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.

Death and Mr Pickwick (4) Burking

“In the grimy loft, the woman was on the floor, Burke’s hands upon her throat. Hare calmly observed the proceedings.”

Alike the story of Our Mutual Friend narrated by Dickens that the daughter and father digging dead bodies along the Thames, grave diggers, or, in other terms, body snatchers, and cadavers, were always prevalent in the cities who worked abreast with undertakers to trade dead bodies for dissection. Night-watchmen were duly employed, watchtowers and mortsafes were applied in order to prevent the dead relatives being “resurrected” at the graveyards. It was only until the Murder Act 1752 that anatomists could legitimately negotiate the price and purchase the bodies of murders, including those infamous ones who hanged at Tyburn Tree.

(c) Reading Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Reading Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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In Death and Mr Pickwick we come across the notorious Burke and Hare murders. It involved serial killings of 16 victims over 10 months in the 1820s. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who resided in Edinburgh. Due to the insufficient supply of corpses, two scoundrels conspired together with Helen McDougal (Burke’s mistress) and Margaret Hare (née Laird) as accomplices. They lured frail and forlorn prostitutes, beggars and homeless mainly into their lodging house run by the Hares in West Port, Edinburgh. Victims were left intoxicated, smothered (the fresher the dead bodies the more money) and sold to Dr. Robert Knox (whom was believed to be complicit in their misdeeds all along). Under Hare’s testament against Burke, Hare was immune from prosecution and Burke was hanged in 1829. McDougal was found not proven. Burke was as usual, after dissection, his death mask alongside the life mask of Hare’s were used by phrenologists to study his character.

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This murderous case intrigued and reflected various social criticisms in words and caricatures, for instance, the living conditions of Irish immigrants as well as the labour and the poor dwelling in the cities. “Our Irish importation have made a great discovery of Oeconomicks, namely, that a wretch who is not worth a farthing while alive, becomes a valuable article when knockd on the head & carried to an anatomist; and acting on this principle, have cleard the streets of some of those miserable offcasts of society, whom nobody missed because nobody wishd to see them again.” (Walter Scott)

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Last but not least not without mentioning that the case contributed to the controversial Anatomy Act 1832, that medical students and anatomists were gained legal access to dissect corpses, especially the unclaimed bodies and those from prisons and workhouses, apart from the hanged.

Death and Mr Pickwick (3) Royal Exhibition

“At the back of the shop I had a permanent exhibition of older prints, for the window always reflected the news of the time, and it seemed to me that the drawings had value even if the events they described had passed. Thus, behind a curtain in the rear, I had old Hogarths, Gillrays, Bunburys and other artists, and I charged a penny for admission to view. I filled the walls with humorous prints, floor to ceiling, like a parody of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and I often heard guffaws from behind the curtain.” 

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In Death and Mr. Pickwick, there are several remarks of Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. One is from an autobiographical note by an “anonymous” print-shop proprietor/ress as quoted above. Interestingly, he/she also describes the fashionable beaus at the print-shop window performing mischievous stuff in the book. Contrasted with a penny per admission to the rear of the print-shop, visitors were obliged to well pay out catalogue of one shilling each as admission price to the Royal Exhibition, as mentioned in Life in London, narrated by Pierce Egan and illustrated by Cruikshanks. The catalogue of the first exhibition being held on 21st April, 1760 (before the founding of Royal Academy of Arts in 1768) was sixpence each but only for the interested party concerned if they wanted to cough up the money voluntarily. The annual exhibition of the Royal Academy was held initially at Pall Mall, then located its residence to Somerset House in 1780 and Burlington House in the late 1860s till today for visitors to cast casual glances on others’ talent or observe pictures at close quarters.

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“[I]n tracing the features of the philanthropist, the scholar, and the hero, such portraits, in themselves, become perfect studies, in order to view the feeling that adorns the face, the intelligence with decorates the mind, and the loftiness of character that depicts a nobleness of disposition and greatness of soul, cannot fail to be a source of infinite pleasure and delight.” (from Life in London)

With respect to the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, apart from George III as the significant contributor, I am always fascinated in the history of the Foundling Hospital, and found that the charitable entity, which operated in 1740, was not in the least oblivious in its significance as well as its governor, William Hogarth, the marvelous painter, who presented the portrait of Captain Thomas Coram (the sole parent of the Hospital) and his other drawings at this philanthropic institution.  It was indeed a win-win situation for both the hundreds of patron artists and the Hospital in achieving a boost of fame and reputation, because as being the first proper art exhibition open to the public, it always gravitated a big number of spectators as a fashionable stamping ground.

