Parks

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“Observant persons, accustomed to frequent the London parks, can hardly have failed to notice the number of solitary strangers sadly endeavoring to vary their lives by taking a walk. They linger about the flower-beds; they sit for hours on the benches; they look with patient curiosity at other people who have companions; they notice ladies on horseback and children at play, with submissive interest; some of the men find company in a pipe, without appearing to enjoy it; some of the women find a substitute for dinner, in little dry biscuits wrapped in crumpled scraps of paper; they are not sociable; they are hardly ever seen to make acquaintance with each other; perhaps they are shame-faced, or proud, or sullen; perhaps they despair of others, being accustomed to despair of themselves; perhaps they have their reasons for never venturing to encounter curiosity, or their vices which dread detection, or their virtues which suffer hardship with the resignation that is sufficient for itself. The one thing certain is, that these unfortunate people resist discovery. We know that they are strangers in London—and we know no more.”  – I Say No (1884), Wilkie Collins

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I was of a roving adventurous temperament

(A Rogue’s Life, Wilkie Collins)

  • I was of a roving adventurous temperament, and I should have liked to go into the army. But where was the money to come from, to pay for my commission? As to enlisting in the ranks, and working my way up, the social institutions of my country obliged the grandson of Lady Malkinshaw to begin military life as an officer and gentleman, or not to begin it at all. The army, therefore, was out of the question. The Church? Equally out of the question: since I could not pay for admission to the prepared place of accommodation for distinguished people, and could not accept a charitable free pass, in consequence of my high connections. The Bar? I should be five years getting to it, and should have to spend two hundred a year in going circuit before I had earned a farthing. Physic? This really seemed the only gentlemanly refuge left; and yet, with the knowledge of my father’s experience before me, I was ungrateful enough to feel a secret dislike for it. It is a degrading confession to make; but I remember wishing I was not so highly connected, and absolutely thinking that the life of a commercial traveler would have suited me exactly, if I had not been a poor gentleman. Driving about from place to place, living jovially at inns, seeing fresh faces constantly, and getting money by all this enjoyment, instead of spending it – what a life for me, if I had been the son of a haberdasher and the grandson of a groom’s widow!
  • Whatever may be said about it in books, no emotion in this world ever did, or ever will, last for long together. The strong feeling may return over and over again; but it must have its constant intervals of change or repose. In real life the bitterest grief doggedly takes its rest and dries its eyes; the heaviest despair sinks to a certain level, and stops there to give hope a chance of rising, in spite of us. Even the joy of an unexpected meeting is always an imperfect sensation, for it never lasts long enough to justify our secret anticipations – our happiness dwindles to mere every-day contentment before we have half done with it.
  • Not knowing the name of it, and not daring to excite surprise by asking, I found the place full of vague yet mysterious interest. Here I was, somewhere in central England, just as ignorant of localities as if I had been suddenly deposited in Central Africa. My lively fancy revelled in the new sensation. I invented a name for the town, a code of laws for the inhabitants, productions, antiquities, chalybeate springs, population, statistics of crime, and so on, while I walked about the streets, looked in at the shop-windows, and attentively examined the Market-place and Town-hall. Experienced travelers, who have exhausted all novelties, would do well to follow my example; they may be certain, for one day at least, of getting some fresh ideas, and feeling a new sensation.

Heart and Science (1883) by Wilkie Collins

Mouchy, Emile Edouard, 1802-1870; A Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog
Physiological Demonstration with the Vivisection of a Dog, by Émile Édouard Mouchy (1802–1870). (ArtUK.org)

“A Christian can’t be expected to care about beasts—but right is right all the world over. Because a monkey is a nasty creature (as I have heard, not even good to eat when he’s dead), that’s no reason for taking him out of his own country and putting him into a cage. If we are to see creatures in prison, let’s see creatures who have deserved it—men and women, rogues and sluts. The monkeys haven’t deserved it. Go in—I’ll wait for you at the door.”

A young person, possessed of no more than ordinary knowledge, might have left the old woman to enjoy the privilege of saying the last word. Miss Minerva’s pupil, exuding information as it were at every pore in her skin, had been rudely dried up at a moment’s notice. Even earthly perfection has its weak places within reach. Maria lost her temper.

