Illegitimacy in the Mid-Victorian Novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
The fiction of Dickens and Collins abounds with references to the illegitimate. In the mid-Victorian period there is an increase in illegitimate characters and circumstances which relates both to the topicality of the issue and to events in the authors individual and collaborative private lives. Illegitimacy addresses personal and social anxieties in four major novels of the 1850s and 1860s: Bleak House (1852-53), Little Dorrit (1855-57) by Dickens and The Woman in White (1860) and No Name (1862) by Collins. Dickens analyses illegitimacy in Bleak House psychologically and socially through Esther Summerson, but her narrative reveals contradictions between Dickens challenge of contemporary attitudes towards the illegitimate and his subscription to the moral code behind the views. In Little Dorrit Dickens confines his study of illegitimacy to character in order to examine the psychological consequences of illegitimacy on the individual. The novel suggests that illegitimacy is another form of social and legal imprisonment. In contrast in The Woman in White Collins exploits the sensationalism surrounding illegitimacy by using it to create an exciting plot at the inception of the sensation genre. His suggestion in this novel that bastards are legally blank and able to reconstruct their identity is continued in No Name; this later novel directly challenges the laws defining and controlling illegitimacy. While Collins never matches Dickens integration of social and moral issues into the novel s structure, the older author appreciated Collins strength in creating detective narratives. Illegitimacy was relevant to the private lives of both Dickens and Collins in the period. While the authors always tried to keep their public and private lives separate, their romantic relationships reveal a personal motive for discussing the plight of the illegitimate in their novels. There is a distinct possibility that Dickens had an illegitimate child with his mistress Ellen Ternan while Collins had three illegitimate children with Martha Rudd. The novels articulate the tension between what Dickens and Collins the authors were trying to achieve and what the novels themselves disclose.