Wilkie Collins, one of the most prominent authors of sensation fiction, neatly crocheted a profound secret under the veneer of hospitable roofs and fairest scenes next-door. Characters were intrigued by a household devil of “Curiosity” that incessantly prompted innumerable crises, duplicity, and questions of identities to unveil the mystery. “Providence” was found at the start; and consequences arising from these could only be confronted by courage, patience, and quick wit to tempt it. Manuscripts of confessions, or forms of “epistolary writing” as in Wilkie Collins’s signature hallmark filled the stories. These serialised works or three-deckers cumulatively sparkled with law, psychoanalysis, occult, medical, scientific and unorthodox researches, which ensnared readers dwelling with sensation to “probe the most probable in the midst of improbability”.
“This time the fiction is founded on facts, and aspires to afford what help it may towards hastening the reform of certain abuses which have been too long suffered to exist among us unchecked.” Compared to The Moonstone (1868) which was critically acclaimed as the “most sensational, most thrilling and most ingenious” work alongside The Woman in White (1860); Man and Wife (1870) signaled a dichotomy to previous novels published in 1860s by Wilkie Collins. It swarmed with more missionary and didactic purposes, that tendrils were actively sprawling towards social questions and moral grounds than ever, and “tracing the influence of circumstances upon characters”. Considering Man and Wife, not only it poses social questions on Muscular Christianity and demoralization over intellectual cultivation through creation of Geoffrey Delmayn, but also examines poignant matrimony and notions of femme covert with respect of indisputable laws in Victorian Britain. “Done, in the name of Morality. Done, in the interests of Virtue. Done, in an age of progress, and under the most prefect government on the face of the earth.” This essay is to bring out the resonances of incarceration based on psycho-medical and theatrical aspects attributable to marriages based on two female characters in Man and Wife, namely, Hester Dethridge and Anne Silvester.
Criticisms of deep-rooted marriage laws were Wilkie Collins’s public domain. The court case of “criminal conversation” of Caroline Norton in 1836 followed by her campaign for marriage reforms, and Effie Gray’s annulment of marriage to John Ruskin in 1854 were subjects of concerns at the time. Concerning Hester Dethridge’s case, her “violence of temper”, acts of impulsiveness and excitable rampage found in contemporary female convicts was attributable to Property Law.
You are a married woman. The law doesn’t allow a married woman to call anything her own […] Your husband has a right to sell your furniture if he likes. I am sorry for you; I can’t hinder him.
Why didn’t I have him locked up? What was the good of having him locked up? In a few weeks he would be out of prison; sober and penitent, and promising amendment – and then when the fit took him, there he would be, the same furious savage that he had been often and often before […] About this time I began to say to myself, ‘There’s no deliverance from this, but in death – his death or mine.
Crime in passion for escapism against passivity and victimhood was Hester Dethridge’s only solution. As a Primitive Methodist, she had “unutterable dread” of “Avenging Providence” than “Human Justice”. As the respective authorities and neighbourhood were unable to find any loopholes of the murder, Hester Dethridge, in autonomy and authority, “requested privileges to have a room by herself” and “sleep always with a locked door” when enlisted in a domestic service, echoes the contemporary penal act of “separate system” in imprisoning herself. It was a solitary confinement combined with Christian Biblical education imported to Britain crossly fertilised by systems of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1830s, emphasizing a penal servitude of “silencing and isolating convicts for long hours in his own cell to commune with his conscience”, and supposed to be a more “humanitarian” imprisonment. Pentonville Penitentiary (1842) and Millbank Prison (started from 1850s) in London first adopted separate system accordingly. Hester Dethridge’s inexplicable and paralyzing mutism, stolid deportment of “immovable endurance”, countenance of “sunken eyes and stricken face with deathlike tranquility” were punishments to herself in order to achieve “moral regeneration” as well as to comply with social conventions of womanly virtues – deprivation and indignity – in cure of “violence of temper” committed in the crime.
