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Basil (1852) was the first major novel by Wilkie Collins and possibly one of the first sensation novels. Because of his friendship with the more famous writer Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins has been unjustly neglected, with the exception of his two best known novels The Woman in White and The Moonstone. But he was an energetic and prolific artist who, like his contemporary Mary Elizabeth Braddon, was amazingly successful in the mid-nineteenth century. Their novels were the cultural equivalents of today’s soap operas and multi-part television dramas.
Basil contains all the elements of a mystery story and a thriller, and is amazingly in advance of its time in depicting what we would now call existential angst. As a result of a casual sighting of an attractive woman, Basil gradually finds himself enmeshed in a life-threatening struggle with forces he only half understands.
Basil – a note on the text
Basil was first published in three volumes by Richard Bentley, London in 1852. The full title at that times was Basil: A Story of Modern Life. It was then reprinted in 1856 and reset in one volume, published by James Blackwood, London with no alterations.
Wilkie Collins then carefully revised his text (and eliminated the sub-title) for publication in one volume by Sampson Low, Son & Co, London in 1862. The changes he made were largely a reduction in the length of some of the longer scenes and the removal of items from doubled or trebled phrases which were a common feature of his style.
Basil – critical commentary
The sensation novel
The sensation novel came of age in the 1860s with the publication of Collins’ The Woman in White (1860) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861). The genre has been described as ‘novels with a secret’ – and it is easy to see Basil as a precursor to these well known examples.
Basil certainly has a number of secrets that help to drive the plot and its suspense. The first of these is the enigmatic figure of Margaret Sherwin – a a woman who completely mesmerises Basil, but about whom we know nothing. Unknown to Basil she is conducting a secret relationship with the sinister character Mannion.
The second secret or mystery is Mr Sherwin’s bizarre proposal of a secret marriage for his daughter, followed by a twelve month chaste courtship. Why would anyone propose so unusual an arrangement? This puts Basil’s patience under strain, and it has to be said it the reader’s credulity too.
Mrs Sherwin is a ‘silenced’ woman and a bag of nerves. She is a second level of mystery – but it is obvious to the reader that she is being threatened into silence by her domineering husband. As a character, she seems to be signalling her disquiet to the reader above the heads of the other characters.
Mr Mannion is an additional mystery. He appears at first to have no ‘background’, and is only a clerk, yet acts in a superior manner. His employer Mr Sherwin rates him very highly. His background and the sources of his malevolent motivation are only revealed later in the novel
The double, twinning, and parallels
Underpinning both the structure and the characterisation of the novel is a pattern of twinning or parallels – commonly referred to in literary studies as the double. The most obvious case is that of the two women towards whom Basil is attracted – his sister Clara and his ‘wife’ Margaret Sherwin.
The two women are opposites. Clara is fair-haired and virtuous, loyal, pure, and long suffering. Margaret is dark-haired and scheming, duplicitous, sensual, and cruel. They represent the two sides of Basil’s attitude to sexuality.
He is drawn to Clara in a lofty, spiritual, and almost intellectual sense. She represents everything that is good and untainted in woman – though it has to be said that short of incest, there is no way this relationship can lead towards anything productive. It is interesting nevertheless that at the end of the novel Basil has gone into a very premature retirement, living with his sister.
But he is drawn towards Margaret by libidinous impulses that he simply cannot control. It is worth noting that the moment he recognises the force of these desires, he starts to feel guilty – towards his family and towards Clara in particular.
When Basil dreams, this division is symbolised by his struggle with two women. One is a fair creature in pure white robes trying to lead his towards heaven; the other is a dark-haired seductress who is dragging him into the woods.
I was drawn along in the arms of the dark woman, with my blood beating and my breath failing me, until we entered the secret recesses that lay amid the unfathomable depths of trees. There she encircled me in the folds of her dusky robe
This ‘twinning’ or ‘doubling’ is repeated in the figures of Basil and his arch-rival Robert Mannion. Both of them have been burdened by a negative legacy from their fathers. Basil is cursed by his father’s obsessive ancestor worship and his desire to keep the family‘s name and ‘honour’ free from any lower class contamination.
