Filling the “vacant space”: Constructing learning disability in Wilkie Collins’ No Name and The Law and the Lady

Ariel and Magdalen

NB: The following blog post is based on a paper I put together for the Victorian Popular Fiction Association 6th Annual Conference 2014. I appeared as part of the Wilkie Collins panel chaired by Mariaconcetta Costantini. The conference theme was ‘Victorian Treasures and Trash’. 


In a recent episode of ITV detective drama Endeavour (the 1960s-set prequel to Morse), the twentieth-century protagonist – Detective Constable Endeavour Morse – investigates a crime which seems to have its origins in a mid-Victorian murder.  The plotline tells of a series of brutal killings committed at a great house in the mid-1860s, where almost all the children of the Blaise-Hamilton family were bludgeoned to death. Local legend suggests that the perpetrator was ‘Bloody Charlotte’, the only child to apparently survive the killing, who was later committed to an asylum. All surviving photographs of her have been defaced – her visage scratched out – which seems to authenticate the rumours.

In a plotline which dredges up numerous Victorian stereotypes – including the revelation that the killer was actually Mr Blaise-Hamilton’s disinherited, illegitimate son, brought back from colonial India and made to work in the family grounds – there is a quietly poignant ending in which Morse finally discovers an image of Charlotte, totally intact. While it is not made explicit, the viewer infers from seeing the image that Charlotte had Down’s Syndrome. As a review from the wonderfully-named website Den of Geek proposes, the story seems to suggest that “her removal from history had nothing to do with the dark local legends […] but was due to the fact that she had Down [sic] Syndrome”.

The conclusion thus presupposes the audience’s familiarity with the notion that learning disability in the Victorian family was a subject of shame, to be cast out and forgotten. Yet even a cursory examination of nineteenth-century culture revels that intellectual disabilities were far from ‘invisible’. Not only did articles on learning disability feature prominently in medical journals, they also appeared in a range of lay periodicals, from Household Words and Fortnightly Review,to North British Review and Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal. Characters defined as idiots and imbeciles also featured in literature throughout the long nineteenth century, from William Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” (published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798) to Stevie in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). George Eliot, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell all represented intellectual disability in their fiction.

As well as featuring in realist and social problem novels of the period, learning disability also had a prominent place in sensation fiction, particularly the works of Wilkie Collins. Some of the most explicit instances of intellectual disability feature in No Name (serialised in All the Year Round between 1862-3) and The Law and the Lady (which ran in the Graphic from 1874 to 1875).

In No Name, we are introduced to Mrs Matilda Wragge, the long-suffering wife of the confidence trickster, Captain Wragge, who helps his distant relation Magdalen Vanstone in her efforts to recoup her inheritance. Mrs Wragge is repeatedly described as an imbecile. Her bullying husband characterizes her as “a little slow” and “constitutionally torpid”, while the villainous Mrs Lecount judges her to be “little more than an idiot”.

Idiocy is the term specifically invoked to describe the character Ariel in Collins’ later novel, The Law and the Lady. She is the cousin (and virtual slave) of Misserimus Dexter, a physically disabled and mentally unstable man, who becomes the prime suspect in the murder case which our heroine, Valeria Woodville/Macallan, intends to unravel. Dexter, who is even more abusive towards Ariel than Captain Wragge is towards his wife, calls his cousin “a mere vegetable”.

While the most disdainful epithets are usually employed by the more unpleasant characters, Collins usually uses the nomenclature of the day. Indeed, he demonstrates remarkable sagacity in his use of the terms ‘imbecility’ and ‘idiocy’ to delineate Mrs Wragge and Ariel respectively. Although the words were occasionally used interchangeably, imbecility had come to denote persons who exhibited higher cognitive functioning than ‘idiots’. Although the distinction between the two was not enshrined in legislation until the 1886 Idiots Act, both terms were in circulation long before this. Indeed, idiocy featured in legislation as far back as the 1200s.

I am interested in considering the way in which Collins engages with nineteenth-century constructions of idiocy or imbecility – many of which would have designated people with intellectual disabilities ‘trash’ (burdens on society or somehow animalistic without instruction) – while examining how he privileges or ‘treasures’ the unique role these characters have to play in his sensational stories. Although both are described in terms of vacancy, these characters are not so much denoted by absence or lack as they are overdetermined, overloaded with meaning.

The purpose of my research is by no means to suggest that Collins’ portrayal of learning disability is a wholly positive or affirmative one; in the way that Martha Stoddard Holmes, for example, seem to champion Collins’ representations of sexuality in women with sensory impairments.

In many ways Collins seems to situate his depictions of Mrs Wragge and Ariel around that conventional (and often pejorative) dyad of fear and pity. At times they are represented sympathetically, while on other occasions they are rendered grotesque or horrific. Ultimately, Mrs Wragge usually invites our pity, while Ariel primarily arouses fear. When we are first introduced to Matilda Wragge, she is described as “nothing more or less than a grown-up child”, and gentler than a lamb. Although Ariel is also described in pitying terms as “unfortunate Ariel” and “a poor creature”, she is perhaps more strikingly portrayed as “a creature half alive; an imperfectly developed animal in shapeless form”.