“You will allow me to remind you,” she said, “that intelligent curiosity leads us to study the habits of animals that are new to us. We place them in a cage…”

Since the publication of Woman in White (1859), the master of sensation fiction examines moral issues and human weaknesses of the contemporary societies across Europe and the Atlantic. This time, Heart and Science, which has a subtitle named “A Story of the Present Time”, reflects Wilkie Collins’s doubts, or even inflicts severe reprimand regarding animal experiments and vivisection. Just as he quotes words of Walter Scott in the preface, “I am no great believer in the extreme degree of improvement to be derived from the advancement of Science; for every study of that nature tends, when pushed to a certain extent, to harden the heart.”

Knowledge for its own sake, is the one god I worship. Knowledge is its own justification and its own reward. The roaring mob follows us with its cry of Cruelty. We pity their ignorance. Knowledge sanctifies cruelty. The old anatomist stole dead bodies for Knowledge. In that sacred cause, if I could steal a living man without being found out, I would tie him on my table, and grasp my grand discovery in days, instead of months.

This novel might be drawing upon lots of arguments suggested by National Anti-Vivisection Society found by Frances Power Cobbe in the 1870s. “[W]hat proof there is that the effect of a poison on an animal may be trusted to inform us, with certainty, of the effect of the same poison on a man….a pigeon will swallow opium enough to kill a man, and will not be in the least affected by it; and parsley, which is an innocent herb in the stomach of a human being, is deadly poison to a parrot.” The Cruelty to Animals Act (1876) stipulates that a vivisection being licensed and made legal should be based upon the circumstances that objects were anesthetized throughout the test and used only once in the same experiments for purposes which are helped towards medical and scientific researches of human goods; however, the book confronts the law which reflects how society defines and visionalises the position of species that are categorised as inferiors  to humans (which is also resonant to the deplorable and voiceless state and treatment of fairer sex in relation to, e.g., Married Women’s Property Acts in Wilkie Collins’s previous novels), and questions our truest pursuits of knowledge – whether we could attribute this tendency of stocking and application of information to our inbred altruistic virtue of inquisitiveness and humility as a whole, or conversely, degeneration that is owing to avarice in egoism and reputation, which, again, could be alluded to concerns of human relationships between masses and individuals of the Victorian age as well, for instance, regarding the irony of telescopic philanthropy (self-congratulatory egocentrism) at the expense of households prevailing in literature.

after-the-ball-afred-stevens“‘Teresa, my well-beloved friend, – I have considered the anxieties that trouble you, with this result: that I can do my best, conscientiously, to quiet your mind. I have had the experience of forty years in the duties of the priesthood. In that long time, the innermost secrets of thousands of men and women have been confided to me. From such means of observation, I have drawn many useful conclusions; and some of them may be also useful to you. I will put what I have to say, in the plainest and fewest words: consider them carefully, on your side. The growth of the better nature, in women, is perfected by one influence – and that influence is Love. Are you surprised that a priest should write in this way? Did you expect me to say, Religion? Love, my sister, is Religion, in women. It opens their hearts to all that is good for them; and it acts independently of the conditions of human happiness. A miserable woman, tormented by hopeless love, is still the better and the nobler for that love; and a time will surely come when she will show it. You have fears for Carmina – cast away, poor soul, among strangers with hard hearts! I tell you to have no fears. She may suffer under trials; she may sink under trials. But the strength to rise again is in her – and that strength is Love.’”

Wilkie Collins emphasize the importance of Heart over Science, that is to say, the importance of “character”. Throughout his many novels, Wilkie Collins examines egoistic disposition of characters through their reactions towards the confrontation of circumstances. In Man and Wife (1870), Geoffrey Delamyn’s degeneration owning to the extremity of athleticism is shown through by the circumstances. This is also the case in Heart and Science regarding his pleasant didactic approach. Just as his preface says, to the readers in general, “from first to last, you are purposely left in ignorance of the hideous secrets of Vivisection. The outside of the laboratory is a necessary object in my landscape – but I never once open the door and invite you to look in. I trace, in one of my characters, the result of the habitual practice of cruelty (no matter under what pretence) in fatally deteriorating the nature of man – and I leave the picture to speak for itself, and that is Doctor Benjulia, a competitive specialist ambitious in rising to fame but being ignorant of human emotions and kindness, as well as Mrs. Gallilee, a “chatelaine” whose devotion to scientific discussions made her end up being a woman who sticks to nothing by all means. Last but not least, Mr. Le Frank, a gentlemanly looking but a nasty-in-heart and retributive piano master whose vanity and vindictive nature sets a trap on himself in the end. All these characters show that avid passion on one thing does not necessarily improve a person on his/her moral grounds. On the other hand, we have characters such as Mr. Gallilee, Teresa the Italian nursemaid, and Frances Minerva the governess, who implies that there exists universal affections among God’s creations. And among all, Miss Minerva, who resembles Marian in the Woman in White, is the most enigmatic and interesting character in the Novel who is the “goddess” exemplary figure in an unrequited love, with an echo to tragic Rosanna Spearman in the Moonstone. Provided with this hostile dichotomy, this is a duel of survival reality show between humans of avaricious quest of knowledge and humans whose hearts exist a selfless love.

