Opening my fourth year course in ‘Madness and Sexuality in Victorian Literature’, the first book I encountered was Wilkie Collins’ Basil. Though better known for his classic works The Moonstone and The Woman in White, his 1852 novel Basil was in fact the breeding ground for his development of what came to be known as ‘the sensation novel’. Contemporary reviews were appalled by its frankness and described it as ‘a tale of criminality, almost revolting from its domestic horrors. The vicious atmosphere in which the drama of the tale is enveloped, weighs on us like a nightmare’ (D. O. Maddyn).
Basil tells the story of a secret and unconsummated marriage, between the aristocratic Basil and Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, kept secret for one year. Basil struggles between the social pressures of his class, embodied in the character of his proud and honourable father, and his passion for Margaret. But as the year unwinds his family is ripped apart by the silent presence of his secret life and Basil becomes increasingly daunted by the Sherwin’s business employee, Mannion. A man whose ‘voice was as void of expression as his face’, Mannion still holds a mysterious force over the family. Mr. Sherwin is entirely dependant on him, Mrs. Sherwin seems to fear his very presence but remains silent, and even Margaret refuses to discuss his character. As the climax of the year draws near Basil suffers the shocks and horrors of betrayal, insanity and death.
. . . each laid a talon on my shoulder – each raised a veil which was one hideous net-work of twining worms. I saw through the ghastly corruption of their faces the look that told me who they were – the monstrous iniquities incarnate in monstrous forms; the fiend-souls made visible in fiend-shapes
Throughout the narrative Collins explores notions of sexuality, social class and madness through one of the most unconventional male protagonists of the Victorian age: a rich, young man characterised by traditionally feminine gentleness and disgust of physical sexuality: ‘Men may not understand this; women, I believe will’. Furthermore, Basil is constantly set up for comparison with other models of masculinity within the text such as the boisterous playboy, embodied in his brother Ralph, and the firm and immovable Mannion. Indeed, Basil is a novel of literary doubles: the passive Basil and the active Ralph; his angelic sister Clara and the dark temptress of Margaret; Basil’s dead mother and the ailing and repressed Mrs. Sherwin.
Basil is both revolutionary and a book of its time. Its slightly reductive depictions of women, the angel in the house and the fallen woman, are characteristic for the period if somewhat tiring to the modern reader. However, its treatment of adultery, its sub-textual sexual imagery, and its exploration of Victorian masculinity are truly fascinating. One of its strongest features is Collins’ use of atmosphere through language that lends a psychological horror to its reading. Basil, as the forefather of the sensation novel, which in turn led to the birth of detective fiction, acts as an intriguing historical piece that not only reveals contemporary perceptions of sexuality and madness, but also helps to trace the birth of a genre.
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