Sunday, November 23, 2008

"The Dead Secret" Wilkie Collins

“What have we been stopping for? I had so much to say; and we seem to have been stopping just when we ought to have been going on. I am in grief and terror, Uncle Joseph, in grief and terror again about the Secret-”

Chavenet used to maintain that the 19th century novel’s main characteristic was the presence of a secret; indeed that the novel could even be defined as a fictional work which contains a narrative secret. In this regard, Pickwick for instance is not strictly speaking a novel, because there is no secret, while Bleak House is an exemplary novel in the secret of the relationship between Esther and Lady Deadlock. This of course rules out the whole genre of the picaresque, but nonetheless Chavenet did have a point. Even the bildungsroman has a narrative secret: the greater wisdom or knowledge of later events withheld from the reader in the early parts of the novel.

Barthes in S/Z writes about the hermeneutic code: a unit whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events, which can either formulate the question or delay its answer, or even constitute an enigma and lead to its solution. It’s through the hermeneutic code, then, that the novel holds out and yet at the same time holds back its secret: the text exists always in a kind of tension between revealing information and concealing it. This tension is vital, indeed, mortal for the novel. The text knows that once its secret has been revealed, it will die in a final expiration: The End. The main weapon in this war of survival is of course the lie, the fiction. Unreliable narrators, events which are red herrings, digressions which superficially appear to have relevance or to be irrelevant, subsidiary characters who only ostensibly have a role in the plot, the discourse itself with its descriptions, its mimesis, its rhetorical devices of momentarily arresting and distracting beauty; all these are species of novelistic lies by which the text seeks to preserve its life; thereby creating a kind of artifice, a game of hide and seek with the reader, what Barthes called a civilisation of enigma, truth and decipherment.

Wilkie Collins’s The Dead Secret, published in 1857 was the first of Collin’s great sensation novels. It provides an excellent exemplar of the hermeneutic code in the hands of a writer who had not yet reached his apotheosis of skill in employing it. The plot concerns a Secret committed to paper and hidden in room in a deserted crumbling wing of a huge rambling house in Cornwall. The revelation of the secret threatens to bring down the innocent descendents of the families –the Franklands and Trevertons- who own the estate (as well as bring the novel to its close).

The plot is characterised by an uncontrollable proliferation of secrets which spiral out, breeding incontinently from the original secret, in the way that small species procreate endlessly to ensure their survival through weight of numbers.
Here is a list in no particular order of secrets spun by the narrative:
➢ The original secret hidden from the reader and from the Franklands and Trevertons but not from Sarah Leeson, the transcriber and hider of the secret
➢ The existence of the secret, hidden from the Franklands and Trevertons, but not from the reader or Sarah Leeson
➢ The location of the secret, hidden from the Franklands and Trevertons, but not from the reader or Sarah Leeson
➢ The name of the room –the Myrtle Room- in which the secret is located, hidden from the inhabitants of the house and lost in the mists of time, but not from Sarah Leeson (this represents a signifier detached from its signified and taking on mythical dimensions of its own)
➢ The past trauma of Sarah Leeson, hidden from all the characters and the reader, but not from Sarah Leeson
➢ The relevance of the past trauma of Sarah Leeson, hidden from all the characters and the reader, but not from Sarah Leeson
➢ The previous relationship between Sarah Lawson and Mrs Frankland, hidden from the Franklands and their doctor but not from the reader or Sarah Leeson
➢ The connection between and relevance of Treverton and Shrowl to the Franklands, and to Sarah Leeson, hidden from the reader, and perhaps from the other characters as well (this may be a plot device allowing a deus ex machina, or a red herring)
➢ The request from Mrs Frankland to the housekeeper to allow Sarah Leeson to view the house, hidden from Sarah Leeson but not from the housekeeper or the reader
➢ The reason for the request from Mrs Frankland to the housekeeper to allow Sarah Leeson to view the house, hidden from Sarah Leeson and from the housekeeper but not from the reader
➢ The connection between and relevance of the young man in the grave to Sarah Leeson and the rest of the story, hidden from everyone except Sarah Leeson
➢ The real identity of the servant who disappeared on the night of Mrs Treverton’s death, hidden from everyone except Sarah Leeson and the reader
➢ The real identity of Mrs Jazeph, hidden from everyone except Sarah Leeson and the reader

What labyrinth are we getting into now! remarks one of the characters as these secrets accumulate, and it can be seen that together, these secrets embody a very complex labyrinth of ironies: Who is in the know? Who isn’t? There is a slight sense of vertigo, possibly even nausea, of the author not quite being in control.

To staunch the haemorrhage of all these secrets the discourse employs an extreme precision of language, especially in the descriptions of space and spatial relationships within rooms, and in descriptions of behaviour. The bed projected from the wall into the middle of the room, in such a situation as to keep the door on the right hand of the person occupying it, the window on the left, and the fire place opposite the foot of the bed. Barthes writes on the symbolic meaning of the door: a whole complex of death, pleasure, limit, secret is bound up in it and of course doors and the keys which unlock them in this novel play a pivotal role in what they withhold and reveal. The behaviour and actions of the characters do not originate from the characters themselves, but happen because of the discourse’s instinct for preservation (Barthes again). Mrs Jazeph turned around with a start, and looked at the doctor. Apparently forgetting that her right hand was on the table, she moved it so suddenly that it struck against a bronze statuette […which] fell to the ground, and Mrs Jazeph stooped to pick it up with a cry of alarm which seemed strangely exaggerated by comparison with the trifling nature of the accident. Such events are the classic hermeneutic unit. Sarah Leeson faints at the top of the staircase in the North Wing just as she is about to unlock the door to the Myrtle Room not through fear or dread but because the text needs to preserve this particular secret for longer: we are only just half way through the novel. The fear and dread of the character are provided as realistic motivations for the delay. (Incidentally, according to Chavenet, this is why Freudian literary criticism is so laughably redundant: the characters are not real people, and the hermeneutic code accounts for more in their motivation than does their subconscious.)

The discourse, then, is straitlaced, pedantic, restricted, controlled, in contrast to the fecund plethora of secrets thrown out by the plot. To compensate for the lack of control over the secrets, the author asserts his power over the discourse by employing an objective, clinical, precision of language, the reference code referencing criminal and psychological casebooks, to use another idea of Barthes. This has the effect of holding up the story by filling it with (unnecessary?) detail, in effect padding it out. In his four mature masterpieces The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale and No Name, Collins achieved a more felicitous balance between a greater fecundity in the discourse and a tighter control of the plot.

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