Monthly Archives: October 2012

No Name, by Wilkie Collins

I finally finished reading this baggy monster! Actually, it’s by far my favorite of the three Collins novels I’ve read. I feel that all good Victorianists are supposed to revere The Woman in White and The Moonstone as paragons of sensation fiction, since they’re so formally inventive, but I think No Name is far more controversial. There’s no way I can do justice to any of it of this amazing novel yet, since I literally just finished it, but I’ll sketch out some initial thoughts to pursue in future posts.

First of all, a character list:

Magdalen Vanstone: Wild protagonist of this wacky novel, but also one member of a family of four: Dad (Andrew Vanstone), Mom (Mrs. Vanstone), and older sister (Norah). Magdalen has a theatrical streak, which she employs to the fullest extent of its capacity in this novel, by making a living on the stage briefly, then impersonating her governess, Miss Garth, in order to get close to Noel Vanstone, then impersonating a Miss Bygrave in order to marry Noel Vanstone, then impersonating Louisa, her maid, in order to get close to her dead husband’s uncle, Admiral Bartram. Her one purpose in all of this–to get back the fortune her parents meant to leave she and her sister, but couldn’t–fails at every turn. All her strength, power, and passion ends up nowhere, really, except in the middle of a convenient marriage plot. Like many strong Victorian heroines, her strength ends up wearing her out, and she gets a near-fatal brain fever that molds her into a properly idolatrous wife for a sailor we only meet at two points in an almost-800-page novel.

Norah Vanstone: Magdalen’s long-suffering older sister. When Mom and Pop Vanstone die intestate, she accepts her disinheritance with the steady resignation worthy of a George Eliot heroine’s standard of perfection (although her heroines never seem to reach that standard very easily, either). She becomes a governess for an awful family, then she eventually gets a better situation with a family who loves her. Her letters pop up at intervals throughout the novel, usually begging Magdalen to write to her, reunite with her, or just generally start resigning herself to fate. Eventually, Mrs. Lecount writes to Norah asking her to describe Magdalen for the purposes of preventing her from being prosecuted for a crime, and Norah starts pursuing any trace she can find of her sister. This is how she meets George Bartram, who later proposes to her twice, and who she ends up marrying. This puts Norah in control of the fortune that Magdalen has spent the entire plot trying to swindle back. Also, Norah finds the codicil letter that Magdalen went into domestic service to try to find.

The Vanstone Parents: Mr. Vanstone married a creole woman from New Orleans when he was in the military, but the marriage was a terribly bad idea from the beginning. His wife left him, so he provided her with an allowance, and headed back to England, where he met “Mrs.” Vanstone. They lived together as man and wife and had two daughters together. When the creole wife dies, Mom and Pop Vanstone immediately run off to get legally married. But by a quirk of British inheritance law, the children that were completely provided for in their unmarried will, are no longer provided for after the legal marriage of their parents, since technically, there were no children born within the marriage. Mr. Clare, the next-door neighbor, tells Mr. Vanstone of this detail after Mr. Vanstone tells him the secret of his situation, and Mr. Vanstone again runs off to take care of that pressing matter. Unfortunately, he dies on his way home from writing a new will. And the new will isn’t valid until the new Mrs. Vanstone signs it. And she’s pregnant. And she faints as soon as she hears that her beloved husband is dead, goes into early labor, gives birth to a child that promptly dies, and then promptly dies herself. No signature. No will. No inheritance. Huge novel.

Frank Clare: The son of the next-door neighbor, Mr. Clare. He’s a good-for-nothing lazy guy, who gets all kinds of awesome job opportunities and then whines about how hard he has to work. When he falls for Magdalen, he lets her convince him to be in a private theatrical with her, and she promptly falls madly in love with him. They want to get married, and Mr. Vanstone gives his blessing, as long as Frank proves himself by going to China for a year and learning a trade so that he can support his wife. Frank bellyaches, Magdalen tries to reach a compromise, but her father’s death and her newfound poverty make it imperative for Frank to go to China. He eventually breaks off their engagement and falls out of the narrative. At the end of the novel, we find out that he has stowed away on a ship headed for England and married a rich colonial widow who is old enough to be his grandmother.

More later…

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Sherlock Holmes: “A Scandal in Bohemia”

I’m now embarking on what I hope is only a 37-day journey to read all of the Sherlock Holmes short stories (there are 37 stories). Then I will eventually read the four Sherlock Holmes novels. My dissertation director has said that Sherlock Holmes should be a part of my dissertation, and I agree, so I’m now looking for material around which to build my 5th and final chapter.

