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?