Basil is the younger, not the elder son – but for the majority of the novel his profligate brother Ralph is absent from the narrative. Mannion’s life has been blighted by the reputational disgrace of his own father, which has pursued him, thwarting his ambition.
Interestingly, Mannion’s father’s disgrace and execution was brought about by Basil’s father. This gives Mannion one powerful motive in his desire to wreak vengeance on Basil.
Both Basil and Mannion are attracted to Margaret Sherwin, and both of them try to ‘educate’ her – without success. Mannion is attracted to her physically but despises her morally. Basil appears to be different, but following the revelation of her duplicity he ends up hating her as well.
Both men have literary aspirations. Basil starts out writing a historical romance, but is side-tracked by his obsession with Margaret. Mannion too seeks fame in writing, but is reduced to hack work for third-class newspapers.
So the two men are locked in an antagonistic union. Basil’s ‘marriage’ to Margaret is destroyed by Mannion’s scheming seduction, and yet Basil’s family has been responsible for the destruction of the confidential clerk’s prospects in life. The two men have every reason to hate each other, and a logical conclusion to the novel might have left Basil in a state of permanent insecurity – but Collins kills off Mannion in a Cornish cliff top scene.
Just in case this ‘doubling’ of characters were not enough, Collins reinforces the effect with dramatic scenes that are significantly paralleled. The very day Basil’s twelve months of celibate waiting are over, his expectations of physical union with Margaret are thwarted by Margaret’s elopement with Mannion. Basil traces them to the seedy ‘hotel’ where he is forced to listen to Mannion and Margaret consummating their illicit relationship in the room next door.
In a similar climactic scene, Basil visits Margaret in the small room where she is dying of Typhus. He forgives her as she expires in a delirium, mocking his attentions and affection. But in another room next door Mannion is a silent witness to this tragic ‘goodbye’. The two men are locked into their conflict right up to the point of Mannion’s death
The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was very fond of paradoxes and what might be called the metaphysics of literature, posited the notion that gifted writers could create their own predecessors. What he meant was that a writer in, say, the twentieth century, could express an idea or a feeling that caused readers to newly interpret the work of a writer from a previous age. The contemporary reader looks at the earlier work and sees meanings which were not previously evident to readers at the time the work was created. The words are the same as they have always been, but new meanings are revealed in them
What he was saying is that work created in the present can cause us to see elements of the same feelings, situations, and tensions in work of the past – but which were not previously evident. The idea is offered in a playful and entertaining manner – but it carries with it an important nugget of cultural history.
It is quite common for gifted writers to anticipate moods, feelings, problems, and situations in their work – consciously or unconsciously – which readers at a later date to perceive as prophetic. A classic case in point is Franz Kafka, who was a product of the extremely bureaucratic Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg empire in the early twentieth century. His work anticipated many of the intellectual nightmares of German fascism and Russian Stalinism which engulfed Europe in the 1930s, long after he was dead.
In Basil Wilkie Collins was exploring psychological states and existential crises that were explored later by writers such as Dostoyevski and Kafka. Basil’s narrative is an anguished account of his being trapped in a contradictory and very stressful emotional dilemma that is largely of his own making. And the more he tries to solve the problem he faces, the worse it becomes.
Basil’s state of anguish is very similar to that of Dostoyevski’s first person narrators – from the Underground Man to The Gambler; and Basil’s conflict with his father over his dishonouring of the family name is very reminiscent of the many well-known instances of father-son conflict in Kafka’s work. This is not to claim that Wilkie Collins was somehow being prophetic of later states of being – but it has to be said that he creates a distinctly modern form of existential angst in Basil.
It should also be noted that this particular variety of anxiety, like those of Dostoyevski and Kafka, has a distinctly sexual element in its foundation. Basil sees Margaret Sherwin with her mother on an omnibus ride in London – and falls obsessively in love with her at first sight. He knows nothing about her, except that she is good looking and has dark hair and eyes. And then apart from her social status as the daughter of a linen draper, he learns very little more about her, yet he is prepared to accept the bizarre arrangement of an unconsummated ‘marriage’ followed by twelve months of celibate courtship. Eventually, he is driven to the lengths of attempted murder in pursuit of his obsession.
