But what is a feminist, anyway? Someone who strives for Equal Rights? Someone with a campaigning interest in women’s issues? I am not sure that we can really argue that Wilkie Collins was a feminist in either of those senses. He was a polemical writer, and became more so as his life progressed, but – certainly when he wrote the great novels of the 1860s – he wasn’t arguing that women should have equal rights in marriage, in work or in society.
I would argue, however, that Collins was a feminist in the sense that he was someone who believed that women are richly and intrinsically valuable – not just, or not necessarily, as competitors to men, or as their sexual playthings. Collins creates a cast of female characters with nuanced and fascinating interior lives, who are fully-realised human beings, rather than plot devices. (There are, of course, female and male characters in Collins’s novels who are mere plot devices, but that’s not the point.)
The most famous of Collins’s heroines is Marian in “The Woman in White”. Her sister Laura has married a brute, and nasty shenanigans seem to be happening; Marian sleuths round Laura’s house in her nightdress to find out what’s going on, rescues her from false imprisonment, and gets much of the narrative voice. However, if “The Woman in White” were Collins’s only novel, I wouldn’t argue that he was a feminist. Marian, who is described straightforwardly as “ugly” gets the protagonist role; but it is her sister who hooks the man. Some judgment must be passed on her sexual attractiveness; she can’t be neutral. Having been judged to be ugly, she is at least permitted to be a quasi-man, an active, questioning, risk-taking person. Laura, conversely, is a good woman: she is beautiful, and she is almost entirely passive.
(Even modern male authors sometimes find it hard to write a convincing female love interest. They strive so hard to create a being without imperfections that they end up creating one with no character at all.)
In “No Name”, however, Collins creates a fully female protagonist – and one who, even more startlingly for the age, employs her sexual capital knowingly, for non-sexual ends. Magdalen Vanstone, having been unfairly disinherited, seeks to recoup her birthright by marrying the replacement heir to it – the weak and avaricious Noel Vanstone. She finds herself in a war of wills with Noel’s formidable housekeeper-cum-nursemaid, Mrs Lecount. The duel between them, dark and discreditable as it is, is a duel between adults – both determined, perceptive and manipulative. It might be a fight over a man, but it isn’t about winning a sexual partner but about controlling him and his fortune. It is more akin to two mediaeval barons competing over a boy-king than to a Love Triangle.
Some commentators resent the end of the novel. Collins, who, like all pre-modern novelists, was able to employ Death as a scene-shifter with impunity – and whose plots are generally preposterous – bumps off Noel and all the other heirs to the Vanstone fortune so that it ends up with Magdalen’s cousin George – who has conveniently married her sister Norah. Magdalen has actually secured a proportion of the fortune as Noel’s widow, but she renounces it “and thus enters a more honourable life.” She then makes a respectable alliance with the amusingly-named Captain Kirke. The implication is that Magdalen is penitent. She has recognised her sin and therefore renounces her ill-gotten gains.
That may be so, but I think it’s only part of it. “No Name” is the story of Magdalen’s growth as a woman. At the beginning of the novel she’s a giddy girl, her papa’s darling, with a crush on the boy next door. The family’s catastrophe forces her to show her brilliance but it also leads her into some degrading places – above all, into bed with a contemptible human being. By rejecting her inheritance, after all that, Magdalen is rejecting the tactic of marketing herself purely as a sexual object. Kirke might be respectable but at least he is a grown-up who loves her even though he knows what she is capable of. Nobody who feared a determined and intelligent woman would marry Magdalen Vanstone.
Collins’s portrayal of female baddies, too, shows a regard for women’s capabilities. The most obvious example is Lydia Gwilt in “Armadale”, who lurks malevolently within the plot, scheming her way to power – like Magdalen, fully aware of her irresistible sexiness. To be honest, Lydia isn’t a subtle creation. She is a pantomime villain, a Wicked Queen, and even her soul-searching (is she really bad enough to murder to get her own way?) has something stagey about it. However, she’s cleverer and more clear-sighted than the men in the story – and her downfall only happens because she comes to care for one of them.
My favourite of Collins’s unsympathetic female characters is Drusilla Clack, one of the narrators of “The Moonstone”. Drusilla devotes herself to meddling in poor households’ economy (with a particular interest in pawned trousers), distributing religious tracts, and so on. She is passionately in love with the evangelist and “smooth-tongued impostor”, Godfrey Ablewhite, but is only conscious of worshipping him as a “Christian Hero”. Collins’s wickedly funny depiction of her shows her to be silly, small-minded and spiteful. Why is that depiction remotely feminist?
Firstly, because Drusilla is compared unfavourably with her sympathetic cousins, Lady and Rachel Verinder. Secondly, because, although she is a risible character, she is not a complete fool, and she is permitted to have a complex and fervent interior life. Her commentary on the other characters in the novel is unkind, but it is (as far as it goes) astute; her obsessions are sincere; and, like Marian, Magdalen, Mrs Lecount and Lydia, she has both determination and audacity – the way in which she bombards Lady Verinder with tracts and missives would make an advertising executive proud. There is pathos, too, and understanding, in the depiction of her love for Godfrey.
Thirdly, Drusilla conforms to, and supports, the constraints which her society puts upon women – and, says Collins, it is the worse for her. She states repeatedly that she is a mere weak woman. She has no sense of the worth of other women – she is rude about all of them – but idolises and submits to a man. She has accepted the idea that a good woman is without sexual desire to the extent that she can’t recognise it in herself. Collins, I think, is arguing that her life would be richer and more positive if she rejected the constraints of her society, rather than using them as a tool with which to denigrate other, less conforming, women. I think he is arguing that women can do better – can be better than that.