The topics of Victorian sexuality and class difference are distinctly interwoven but are little discussed in plain terms. However, passages from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, reveal the unsaid tensions between Mr. Franklin Blake and Rosanna Spearman.
To frame my discussion of this class conflicted, unrequited love story, I turn to Rosanna’s letter to Franklin Blake after her death. The narrative perspective is framed from the bottom up, where rejection is received by the servant, not exacted by the gentleman, upholding gendered structures of power in the home. The nightgown is similarly uncovered and received into Rosanna’s possession when she investigates his chambers and launches an intimate point of contact between the two: “I undressed, and put the nightgown on me. You had worn it – and I had another little moment of pleasure in wearing it after you” (Collins 328). This is one of the very few (if any) points in Victorian novels where a woman is visibly naked, and even when she redresses, she does so for her own pleasure. Alone, the sexual pleasure she takes in the nightgown is secret and forbidden, as the word “little” in her confession could be read as the “little death,” or a codified confession of female orgasm.
There are two main points of contact which make up Rosanna’s delight in wearing the nightshirt making contact with her skin. The first is the constant concern with its stains, plural, on the inside of the garment which must be hidden. Not only is there the paint smear which could convict him of theft, the overt secret, but also the multiple seminal stains on the inside of the shirt. These are ghosts of past pleasure next to her skin belonging to a man whom she could never sexually engage with. Her use of his nightshirt as a sexual object is the closest she could come to that forbidden act. A second key feature is the nametag embroidered on the inside of the neck. With his name against her skin, he becomes part of the whole of the nightshirt. Covering her, this text engages in the language of domination and subordination present in both a sexual relationship, but also in the class system that negates the possibility for such a sexual relationship to occur.
Later in the narrative when Franklin Blake finds Rosanna’s confession and the nightshirt, his language of dismay is also sexualized. He states, “I had penetrated the secret which the quicksand had kept from every other living creature” (Collins 314). Mr. Franklin Blake is at the heart of Rosanna’s sacred place, the Shivering Sands, uncovering the secret of her passion. The very setting establishes an intimate connection between the two, and the fact that he has used the word “penetrated” to describe how he dug up the lock box from the quicksand only increases the tension. Finally, with the nightgown in his hands, reunited with his body in the privacy of solitude, the connection is finalized as an intimate link by touch.
On the next page, there Franklin Blake has another interesting thought: “Of what was said between us on the beach, I have not the faintest recollection” (Collins 315). Though the recipient of this proposition is meant to be Betteredge, it also holds implications for the silent connection now established between him and Rosanna. Her influence, or ghost, resides in the Shivering Sands, as proposed upon her introduction as a character in the novel, and she now descends upon him as an undefinable inkling of the social forces that forbid their relationship. Franklin Blake places the clause of having a sensation of an external force before admitting his own ignorance to its implications. The ideology of preserving class structures by forbidding sexual encounters between them completely escapes Franklin Blake, it shows how deeply internalized those values of separation are in upper class Victorian society. Though he is thoroughly ignorant, Rosanna was bitterly aware of these social demands.