It looks like “A Scandal in Bohemia” was the first of these stories published, in 1891. In this story, Watson is recently married, but teams up with Sherlock anyway, reverting to his bachelor life, and even sleeping in his old lodgings with Sherlock, and referring to his old landlord as “our landlord.” The plot is an interesting one for my project. It involves the king of Bohemia, who comes to Sherlock in disguise to ask him to retrieve a compromising photograph of himself with a woman named Irene Adler, with whom he once had a brief fling. Now that he’s marrying a conservative Scandinavian princess, he can’t have pictures of himself posing with his former mistress surfacing (wow, politicians don’t change). It turns out that just as Sherlock finds Irene, she’s in the midst of running off to marry a lawyer named Godfrey Norton. He chases the couple, in disguise as a stablehand, and stumbles into the church just in time to act as a witness to the marriage. After more hijinks, Sherlock finds out where she keeps the photograph, reports back to the king, and the three men (Watson, Sherlock Holmes, and the king of Bohemia), show up at Irene’s house at 8 a.m., assuming that she won’t be awake yet, and that they can surreptitiously steal the photograph from the hiding-place that Sherlock has found. They’re in for a surprise, though, when they show up to her place, and find out from the housekeeper that she and her husband have already left for the Continent. When Sherlock checks the place where he knows she was hiding the photograph, he finds a photograph of her, alone, and a letter addressed to him. Despite his disguise, she figured out who he was and what he was doing. And she took the photograph and her new husband, and hightailed it out of England, for good. Her letter says that she’s keeping the photograph as security in case the king of Bohemia tries anything with her. However, she promises never to show it to anyone, as long as she is left in peace with her new husband, whom she loves, and who loves her. The king of Bohemia is satisfied with that, and Sherlock takes the photograph of Irene Adler as his only payment for his services.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to comment on Sherlock Holmes’s methods of collection and deduction, and there are plenty of instances of those things in this story. But that’s not what interests me here. I see this story as a story of two warring plots: the newly-emerging detective plot vs. its literary predecessor, the sensation plot. These warring plots are figured in Sherlock Holmes (detective) vs. Irene Adler (sensational heroine). Now, on the plot level, Irene Adler wins the story. But on the narrative level, I think Sherlock Holmes wins–although that’s probably obvious, given that this is a Sherlock Holmes story.

Here’s how I see it: Irene Adler is a sensational heroine. She’s got a checkered past with the king of Bohemia, first of all. Of course, she’s beautiful. She’s an actress (sound familiar, Magdalen Vanstone?). When the king of Bohemia tries to plot against her to gain control of the photograph, she out-plots him. Meanwhile, she also has time to fall in love with a lawyer (hmmm…. Clara Talboys and Robert Audley), marry him in a huge rush (Magdalen and Noel Vanstone), and run off to the Continent with him in order to maintain control of a secret that she’s been storing behind a panel of her sitting-room wall. That plot screams sensation novel to me. Or, to put it more sensationally, that plot screams, “SENSATION NOVEL!!!” to me. And, as I said before, Irene wins the plot. As a character, she maintains control of her secret, besting even Sherlock Holmes’s formidable deductive intellect.

But as a narrative mode (sensation), Irene loses. I think this is clear if we ask a few questions, Sherlock-Holmes-style: Under what circumstances was this incriminating photograph taken? How did Irene’s relationship with the king of Bohemia begin and end? What are the details of his marriage to the princess of Scandinavia? What did the letters between Irene and the king say? How did Irene meet Godfrey Norton? How did Godfrey become a lawyer? What kind of lawyer is he? How did they fall in love? How did he propose to her? Why did they marry in such a hurry? All of the sensation novels I’ve read so far would have answered most of these questions, and probably others along the way. How marriages happen is a huge concern for sensation plots, since they involve issues of both legal and affective weight. But none of that matters in this short story.

Instead, most of this story is concerned with Sherlock explaining to Watson his theories of epistemology, or how he goes about exercising his skills of deductive reasoning. The plot, in essence, is concerned with explaining itself, laying bare its own devices. The affective weight of this story is distributed so differently than it would be in a sensation novel. Sherlock Holmes solves crime purely out of his interest in literally everything, in how things work, in how people behave under almost any circumstance. He has no affective involvement in any of the issues in which he immerses himself. He has no stake in the plot. He just likes figuring out puzzles. And he’s a drug addict, so there’s that… So, the detective plot–which may just be a sensation plot sterilized of any affective taint–wins in this narrative.

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Affective Collection

Thankfully, my recent work on my prospectus has actually involved writing my prospectus (!!!), so I haven’t needed to work on this blog for a while. But in the middle of writing, I made a new connection, and now I have to think it through some more. So here I am!