However, as stated in The Law and the Lady (1875) that “women are infinitely superior to men in the moral qualities are the true adornments of humanity”, penal abodes “exhibited the coarsest and rudest moral features” comparable to entities who usually regarded as “the most grateful and gentle form of humanity”. In fact, despite psycho-medical inculcation of domesticity reformation in prisons, crimes committed by most Mid-Victorian women were consequences of negligence, vicious association with men and low-waged living amidst enforcement of Industrial Revolution. When hard labour in men’s prisons were replaced by seclusion and sedentary confinement, women convicts were more often subject to self-infliction and insanity. In Hester Dethridge’s case, she was uncontrollably distorted with a form of delusion.
The Thing stole out, dark and shadowy in the pleasant sunlight. At first I saw only the dim figure of a woman. After a little it began to get plainer, brightening from within outward – brightening, brightening, brightening, till it set before me the vision of MY OWN SELF, repeated as if I was standing before a glass – the double of myself, looking at me with my own eyes. I saw it move over the grass. I saw it stop behind the beautiful little boy. I saw it stand and listen, as I had stood and listened at the dawn of morning, for the chiming of the bell before the clock struck the hour. When it heard the stroke it pointed down to the boy with my own hand; and it said to me, with my own voice, ‘Kill him.’
Doppelgänger (double entities) was one of Wilkie Collins’s signature rhetorical devices. After the murder, Hester Dethridge first saw “her own self” when sitting on a bench and watching a small boy playing with new toys of a horse and wagon; and twice she saw it stealing behind Geoffrey’s back. This image of herself was subconsciously more overwhelming than “human justice” that signifies symbols of the defiance against penal servitude towards “moral regeneration” and social conventions of “docility” as redemption from the sin of strangling her husband.
Concerning Anne Silvester’s nuptial case, it was the infamous and irregular Scotch law of marriage which she fought to claim Geoffrey Delmayn as her husband based on letters as evidence on hand, but done in reasons of an antithesis – virtues of pride and sacrifice – to save her friend’s welfare. When the “trial” ended, it was only left in “blank stillness” and “deadly cold of horror”, which prophesized her tribulations of confinement.
Married – to the villain who had not hesitated to calumniate the woman whom he had ruined, and then to cast her helpless on the world. Married – to the traitor who had not shrunk from betraying Arnold’s trust in him, and desolating Arnold’s home. Married – to the ruffian who would have struck her that morning, if the hands of his own friends had not held him back.
It was the relationship produced on rational grounds without human infallibility of love as the guide. Hindering Geoffrey Delmayn married to the wealthy young widow named Mrs. Glenarm, the acknowledgement of marriage was Anne’s crime in husband’s eyes and thus confined in a cottage in Fulham which belonged to Hester Dethridge, inherited from her brother. The cottage with the garden which was surrounded by dismal and hideous “high walls” suggestive of an asylum or a prison. As regards the interior, her bedroom was “scrupulously clean”, “solidly and tastelessly furnished”; partition wall was only decorated with a wash-hand-stand and two chairs. The mechanism of defence was also suggestive of a prison cell’s. Lock and key were applied to the bedroom door, bolts fastened from top to bottom; “alarm-bells” and “belfry” were attached. Window and shutters were “solidly sheathed with iron”, lacking with light admitted to the room. They were the theatrical settings which symbolized penal confinement. “The one way out of the high walls all round the cottage locked. Friends forbidden to see her. Solitary imprisonment, with her husband for a jailer.” Her husband treated her as a property, letters were censored, and the garden was only her “exercise yard”.
In Man and Wife, Wilkie Collins registered the defectiveness in both contemporary marriage laws and penal confinement system. Hester Dethridge’s crime served as products of radical and momentous choices in the most desperate and despairing conditions against fate; marriages and the incorrigible social values were actual perpetrators of the murder. Resorting herself to methods of imprisonment, practice of contrition and “moral regeneration” were not redemption from sins but only resulted in insanity. As of Anne Silvester, “the call for irregular marriages” was the crime she was convicted of, and was the route to her abode of confinement. This novel indicates how contemporary marriage laws were the greatest devil influential to the cores of imprisonments.