Reversed perspectives : a re-examination of the later novels of William Wilkie Collins
Poulson, Sally (2000) Reversed perspectives : a re-examination of the later novels of William Wilkie Collins. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
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Although a considerable amount of research has been done on Collins's sensation fiction, very little
critical attention has been paid to his later novels. Of those critics who have chosen to consider his
post-1870 fiction, the majority have dismissed it as so inferior to his early works as to be best
passed over as quickly as possible. Some feel that, without Dickens to guide his pen, Collins was
mcapable of writing anything worth reading; others suspect that the influence of Charles Reade was
as detrimental to Collins's talent as Dickens's had been beneficial; yet more deCided that laudanum
had fogged both his mind and his literary imagination. The purpose of this thesis is to refute these
claims, and to establish that Collins's later works remain of great interest from both a literary and a
social point of view.
The thesis is divided into seven sections-an Apology, an Introduction, four chapters, and a
The Apology sets out to examine the modern hostility towards the novels written in the last two
decades of his life, and to show how this frequently varies from contemporary opinion. As I do not
ascribe to the theory that Collins's novels reveal a steady decline over the years, I have chosen not
to adopt a chronological examination of his works, but rather a thematic one, which illustrates the
consistency of his philosophy.
The Introduction attempts to show that the difference between what is popularly called Collins's
'sensation' fiction and his 'thesis' novels is not so hard and fast as has often been maintained. It
also introduces the ideas which will be developed throughout the thesis, namely that, by the
sublation of many of the binary oppositions we have come to connect with Victorian literaturemasculine/
feminine, good/evil, hero/villain-Collins's works provide a reversed perspective on his
Chapter 1, 'Good Girls', conSiders Heart and Science (1883), The Two Destinies (1876), and Man and
Wife (1870). The second half of the nineteenth century was, for women, a time of upheaval; the
Angel in the House had been superseded by her more dynamic and independent sister, whose
inadequacy as a role-model was a frequent theme in much of the literature of the time. Whilst
society was attempting to maintain the status quo by demanding that men be men and women
subservient, these three novels stand out as defying-or, at least, ridiculing-convention on almost
all gender-related levels.
Chapter 2, 'Fallen Women', concentrates upon The Evil Genius (1886), The New Magdalen (1873), and
The Fallen Leaves (1879). Collins was not the only author to deal with the subject of women who
transgressed the moral code, but he was one of the few who had the courage to stand by his fallen
women until the end. Rather than sentencing them to a penitential death, he allows them, reformed
and unsullied by their previous degradation, to marry and reclaim their place in society. Moreover,
he also shows that it is frequently those representatives of respectable society whose actions and
attitudes are much more at fault than those of the women they choose to censure.
Chapter 3, 'Wicked Creatures', is a long chapter which analyses '[ Say No' (1884), Blind Love (1890),
The Legacy of Cain (1888), and Jezebel's Daughter (1880). Collins's deep-seated belief in the duality
of human nature, which has already been suggested in the previous chapters, is here more fully
explored. Just as his 'heroines' have been seen to defy their conventional roles, rising gracefully
above the tribulations of pregnancy, prostitution, and persecution, so too do his villainesses flout
the rules by which such wicked creatures should more properly be governed. His household devils
are no more wholly demonic than his domestic angels are wholly sublime.
Chapter 4, 'Other Men', discusses Poor Miss Finch (1872), The Black Robe (1881), and The Law and The
Lady (1875). Not only were women expected by contemporary society to comply with an ideal, but
men also found themselves being exhorted to conform to an active and dominant masculine
archetype. The novels examined in this chapter shows the consequences of the failure to live up to
these frequently impossible standards. Rather than adhere to the binary oppositions of
selfless/selfish, wise/foolish, strong/weak, Collins presents his reader with composite figures who
are, perhaps, truer to human nature than literature usually allows.
The ConclUSion draws together the threads of the previous chapters. It also looks at Collins as a
nineteenth-century writer with surprisingly modern ideas, and examines Collins's literary legacy,
which is more usually to be found in the field of popular fiction.
|Item Type:||Thesis or Dissertation (PhD)|
|Subjects:||P Language and Literature > PR English literature|
|Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH):||Collins, Wilkie, 1824-1889 -- Criticism and interpretation|
|Official Date:||April 2000|
|Institution:||University of Warwick|
|Theses Department:||Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies|
|Supervisor(s)/Advisor:||Winnifrith, Tom ; Rignall, John, 1942-|
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