Last but not least, I think Wilkie Collins could be deemed as one of the pioneers who discovers the connectivity of sexism and speciesism of his day. Many ideas, such as animal experiments, regarding the use of cosmetic products, is also relevant today. Heart and Science, to me, is a thought-provoking novel which deserves readers to delve deeply into. It is humourous and nonetheless a moralistic Victorian classic of how a criticism of a big idea could lead to and reflects many social perspectives and human relationships of the contemporaries.

The Evil Genius (1886) by Wilkie Collins

9781551110172“Is there something wrong in human nature? or something wrong in human laws? All that is best and noblest in us feels the influence of love – and the rules of society declare that an accident of position shall decide whether love is a virtue or a crime.” – Mr. Sarrazin

Wilkie Collins possesses every nuance of insights into human nature, relationships, and societal system of his day. Beginning with Man and Wife (1870), Wilkie Collins boldly emphasizes the missions which encompasses his sensation novels. For example, in Man and Wife (1870), he deals with a series of distinctive and disputable court cases of irregular marriages in Victorian Ireland and Scotland mingled with the issues of Athleticism prevailing in contemporary society. Through the Law and the Lady (1875), he looks into the loopholes of Scots law concerning the court verdict of “not proven” instead of “guilty” and “not guilty”. Tracing the influences of circumstances upon characters, Wilkie Collins dexterously contrives one sensational plot after another with such delicacy that each novel richly dissects how characters of his contemporaries apply their inherent vices/virtue to make themselves compatible with/struggle to get free of the traps of fields such as medicine and health which constantly shape the peerless Victorian Britain.

“It cannot be supposed that a woman who enjoyed even a comparative, chequered, and uncertain happiness at home, would change her social position as a respected wife; her daily and hourly communion with her children; for the chance of obtaining a legal order occasionally to visit her children in the custody of others! – It is monstrous to represent that as a temptation, which can at best be but a slight mitigation of misery.” (Caroline Norton – The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered)

In the Evil Genius (1886), a novel dedicated to William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Wilkie Collins uses the distinctive marriage acts in Scotland as a backdrop of the story. Going through the substantial legal reform of ecclesiastical to civil marriages in Victorian England in 1836, custody act in 1839 and divorce act in 1857, the petition of divorce alone was applied by the wife only when her husband committed adultery with combinations of “cruelty, bigamy, incest, or bestiality”. On the other hand in Scotland, adultery alone was sufficient enough to be granted a divorce on the feme covert‘s side, added to this, the wife also anatomically gained access and custody to her legitimate child. With this knowledge, we are introduced to a middle-class family in Scotland. Saddened with the marital fault committed by the husband- Herbert Liney – with the governess, Sydney Westfield; Catherine, wife of Liney, separates from Herbert and later makes a resolution to divorce him with the help of the lawyer, Mr. Sarrazin.”When I was left in the solitude of the night, my heart turned to Kitty; I felt that any sacrifice of myself might be endured for her sake. It’s the remembrance of my marriage, Mr. Sarrazin, that is the terrible trial to me…Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder. Is there nothing to terrify me in setting that solemn command at defiance?…My child is my one treasure left. What must I do next? What must I sign? What must I sacrifice? Tell me – and it shall be done. I submit! I submit!” 

“The stealthy influence of distrust fastens its hold on the mind by slow degrees. Little by little it reaches its fatal end, and disguises delusion successfully under the garb of truth.”