This is the first really serious work in what was to become a prodigious output from Collins as a novelist – the ‘King of Inventors’ as his definitive biographer Catherine Peters called him. It is arguably the first ‘sensation novel’ – a genre that combined realistic fiction of English social life with domestic crime, mystery, suspense, and effects which would shock the reader. Nevertheless, it has to be said that there are some problems of narrative logic and credibility in the plot of Basil.
The main problem is that no convincing reason is provided for Sherwin’s strange proposal of a secret marriage followed by a twelve month period of marital abstinence – or Basil’s acceptance of this odd arrangement. Sherwin claims his daughter is too young to be married = she is only seventeen – and it might be thought that he sees Basil as an upper class social catch. But Basil is the younger son of the family and stands to inherit nothing.
The second important weakness is the characterisation of Margaret Sherwin. She hardly exists as a fictional character at all, and is only presented through Basil’s obsession with a love object. She does not act in the narrative; she is not dramatised; she hardly speaks; and we are given no access to her thoughts or motivation.
This is a weakness in the obvious sense of the novel having a character who simply fails to ‘come to life’, but in terms of Wilkie Collins anticipating the psychology of modernism, it is not altogether surprising. The story is intently centred on Basil’s psychology as an individual dealing with threats from all quarters of his life. This is why it is possible to see Collins’ narrative as a precursor of modernist concerns with the existential state.
Basil – study resources
Basil – Oxford Classics – Amazon UK
Basil – Oxford Classics – Amazon US
Basil – Independent Publishers – Amazon UK
Basil – Independent Publishers – Amazon US
The Complete Works of Wilkie Collins – Kindle eBook
Basil – plot synopsis
Basil is writing his confession at the age of twenty-four in Cornwall. He recalls his rich but austere, ancestor-worshipping father and his elder brother Ralph who is profligate and has no interest in the inheritance of the family estate. His younger sister Clara is a beacon of virtue – selfless and unassuming. Basil is writing a historical romance.
On an omnibus ride he sees Margaret Sherwin and is immediately attracted to her. He follows her home and discovers that she is a shopkeeper’s daughter. He feels burdened by his duty to marry only into his own class, but is tormented by his desire for Margaret. He dreams of a dark-haired woman taking him off into a wood.
Next day he bribes a servant and intercepts Margaret on her way to market, spilling out his love for her. She dismisses his attentions, but it does not deter him. He writes to her but she refuses his entreaties on the grounds of their differences in rank. He then obtains an interview with her father, to whom he proposes a secret marriage which will be revealed at a later date.
Basil immediately feels guilty at concealing the plan from his family. At a second meeting Mr Sherwin proposes an immediate ‘private’ marriage followed by a twelve month supervised courtship, because Margaret is only seventeen. Basil’s father puts him under a code of honour to respect the family tradition before leaving for his estate. Clara wishes to share any of his sorrows or difficulties. Basil and Margaret are married in virtual secrecy, after which he goes home alone.
Basil is allowed to meet Margaret every day under the nervous supervision of Mrs Sherwin. He decides to educate Margaret in works of literature, but she only wants to hear trivial gossip about his family. They are joined by Sherwin’s confidential clerk Mr Mannion, who is cold, handsome, and mysteriously superior. He knows all about the secret marriage.
Basil goes home with Mannion, who is subserviently friendly and offers to help Basil ‘manage’ Mr Sherwin. Basil has brief glimpses of Margaret’s petulance. Mannion discretely helps him to overcome Mr Sherwin’s strictures.
Basil is summoned to the country by a letter from his sister. His father remains distant and severe. Clara guesses that Basil is involved with a woman. On his return to London, Margaret and Mannion both seem to be ill.
At the end of his year-long probation Basil finds that Margaret has gone to an aunt’s party with Mannion, He follows them and traces them to a seedy hotel of assignation. Realising he has been duped, he waits for Mannion to leave the hotel, then launches an attack to kill him.
