Wilkie Collins and the Victorian Short Story

Although my primary sources may span across the Atlantic to include 19th century short stories from both England and North America, for this blog post I will focus on Victorian literature and Wilkie Collins.

I first read a piece by Wilkie Collins during my class title Victorian Sexualities. I was interested in this author upon reading The Woman in White as I was intrigued by the racialized and gendered language that he used. Not that I am using an intersectional lens to analyze 19th century short stories, it is only appropriate that I start with an author who has sparked my interest in the past.

According to Lyn Pyckett’s Wilkie Collins: Authors in Context, Collins was born in London, 1824. In her book, Pyckett dedicates a section to Collins’s relationship to social change, especially that which centered upon gender and sexuality. Within this section, Pyckett explains that Wilkie Collins produced literature for a liberal weekly paper titled the Leader, and that later, He worked for Dickens’s Household Words. The different papers Collins worked for were associated with political and economic pushes for reform. Collins sought to increase conversations surrounding the, “family, marriage, and relations between the sexes,” (Pyckett, 50). He also had a strong interest in the relationship between women and the law, especially in terms of property rights and marriage. Pyckett explains the social context of Collins’s writing as she says, “The legal vulnerability of women, and their position as objects of exchange between men were already staples  of the Gothic plot when Collins began writing, and partly as a result of his efforts they became central to the plots of sensation novels in the 1860s,” (Pyckett, 52). This focus on women as objects and the role of women within the legal system indicates that Collins’ work might use a feminist lens to analyze his contemporary social context.

Not only did Wilkie Collins have a strong interest in women and reform, but he also held a clear curiosity in gender roles, especially women within the social and the familial contexts. According to Pyckett, Collins lived during a period where women became more vocal about their lack of civil rights and as a result, there became a push against traditional roles of the family. According to Pyckett, “Both Collins’s life and his fiction (in common with quite a lot of Victorian fiction) suggest that the Victorian home, family, and gender roles were rather more fluid and complex in practice than they were in this ideological inscription,” (Pyckett, 57). Pyckett then goes on to elaborate that the reality of the family during the Victorian period was that there was a “domestic ideal”, however, this ideal was simply not attainable by everyone. Thus, Collins saw a variety of family lifestyles that do not all adhere to this “domestic ideal.,” in which women were expected to exist within the private sphere to perform domestic duties while the men ventured into the public sphere to receive employment and an education (Pyckett, 56).

Although the scope of my thesis is still very broad, I am seeing different themes emerge already such as women in the family and mental health, the latter being another interest of Collins. According to Pyckett, “Contemporary sexual mores and morality come under scrutiny as Collins investigates the hypocrisies  of ‘respectable’ Victorian society and the relationship between respectable society and the demi-monde,” (Pyckett, 119). Pyckett goes on to explain that Collins was fascinated by the relationship between mental disorders and one’s divergence from sexual ‘norms.’  This might be yet another avenue for me to explore through my intersectional lens; how race, gender, and sexuality intersect to create social positions that constitute as either respectable or not respectable.

 

Lyn Pyckett’s Wilkie Collins: Authors in Context exposes the social context of Wilkie Collins and his writing. Knowing the background of his work will allow me to better analyze his short stories such as “A Terribly Strange Bed.” His interest in women within the realm of legal reform, the family, and sexual morality indicates that his work might be feminist texts that will prove integral to understanding writing about women within the Victorian era. As one of the most famous writers of his time, studying the works of Wilkie Collins along with his background is essential to the purpose of my project.

Works Cited:

Pykett, Lyn. Wilkie Collins. [Electronic Resource] : Authors in Context. Oxford : Oxford University Press, UK, 2005., 2005. Oxford World’s Classics.

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