My most recent argument is about collecting and epistemology. I think that collection is the epistemology of the sensation novel, since detective-figures learn through collecting. They don’t particularly learn through human interaction; Robert Audley tries to interview Luke Marks, and Luke only gets drunk, for example. Another great example of this dichotomy comes from the Undercliffs in Foul Play: Mr. Undercliff, the handwriting expert, deals with collections. Mrs. Undercliff deals with people, reading their heads and faces for signs of their inner states. Both contribute to the detection plot, but only Mr. Undercliff’s report makes it into the more formalized presentation of evidence at the end of the novel. So, in sensation novels, collections = knowledge.

But so many other divergent collections are flooding before my brain right now. For example, the little pouch that Magdalen Vanstone keeps around her neck–it contains excerpts from her father’s last letter, a lock of Frank’s hair, and something else that I can’t remember. Mrs. Lecount’s collection of reptiles reminds her fondly of her late husband. Mrs. Wragge’s collection of parcels from her shopping trip makes her feel safe and secure, and as odious as he is, I guess we could say the same about Noel Vanstone’s collection of rare curiosities from around the globe. In East Lynne, Lady Isabel turns herself into a walking collection of odd elements of clothing, for the purpose of being near her children. Robert Audley holds on to George Talboys’ trunk for sentimental reasons. And, he only goes about his detective quest out of love for his friend. The same goes for Helen Rolleston, who collects materials only to clear the name of the man she loves. And I suppose we could say the same for all the island collections that Hazel puts together. That’s quite a collection of evidence….

So, this is not just about detection anymore. The majority of collection that happens here is affective collection, which I think relates to the intensely bizarre, disturbing, and amazing souvenir culture of the Victorian period. These were people who wore hair bracelets, took mortuary photographs, and made jewelry out of their pets’ teeth. I’m already saying that the process of collection can drive you mad–I think that could apply to the more neutral epistemology argument, and also to the more loaded affective argument. So, maybe I’m looking at two different modes of collection here. There’s the affective neutrality of the “real” detective, later in the century, with Sherlock Holmes. But in the sensation tradition, collection is always emotionally loaded. These are not novels of crime-solving; these are novels of personal vendetta. One doesn’t collect only because s/he is looking for the truth; one collects also because s/he is in love, or because s/he has been cheated, or because she is a mother separated from her children. 

So, what does any of this have to do with the theater? Lots, I think. Affective collection is what links this tradition to melodrama, for one thing. The plays seem even more obsessed with the representation of altered states of mind (like madness) than the novels do. Choreographed madness in the public space of the theater makes for an awesome (if dense) discussion of affect vs. rationality, which maps nicely onto my separation of collection-modes into affective vs. epistemological. The rambling, baggy, unwieldy sensation novel is itself the type of collection it represents: a mish-mash of objects, characters, plots, and sensations that come together in a gloriously bizarre triple-decker format. But theatrical adaptations, because of their form, rise and fall more regularly. They are more structured, their collections pre-arranged for the audience to see from the outset. How the actors interact with props, costume, and scenery is part of the collection process. I might be veering a bit off-topic now, but I guess the main point is that the sensation novel is not a detective novel: it’s about affective collections, not just solving crime. But the theatrical adaptations move us toward the detective tradition–Dion Boucicault’s adaptation of Foul Play even adds a detective character. Madness is a bit more linear in the stage tradition, perhaps. There’s not as much flirting with madness onstage as there is in the novels; a character just goes mad and then dies right away. I’ll have to keep thinking about this, but at least this argument is making some (slow) progress.

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Some Assembly Required

As my director has said, my prospectus is currently several strands of observations that are not really tied together into a cohesive argument yet. I love it when my life imitates the novels I’m reading…. Currently, in No Name, Mrs. Lecount has a physical description of Magdalen and a piece of her alpaca dress, and she’s desperately trying to put these pieces together to establish her identity, much like I’m desperately trying to put No Name into a larger argument worthy of a dissertation project. 

So, my discovery today is that perhaps, in my last few posts focused on props and “material objects” (whatever that means), I was missing the forest for the trees. What Mrs. Lecount will do is put her pieces of circumstantial evidence together to create an argument, just like Robert Audley does, just like Helen Rolleston and Mr. Undercliff do, just like Archibald and Barbara Carlyle do, and just like all sensational detectives do. It’s never just about how a single object functions in the text–it’s about how all the pieces come together to establish identity, and in most cases, guilt. 

