Victorian Literature and Culture

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Victorian Literature and Culture (2010), 38:1-19 Cambridge University Press
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Research Article


Sundeep Bislaa1

a1 York College/CUNY
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In Walter C. Phillips's Classic Study of 1919, Dickens, Reade, and Collins, Sensation Novelists: A Study in the Conditions and Theories of Novel Writing in Victorian England, there comes an instant when the critic believes himself to have caught the last of his novelists in a moment of artlessness. Remarking on the comforting and seemingly-conformist opening of Wilkie Collins's No Name, Phillips comments that “in the early sixties . . . the popular drift toward realism – stories of domestic life – had compelled some modification of Collins's . . . original melodramatic scheme” (133). Collins's predilection for artfulness is well-established. Rejecting his suggestions for an earlier foreshadowing of the Dr. Manette subplot in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens comments in October 1859, “I do not positively say that the point you put, might not have been done in your manner; but I have a very strong conviction that it would have been overdone in that manner.” He goes on to characterize Collins's suggested revision as potentially off-putting for the readership because it would inevitably be discovered and the situation consequently judged “too elaborately trapped, baited, and prepared” (Letters 9: 127). This essay is in a sense an exploration of the special utility inherent in Collins's elaborately prepared traps for the reader. The elaborate plan can sometimes go places, make certain philosophical critiques, that the accommodative plot cannot. Collins was not known to be a writer who changed course easily in the face of criticism. Thus, it is surprising to find Phillips, as well as other literary critics, taking his opening in No Name seriously and as a sort of conservative retreat on Collins's part. But traps being what they are, that is, made to be fallen into, Phillips's misunderstanding is understandable. The opening of No Name does most assuredly invite such an interpretation. I will be arguing here, however, that, far from attempting to accommodate a newly emergent popular Victorian domestic taste, and pulling back from a previous subversive stance, Collins especially in his opening but also throughout his non-canonical masterpiece is actually covertly attacking that taste at its very foundations.