All quotations from Wilkie Collins’s “A Terribly Strange Bed” come from the online edition provided by Mitsuharu Matsuoka, Nagoya University, Japan, first published on the web on 2 December 1995, and available at . There are no in-text page numbers for citations from the story in my essay.
Wilkie Collins’s short story “A Terribly Strange Bed”, first published in Charles Dickens’s weekly magazine Household Words (1850-1859), is considered to be a “significant contribution to the gothic tale of terror” (Liggins et al. 80). Collins however rewrites the tropes of the gothic narrative in this story to capture the complex socio-cultural ideologies of domesticity, science, and technology of mid-nineteenth century Britain. The story also reveals the ways in which the Victorian culture of scientific innovations permeated the narrative consciousness of literary fiction. The this tale’s gothic threat appears as the pseudo-supernatural machinery of the “British four-poster” bed unsuccessfully used to suffocate the English protagonist to death after his massive winnings bankrupted a Parisian gambling house. Thus the discourses of class, the foreign, and the other combine with the e novel inventions of the Victorian era — here symbolized in the materiality of the murderous bed — to represent an everyday life that the English found increasingly indeterminate and unstable.
The story revolves around a single night’s adventures of a young English traveler named Faulkner in a “blackguard” gambling house in Palais Royal (“Strange Bed”). The protagonist’s extraordinary run of luck in the shady gambling den gives him a huge fortune. Disregarding (and insulting) his faithful friend who “whispering in English, begged me to leave the place, satisfied with what I had already gained,” Faulkner decides to spend the night in the house upon the advice of a garrulous old French soldier who is very appreciative of his gambling and constantly hails him to “break the bank” (“Strange Bed”). The night’s stay almost proves fatal when the four-poster British bed, which neatly camouflages an innovative mechanical press that winds down almost imperceptibly, almost crushes Faulkner to death. He escapes his fate when he luckily notices that the top of a painting in the room gradually vanish as the top of the bed moves down slowly and quietly. Initially frozen by fear, Faulkner escapes in the nick of time, fleeing to safety, after which he ensures that justice is done by bringing down the gambling house with the help of the French police.
“A strange house of the most suspicious character”
Faulkner’s predilection for a specific kind of experience that inevitably orchestrates a narrative of excitement, fear and horror sets in motion the mystery plot. Since Faulkner is bored by the fashionable Frascati’s on Palais Royal, he decides to partake in “genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming” (“Strange Bed”). His choice of words to describe the kind of gaming he prefers to engage in endows the activity of gaming and the spatiality of the gambling house with anthropomorphic qualities. The adjective “blackguard,” which describes an unethical person, becomes transferred to gaming, and in conjunction with the phrase “poverty-stricken”, it paints a picture of a space that is overrun by poverty, deviance, and threat.
Faulkner’s choice of gaming den certainly has an element of the poverty tourism found in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851). William Makepeace Thackeray’s review in Punch, which describes Mayhew’s work as a “tale of terror” created by his travels into the community of the poor, provides a relevant context for Collins’s narrative of his protagonist’s visit to the lower-class gambling house in Palais Royal where he, too, like Mayhew encounters “a picture of human life so wonderful, so awful, so piteous and pathetic, so exciting and terrible, that readers of romances own they never read anything like to it; and that the griefs, struggles, strange adventures here depicted exceed anything that any of us could imagine” (58).
Faulkner’s visits such a gambling house to offer to Collins’s readers “the types--lamentably true types--of their respective classes” and to unravel a tale that is exciting, strange, threatening and novel (“Strange Bed”). Thus the setting for the evening’s entertainment in the short story orchestrates the stage for the serious peril to the life and property of the Englishman.
The very spatiality of the gambling den is suspect and dangerous on other levels of interpretation, too. Apart from the fact that the gambling house is the haunt of the lower classes — with the implication of the spatiality of poverty being also a spatiality of crime — the location of the story is foreign and anti-British — Paris. The foreignness of the French spatiality is especially menacing for the English because of the historical rivalry between the two nations, both of which had empires to expand; and the radical excess of the French Revolution and the consequent politico-cultural antagonisms between the two nations.
The narrator repeatedly refers to the dangers of the Parisian streets: at the end of his successful gaming session he reconsiders the notion of going home in order to avoid being on “the streets of Paris with a large sum of money”; and, once he has reached the safety of the police station, he mentions “a mysterious murder which all Paris was talking” about. Priscilla Fergusson states that in the nineteenth century even a flaneur in Paris found the city intimidating (33).