I think I could argue that what we see in sensational detectives is the uber-Victorian collector-impulse. Like many other collectors in Victorian novels, detectives collect artifacts that have some sort of meaning beyond their simple physical use or appearance. This could open up comparisons to novelistic hoarders like Mr. Krook in Bleak House, or even Ms. Havisham in Great Expectations. In fact, perhaps these comparisons explain why novelistic detectives are often depicted as potentially on the brink of madness (cf. Robert Audley, Mrs. Lecount, and Sherlock Holmes). There’s something about picking up something mundane, looking at it critically, and seeing beyond its boring ubiquity that just sets people on edge. These detectives see something in the everyday that nobody else sees–much like Realist novelists. So, this much I can say of ALL the sensation novels I’ve read: the sensation novel, as a genre, foregrounds the process of collection. Individual novels treat this process very differently, which could make for good chapter distinctions: some see a public/private divide in this process of collection, others see it as semi-insane, others see it as an appropriate engagement for men, but not women, etc.

The theatrical adaptations, on the other hand, operate as a venue for the display of these collections, much like a museum (another great Victorian topos). My study of props and set design will show that the pictorial nature of the theater interacts with the same process of collection depicted in sensation novels. Mundane articles of daily life suddenly take on new meaning when they are put on stage, and if putting cups and saucers on stage makes audiences do a double take, then they are acting like detectives. Heidi Holder makes it sound like Victorian audiences were mesmerized by the mundane objects on stage, and if that’s true, then the stage directions alone offer a wealth of material to analyze. Theatrical adaptations literally “stage” collections, as museums do, so that audiences can interact with them visually–and while I can draw lots of connections between this process and the processes of collection in sensation novels, stage adaptations offer a completely new way of seeing the part-to-whole relation that detective plots hinge upon. 

Specifically, what I’m saying is that the temporal medium of the novel is adept at depicting a collection process through time, while the spatial medium of the theater (much like the museum) excels at arranging a finished product that elicits a particular reaction without telling the audience where to look. In other words, you have to submit yourself to the temporal process of reading a novel and putting together the detection plot one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter at a time. As Benjamin says in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the theater cannot guide your eye. It can simply give you the picture–but you decide where to look (at the map on the wall, at the actors arguing in the corner, at the dog barking in the other corner, etc.). Perhaps this is why the detection plots get a bit watered down in the theater, and the melodramatic aspects of the novels get emphasized–because the audience is perfectly capable of being detectives themselves. They can see the evidence for themselves, they can put it together, and they are controlled less by the adapter than by the set designer. 

This (still implicit) argument is important not just for the historical connections I could make to the nineteenth century (the Great Exhibition, museum culture, colonial collection and commodity exchange, etc.), but also because it provides a lineage for the much-debated “special effect” in contemporary cinema. The by-now-cliched argument– “do contemporary filmmakers rely too much on special effects?”–has its roots on the nineteenth-century stage. And theatrical adaptations of sensation novels could show us the connection between capital-R Realism and the “special effect.” (This claim would, of course, require me to research some definitions of Victorian Realism, but I can do that if this line of argument ends up working). 

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Props and the Figure of the Governess

I’m still not finished with No Name, but since I’m incorporating a chapter on East Lynne, I thought I’d start trying to make some connections between these texts and my larger project.

Now that I’m interested in props, I see a major connection between these two texts: costume and disguise. Specifically, both novels revolve around female characters (both disinherited in some way), who disguise themselves as governesses in order to get close to people removed from them by strict social conventions. First of all, I think the idea of novelistic characters writing scripts for themselves and then donning costumes that correspond to their characters implies the inevitable theatrical adaptations that resulted from these novels. Especially in the case of No Name, there are many ways in which the novel is already a play.

However, I wonder what else the governess-disguise can imply about the ways in which props function. First of all, props are representational. Props help tie these sensational and melodramatic genres to the genre of Realism, which focused so specifically on mimetic representation. The successes and failures of these costumes could tie into the larger generic debates that these novels may have been having with the theatrical adaptations, or with other novels of the period. 

Props can also be transformational. In fact, props are meant to literally transform the space of the theater into the space of the home, the sea, an island…. whatever “other” space the scene is attempting to represent. These governess disguises transform Lady Isabel and Magdalen into marginal figures that have an uncharacteristic level of social mobility (uncharacteristic because most novels depict governesses as having a very small level of social mobility). In other words, the governess disguise allows them to enter spaces from which they would otherwise be banned. In the same way, the portrait in Lady Audley’s Secret is transformational, in that it ends up freezing Lady Audley in its frame. We might even see the gold bars in Foul Play as transformational, since the trade routes of both the novel and the play make it quite easy to exchange the gold bars for Helen–her theatrical “double” is actually a prop. 

