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  • “A Nasty Thumping at the Top of Your Head”:Muscularity, Masculinity, and Physical Reading in The Moonstone
  • Lara Karpenko (bio)

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Fig 1.

Cecioni, Adriano. “Mr. Wilkie Collins, The Novelist Who Invented Sensation.” Illustration. Vanity Fair. 3 February 1872: 38.

Photo Courtesy of The Newberry Library, Chicago, IL. Call number FA 51.925 (January-June 1872.)

[End Page 132]

In 1872, as part of its famed “Men of the Day” series, Vanity Fair featured a caricature of Wilkie Collins (fig. 1). Shortly after introducing the series as a regular feature of Vanity Fair, owner and editor Thomas Gibson Bowles promised that the featured caricatures would seize “the essential point” of the subject (qtd. in Matthews and Mellini 24) and Collins’s depiction seems no exception. Portraying the celebrated novelist as prominently bespectacled and weakly slumped in a chair, the cartoon suggests that Collins’s “essential point” is that his body exemplifies a non-normative masculinity. While the cartoon focuses on Collins’s body, the accompanying caption shifts that focus to the readerly body. Appearing after both The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868) had entranced the Victorian public, the caption deems Collins “The Novelist Who Invented Sensation.”1

Though any Victorian reader would have connected Collins to the category of sensation fiction, the Vanity Fair caption cheekily associates him with the larger category of “sensation,” a term that was explicitly physiological.2 By crediting Collins with not only perpetuating but also inventing the heightened sense of physicality commonly associated with the word “sensation,” the cartoon suggests that Collins and his novels remade the collective body of the Victorian reading public. Within the cartoon, then, Wilkie Collins, exaggerated embodiment, abnormal masculinity, and the genre of the novel become inseparably intertwined.

To some extent, this paper proceeds from the assumption that the Vanity Fair caricature is correct. While I will not argue that Collins invented the biological category of sensation, I will suggest that he had a physiological conception of the novel and consciously attempted to remake the readerly body via the genre of the novel. More specifically, I situate The Moonstone against the backdrop of the muscular Christian movement and suggest that Collins deployed the popular sensation novel in order to invent a form of masculinity that opposed the muscular ideal in its uncontrolled physicality but also rivalled it in terms of its extensive popularity.3

Muscular Christianity represented a popular, if not inescapable, ideal of masculinity at mid-century. As James Eli Adams points out, Charles Kingsley, [End Page 133] Thomas Hughes, and a group of public-school men were primarily responsible for “the remarkably rapid diffusion of muscular Christianity” (108). Unlike Collins’s pathologized heroes, muscular Christian men represented a specific model of excessively athletic, emotionally stoic, and piously spiritual masculinity—a model that was itself originally located in and disseminated by the popular novel.4 Ultimately, the muscular Christian was a contradictory figure: one whose heightened state of healthy embodiment was a necessary and somewhat paradoxical precursor to the moment where he could become, in Kingsley’s phrase, “unconscious of [his] body” (Letters 2:18).

As muscular Christianity and male athleticism were becoming increasingly associated with ideal masculinity and with encouraging men to control and forget their bodies, Collins published The Moonstone in tantalizing weekly installments in All the Year Round. Heralded by T.S. Eliot as “the first and greatest of English detective novels” (410), The Moonstone features a slew of unathletic men (among them only one professional detective)5 who attempt to uncover the crimes of the novel’s resident muscular Christian, Godfrey Ablewhite. By consistently associating admirable men with crime detection, Collins saturates his novel with alternate models of ideal masculinity and relocates masculine morality from the muscular Christian body to the detective’s logical mind and nervous body.

Though Collins’s construction of masculine identity has attracted sustained scholarly attention, few critics have noted his interest in the muscular Christian movement. Further, when critics like Norman Page, Richard L. Newby, Deirdre David, and Tamara S. Wagner do explicitly consider Collins’s representation of muscular Christianity, they all focus almost exclusively on the novel that followed The...


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