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“SKINS TO JUMP INTO”: THE SLIPPERINESS OF IDENTITY AND THE BODY IN WILKIE COLLINS'S NO NAME

  • Kylee-Anne Hingston (a1)
Abstract

Victorian sensation literature was inextricably related to identity and the body: its primary purposes were to elicit a physical response from the senses of readers and to question “the social formation of the self” (Taylor, The Secret 2). Sensation fiction regularly relied on different, deformed, or diseased bodies to provoke fear or unease in its readers, and it created anxiety by juxtaposing the domestic with scandal, crime, and Gothicism to disturb the perceived stability of the home and social identity. Lyn Pykett argues that the genre reproduces the “real mid-nineteenth-century anxiety” that domestic selfhood “could be disrupted by danger, death or disease on the one hand, and the vagaries of the law, the banking system or the stockmarket on the other” (“Collins” 59). Nineteenth-century critics’ reactions to sensation novels connected anxieties about the body to fears about the instability of social identity: contemporary reviews described sensation literature and its works as “feverish” (Smith 141), “a collective cultural nervous disorder” (Taylor, The Secret 4), and as “symptoms of . . . social disease” (Pykett, “Collins” 51). In his 1880–81 series of essays, “Fiction Fair and Foul,” John Ruskin argues that the “[p]hysically diseased, ‘deformed,’ and ignobly dead bodies [in Collins's and Dickens's novels] are symptomatic of diseased and deformed genres, produced by morally and physically ill writers to cater to the tastes of morally and physically diseased urban readers” (Holmes, Fictions 92). These extreme critical responses, as well as the extreme popularity of sensation fiction, call attention to Victorian preoccupation with the body and social identity and with the instability of both. This paper, through analyzing the instability of bodies and identities in Wilkie Collins's sensation novel No Name (1862) and its serial context, challenges readings by both Victorian and more recent critics that distinctly interpret diseased and disabled bodies in the novel as either symbolic of or a result of social deviance.

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Victorian Literature and Culture
  • ISSN: 1060-1503
  • EISSN: 1470-1553
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