- Selective Affinities:Non-Normative Families in Wilkie Collins’s No Name
Sensation fiction’s deliberate setting of the contemporary Victorian household and its typical plot of a happy family disrupted by salacious secrets indicate that the genre was a dynamic forum for Victorians to map out new ideas about the family in the midst of social and political change. One of the most fascinating topics for these writers was illegitimacy—a subject that is especially central to Wilkie Collins’s life and books. Collins had an unconventional family: he had two common-law wives, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, for nearly two decades, and he fathered three children out of wedlock. According to the picture that Lillian Nayder draws in her biography of the writer, Collins had a mixed attitude towards marriage, since he grew up with a father who revered social conventions but also witnessed the acrimonious separation of Charles Dickens and his wife and studied the British laws that deprived married women of their property and parental rights (11). Many of Collins’s novels explore the social and legal conditions that can create or destroy a family in Victorian England, but illegitimacy is especially important in No Name, which was published in 1862, at the peak of Collins’s career.1 This novel carefully juxtaposes both “real” and “fictional” families. The dominant narrative follows an active and inventive female character, a home-maker of sorts, who goes to desperate lengths to construct the normative or ideal family. Yet, I would argue that this book also reveals the ideal family to be no more than a sham spectacle—a promise of happiness and stability that distracts characters, particularly Magdalen Vanstone, and readers alike. When we look past the central narrative quest for the ideal, we see that this sensation novel showcases a number of alternative, even if so-called illegitimate, constructions of families. Moreover, when contrasted with the restrictive legal and social definitions of family, these peripheral, non-normative relationships appear to be the most successful, devoted, and fulfilling unions in the novel.
Critics have shown that the concept of family evolved in tandem with a national debate on the subject and with changing legislation throughout the nineteenth century.2 The Deceased Wife’s Sister Bill of 1835 attempted to end the confusion surrounding the legitimacy of affinal marriages, the Custody of Infants Act of 1839 gradually gave judges more power to determine [End Page 115] custody and visitation arrangements, and most notably, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 established the divorce courts—all three reforms tacitly acknowledged differences among and within families. For the purposes of the 1851 census, family was defined as “the first, most intimate, and perhaps most important community … not considered as the children of one parent, but as the persons under one head; who is the occupier of the house, the householder, master, husband, or father, while the other members of the family are the wife, children, servants, relatives, visitors, and persons constantly or accidentally in the house” (6). This definition relies solely on the gender of the head of household and the residents within the house, although it gestures towards the fluid structure of most families. These changes might be caused by deaths, especially among infants, and by new marriages. Even without sudden and traumatic changes, “there were tremendous economic pressures upon the extended existence of the simple family as a co-residential unit” (O’Day 130), and mundane events, such as the boarding of children at school, the practice of informal fostering or adoption, and the live-in status of many domestic servants and governesses, regularly affected who was classified as kin.
Literature is one medium that demonstrates the public’s reception of and reaction to the changing concept of family. Ruth Perry charts these changes in late eighteenth-century fiction, which she argues discloses “a movement from an axis of kinship based on consanguineal ties or blood lineage to an axis based on conjugal and affinal ties of the married couple. That is, the biologically given family into which one was born was gradually becoming secondary to the chosen family constructed by marriage” (2). Julie Shaffer has...