Dead Secrets

Dead Secrets: Willkie Collins and the Female Gothic

Tamar Heller
Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    Dead Secrets
    Book Description:

    Readers have long been enthralled by the novels of Wilkie Collins, whoseThe Moonstoneis considered the first modern detective novel. This book by Tamar Heller-the most comprehensive study of Collins's work ever writtenplaces Collins within Victorian literary history, showing how his fiction transforms the conventions of the traditionally female genre of the Gothic novel and can be read as a critique of the gender and class distinctions that structured Victorian society.

    Heller offers an insightful account of the ways in which Collins's work in the female Gothic tradition influenced his characteristic themes and imagery. She also explores how this association with the genres of the Gothic and with controversial "sensation fiction" linked Collins with women writers and literary and social marginality during an era when novel writing was increasingly a maledefined and maledominated profession. Heller argues that Collins's fictions reflect his own contradictory status as a Victorian writer; his novels focus on the relation of the writer to the literary marketplace and also on the intricate and ambivalent dialectic of masculine literary authority and feminine marginality.

    This study of Collins makes an original contribution to feminist literary criticism by demonstrating its value for the reexamination of an important male writer. In addition, by exploring the complexity of the relationship of a male writer to a feminine literary tradition, the book breaks new ground in the study of literary influence and in critical discussions of the literary canon.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16178-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Dead Secrets
    (pp. 1-12)

    In a paradigmatic instance of an image that is central to his work, acts of writing and reading by women structure Wilkie Collins’ fourth novel,The Dead Secret(1857).¹ At the beginning of the novel Sarah Leeson, housemaid to a wealthy Cornish family, writes down with trembling reluctance her mistress’ deathbed confession, which she hides in the crumbling and disused part of the family manor; in the second part of the novel the heiress to the estate, hearing rumors of this buried secret, becomes a detective who tracks down the paper’s hiding place, only to find that it reveals she...

  5. One Reigns of Terror: The Politics of the Female Gothic
    (pp. 13-37)

    As the revolutionary Reign of Terror raged in France, another reign of terror invaded the realm of English letters. In England in the 1790s, while voices were raised both for and against the French Revolution and the reforms it represented, Gothic novels—or “horrid” novels, as they are called in Jane Austen’sNorthanger Abbey—became the most popular fictions of the day. The relation between the rise of the Gothic during the last decades of the eighteenth century and the period’s tumultuous political and intellectual climate has long been the subject of critical inquiry. In 1928, Michael Sadleir declared that...

  6. Two Becoming an Author in 1848: History and the Gothic in the Early Works of Wilkie Collins
    (pp. 38-57)

    Wilkie Collins’ first work, published in 1848 when he was twenty-four, was a biography of his father, the respected painter and Royal Academician William Collins. In contrast to the matrilineal tradition of the female Gothic,Memoirs of the Life of William Collinsis a monument to the male artist that celebrates the bond between father and son. Chronicling William’s Franklinesque rise from poverty to prosperity through unrelenting industry, Collins eulogizes his father as an exemplary family man and, above all, an empowering predecessor. TheMemoirswere, however, an anomaly in the career their publication launched. Not only was Collins to...

  7. Three Basil: Femininity, Ressentiment, and the Male Artist
    (pp. 58-81)

    The publication ofBasilin November 1852 precipitated a marked change in the critical reception of Collins’ novels. Reviewers from such journals as theSpectator, theAthenaeum, andBentley’s Miscellany, publications that reflected the increased emphasis on the aesthetic and moral value of fiction in the Victorian literary establishment, had hailed Collins’ earliest efforts; ofAntonina, a reviewer inBentley’sclaimed that “the author, in his first work, has stepped into the first rank of romance writers.”¹ WithBasil, however, began the mixed and often dismissive criticism that was to become characteristic of reviews of Collins’ fiction. The novel had...

  8. Four Writing after Dark: Collins and Victorian Literary Culture
    (pp. 82-109)

    Although Collins’ novels afterBasilcontinued to engage “modern life,” he still wrote historical fiction, returning in the mid-1850s to the subject of revolution that had been thematically important in his earliest works. Recalling the setting of his ghost story about the French Revolution, “Nine O’Clock!” he serialized a lengthy tale about the Reign of Terror, “Sister Rose,” in Dickens’ journalHousehold Wordsin 1855, including it the next year in his collection of short storiesAfter Dark. InAfter Dark, he embeds this historical fiction within the collection’s frame narrative, in which a male artist and his female scribe...

  9. Five The Woman in White: Portrait of the Artist as a Professional Man
    (pp. 110-141)

    The spectacular popular success ofThe Woman in Whitein 1860 was the most triumphant moment in Collins’ career. More completely than any of his earlier works, this novel transformed him from a promising young protégé of Dickens into an author of established reputation and one of the most popular novelists writing in English during the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, this popularity translated into economic security: Collins was able to negotiate a lucrative contract for his next novel,No Name, on the strength of the reception ofThe Woman in White, and his income from his writing remained high during...

  10. Six Blank Spaces: Ideological Tensions and the Detective Work of The Moonstone
    (pp. 142-163)

    In Collins’The Moonstone(1868), which T. S. Eliot called “the first and greatest of English detective novels,”¹ the major feat of ratiocination is performed not by Sergeant Cuff, the inspector from Scotland Yard, but by a freakish-looking outcast and doctor’s assistant, Ezra Jennings. Jennings proves what others already know—that Franklin Blake stole the Moonstone. More important, though, Jennings figures out that Blake did this to protect his cousin Rachel and that he acted in a trance caused by a dose of opium administered without his knowledge. Jennings’ method for arriving at this conclusion vindicates not only Blake but...

  11. Epilogue: The Haunted Narrative
    (pp. 164-168)

    An eerie image of a woman’s, tortured writing from Collins’The Haunted Hotel(1879) serves as an emblem for the fate of female Gothic in his later work.The Haunted Hotelis dominated by one of Collins’ grand Gothic villainesses, Countess Narona, who poisons her husband for his money. Driven by a need to confess the crime, the Countess tries again and again to write a play that describes the murder in only slightly veiled form; unable, despite compulsive scribbling, to finish the manuscript, she starts it over before succumbing to an illness that causes her words, before she dies,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 169-196)
  13. Index
    (pp. 197-201)