Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Drama of the Fallen Woman - Wilkie Collins's The New Magdalen

The New Magdalen (1873) by Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) is a story of identity-theft and battle with a bad conscience, complicated by social etiquette and tremors of strong emotion. It has been criticized as Wilkie Collins's most polemical book with a mission and has remained one of his more obscure works. It belongs to the latter period of his career when, it is often argued, his creative genius had runs it course and been replaced by an enthusiasm to lecture on social ills - this time on the miserable lot of the 'fallen woman' and the hypocrisy of the polite society.

The novel was first published serialized in Temple Bar, running from October 1872 to July 1873, and then by Bentley in two volumes on 20 May 1873. Reports about its success are contradictory. It was a success when first serialized (Peter Ackroyd. Wilkie Collins, 2012, p149), but did not sell well in Bentley's first edition (Catherine Peters. The King of Inventors, 1991, p340). Sales in the US, however were "enormous" (Peters, 1991, p345). Mudie's Circulating Library demanded that 'Magdalen,' the name for a reformed prostitute should be removed from the title before the book's publication in two volumes. Collins refused. Mudie's complaint may have dampened the UK sales of the novel, or it may have increased them.

(Image 1889 Chatto & Windus yellowback from

Collins wrote The New Magdalen as much for the stage as for the page. Bentley's two-volume publication came out the day after the theatrical version of The New Magdalen opened in the Olympic theatre on 19 May, 1873. It was one Collins's most successful plays and ran for nineteen weeks in the Olympic and toured the country for years. It was also staged on Broadway, opening 10 November 1873 (several pirated versions had preceded this) while Collins was on a reading tour in America. According to the Times, the audience was much affected and "The sobbing in different parts of the house was painfully audible." The play was sensational. But it was not universally applauded. "An outraged lady wrote in the Daily Graphic": "The author of the New Magdalen has opened a recruiting office for prostitutes, and has made a direct attack on virtue and honesty.  ... A play so utterly vicious, so shamefully profligate in its teaching, has never before been produced at a New York theatre." (Robert P. Ashley "Wilkie Collins and the American Theatre" in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 8, Nr 4, March 1954, p250).

The theatrical quality of the novel is clear from the start: it is divided into two 'scenes,' both of them opening with 'preambles' listing the time, the place and the 'persons' involved in the action. The settings are very limited; the first five chapters making up 'Scene 1' all take place within the four walls of a cottage on the frontier of a Franco-German war in the autumn of 1870. 'Scene 2' is limited to the various rooms of Lady Janet Roy's Maplethorpe House. At the opening of this section, the dining room is described very much as a stage setting in the present tense:

"[It] is famous among artists and other persons of taste for the carved wood-work, of Italian origin, which covers the walls on three sides. On the fourth side, ... a conservatory, forming an entrance to the room, through a winter garden of rare plants and flowers. On your right hand, as you stand fronting the conservatory, the monotony of the panelled wall is relieved by a quaintly-patterned door of old inlaid wood, leading to the library, ... A corresponding door on the left hand gives access to the billiard-room, to the smoking-room next to it, and to a smaller hall commanding one of the secondary entrances to the building. On the left side also is the ample fire-place ..." (The New Magdalen, Scene 2, Chapter 6)

The many doors in this setting provide ample opportunities for making dramatic entrances and exits. The action is made up of dialogue between characters, usually as a series of meetings between pairs of characters in the various rooms. There is also a dramatic opportunity for characters to peer in through open doorways and then withdraw, indicating their presence as eavesdroppers. On stage this may be necessary, but on a page, this bobbing in and out of doorways comes across as unintentionally comical (The New Magdalen, chapters 15 and 17, where Grace Roseberry stalks around Maplethorpe House).

Collins's biographer Catherine Peters notes that both Miss or Mrs? (1871) and The New Magdalen "were written with dramatization in mind" and because of this "Both suffer from this literary economy. Wilkie's practiced ingenuity in handling a complicated story and his impersonations of differing points of view, his great strengths were jettisoned." (Peters, 1991, p337)

I would argue that the limited setting and abundance of dialogue are appropriate for the method Collins has chosen to deal with his topic: The New Magdalen is about the internal struggle of one woman, Mercy Merrick, to make a choice: to either hang on to her assumed identity and gain a social position or to resume her true identity and redeem her soul. The closed setting within Maplethorpe House reflects the protagonist's claustrophobic internal situation. As the plot develops she finds herself in one emotional cul-de-sac after another, trashing desperately within the confines of her own conscience. The numerous dialogues echo Mercy's inner debates about what she should do. In this way, the setting and the narrative approach serve the central theme of the novel.

In Mercy Merrick "Wilkie created a vehicle for a clever actress: several triumphed in the part on stage. In the novel the character seems hollow and platitudinous. The potentially interesting character of the elderly Lady Janet,  .... though plausible on stage , is unbelievable to a reader, who has time to think about her reactions." (Peters, 1991, p338).

Whoever took on the part of Mercy Merrick, would get a chance to act her socks off. The amount weeping, hand-wringing and dramatic poses in majestic glory offered by the narrative would satisfy the most demanding diva. But there is room for other characters to strut their stuff, too. They get to swear, rant, weep (both leading men burst into tears in their turn) and despair.

The common complaint about sensation fiction is that it is all plot and no character. And admittedly, melodramatic posturing and overwhelming emotion not a plausible character make. However, in The New Magdalen all the character have some degree of roundness. It may not be anything a la Gustave Flaubert (it is quite interesting to compare Mercy Merrick to Emma Bovary and see what contrasting approaches and skills Collins and Flaubert display in their depiction of two female protagonists), but there is some life stirring within the bosoms of all main characters.

Grace Roseberry is the wronged, suffering victim but turns out to be not a very nice person. Horace Holmcroft is the initial love-interest, handsome hero who gallantly rescues Mercy Merrick. He is also small-minded and dim-witted and yet very, very respectable and honourable. Julian Gray is the fire-brand preacher favoured by women, Mercy's spiritual saviour (where Horace is her physical saviour). His character is an odd combination of fervent Christian faith and school-boy light-heartedness; and it goes through some development in the narrative where he begins as an actor enjoying his success in the pulpit, until a trip to the north and a glimpse of the rural poor cause him to abandon his glittering career as a preacher for missionary work.

Lady Janet Roy, like Peters indicates, is potentially the most interesting character in her dogged determination to shut her ears to the truth about Mercy Merrick. Peters may be right when she says that Lady Janet is "unbelievable to a reader, who has time to think about her reactions." But I think Peters is missing a point. More blatantly than other characters Lady Janet's reactions to Mercy Merrick serve the purpose of the novel's 'mission'. Lady Janet does not need to be a convincing character in order to pose a question to the reader: what would you do in her place? How easily do you shut your eyes to an unpalatable truth? Just like society averts its gaze from the 'fallen woman,' Lady Janet refuses to look at Mercy Merrick, once she knows the truth about her (The New Magdalen, chapter 28).

No comments:

Post a Comment