Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism

By Laura Claridge; Elizabeth Langland | Go to book overview

Rewriting the Male Plot in Wilkie Collins's No Name: Captain Wragge Orders an Omelette and Mrs. Wragge Goes into Custody

DEIRDRE DAVID

WHETHER WILKIE COLLINS was a feminist, deployed popular literature for feminist ideology, or even liked women is not the subject of this essay. My interest is in something less explicit, perhaps not fully intentional, to be discovered in his fiction: an informing link between restlessness with dominant modes of literary form and fictional critique of dominant modes of gender politics. In what follows, I aim to show how the narrative shape of one of Collins's most baroquely plotted, narratively complex novels is inextricably enmeshed with its thematic material. I refer to No Name, a novel whose subversion of fictional omniscience suggests Collins's radical literary practice and whose sympathy for a rebellious heroine in search of subjectivity suggests his liberal sexual politics.1 To be sure, there are other Collins novels as narratively self-reflexive as No Name, The Moonstone, for one; and Man and Wife, for example, mounts a strong attack on misogynistic subjection of women (particularly when exercised by heroes of the Muscular Christian variety). But no Collins novel, in my view, so interestingly conflates resistance to dominant aesthetic and sexual ideologies as No Name, even as it ultimately displays its appropriation by the authority that both enables its existence and fuels its resistance.

Challenging authoritarian, patriarchal-sited power in his interrogation of form and theme, Collins collapses a binary opposition between the two, a separation assumed in Victorian criticism of the novel and still, perhaps, possessing a lingering appeal in these deconstructive times. The intense dialogism, the insistent relativism, of No Name makes it impossible to align in one column what is represented and in another the ways in which representation takes place. Neither is it possible to construct a neat alignment of fictionality and representation, to say that at this moment the novel performs self-reflexive cartwheels and that at another we are in the realm of strict

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