- The Foreshadowed Life in Wilkie Collins's No Name
"We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent."-Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
There is a little oddity at the beginning of Wilkie Collins's sixth novel, which everyone notices, a short Preface that ends by alerting his readers that the story they are about to read lacks suspense. It demands our attention as a kind of repudiation, because, by 1862, after the phenomenal success of The Woman in White, Collins's reputation depended upon his ability to hide secrets within elaborate plots. This was the bread and butter of the Sensational School, and he was rightly considered its leader. Somewhat perversely, then, he says, "The only Secret contained in this book, is revealed midway in the first volume" (xxi). Now most writers would shy away from such a bald declaration as this, even if they were not committed as Collins was to producing a type of fiction driven largely by the thirst for uncovering dangerous secrets. The very readers whom he had cultivated might lack the incentive to go forward. But he wanted to try new ground and to vary the form by which he appealed to his audience. Admirable, certainly, but smacking of needy rationalization when one meets it here. Something about this new book needed explaining. He felt it. The disappointed critics felt it. Was it "the struggle of a human creature, under those opposing influences of Good and Evil, which we have all felt, which we have all known" (xxi)?
Collins devotes two of the three paragraphs of the Preface to a discussion of character, and the critical response to the novel has turned almost entirely on these questions. The early reviewers pronounced Magdalen Vanstone an unappealing heroine, unworthy of her happy ending, and they judged her creator to have overstepped the bounds of morality in representing her story. [End Page 22] It is only in the third paragraph that Collins comes to the plan of the story, and the lack of suspense; but this is undoubtedly where he has been heading all along. The core idea and chief oddity of the book, I believe, is this: "all the main events of the story are purposely foreshadowed, before they take place-my present design being to rouse the reader's interest in following the train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought about" (xxi-xxii). After the secret is revealed, No Name is not a novel of disclosure or discovery, but of inexorable movement toward a foreseen conclusion-with a single, important exception. A stranger, Robert Kirke, sees Magdalen once at a seaside resort, falls madly in love, and finds her by chance in London, one year later, when she is near death and about to be evicted from a poor lodging house. She has reached the end of her line. Her fall is complete. Without Mr. Kirke's improbable intervention, we are led to believe, she would have died, abandoned in the street.
As the title suggests, No Name is a highly self-conscious exploration of the consequences of losing one's identity, and as Jonathan Loesberg and others have argued, the "concern with identity and its loss" is the abiding theme of sensation fiction (117). Writers and readers in the 1850s and 1860s were preoccupied with the loss of class identity and social identity, which would result, many feared, in the merging of the classes. The particular frisson of the sensation novel is traceable, Loesberg says, to this fear (135). The "narrative of inevitable sequence" (117) that follows from the loss of name and home is clearly what Collins has in mind in the Preface, not mystery at all but shared knowledge. What kind of knowledge did Collins share with his readers that would have enabled them to follow the links in the chain of his carefully plotted narrative?
The earliest reviews of the sensation novel traced it quickly to its source: the newspapers. Margaret Oliphant even named a subgenre of sensation fiction the "Newspaper Novel" (501). Sensation novelists were inspired by real events, and readers were drawn in by the realization that these stories...