I’ve been reading too much Wilkie Collins lately, and not even the good stuff such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone, but also the lesser-known works from the 1850s through to his last published novel in the late 1880s. I’ve now read, I think, every Collins novel, in addition to much of his shorter works of fiction and journalism. I’m exhausted and overloaded. Reading excessive amounts of popular Victorian fiction skews your sense of the world. Collins is especially compelling because he is so in touch with the mid-Victorian taste for scandal and intrigue, and indeed much of his work seems to strike a common chord with today’s scandal-mongering, sensationalist media. His stories read familiar now because he invented many of the narrative twists and turns we find in popular fiction, film, and television. I’ve begun to think in popular narratives. I see character development as an occasional happy accident of an ingeniously constructed plot. Collins has convinced me to see the world his way, and not without a fair amount of irritation.

While reading the critical heritage of Collins’s novels, I noticed recently that Victorian critics often compare his lack of success as a high-standing artist to the overwhelming success of George Eliot’s major novels. Intrigued, and frankly exhausted from too much Collins, I picked up a copy of Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical a few nights ago. It’s become my go-to bedtime novel. I know, Eliot is not exactly the most relaxing of bedtime reading, but strangely it has become a welcome respite from the excesses of Collins’s fiction. More importantly, Eliot’s novel (and it’s not even one of her best) has reminded me how intellectually and psychologically compelling literature can be. Strangely, I had forgotten about Eliot. How is this possible, given the endless number of stunning passages one finds in her novels? I’m not exactly sure of the answer, but here’s a passage about strength of character that I found especially intriguing the other night while reading Felix Holt:

“The stronger will always rule, say some, with an air of confidence which is like a lawyer’s flourish, forbidding exceptions or additions. But what is strength? Is it blind willfulness that sees no terrors, no many-linked consequences, no bruises and wounds of those whose cords it tightens? Is it the narrowness of a brain that conceives no needs differing from its own, and looks to no results beyond the bargains of to-day; that tugs with emphasis for every small purpose, and thinks it weakness to exercise the sublime power of resolved renunciation? There is a sort of subjection which is the peculiar heritage of largeness and of love; and strength is often only another name for willing bondage to irremediable weakness.” (Chapter VI)

You won’t find passages like this in a Collins novel. Eliot often startles with her attention to the contradictions present in human motivation. Her insights stretch the limits of conventional wisdom, while challenging our assumptions about the order of things. Collins, on the other hand, provides his readers with at-times challenging, and even subversive, commentary on Victorian morality and hypocrisy, but his narrative asides always seem to read like nothing more than very articulate platitudes or nuggets of conventional wisdom. Secrets will reveal themselves, truths will be exposed despite social pretensions, and we are all in some form or another on the verge of psychic madness. This is what I love about Collins, but sometimes, just sometimes, I actually find it refreshing to read Eliot’s commentaries on character, motivation, and psychic life.

I’m wondering if I’m the first person to ever refer to Eliot’s fiction as refreshing. I’ve certainly never heard such praise espoused by any of my colleagues or former professors. What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “Just a little late for Eliot month…

  1. I really like how, while you note the critical tendency to dichotomize Eliot and Collins’s “success” here, you also align them according to their seeming desire to challenge Victorian social hypocrisy.

    I won’t dispute your apt description of how “Eliot often startles with her attention to the contradictions present in human motivation” but I wonder whether you’re being too hard on Collins. It’s true that Collins’s narrators don’t offer lengthy meditations on “character, motivation, and psychic life” but couldn’t we read an attention to human contradictions and social hypocrisy into the plotting of his novels, into the success of non-normative characters, into just the very fact that his novels take on big social issues. Collins may not be subtle, but I think his novels really do move beyond the platitudinous.

    So there’s my defense of poor, frequently maligned, Wilkie Collins….anyone else want to weigh in here??

    Also, Daniel, someone on the Victoria list mentioned the appearance of synchronized dancing cats in The Two Destinies, which I haven’t read. As our resident Collins expert, you have got to tell us about this scene!!

  2. Daniel, I actually had a similar reading experience last month. I am currently working on sensation fiction and took a break from those novels to read Adam Bede. And it was refreshing! Adam Bede is one of Eliot’s novels that was often compared to sensation fiction because of Hetty’s racy plot, but it is, of course, radically different from most sensation novels in tone, pacing, and narrative voice. It was refreshing, I think, because Eliot gives a humanity to her characters that is sometimes lacking in sensation or popular fiction, which are often plot driven and don’t allow us the same kind of access into character’s conflicted motivations. I do think, though, that my reading of sensation novels alongside Eliot’s domestic realism has helped me to better understand each style and what they have to offer. I wonder if Collins would seem refreshing (for very different reasons) if you had been reading excessive amounts of Eliot?

  3. Tara, I’m glad I’m not the only one to have this experience. I’m sure Collins would seem equally as refreshing if I had spent the last year or more reading just Eliot.

    Jen, you’re right, I shouldn’t be so hard on Collins. I actually love his fiction, as it does generally conform to my own way of seeing the world in ways that Eliot does not. Much of Collins, though, does verge on the ridiculous, so I do find myself rolling my eyes at some of his more improbable moments. That said, I do think that his attention to the improbabilities of modern life are very deliberate. Improbable moments in his fiction demonstrate the speculative possibilities (not realities) of modern communications, transportation, law, and science. In this sense, I think Collins, like Dickens, is much more current today than other Victorian novelists. His speculations can seem extraordinarily postmodern at times.

    Regarding the dancing cat scene from The Two Destinies, I actually didn’t think much of it at first, other than it is very typical of Collins’s penchant for the bizarre and dream-like. When you get a moment, you should check out the illustration of the scene, which can be accessed through Google books (the illustration follows page 168):

    http://books.google.com/books?id=ykeitbX18_8C&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+two+destinies&cd=1#v=onepage&q=cats&f=false

    DM

  4. Thanks for that link Daniel! I read through the scene–it is really bizarre! The Two Destinies just jumped up a few places on my to-read list!

    (Also, has anyone else ever heard of this stereotype of Victorian men disliking cats that is invoked in the scene?)

  5. It’s a curious novel, for sure. Regarding cats, I’ve come across this stereotype of men disliking felines in a few other novels recently, but I can’t remember which ones. That doesn’t help, does it? But I’m trying to remember…

    DM

  6. Now I remember…It’s another Wilkie Collins text, Armadale. Check out Chapter III of Book the Last. As Lydia Gwilt is overcome by suspense, waiting for the “accident” that she hopes will kill Armadale, she begins to pace “like a wild creature in a cage.” Coincidentally, the asylum cat interrupts her pacing:

    “She took the animal up in her arms–it rubbed its sleek head luxuriously against her chin as she bent her face over it. ‘Armadale hates cats,’ she whispered in the creature’s ear. ‘Come up and see Armadale killed!’ The next moment her own frightful fancy horrified her.”

    This doesn’t exactly reinforce the stereotype that men dislike cats, but it does suggest a kind of pattern in Collins.

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