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“Stare” Case

I put some pictures depicting the royal art exhibition.They say much better as to the vast popularity of the event than I can express in words.

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Jane, the fox & me

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12369194_10153853284104470_841992597885891402_nThis is a graphic story which deals with a girl confronting with school bullying while seeking safe haven and comfort in Jane Eyre. What I found impressive in this book is this sentence -“Even with my creeping vine of an imagination, I’m always taken off guard by the insults she invents.” Bullying is really a destructive matter; the vileness always comes afresh and painstakingly excruciating as each day starts anew. Thankfully, Jane Eyre, a novel written by Charlotte Brontë, gives the constructive power to purge Hélène from abnegation to a self-fulfilling colourful life.

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While reading the book, I also try figuring out the allusion of the fox. It reminds me of another book called The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Jane, the fox & me underlines that friendship is the soul-saving love apart from oneself. Rochester is left blind, maimed and unkempt and Jane still loves her; even Hélène is sorted into an outcast group  Géraldine gives all she has for the world of justice and appreciates the good side of hers.

Jane, the fox & me is full of poetic words. The beautiful pictures of plantations provide great juxtaposition and standpoint of a girl’s ambivalent mood while she rambles on the journey between bleakness and hope.

The Sunshine Bloggers Award

Thank you Sarah’s Bookshelf for the nomination. 🙂

(a) What made you begin blogging?

After my graduation from the uni, I worked as a proofreader in a financial company.Thankfully, this occupation actually somehow developed my interests in literature and reading. Some time in 2012, I had finished some biographies about North Korean defectors. Those biographies involve heavy bits of geographical information and history which would be very useful if I jot them all down in a notebook; and after that I thought it would be great if I could also share the materials and book reviews on a website. I used to read bloggers’ post back then as well, and there was a beautiful blog that you could acquire all the information about Elizabeth Gaskell. It’s been three years already since I had written the first book review on my blog, and this is my favourite pastime apart from reading. However I do hope that my book reviews and the areas I’m exploring in the future would be more-in-depth as the experience accumulates in time.

(b) If you could explore the ocean or space, which one would you pick?

Ocean. What I could only think of at this moment is because I am never really a fan of the Star Wars franchise. I’m more into Finding Nemo and The Water Babies.

(c) What is the item that has the most sentimental meaning to you?

All the books by Roald Dahl. Because at the teenage years I had the feeling of wanting to collect all his works and get obsessed  in the illustrations by Quentin Blake and the English writing. I used to buy one of his works from the bookshop every weekend with my mates in town. The first book I was introduced by his was called The Witches from my mother; but my favourite one is The Boy and Going Solo. CDs are forms of personal attachment as well; songs are reminiscent of my personal journey.

(d) Dogs or cats?

Cats because I like witchcraft and mystifying subjects, especially the black ones. Also as I get older I tend to have preference for creatures who have a more reserved nature in expressing attachment and emotions.

(e) What was the last thing you ate?

Dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Winter melon soup. Dishes: Sweet and sour chicken with rice, and Vegetables in black bean sauce. Sweet mung bean soup as desert.

(f) What is your favourite quote?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë – “The tyrant grinds down his slaves and they don’t turn against him; they crush those beneath them. You are welcome to torture me to death for your amusement, only allow me to amuse myself a little in the same style, and refrain from insult as much as you are able.” (I try to evade Wilkie Collins’s ones)

(g) What is your favourite place in the whole world?

The British Isles because I am fascinated with the architecture, history, traditions, cultures and eccentricities of this place. Although I like my home country as well, but the hustle and bustle irritates me sometimes. I’d also like to visit the Amish county someday.


These are my questions and I pass these on to you –

(1) What made you begin blogging?

(2) Does your family exert a great influence on your reading?

(3) Been travelling to anywhere solely because of books you had read?

(4) What are your favourite myth / fairytales / legends?

(5) What would you recommend me in contemporary fiction?


I would nominate –

enywulandari’s blog

I can’t think of anymore right now…thank you!

Suffragette (Movie)

SuffragetteXMovieXPosterExcluding the controversies that the quote of “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” is problematic in reference to what Emmeline Pankhurst had said in downplaying the significance of slavery in America compared to voteless women, and that the suffragettes in the movie are all white at the expense of illustrating  the contributions of other races and males who had achieved towards the movement, I am impressed to think of this film about the WSPU as inspirational, emotional and engaging in depicting the plight of women in many aspects (child custody, imprisonment etc), that they gave all they had to fight against the rotten and conformed ideas of law, tradition and order in society. I especially am overwhelmed at the scene of Emily Davison’s death at her being trampled by the horse at the Derby.