Furthermore, the scene in which the horrific attempt to murder Faulkner occurs is, in addition to its being “poverty-stricken” and non-English, is also crucially non-domestic. The gambling house is obviously a commercial establishment with its space being utilized for both gambling and lodging — a space glaringly from the middle-class English domestic space of many in Collin’s audience. John Ruskin, the celebrated artist, writer, and philosopher of the Victorian age, defines the home as “a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by Household Gods, before whose faces none may come but those whom they can receive with love” (77). According to Ruskin, the non-commercial nature of the home endows it with a sacred status. It is the place within which familial love binds its members; a place that implicitly keeps strangers out. If an institution functions to invite people within its space for business purposes, then its reputation becomes markedly contrary to the space of home. Ruskin defines the “true nature of home” as
the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved, or hostile society of the outer world is allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home. [77-78]
The house (not home) in which Faulkner decides to stay the night has the potential to terrorize and even seriously injure him. It contains plenty of “unknown, unloved, or hostile society”. In other words, it is the definitive “outer world” that Ruskin warns a home will become if the anxieties of the public world are allowed to enter its portals. Although the gambling house is not masquerading as a private home while continuing its business of lodging and gambling, it does attempt to acquire an element of respectability that is associated with a home. In the story, the old soldier who claims to be an authority on the establishment advises Faulkner: “‘Listen, my dear sir,’ said he, in mysteriously confidential tones--‘listen to an old soldier's advice. I have been to the mistress of the house (a very charming woman, with a genius for cookery!) to impress on her the necessity of making us some particularly strong and good coffee.’” The reference to the “genius” cooking skills of the mistress of the house suggests an exaggerated attempt at claiming a domesticity for the commercial space. Although the middle class mistress of a household does not perform the domestic chores herself, she is expected to be an intelligent manager of every aspect of her domestic establishment. In Stickney Ellis’s chapter on “Cleverness, Learning and Knowledge” in The Daughters of England (1842), she advises women, who desire to hold the reins as the mistress of their home and gain the respect of servants, to be ingenious in matters relating to the domestic in order to increase “domestic comfort.” The two areas where “household economy” could be put into practice include the preparation of dinner and domestic furnishing (60-61).
As Faulkner realizes later, the coffee he drinks after gambling is drugged in order to make the sleeper on the strange bed so deeply unconscious that the victim cannot escape his crushing fate. The supposedly “charming” domestic hospitality that the mistress extends turns out to be a deadly trap for the innocent guest at the house, proving what the Englishman suspected already about the nature of the house. Faulkner had thought, once he had regained his senses after the heady pleasure of winning a lot of money, that there is a great “risk of sleeping all night in a gambling-house” (“Strange Bed”).
In Collins’s tale, the mistress of the gambling house stands in contrast to the middle-class English wife, “the angel in the house” in the ideological discourses of the period. The English woman at the centre of a home becomes angelic because she, while remaining within the sanctity of the home that apparently remains completely private, has no exchanges with the public or the commercial world. The mistress of the commercial establishment in Collins’s narrative cannot therefore in reality be charming or angelic. On the contrary, her criminal character becomes almost a logical consequence of her presence in a public space. She is jailed for several years for her participation in the plot to murder Faulkner.
Faulkner himself ironically points out “the social anomaly” of “a respectable gambling-house” (“Strange Bed”). A gambling house can hardly be respectable, and a lower class one is doubly questionable. The notion of criminalizing poverty is highly suggestive in the narrative: a socially “lower” class and space is capable of being a serious threat to the safety of respectable people who enter its portals.
“They make up capital beds in this house”
The French soldier’s second item of praise about the gambling house concerns a vital domestic furnishing. He seeks to create a comforting domestic aura within the commercial establishment by enthusiastically praising the nature of the beds offered to guests. He informs Faulkner that “they make up capital beds in this house” — a remark of great retrospective irony, as the climax of the story illustrates. soldier’s words, though said with the intention of luring Faulkner to stay in the gambling house, again points to the subversive and subtle anti-domestic trajectory coded in the materiality and spatiality of the gambling house. The two significant aspects of domesticity — the mistress of the home and the bedstead — perform insidious functions in Collins’s story.