The novel portrays the secular reaction from society, the circumstances of the exposure and “social suicide” that the wife has to endure and commits are reflected by other characters including her neighbours, the mother (the evil genius Mrs. Presty), brother-in-law (Randal Liney) and the suitor and philanthropist, Captain Bennydeck. Though granted to untie the knot, Catherine is reprimanded and unfairly disadvantaged by the Lord President at the court of not fulfilling the conjugal duties to help her husband prevent against the temptation of the governess; Mrs. Presty contrives to allude to the others that Catherine is a widow by protecting her daughter’s reputation from a second marriage. Interestingly, Mrs Presty is like the view of Wilkie Collins’s reading our minds- that we consider ourselves the “evil genius” and stickler of righteousness in asserting opinions of people’s characters and behaviour around us. It is to be noted that isolation and hostility could be found in the divorced wife other than the sinful couple. On the other hand, Wilkie Collins delineates the poignant life and distrust shared by Sydney Westfield and Herbert Liney, that readers are admitted to the guilt and penitence of the sinful husband after the separation with his wife. It is to be believed that a series of misunderstanding and a flight of passion and a need for paternal love from Sydney contribute to this affair.

“…Clap-trap, you innocent creature, to catch foolish readers! When do these consistently good people appear in the life around us, the life that we all see? Never! Are the best mortals that ever lived above the reach of temptation to do ill, and are they always too good to yield to it? How does the Lord’s Prayer instruct humanity? It commands us all, without exception, to pray that we may not be led into temptation. You have been led into temptation. In other words, you are a human being. All that a human being could do you have done – you have repented and confessed. Don’t I know how you have suffered and how you have been tried! Why, what a mean Pharisee I should be if I presumed to despise you!” 

What makes the Evil Genius delectable is that this story is  a morality tale with a bit of reflection of the importance of a nuclear family at the time, and place an emphasis on mortal creatures. Although society is set with a standard of moral rightousness, it’s not merely a dichotomy of what is good and evil, but it is fulfilled with a message that individuals are able to be concerned as an entities that are able to forgive and be forgiven. The definitions that Bennydeck gives in his philanthropic institution of “the Home” could actually be applied to the domestic sphere.

The Home

“There is no discipline,” he answered warmly. “My one object is to be a friend to my friendless fellow-creatures; and my one way of governing them is to follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Whatever else I may remind them of, when they come to me, I am determined not to remind them of a prison. For this reason—though I pity the hardened wanderers of the streets, I don’t open my doors to them. Many a refuge, in which discipline is inevitable, is open to these poor sinners already. My welcome is offered to penitents and sufferers of another kind—who have fallen from positions in life, in which the sense of honor has been cultivated; whose despair is associated with remembrances which I may so encourage, with the New Testament to help me, as to lead them back to the religious influences under which their purer and happier lives may have been passed. Here and there I meet with disappointments. But I persist in my system of trusting them as freely as if they were my own children; and, for the most part, they justify my confidence in them. On the day—if it ever comes—when I find discipline necessary, I shall suffer my disappointment and close my doors.”

Wilkie Collins, The Evil Genius (Chapter XLIII – Know Your Own Mind)

The Two Destinies by Wilkie Collins

  • “Man!” returned the Sibyl, “you speak lightly. Have I spoken lightly to You? I warn you to bow your wicked will before a Will that is mightier than yours. The spirits of these children are kindred spirits. For time and for eternity they are united one to the other. Put land and sea between them – they will still be together; they will communicate in visions, they will be revealed to each other in dreams. Bind them by worldly ties; wed your son, in the time to come, to another woman, and my grand-daughter to another man. In vain! I tell you, in vain! You may doom them to misery, you may drive them to sin – the day of their union on earth is still a day predestined in heaven.”
  • It was only when my unknown Mary was parted from Van Brandt – in other words, it was only when she was a pure spirit – that she felt my influence over her as a refining influence on her life, and that the apparition of her communicated with me in the visible and perfect likeness of herself. On my side, when was it that I dreamed of her (as in Scotland), or felt the mysterious warning of her presence in my waking moments (as in Shetland)? Always at the time when my heart opened most tenderly toward her and toward others – when my mind was most free from the bitter doubts, the self-seeking aspirations, which degrade the divinity within us. Then, and then only, my sympathy with her was the perfect sympathy which holds its fidelity unassailable by the chances and changes, the delusions and temptations, of mortal life.

Just like Brasil, this book, added with some supernatural elements, works delicately concerning the isolation of every character alongside the geographical locations set in the United Kingdom –  Saint Anthony’s Chapel in Scotland,  and Shetland. I am particularly interested in Miss Dunross and it is hardhearted of readers not to sympathise with her. She is also one of the marginal but influential characters among other Wilkie’s novels to influence the protagonists’ decisions, to keep the pace moving and steer the plot along. This is another exciting and gripping work which I am fairly impressed with.

