In Mrs Zant and the Ghost (The Ghost’s Touch), Wilkie Collins implies two concepts or conflicts of the contemporaries: supernatural vision of persons and the agreed matrimonial act imposed by an ecclesiastical belief.
In the story, protagonist, Mr Rayburn, and his daughter, Lucy, encountered a young lady (Mrs Zant) in Kensington Gardens whom they believed was distressed by agitation and troubled by illness. Mrs Zant seemed to overlook their presence but approached them, saw through them with an unspeakable fear. Intrigued by her presence and concerned about her helplessness, Mr Zant followed her to a lodging house with his daughter and contrived to find out the truth. Through Mrs Zant epistolary confession, she experienced a certain kind of vision, not by sight but by feelings. While she wandered under the tree, she felt everything in reality disappeared before her eyes, every sound of hearing among the surroundings was completely erased and only her sense remains. “I felt an Invisible Presence near me. It touched me gently.” The unknown entity touched and embraced her and she felt a rapture of joy. She acknowledged the unknown entity to be her husband, who died of consumption (or the overdose of sleeping drops) after they had not married to each other for long. According to the letter to Mr Rayburn, she returned to the Park for the first time since she had convalesced from brain fever; and this was the place where she used to take a stroll with Mr Zant when they were betrothed.
“Judged from the point of view of the materialist, Mrs. Zant might no doubt be the victim of illusions (produced by a diseased state of the nervous system), which have been known to exist — as in the celebrated case of the book-seller, Nicolai, of Berlin — without being accompanied by derangement of the intellectual powers.”
In this story, Wilkie Collins mentioned the case of Nicolai, who had seen supernatural figures during the days incessantly, for two years, while his habitual treatment of bloodletting was ceased. One morning in February 1791, out of his nervous mood and annoyance with his business, he saw phantasms for the first time, which were only seen by him, and did what the mortals did in the daytime at the market – transacting businesses, some were even on horsebacks, and some were with dogs. The figures also spoke to him occasionally. It seemed like a pleasing view, a normal spectra. But once he applied bloodletting again, the phantasms never reappeared. There was a paper of his called “A Memoir on the Appearance of Spectres or Phantoms occasioned by Disease“, in which Nicolai acknowledged that this vision was subjected to his bodily ailments, “the whole panorama was exhibited on his own retina, and the working brain behind was the manager and scene-shifter of the show”. Compared with this context, Mrs Zant did not reflect what her passing fancies of her brain into her vision, but according to the preface of the story, a plausible and unknown supernatural presence “reached mortal knowledge through the sense which is least easily self-deceived: the sense that feels”. In Wilkie Collins’s contemporaries, illusions and ghostly encounters were gradually superseded by scientific explanation under the progression of secularism, but in my point of view, Wilkie Collins really tried to ascertain that every man is certainly with feeling, and immortality, supernatural entities, religions, and superstitions are still some requisite components to propel his stories in reflecting the beauty of fate, faith, hope, and a belief which can constitute humans value better virtue, and even exert a moral and fatal punishment on the misdeeds, just as what we had read in Man and Wife, The Two Destinies, and The Moonstone.
“In his way of thinking, if one man may marry his wife’s sister, and no harm done, where’s the objection if another man pays a compliment to the family, and marries his brother’s widow? My master, if you please, is that other man. Take the widow away before she marries him.”
As we had read in Wilkie Collins’s novels, he was concerned much about the welfare and state of women in their matrimonial lives. In Man and Wife, a doubt arises in Scotland on couples that could be announced as husband and wife legally when the third witness is present, as well as mentioning the case of Irregular Marriage in Ireland. In Woman in White, we learn the unfair Married Women’s Property Act in Victorian England; however in Evil Genius, we see lenience towards the fairer sex in marriage act concerning the divorced law implemented in Scotland.
In the case of Mrs Zant and the Ghost, the story touches the subject of Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act, which stipulated in 1835 that a widower was illegal to marry the late wife’s sister. It was considered incestuous as husband and wife were made one flesh upon marriage. However, perhaps as to be seen more “protective” to women and due to “moral” concerns, a widow was allowed to be married into a husband’s brother’s household. In this opinion, it was based on the fact that the in-law family needed the wife to conceive of a future heir, or to accept the in-law daughter under a roof so that she would not be left destitute. This act was not repealed until 1905. It is a shame I have not read it, but Dinah Maria Craik and Felicia Skene wrote Hannah and Inheritance of Evil Or, the Consequences of Marrying a Deceased Wife’s Sister, respectively, based on this law. In Mrs Zant and the Ghost, Wilkie Collins, in my point of view, might be questioning the Parliament if this act of “levirate marriage” was really without consequences and if it was really in every nuptial case without misdeeds and immoral motives on the male’s part.
In this story, we can see again another case of Wilkie Collin’s challenging the contemporaries. Although Mrs Zant and the Ghost might not be an eye-catcher compared with his other works, but all works could be treated as gems if they are to be digged diligently.