- Wilkie Collins’s Sensational Babies: Lost Mothers and Victorian Babyhood
The victorian baby, so ubiquitous in nineteenth-century culture and so notoriously sentimentalized and commodified, is a curiously little-studied topic. Revisionist work on the Victorian family and maternity, however, has recently paved the way for its reassessment. Cultural historians have questioned the realities of the doctrine of separate spheres, upending a welter of received notions about the ideologies and practices of domesticity. As Ellen Bayuk Rosenman and Claudia Klaver argue, even as the “model of the domestic ideal as the ground for an ideology of separate spheres was established, . . . it was also being complicated” (2), and “motherhood, too, can—and needs to—be reconceptualised” (11). In their special issue of Victorian Review on the Victorian family, Kelly Hager and Talia Schaffer similarly emphasize “that the celebration of heteronormative domesticity associated with the Angel in the House and Ruskin’s domestic queens was always more ideal than actual” (7). Hager and Schaffer draw attention to new cultural directives of the family in the nineteenth century, stressing how flexible and permeable the idea of the family really was. Vicky Simpson expertly explores Wilkie Collins’s “non-normative families,” whereas Dara Rossman Regaignon suggests how actual Victorian parents reacted to the normative child-rearing advice published at the time (32).
Childhood Studies approaches have likewise begun to evince more interest in the different stages of infancy. Sally Shuttleworth’s The Mind of the Child (2010) includes fascinating discussions of baby-shows and of scientific experiments involving babies. Rachel Bowlby’s A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories (2013) offers rereadings of canonical fiction by revising the previous “tendency for parental perspectives and presences to be missed or disregarded” (115). There has also been research on the stage baby (Varty) and on the use of young children in advertisements (Brooks 60), but the accounts have hitherto been piecemeal. Most references to Victorian babyhood have taken its sentimentalization for granted, eliding its wide-ranging, multi-faceted evocation in popular culture. Yet the idealized chubby baby of Victorian Christmas cards found its counterpoise in some of the most startling literary representations.
The provocative figure of the sensational baby complicates the widespread idealization of infancy and maternity. Several sensation writers employ babies or their paraphernalia as emblems of innocence that enhance—through [End Page 129] sheer force of contrast—a sensational incursion into the domestic. Babies, however, are also central to mysteries or introduce a potential threat to the family.1 Collins not only features infants in narratives that play with the baby’s expected sentimentalization; he also makes the mother-child bond an important theme. In challenging its standard representation, he explores this relationship in the context of such controversial issues as illegitimacy, child-stealing, and adoption. In the process, he exposes the precariousness of childcare at a time when blended families were fairly common but there was little to no legal protection for informally adopted or fostered children.2 Collins’s novels, therefore, offer a compelling entry point for a re-examination of the ambiguities and contestations that lay underneath the Victorian idealization of babyhood.
Collins creates sensational babies both in a reworking of traditional narratives featuring a largely sentimentalized babyhood and as part of his social criticism of topical issues surrounding infancy and maternity. In his self-conscious portrayal of infants within sensational mystery plots, he challenges normative conceptions of breastfeeding, baby-farming, and adoption in Victorian Britain. His early novel Hide and Seek (1854) presents a powerful breastfeeding scene that confronts the reader with the complexities behind such controversial topics as maternal abandonment, substitute mothers, and the fate of illegitimate children, while alerting us to the significance of breastfeeding scenes in Victorian popular culture. In The Dead Secret (1857), Collins makes a birth mother’s concealed yearning for her illegitimate child central to a sensational mystery. But while he retains his deliberately startling, deeply sympathetic depiction of the toll that inadvertent abandonment takes on mothers, he increasingly addresses very specific controversies. Thus, The Fallen Leaves (1879) similarly charts a biological mother’s desperate search for a lost child, but the novel’s focus is on child...