Whistlestop Blog

Wilkie Collins and the problems of the grave

As part of my renewed pursuit of the 18th Century British literature, I read recently The Woman in White (1859-1860) and The Moonstone (1867-1868) by Wilkie Collins.  Collins (1824-1889) was a friend and colleague of Charles Dickens.  He and Dickens actually acted together on the stage (imagine that film waiting to be made), and they wrote a play together.  As brilliant as Dickens was, he controlled his fiction tightly and circumspectly with respect to society's mores as well as its appetites for character and plot.  Collins, on the other hand, perhaps because he was less of a public persona, less of an icon than Dickens, tested the limits of tolerance more aggressively.  You can think of him writing "novels of sensation," as they were called, but you must remember that he was creating the definition of sensation.

In a YWCA book group many years ago I guided reading of Collins's The Law and the Lady (1875) because it featured the first novel-length female detective (our theme was women detectives from the beginning to the generous present).  And over the years I have read many short stories by Collins, a skill of his that has been lost in the later fame of his novels.  So I was prepared for his smooth, fast-moving, seemingly plain style.  

Collins has nothing of the bravura of his friend Dickens, none of the flourishes or masterful satirical touches.  He is quieter, very focused on character affecting actions, keenly aware of the limitations of perspective.  He creates characters (I almost wrote that he finds characters) that see only part of a story or an incident or another character.  He is scrupulous and very serious in this.  Often, especially in these two books, you do get the incident or character completed, so to speak, by a report from another character who viewed or experienced the same thing that was previously reported.  A conversation in the garden in The Moonstone is later written about by a woman who was only seen at a distance.  It turns out she had something important to say, but she could not because of the way the conversation became a stunt of manipulation by one of the men in it.  Collins is adept at the incomplete, the misapprehension, the mystery of the misunderstood.  Thus he speaks to modernity, to us in our daily lives, in our glancing and unfinished commerce with the world.

Finally, in the sense of a striking pattern in both great novels, Collins, his characters, and the reader contemplate graves.  Without giving away too much, I must limit myself to a perspective that the author would endorse:  I can only say that one grave is empty though marked, another grave is by nature unable to be marked and yet the arrival there is a dangerous pilgrimage that is made only to glimpse the unknown and the unfathomable, another grave is full of a man and his life's work which kept him sane and which could have helped enlighten the world but in his profound loneliness he thought it of no interest to anyone but himself.  Collins proposes to the reader that a technical mystery (who did what to whom) may be solved in the sense that it may be explained in plain prose, but that another kind of mystery altogether ends at our feet as we stand before absence and conjure presence with our memory and our grief.

Wilkie Collins is a remarkable writer.  Read him for the fun, for the cleverness, for the delight of time-travelling in violent Victorian times.  Read him also for his honesty, his compassion, and his clear-eyed view of what he could not solve.