In Collins’s tale a significant piece of domestic furniture within the gambling house — the British four-poster bed — is the central material object exploited for criminal purposes. In terms of the cultural currency of the Victorian period, the bed is a vital commodity in the discourse of domesticity that Britain considers important to its cultural identity and supremacy. In one of the climactic moments of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Miss Pross, a British woman and a staunch protector of the heroine Lucie Manette, uses the metaphor of the bed while fiercely facing Madame Defarge, the arch-enemy of the Manette family and the female embodiment of the French Revolution. She has come to the Parisian home of Lucie to destroy the family, and Miss Pross, who guards the door to the bedroom, severely declares: “If those eyes of yours were bed-winches,” returned Miss Pross, “and I was an English four-poster, they shouldn’t loose a splinter of me” (381). The bed-winches are devices that tighten or loosen the screws on four poster beds. What is significant in this figurative language is the object of the bed that comes to conflate domesticity — one that Miss Pross protects by safeguarding Lucie Manette — with the larger concept of British identity itself.
In “A Terribly Strange Bed”, the protagonist himself emphasizes the Britishness of the bed:
There was, first, the bed I was lying in; a four-post bed, of all things in the world to meet with in Paris--yes, a thorough clumsy British four-poster, with the regular top lined with chintz--the regular fringed valance all round--the regular stifling, unwholesome curtains.
Faulkner here first registers his surprise in seeing a British object in the French capital, a place that is considered to be antithetical to everything British. The word “clumsy” is used indulgently to convey the idiosyncratic custom of its continued use despite the large amount of space the big bedstead occupies and the labour necessary to maintain it in pristine condition. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) states that the “four-post bedstead is considered the most elegant and commodious, but it is adapted only for large rooms; in small rooms, by monopolizing too great a space, and obstructing the air and light, they are both inconvenient and unhealthy” (116). The way in which such a four-poster bed squeezes space out of a room is described quite effectively in Dickens’s trademark caricature style of description in his Great Expectations (1861). Pip stays for a night at Hummums in Covent Garden. The stay at the inn is very uncomfortable for him both emotionally and physically since he has just returned from his childhood home to London having realized both that Estelle does not love him and that her aunt is not his mysterious benefactor. When he receives a cryptic note from Wemmick telling him not to go home, the fatigued Pip spends the night at the lodging house before visiting Wemmick’s home the next morning. His emotional distress is mirrored in the material circumstances of the bedroom that he occupies that night.
It was a sort of vault on the ground floor at the back, with a despotic monster of a four-post bedstead in it, straddling over the whole place, putting one of his arbitrary legs into the fire-place and another into the doorway, and squeezing the wretched little washing-stand in quite a Divinely Righteous manner. 
Dickens ridicules putting a massive bed within a small room in an inn. The storm raging in Pip’s over-tired, distressed mind makes him also remember the suicide of a gentleman during his stay in Hummum’s inn. All the gloomy details of the room seem a piece with the depressing thoughts swirling in the hero’s mind. The four-post bedstead, in particular, takes on the figuration of a “despotic monster” of man appropriating for himself the space in the room and terrorizing the other minor objects such as the “little washing-stand” in a high-handed fashion. The anthropomorphism in the objects becomes quite evocative here in Dickens’s powerful sketch of the inn’s bedroom.
Pip’s experience in the inn parallels Faulkner’s experience during his night’s stay in the gambling house. Pip’s thoughts about the suicide of an unknown gentleman recalls the apparent suicides of men whose bodies have been recovered from River Seine, but who were most likely killed using the bed in the gambling house and “were privately thrown into the river, with a letter of explanation written by the murderers and placed in their pocket-books” (“Strange Bed”). Faulkner’s death, if he had not escaped his dreadful fate of being smothered in bed in the inn, would have been perceived as a suicide. While Pip’s experience of the bed in Hummums reflects the transference of his emotions — his helplessness and the power of the social structures around him — onto the “autocratic” bed, the one in Collins’s tale is vested with evil intentions and it seeks to serve the sinister purposes of those who have operational control over its mechanism.
