[Part 5 of the author's "Wives and Fathers: Fatherhood and Divorce Laws in the Victorian Novel"]

decorated initial 'A't the centre of The Evil Genius (1886), one of Wilkie Collins’s late “mission” novels, is a custody quarrel that is decided against the father. The panorama of good fathers in the novel is expectedly wide-ranging. The main story centres on a seemingly ideal family which breaks up when the husband seduces the sympathetically portrayed young girl he has recruited as a governess for his daughter Kitty. After a separation, the wife petitions for a divorce to secure custody of the child. A de facto separation or a private separation agreement drawn up by a lawyer would, in common law, leave custody of Kitty to the father. But since her parents had been married under Scottish law, the wife can petition for a divorce on the grounds of the father’s adultery and expect custody of their child. The loopholes of the different laws within Britain clearly constitute a recurring fascination for Collins. The “Irish Marriage” of the mother, which turns out to be invalid, and the “accidentally” contracted Scottish wedding of the daughter are the pivots of Man and Wife (1870), which is Collins’s most dedicated novel “about” the inconsistencies of the marriage laws in different parts of Britain. The law in this earlier novel is abused by men that are straightforward scoundrels. The situation in The Evil Genius is different as, firstly, all the participants in this melodrama are sympathetically portrayed, and secondly, because of the novel’s emphasis on the significance of fatherhood. The lawyer’s humanity rests principally in his affectionate fondness for children. Captain Bennydeck, who eventually rescues the fallen governess, is similarly “a man who loved children” (254). Randal’s function in the novel is his role as a playful uncle, while his brother’s participation in his daughter’s games emphasises that fathers as well as bachelor-uncles can be a child’s playmate. A chapter entitled “Kitty Keeps Her Birthday” evokes John Tosh’s description of the gift-bearing Victorian father; and Kitty’s new doll articulates the need for both father and mother: "Kitty’s arms opened and embraced her gift with a scream of ecstasy. That fervent pressure found its way to the right spring. The doll squeaked: 'Mamma!' — and creaked — and cried again — and said: 'Papa!'" (139)

The birthday celebration is already overshadowed by adulterous desires; and the doll’s mechanical squeaks for mother and father ominously foreshadow Kitty’s cries for her father after her parents’ divorce. The husband’s infatuation with the young governess, Sydney Westerfield, is detected before adultery can be committed. Kitty pines after the loss of her friend and eventually succumbs to typhus fever. As Sydney is sent for to save her life, the husband flees the house, but as his wife — or rather the “evil genius”, his mother-in-law — omits to inform him immediately of his child’s recovery, he hears the good news from the governess and, in a state of emotional turmoil, gives in to his passion.

Anticipating Henry James’s novel by more than ten years, Collins then proceeds to embark on a melodramatic delineation of the effects of a divorce on a Victorian family. Unable to find a “solution” like the one ridiculed in What Maisie Knew, the characters of Collins’s novel engage in a vengeful fight that brings the worst of late twentieth-century TV-melodrama to mind. Living together with Sydney, her father is forbidden even to see his child, as her mother deliberately hides her from him even prior to their divorce. In order to foil his attempts to contact his daughter, she stages an elaborate, melodramatic “flight”: They row over a misty lake, dodge their pursuers by disembarking at an unlikely destination, disguise Kitty as a boy to fool any spies at the railway station, and flee abroad. Eventually the lawyer persuades her to petition for a divorce — and “his lordship then decreed the Divorce in the customary form, giving the custody of the child to the mother” (215). As Lawrence Stone has pointed out in his study of the development of divorce laws in Britain, by 1886 it had become customary to grant custody of young children to the mother (390). Expectedly, the Victorian child is never consulted. Kitty in The Evil Genius is terrified by the contradictory signs she reads in their new fatherless home. Her investigations culminate in her desperate appeal to her mother’s lawyer:

Mr Sarrazin tried to put her off his knee. She held him round the neck. […] Kitty hung on to him with her legs as well as her arms […] ‘Mamma’s going to have a new name,’ she shouted, as if the lawyer had suddenly become deaf. ‘Grandmamma says she must be Mrs Norman. And I must be Miss Norman. I won’t! Where’s papa? I want to write to him […]. Do you hear? Where’s papa? (219)

Kitty’s pleas reverberate through the rest of the narrative. The significance of the role of the father in a child’s development has become a much-discussed issue ever since the development of the nuclear family in the eighteenth century. In a rather reactionary analysis of twentieth-century debates on family values, Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence that Fatherhood and Marriage are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society, David Popenoe details the effects of the “massive erosion of fatherhood” (1). Marriage, he remarks, “can now be broken unilaterally on a whim” (5), and modern society is therefore “headed for social disaster” (80). The conservative approach to divorce in Collins’s novel is represented by Captain Bennydeck, whose religious scruples to marry a divorced wife seem to clash with his rescue of “fallen” women, reflecting the ambiguity of Collins’s criticism of society, morality, and the law. The fate of the seduced governess is heartrendingly detailed. The scandal-loving bourgeoisie, whose hypocritical members snub the recently divorced woman, is treated with little patience; yet Bennydeck remains a lauded protagonist, even though his conservativism is ambiguously presented. Mr Sarrazin, the humane lawyer, formulates the arbitrariness of the law – though he makes use of the new divorce laws and opposes the eventual remarriage:

Is there something wrong in human nature? Or something wrong in human laws? All that is best and noblest in us feels the influence of love – and the rules of society declare than an accident of position shall decide whether love is a virtue or a crime. (194)

What reads almost as a plea for bigamy stops short of the realities of Collins’s solution to his own domestic arrangements. Eventually Sydney is paired off with Bennydeck, who cannot bring himself to marry the divorced wife, though it is stressed that he would make a good father for Kitty, while Kitty’s parents remarry — to the consternation of the lawyer. It is hinted that Bennydeck might even consider marrying Sydney, although his initial interest in her is solely paternal, as he identifies her as the lost daughter of his deceased friend. Such “displaced” incestuous desire also informs the husband’s seduction of his young, vulnerable, and childlike governess. As he rescues her from her imperious aunt’s school, where she had been left when her mother remarried and went to America, and where she is exploited as an underpaid teacher, his feelings for her are at first parental. The terms of equality on which her friendship with Kitty is based, her youth, childlike appearance, and naïveté all identify her as a child-figure seduced by proxy by the pupil’s father. This displaced incest sheds of course an ominous light on the function of fatherhood in the novel. Sydney repeatedly evokes parental feelings. The husband’s lawyer explains his interest in her by noticing her appeal to his father-feelings: “Perhaps I thought of the time when she might have been as dear to her father as my own daughters are to me.” (261)

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Victorian Web Wilkie Collins Victorian Literary Genres Victorian Literary Genres

Last modified 16 November 2002