Basil then has a nervous breakdown, during which he thinks back over previous events and how he has been duped. He is cared for by Clara. Mannion is not dead but has lost one eye and is horribly disfigured. He refuses to say anything about himself or what happened.
Basil receives a letter from Sherwin claiming that Margaret is innocent. This is followed by a second letter threatening to expose him. Basil’s father demands to know what secret Basil has been keeping from him. When he learns the truth he turns on Basil savagely and disowns him completely for disgracing the family name. Clara appears and pleads for clemency, but it is refused.
Basil confronts Sherwin, who argues that he must accept Margaret since she is legally his wife. Mrs Sherwin however supports Basil’s claims of duplicity, but then dies shortly afterwards. Basil discovers that Mannion has been sending letters to Margaret.
Basil reads Mannion’s long confessional letter describing his father’s crime of forgery against his employer (who was Basil’s father) and his being hanged as a result. Mannion is dogged by his bad family reputation, but eventually finds work with Sherwin and rises in status. He also covets Margaret, though Mrs Sherwin suspects his intentions.
Mannion has groomed Margaret, whom he secretly despises, and he has plotted revenge on Basil throughout his probationary twelve months ‘courtship’. Now horribly disfigured, Mannion threatens to pursue Basil and discredit his family’s name once he is out of hospital.
Basil’s brother Ralph suddenly arrives and offers to help him by negotiating with Sherwin and buying his silence. He is followed by a visit from Clara who offers shreds of comfort from home. Ralph returns with with the news that Margaret has joined Mannion at the hospital. Ralph has counter-threatened Sherwin, who has agreed to compromise.
Ralph and Basil go to the hospital where they learn that Margaret was followed by Sherwin who is in pursuit of her. Mannion is regarded as a monomaniac, and there is an outbreak of Typhus on one of the wards.
A week later Basil learns that Margaret is dying of Typhus she accidentally contracted during her visit. Dr Bernard invites Basil to visit her, which he does, watching through the night whilst she mocks him in her fever. But he eventually forgives her – shortly before she dies.
At Margaret’s graveside Basil is confronted by Mannion who menaces him again, threatening to blight his life and his family. Ralph advises Basil to leave London so as to protect Clara from Mannion. Basil goes to a remote village in Cornwall.
Basil lives in isolation, peacefully at first, until the villagers turn against him. He feels that Mannion’s evil influence is pursuing him, so he leaves. Whilst walking along the coastline in a storm he is confronted by Mannion, who then falls to his death into a chasm. Basil cannot get the image of Mannion out of his mind, and he has a nervous breakdown.
Cornish people check Basil’s papers and send word to his family in London. Ralph, Clara, and Dr Bernard rescue Basil, who is reconciled with his father. Nine years later Basil retires to a country cottage with Clara to live in obscurity. Following their father’s death Ralph becomes a reformed head of the family, and Basil consigns his confession to Dr Berard for publication.
Basil – principal characters
|Basil||a young man of 24|
|—||his father, a proud ancestor-worshipper|
|Ralph||Basil’s profligate older brother|
|Clara||Basil’s devoted younger sister|
|Stephen Sherwin||a nouveau-riche London linen draper|
|Mrs Sherwin||his nervous and downtrodden wife|
|Margaret Sherwin||their dark-haired and attractive daughter|
|Robert Mannion||Sherwin’s confidential clerk|
|Dr John Bernard||a friend of Ralph’s|
Basil – further reading
William M. Clarke, The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins, London: Ivan R. Dee, 1988.
Tamar Heller, Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Winifred Hughes, The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Sue Lonoff, Wilkie Collins and his Victorian Readers: A Study in the Rhetoric of Authorship, New York: AMS Press, 1982.
Catherine Peters, The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Walter C. Phillips, Dickens, Reade, and Collins: Sensation Novelists, New York: Library of Congress, 1919.
Lynn Pykett, Wilkie Collins: New Casebooks, London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1998.
Nicholas Rance, Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital, London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1991.
© Roy Johnson 2016