- “A Strange and Startling Creature” Transgender Possibilities in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady
With its emphasis on the plasticity and fungibility of identity, sensation fiction often explores the shifting gender codes of the nineteenth century. Wilkie Collins’s fiction, in particular, has often been studied for its interrogation of gender conventions and the ways in which it destabilizes the heteronormative binary. While there are numerous examples of scholars queering Collins’s work, this essay focuses on trans and gender nonbinary characters in The Law and the Lady (1875) in order to expose a pertinent aspect of the “false identity” trope necessary to sensation fiction plots.1 As they have with the Gothic, critics have argued that the sensation genre is necessarily queer, but this scholarship does not explicitly discuss or examine transsexuality, transgender issues and theory, or the trans body. Reading sensation fiction as a genre that embeds explorations of “trans as modification and motion across time and space,” to use A. Finn Enke’s words (8), we can compound and disturb our understanding of the genre’s queer characters and narrative strategies. As Susan Stryker aptly puts it, “transgender phenomena haunt the entire project of European culture. They are simultaneously everywhere and elsewhere” (“(De)Subjugated Knowledges” 15). One of the aims of this essay is to continue the work of tracing and marking these phenomena that “haunt” Collins’s fiction, in particular the genderqueer characters and trans possibilities in The Law and the Lady.
If we invoke Stryker’s definition of transgender as “people who cross over the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain” gender (“(De)Subjugated Knowledges” 1), we can study, too, the ways in which Gothic and sensation fiction cross, intersect, and trouble genre boundaries.2 Like queering, transing can help explain why sensation fiction has been a persistent venue for transgressive and non-normative sexualities and gender identities. With Stryker’s understanding that transgender studies investigates “forms of embodiment and subjectivity that do not readily reduce to heteronormativity” and fall outside the analytic framework of sexual identity (“Transgender Studies” 214), we can expand a post-structuralist, queer approach to sensation fiction.3
As Ardel Haefele-Thomas argues, the Victorian era was populated by all manner of nonbinary and gender-expansive slippages (1–17). The lives of [End Page 99] gender nonconforming people such as Vernon Lee, Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park (who performed onstage as Fanny and Stella), Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, Dr. James Barry (a surgeon in the British Army, born Margaret Ann Bulkley), and Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (who adopted the nom de plume of “Michael Field”) attest to this fact. In taking up the gender nonbinary and transgender characters in The Law and the Lady, however, I’m not suggesting Collins was directly aware of his culture’s medical and scientific approaches to what we would now term the transgender and intersex populations, but his novel seeks to subvert gender norms through nonbinary characters. The sensation genre allows for and celebrates these subversions and creates spaces for sympathizing with non-normative characters. As we examine proto-trans characters and transgender potentialities in The Law and the Lady, we can better understand Collins’s overt and covert rejection of rigid gender binaries, noting that sensation fiction often portrayed a society in which secure gender identity was being questioned. Specifically, I’m claiming that these trans possibilities are dramatically developed in this text as the medical investigation of genderqueer and transgender people was growing in social interest. The Law and the Lady exploits and fetishizes trans characters, and in several instances institutionalizes or punishes them for their difference.
collins’s trans fiction
The 1990s and early 2000s saw the application of queer theory to Gothic literature. As Ellis Hanson has noted, “queer studies of the Gothic have typically shifted registers between the Freudian and the Foucauldian, or . . . between psychologizing and historicizing modes of critique” (176). With its interrogation of oppositions and binaries, queer theory illuminates the cultural transgressions that are central to Gothic fiction, which typically upholds normalized heterosexuality. Critics such as D.A. Miller extended the use of queer theory from the...