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Published June 2016 | public
Journal Article

"These Verbal Puzzles": Wilkie Collins, Newspaper Enigmas, and the Victorian Reader as Solver


In 1861, in a review of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, a critic for the Spectator complained that, "We are threatened with a new variety of the sensation novel … the whole interest of which consists in the gradual unraveling of some carefully prepared enigma" ("The Enigma Novel" 20). He was hardly the only reviewer to use a vocabulary of "puzzlement" or "enigma" when discussing Collins's work. Whether we look to an earlier review of The Woman in White to find Collins faulted as "not a great novelist … the fascination which he exercises … [is] that he is a good constructor. Each of his stories is a puzzle, the key to which is not handed to us till the third volume" (Rev. of The Woman in White 249) – or whether we turn to a critic of The Moonstone, who found Collins and his latest production "[un]worthy": "We are no especial admirers of the department of art to which he has devoted himself, any more than we are of double acrostics or anagrams, or any of the many kinds of puzzles on which it pleases some minds to exercise their ingenuity" (Page, ed. 171–72) – we come up against the fact that Collins's novels, and especially his sensation novels, were sometimes known as "enigma novels" in the Victorian period. We can see too that this was not necessarily intended as a complimentary label. Indeed, though our own contemporary tendency has been to employ this particular moniker in a more neutral, descriptive register – to denote simply some fictions' reliance on mystery – we quickly find that Victorian reviewers were not so dispassionate in their usage. Instead, tracking names like "conundrum novel" or "enigma novel," and terms like "puzzle," "enigma," and even "anagram," shows that Collins's critics often used such phrases to index some of the same kinds of problems or concerns they more familiarly described with a rhetoric of "sensation." A short survey suggests that their language of "puzzles" and "enigmas," like their language of shocks and nerves, expressed disappointment at Collins's tendency to create anticlimaxes (the novel fizzles when the "puzzle" is solved); his emphasis on plot – or "carefully prepared enigma[s]" – over character; and his potential to render readers amoral and passive – patient attendants of solutions ("the key to which is not handed to us") – rather than creatively engaged thinkers or moral questers. A simple nickname would seem to be a damning label indeed, on fuller survey.

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© 2016 Cambridge University Press.

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