The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins is rightly regarded as one of the nineteenth century’s most eminent writers. Although many Persephone readers will know The Woman in White and The Moonstone, he in fact published twenty-one other novels. The New Magdalen (1873), Persephone Book No.138, is about a ‘fallen woman’, Mercy Merrick, attempting to rehabilitate her character and her reputation; and the (often reprehensible and unkind) attitude of some of those around her.
The New Magdalen is part of a genre known as the Sensation Novel (eg. The Moonstone, East Lynne, Lady Audley’s Secret, all written in the early 1860s) which is described in Matthew Sweet’s gloriously un-highbrow piece on the British Library website. He writes: ‘Sensation fiction is populated by men who cannot bear loud noise and women who cannot digest cake. On its pages you will meet wives fixated on vengeance and husbands shamed by murder… The fiction of Wilkie Collins, Ellen Wood and Mary Braddon unsettles profoundly. Its accounts of sickness, insanity, identity-theft and long-suppressed family secrets tell a story about the anxieties and uncertainties of nineteenth-century life – and our own lives, too.’
The New Magdalen is, as well, revealing about mid-nineteenth century attitudes and moral values. As James Bobin writes in his Persephone Preface: ‘Wilkie Collins’s earlier work such as No Name dealt with illegitimacy, Man or Wife centred on Scottish marriage law, and Poor Miss Finch was the story of a young blind woman and a romantic triangle with two brothers. Collins’s novels, throughout the 1860s and 1870s, grew markedly more angry at what he perceived as injustices.’
At the time it came out as a novel it also had a very successful run on the London stage – which is why it is divided into two ‘scenes’ and why much of the dialogue does in fact feel like a play. (It was also made into a silent film, twice, in 1910 and 1912.) From the outset the novel was seen as scandalous due to its title. ‘Magdalen’ was the name for a reformed prostitute, a subject that was not to be discussed in proper society. In any case, contemporary reviewers did not seem to be shocked by either the play or the novel, and only a few years later, in May 1880, The Spectator would highlight The New Magdalen as one of Collins’s novels which ‘enlighten humanity in regard to certain moral problems of deep and momentous import, and hold up to nature a mirror which educated the soul even more than it diverts the understanding’; which is why the writer thought the plot ‘no more than the necessary vehicle for the inculcation of profound ideas.’ Nowadays we might find ‘profound’ stretching it a bit. Nevertheless, The New Magdalen is absorbing and thought-provoking, despite the sometimes almost pantomime-ish conventions.
In essence, Wilkie Collins manages to challenge clichés about the ‘fallen’ woman; most importantly, he gives Mercy Merrick agency and self-determination in her own story. As the Preface observes: ‘This is the great strength of The New Magdalen and perhaps also of Wilkie Collins’s work in general. He was a man who was ahead of his time not only in his attitudes to women, but also to the world around him. He was a man with integrity who fought for the less fortunate, but also who entertained and enthralled the man and woman on the Clapham Omnibus.’
Paperback with jacket
Publisher: Persephone Books
Endpaper: The endpapers are taken from 'Sutherland', a woven silk designed by the architect Owen Jones for Warner, Sillet & Co in 1871 (the year he did some work for his friends George Eliot and George Henry Lowndes at 21 North Bank, Regent's Park).