourt, it is revealed by scheming Jesuits that she had already been married to Bernard Winterfield, but that this marriage had been broken off unconsummated as Bernard’s run-away drunkard wife, whom he had believed dead, accosted them at the church-door, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). After Romayne’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, the Jesuits convince him that he had never been married to Stella, as her marriage to Bernard was still valid. Eventually Romayne dies repentant with Stella at his side, leaves his land and fortune to his son after all — and not to the Jesuits, who have thus plotted in vain — and Stella (re-)marries Bernard Winterfield. The ending is characteristic of Collins’s novels, as a happy union counteracts the exposure of the marital unhappiness that makes up the sensational impact of the novel. The true lovers, legally united after all, set up a domestic household that happily incorporates the offspring of previous alliances. The Two Destinies (1876), Collins’s novel about telepathy, similarly ends with the marriage of separated lovers, who have been in contact telepathically throughout their various adventures. They set up house together with the heroine’s little daughter:

The child burst out gaily with the news of her father’s disappearance: "My other papa has run away! My other papa has stolen money! It’s time I had a new one — isn’t it?" She put her arms round my neck. "And now I’ve got him!" she cried, at the shrillest pitch of her voice. (171)

Though partly anticipating the most famous Victorian novel about custody quarrels, Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, such gruesomely comical effects are submerged under the novel’s invocation of telepathy — or mesmerism, as it is termed in the book, written a few years before F.W.H. Myers formulated the concept of telesthesia or telepathy in 1882. George Germaine, the hero of The Two Destinies, regularly experiences visionary trances or dreams in which he sees his childhood love and eventually also her little daughter, who proclaims that her “new papa is coming” (170). George’s hallucinations are diagnosed by a renowned physician as delusions caused by prolonged depression, but “mesmerism would account for [the] vision as the necessary result of a highly-developed sympathy between [the lovers]” (173) and also the child, who gets her “new papa” eventually.

The difference between fathering and fatherhood thus recurs in Collins’s fiction as the heroes fondly accept the offspring of their beloved’s morally weak former suitors or husbands. Fatherhood in its own right becomes central in his later works and in particular in Heart and Science (1883) and The Evil Genius; and I shall take a closer look at these two novels. Before dissecting their representation of suppressed fathers in detail, however, I think it will prove useful to consider them in the context of Collins’s earlier preoccupation with marriage, fathers, and the law.

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Last modified: 16 November 2002