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Narrative 12.1 (2004) 55-73

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The Yellow Mask, the Black Robe, and the Woman in White:
Wilkie Collins, Anti-Catholic Discourse, and the Sensation Novel

Susan M. Griffin


Summarizing the Gothic history of sensationalism, Patrick Brantlinger traces a movement from the religious to the secular: "By a kind of metaphoric sleight of hand, the Gothic romance has managed to make secular mystery seem like a version of religious mystery." By the time of sensationalism, Brantlinger argues, there is "not even a quasi-religious content" (32). Without claiming that sensation novels are, as such, religious, I nonetheless want to suggest that anti-Catholicism can provide those masks, cloaks, and mysteries, ready-made, as it were. 1 One way to achieve the sleight of hand by which the secular takes on a religious aura is by brandishing the narrative vestments and vestiges inherited from the Gothic.

The secularized mysteries of sensationalism re-placed religion in another sense as well. In an 1863 Quarterly Review article deploring sensationalism, John Murray complained that "A class of literature has grown up around us, usurping in many respects, intentionally or unintentionally, a portion of the preacher's office, playing no inconsiderable part in moulding the minds and forming the habits and tastes of its generation; and doing so principally, we had almost said exclusively, by 'preaching to the nerves'" instead of to judgment, as preachers should do (252). "To think of pointing a moral by stimulants of this kind," Murray pronounces, "is like holding a religous service in a gin-palace" (262). While Murray mentions a few sensation novels that deal directly with religious subjects (e.g., Charles Maurice Davies's Philip Paternoster: A Tractarian Love Story), his larger point is that religious discourse informs the sensation novel less as content and more as form. The rhetorical persuasions of the pulpit are now displaced onto the pages of the sensation novel, and, [End Page 55] counterintuitively, reading is more bodily than listening. These sensational sermons are exercises in repeated—eventually habitual—stimulation, "moulding minds, forming tastes and habits."

The phrase "preaching to the nerves" not only captures sensationalism's secularizing of religious rhetorical forms, but also indicates how sensationalism physicalizes ideology. Ann Cvetkovich has argued persuasively that sensationalism's embodiment of social structures, its naturalizing of representations and their meanings, is importantly political (25). 2 The techniques of sensationalism underscore narrative's intimate and intricate dependence upon readerly affect. ("Think of her as you thought of the first woman who quickened your pulses within you that the rest of her sex has no art to stir. Let the kind, candid blue eyes meet yours, as they met mine, with the one matchless look that we both remember so well. . . . Take as her as the visionary nursling of your own fancy, and she will grow upon you, all the more clearly, as the living woman who dwells in mine," Walter Hartright famously asserts, instructing Collins's readers in the uses of sensory memory and association [50].) Individual Victorian reading experiences were, of course, diverse, 3 but the majority of those readers who consumed Collins's narratives would have shared a history of experience with anti-Catholic discourse. Reinforcing a set of polemical Protestant prejudices in their audience and presenting the Papacy as a cultural, political, and economic force in nineteenth-century Britain, fictions that borrow from anti-Catholic discourse play on readers' fears, arousing their suspense and subsequent speculation. My argument, then, is not simply that the motifs of no-Popery found their way into sensation fiction (although they did), but that sensationalism's narrative structures, forming and formed by the learned associations of its audience, are borrowed in part from anti-Catholicism.

Wilkie Collins, that most secular and sensational of nineteenth-century writers, is rarely thought of as a novelist of religious polemic. Yet in 1855 and again in 1881, Collins published two fictions that conform closely to the patterns of anti-Catholic narrative: "The Yellow Mask" (appearing first in Dickens's Household...


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