The Somnambulist by Essie Fox

somnambulist“My eye was drawn to the far right-hand corner where the shadowy silhouettes of two men were following at a distance, as if fearing to wake her in case she fell. But, I suddenly knew there must be a third man, and I couldn’t believe I’d not noticed before…a second shadow fell over the path, right next to her own, thrown down by the light someone else must be holding, towards which she steadily progressed, and in two or three steps she would surely be saved by whoever was waiting, just out of the frame…”

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This book is quite an enjoyable rendition of a Victorian sensation novel to me, flourished with backdrop of Wilton Music Hall and references of some famous people and acts of the Era, for instance, George Leybourne with his famous song “Champagne Charlie” and the “contrivance”  of spiritualism. Indeed, this is a difficult read to me at times, with literary references existing throughout the book which kept racking my brains out deducing the symbols and metaphors that the author implies; and acknowledging at times that my English level was incompatible and a hindrance. Still, I could feel the passion and the message that the author conveys in her novel. I think like the same with the painting, the Somnambulist by Millais, everything has two sides of a coin. With the secrets exhumed along in the plot, we could be on one hand appalled towards characters with their misdeeds but feeling their emotions and motivations drive every action and thought in one’s prespectives which resulted in unbearable fates, consequences and conflicts in connection with one another. With that said, it is an enjoyable journey for novel-aholics to dissect strengths and weakness of humankind, and undoubtedly to practice a kindness of empathy in a hostile world when sinful characters in a book voice out a painful confession to us jury so as to seek acquittals and sympathy, like Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, or Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins with his absorbing epistolary writing.

There are interesting matters not related to the book connected to my reading experience. One is the character of Cissy (Mrs Stanhope), the once famous stage singer who returned to perform Acis and Galatea. When I read the first few pages, she reminds me of an actress named Mrs Jordan (1761 – 1816), one of the mistresses of William IV due to the fact that they were both unmarried but calling themselves “Mrs”. Indeed, many contemporary strolling players and theatrical performers need to endure a series of unfortnate events. They both shared high-profile of glamour and glitters on stage but untold tragedy and misery down under. Only Mrs Stanhope has an affair with the proprietor of the Samuel’s Emporium but not the King.

Another matter is the indiscreet act and obsession towards Cissy Stanhope in view of Nathaniel Samuels. This “cringing” fascination, which would be regarded as abnormal pedophiles to date, was prevalent phenomenon of the Victorian time. This relationship reminds me of a biography of Effie Gray by Suzanne Fagance Cooper that mentions a trgic life of one of the Pre-Raphaelite muses and sister of Effie Gray, Sophy. In this biography, the author underlines that the illness Sophy endured throughout her life – anexoria – was triggered by subscious mind of staying in puberty and physical innocence just like her irresistible protrayals in paintings. She died at a young age of 38. Just like the biography, this novel also implies the unspeakable truths and misery underneath the “fairer sex” of the time playing with readers’ minds. I actually feel a kind of prejudgement while reading it when the author in the beginning seems to emphasize the innocuous and virginal physicality of a 17-year-old Phoebe. In this case, I tend to have views towards her own behavior similar to Maud Turner because Pheobe grows an excitable affection toward the opposite sex in a physical way with the revealing sex scenes, which is nothing but opposition of vice to me. However, as it grows out, I could also feel suppression as regards the unfair treatment of men in the physical contact with the “weaker sex”, that the actions are crude indeed.

With the view of her niece and heorine of the story, Phoebe Turner, the curtain rises, going along the novel, her psychological development is underlined along the journey and in this case finding that the secrets are hidden underneath and all that glisters is not gold. What I am also overwhelmed and immersed regarding the Somnambulist is the faith of unversalism and salvation in the story, just like the name of “Stanhope” (Stand hope). It might not always be a religious case, or Christian universalism of the “Hallelujah Army” mentioned in the story and the rivulary between Maud Turner and Cissy Stanhope on one’s advocation of mericful and philanthropic acts against her sister who rots in Hell because of her lascivious vice and theatrical career, but the acknowledged belief of Victorian authors that concatenation of muserable consequences are disguises of silver lining; while the act of valour and virtue are instilled in oneself, blessings will come in the end with the ultimate enlightenment of a brighter hope and strength.

All in all, I think it might be a fair choice to read this book alongside Victorian classics, as you might develop some deep thoughts in mind after reading it.