Monday, March 05, 2012

Heart and Science by Wilkie Collins

Heart and Science is my first experience with Wilkie Collins. As a Victorianist, I've been meaning to familiarize myself with this key novelist of the period for some time. Collins is well known for his novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone, where I originally meant to start, but the illustration of Victorian scientific debates in Heart and Science quickly drew my attention. I actually began this novel ages ago (and briefly commented on it in a previous post), but the expiration of my university library privileges meant that I was forced to return the book partially read. Luckily, I was able to acquire a copy from another library, finally allowing me to see this intriguing plot to the end.

The novel revolves around the recently orphaned Carmina Graywell. Raised in Italy, she returns to England where she will be under of the guardianship of her paternal aunt Mrs. Gallilee. Ovid Vere, Mrs. Gallilee's son by a previous marriage, immediately falls in love with his benevolent cousin and the two quickly become engaged. Unbeknownst to Ovid or Carmina, Mrs. Gallilee is on the brink of financial ruin. Dependent on the vast sum of money that is allocated to her while Carmina remains under her care, she maliciously resolves to tear the pair apart through manipulative methods of subterfuge in order to retain access to Carmina's inheritance.

Knowing that the bulk of Wilkie Collins texts are classified as sensation fiction, I was expecting the plot to be more...well, blatantly sensational. True, there are faintings fits and bouts of madness galore. But for the most part, the conflicts between the characters are fought through subtextuality. Mrs. Gallilee will tell the family's governess Miss Minerva A, by which she really means B. Miss Minerva, realizing that Mrs. Gallilee is hinting at B though she says A, will respond with C, by which she really means D. It can render passages of dialogue a bit confusing at times, but the manifestation of such passive-aggressive tension is also very interesting for the reader.

Wilkie Collins

Because Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were great friends and colleagues, I idly wondered before diving into Heart and Science if Collins's representation of women would coincide with that of his BFF. As I've expressed before, Dickens's heroines aren't the multi-faceted women I would like to see in fiction. Rather, many of them (e.g., Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities) seem to be an incarnation of his angel-of-the-house fantasy. I'm happy to report that Carmina Graywell didn't fall into that category for me. She is unbelievably kind, continually placing a faith in others that could be foolhardy but instead wins her friends wherever she goes. When the situation calls for it, however, she stands up for herself. She defies Mrs. Gallilee in spite of the threats her aunt employs in an effort to subdue her. But Carmina won't be subdued. She is an illustration of how a Victorian heroine can be traditionally feminine yet strong.

As I mentioned above, I was initially drawn to Heart and Science for its engagement with Victorian science. Vivisection, experimentation on living animals, was widely practiced and hotly debated at the time. Dr. Benjulia, a friend of Mrs. Gallilee's, becomes interested in family affairs as a result of his fixation on brain disease. He also secretly practices vivisection in his laboratory, hoarding an array of unfortunate animals for the purpose. Chapter 32 is a discussion of vivisection, in which Collins carefully inserts many of the arguments against this cruel practice. Benjulia's words on the subject, and why he chooses to indulge in vivisection, are chilling:

Have I no feeling, as you call it? My last experiments on a monkey horrified me. His cries of suffering, his gestures of entreaty, were like the cries and gestures of a child. I would have given the world to put him out of his misery. But I went on. In the glorious cause I went on. My hands turned cold -- my heart ached -- I thought of a child I sometimes play with -- I suffered -- I resisted -- I went on. All for Knowledge! all for Knowledge! (p. 191)

I loved the exploration, one still relevant today, of what we are willing to sacrifice for the advancement of science and technology. Are we paying too great a price?

These analyses aside, Heart and Science is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. It left me eager to explore more of Wilkie Collins's texts as well as sensation fiction by female authors, namely Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon and East Lynne by Ellen Wood. I'm interested to see how the genre is represented by women. Are the generic trends essentially the same, or do they differ based on the gender of the author? If you've read them, I'd love to hear what you think as well as any sensation fiction recommendations!


Terri B. said...

I can't comment on the books you mentioned at the end of your post since I haven't read them. But I do look forward to reading Lady Audley's secret and some additional Wilkie Collins. So far I've read Woman in White and Moonstone. Loved them both. I don't think I've heard of Heart and Science so am glad to see a synopsis and your thoughts.

Diana said...

Terri: I'm glad to hear you thoroughly enjoyed The Woman in White and The Moonstone. It makes me even more excited to pick them up.

Heart and Science was a Collins text that had largely been forgotten by all but the academic community. I love that Broadview is publishing these neglected classics and once again making them accessible to readers. The excellent supplementary materials that Broadview provides is also an added bonus.

I will say, however, that the editor of this particular text irritated me by continually giving away plot points in the foot notes before events occurred. It was maddening!

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