The secret of the bedstead machinery
Collins describes at length the intricate manner in which the bedstead machinery was constructed and the ways in which its components were camouflaged and hidden between the floors of the gambling house. When the French detective examines the floor of the room above Faulkner’s bedchamber in the gambling house, he discovers:
Extra lengths of screw, freshly oiled; levers covered with felt; all the complete upper works of a heavy press--constructed with infernal ingenuity so as to join the fixtures below, and when taken to pieces again, to go into the smallest possible compass--were next discovered and pulled out on the floor. After some little difficulty the Sub-prefect succeeded in putting the machinery together, and, leaving his men to work it, descended with me to the bedroom. The smothering canopy was then lowered, but not so noiselessly as I had seen it lowered. When I mentioned this to the Sub-prefect, his answer, simple as it was, had a terrible significance. 'My men,' said he, 'are working down the bed-top for the first time--the men whose money you won were in better practice.'
The significant characteristic pointed out by Faulkner in relation to the mechanical device is its “infernal ingenuity”. The scientific mechanism of levers and presses operated by newly oiled screws are evil in their ingeniousness in the world of this story as they are utilized for the task of killing human beings quietly and insidiously.
Scientific and technological innovations become suspect here as they, by their very nature, lend themselves to being concealed and silenced for the purposes of malevolent acts. Faulkner escapes being smothered because he was making an inventory of his room, following the advice of the author Le Maistre in his book Voyage autour de ma Chambre. In his observation of the walls of the room, Faulkner notices the painting of a “swarthy, sinister ruffian” whose hat starts to vanish gradually, and he soon realizes that the top of the bed is noiselessly moving down to crush him. In other words, it is art that saves him, while scientific materiality is intent on destroying him. Insidious machinery take on a gothic hue as they perform the functions that supernatural elements executed in gothic tales.
Furthermore, it is significant that Collins utilizes the metaphor of a steam engine to describe the immediate after-effects of consuming a drugged coffee. The whirling of the room and the psychomotor and psychological impact on Faulkner is described thus:
The room whirled round and round furiously; the old soldier seemed to be regularly bobbing up and down before me like the piston of a steam-engine. I was half deafened by a violent singing in my ears; a feeling of utter bewilderment, helplessness, idiocy, overcame me. I rose from my chair, holding on by the table to keep my balance; and stammered out that I felt dreadfully unwell--so unwell that I did not know how I was to get home. [“Strange Bed”; italics mine]
Collins cleverly also likens the cunning old solider to the piston of a steam-engine, an object that is relentless, almost ruthless in its repetitiveness and purposiveness. Moreover, the description here of the disorientation and helplessness experienced by Faulkner could have been undergone by many of the industrial labour within the factories of nineteenth-century Britain. Elizabeth Gaskell’s industrial novel North and South (1855) contains passages detailing the nature and effect of the factory environment on its employees and visitors in tones akin to the one described above in Collins’s short story.
Nicholas Daly’s Literature, Technology, and Modernity (2004) explores the characterization of modernity from the notion of an ideological alienation between humans and machines to a clash between the two, signified in the “collision of flesh and steel in the crash” (2). Modern literature, he argues, often “obsessively replays” the “fatal encounters” between man and modernity which is represented by machines (2). Collins’s “A Terribly Strange Bed” also offers a near lethal meeting between man and machine, one that is preplanned and not accidental. Collins narrates the encounter subtly through a story that weaves together trajectories of anti-domesticity, lower-class, and foreignness, all of which attempt to conceal the problematic attitude that Collins possessed towards science and technology in this narrative. Collins aligns technological innovations, which he camouflages superbly, with transgressions, foreignness and lower social positions in his narrative. The devious subversiveness of scientific materiality is brilliantly captured through the almost “invisible” role it plays in the short story.
Daly, Nicholas. Literature, Technology, and Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Richard Maxwell. London; New York: Penguin, 2003.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1992.
Ferguson, Priscilla. “The Flaneur On and Off the Streets of Paris”. The Flaneur. Ed. Keith Tester. London: Routledge, 1994.
Liggins, Emma, Andrew Maunder, and Ruth Robbins. The British Short Story. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Robert Kemp, Philip. The Dictionary of Daily Wants. London: Boulston and Wright, 1858. Internet Archive. Accessed 10 June 2017.
Stickney Ellis, Sarah. The Daughters of England. New York: Appleton, 1842. Web. Accessed 5 June 2017.
Thackeray, W. M. Punch. 9 March 1850: 92-93 (reprinted later in Thackeray's Miscellanies, 1856). Internet Archive. Collection Americana. Web. Accessed 23 June 2017.
Created 21 September 2017