That brings up another characteristic of props: their portability. Props can move from one place to another, different actors can interact with them in different ways, and the audience can have very different levels of access to them. For example, this brings me back to my question about the portrait in Lady Audley’s Secret: how much of it does the audience get to see? The portability of props is a big deal in No Name, when Magadalen has to get out of her governess costume quickly, and when she has to figure out how to mail her costume back to Captain Wragge. Portability is also an issue in Foul Play, where the means of transportation and storage are such a huge element of the plot. In fact, portability is a huge issue in most detective plots of the period, since circumstantial evidence is often small, portable, and easily collectible (is a detective another type of collector?). 

I will end here, and keep thinking about this.

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Props, Art, and Circumstantial Evidence (and an attempt at an argument…)

I’m heading into my 5th month with this blog, and it’s time for my prospectus to have a clear, logical argument. I’m not sure I can accomplish that with the way I’ve set things up in my current prospectus draft, so I’m going to think through that now.

According to my director, I’ve set up several ideas that are not clearly woven together, which is definitely the feeling I had while writing the draft. I’ve tried to incorporate the idea of professionalization into my argument, but as I’m thinking about it now, I’m really only interested in that in relation to Lady Audley’s Secret and Foul Play. Gender and single authorship are also ideas that I don’t think I can make arguments about right now, although I think they are definitely relevant to my thinking for this project. Here’s the one idea that I think I can relate specifically to theatrical adaptations of sensation novels: the idea that the novels focus on texts/documentation. 

At this point, I’ve done enough reading to know (basically) what texts I want to focus on, so let me see if my new ideas will cover all of them sufficiently. After the research that I’ve done so far, I think that props and circumstantial evidence are the most interesting things that relate to both the novels and their theatrical adaptations. Sensation theater sets were very elaborate, and they were celebrated for their proliferation of props–the “cup-and-saucerism” that I cited in an earlier post. And sensation novels were famous for the same proliferation of real-life objects they depicted. And those real-life things were often central to the plot, since they provided the evidence that drove the detective narrative. This is all common knowledge. What I might be able to do is to put these two ideas together in a new way: (1) there were lots of props on the sensation stage, and (2) lots of objects are necessary for sensation plots in novels. I think that the interpretive choices that go into deciding which novelistic props to incorporate into a theatrical adaptation–and how the actors should interact with them, how they should fit into the set, at what point(s) in the narrative they should appear, who should handle them, etc.–could be fascinating to examine in relation to the physical props available in the pages of sensation novels themselves.

Let’s see if I can make this work with all of my texts…

Lady Audley’s Secret: This is a progress narrative in terms of novelistic props. In other words, the novel is, to a certain extent, about how a brief gets written and how a painting gets painted. The brief is very similar to the sample of Arthur Wardlaw’s handwriting in Foul Play–we get to see the actual brief in the pages of the novel. Both of these objects are present in George Roberts’s adaptation, and I’ve already discussed their interaction in a previous post (the one about George Roberts). I’m interested in the use of the portrait as a prop and as a piece of evidence, and I think this could lead to an interesting discussion about what constitutes evidence in a sensational detective plot. But even more “argumentatively,” I could see myself making a clear argument in this chapter that the interactions between these props point to a larger struggle between novelistic and theatrical forms.

East LynneThis is much like No Name in that characters act and manipulate props in the actual novel. I need to read the main theatrical version of this again before I go further here, though. Nonetheless, I think this method would work.

Foul PlayHere’s where I could make an argument about props as commodities, and examine their routes of exchange through the novel and its theatrical adaptation. Like Lady Audley’s Secret, there could be some tension between orality and literacy here, since one of the “props” of the novel is literally a piece of handwriting. But there is so much to talk about in both the novel and the play, including the exchange of gold for bodies in both versions, the handcuff and chimney scene in the play, the literal commodity exchange in the novel, and Robert’s industrious use of objects on the island. 

No NameI haven’t read the theatrical adaptation yet, so I’m going to wait on this discussion. But from my reading of the novel so far, Magdalen literally uses props all over the place, and I assume she does in the theatrical adaptation as well. Together with East Lynne, this might make a good chapter on gender and disguise. 

My larger “argument” might be something like: Although many scholars have examined the metaphorical and extra-textual uses/meanings of the countless objects in Victorian (sensation) novels, many of these novelistic objects had a literal, material life on the stage. Looking at how these literal pieces of circumstantial evidence were brought to life on the stage can give us new insight into their novelistic significance. More later…

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