Mrs Wragge is associated with ideas of innocence. Although she doesn’t quite fit with the traditional (and by the mid-1800s, somewhat unfashionable) conception of the ‘holy idiot’ under God’s divine protection, she is portrayed as innocent in her inability to practise deceit (an idea I shall return to later). At the height of Magdalen and Captain Wragge’s deception, our heroine describes her as “the only innocent creature in this guilty house”. This innocence is reinforced by the seemingly innocuous antecedents to her intellectual disability. While she traces back the “buzzing” in her brain to her days working in Darch’s Dining Rooms, it is unclear whether this is the symptom or the cause of her disability.

In contrast, Ariel is vilified through her association with Dexter, and both are subsumed within a broader image of degeneracy. Although the cause of Ariel’s idiocy is never specified, the fact her cousin shows mental instability (later sliding into “imbecility”) and was born physically disabled, may have indicated to the Victorian reader a degenerative strain in the family. Certainly ideas of idiocy and degeneration were already circulating by the 1870s; as early as 1854, Collins’ close friend and collaborator, Charles Dickens, published an article by Harriet Martineau in Household Words which associated idiocy with intermarriage. (An idea that seems pertinent when one thinks of the quasi-incestuous relationship between Dexter and his enslaved cousin.)

However, it would be erroneous to suppose that anxieties about degeneration underpinned all debates about intellectual disability at this time. Indeed, the mid-1800s actually saw the publication of much more optimistic – if not wholly affirmative – literature on learning disabilities, as news reached Britain about pioneering work elsewhere in Europe, which emphasised the educability of idiots and imbeciles. Soon there was a drive towards specialised asylums, with the first such major institution – Park House in Highgate – opening its doors in 1848. It was followed by a number of others, including the Earlswood Asylum in 1855 and Normansfield Hospital in 1868.

While there was certainly benevolence in these efforts, much of the written material about these asylums uses a crude ‘before’ and ‘after’ construct, as detailed in Patrick McDonagh’s Idiocy: A Cultural History. They emphasised the way in which those with learning disabilities were somehow brutish, animalistic (or at least childlike) before efforts to educate them, so that the ‘civilizing’ or ‘humanizing’ effect supposedly produced by the institutions was all the more dramatic and affecting.

Mrs Wragge and Ariel seem to be largely associated with the ‘before’ image, particularly Ariel, who is likened to both a “wild animal” and a “savage”. Both such analogies appeared in medical and lay writing of the period. However, one may hypothesise that their apparently ‘uncivilized’ behaviour is because of the environment they are seeped in, with only the morally bankrupt Captain Wragge and Dexter to guide them. Although Mrs Wragge is sometimes like a “well-trained child” in her husband’s presence, his practice of being loud as “a necessary stimulant to her ideas” would have seemed a crude method of instruction even to Collins’ readers.

Collins certainly seems to suggest that Ariel is brutish at least partly because of Dexter’s influence. He engages in sadistic games at her expense; at one point he ties her hands with string and pulls on them with “nimble and devilish violence” each time she reaches for food. Interestingly, this violence seems to replicate itself in Ariel’s behaviour. She repeatedly threatens Valeria – whom she nurses a “jealous rage” towards– at one point threatening to throw her into the canal, and on another brandishing an Indian club and telling Valeria she’ll “dash [her] brains out”. Ideas that ‘idiots’ were particularly susceptible to the influence of others were in circulation by the 1870s and intensified by the end of the century.

I want to focus on this moment of violence because it belies recent criticism about the role of these characters in the novels. Patrick McDonagh’s conclusion about idiocy in sensation fiction suggests that, “while readers of sensation fiction may be stimulated and impressed, their sensations thrilled by the narrative, and while the characters in the novel are often in states of high agitation […] the idiot characters are generally passive, stoic, insensate and otherwise unreceptive”. Ultimately, he posits that the sensation genre is constructed in opposition to characters with learning disabilities:  “the idiot is also a figure specifically played against the notion of sensation”, he writes.

Certainly both characters are defined as lacking sensitivity and perceptiveness; Ariel is described as having “dull senses” and a “dormant intelligence”, while Mrs Wragge is characterised as “not sharp enough to be trusted”. Indeed, without wholly spoiling the plots, both characters show themselves incapable of deceit or pretence by inadvertently giving the game away. Mrs Wragge betrays Magdalen’s real identity to Mrs Lecount, while it is Ariel’s insistence that Dexter tells her a story which reveals to Valeria that a destroyed letter may hold the key to solving the mystery of the first Mrs Macallan’s death.

Despite this apparent ‘lack’ of sense and sensibility, both Ariel and Mrs Wragge display capacity for emotional feeling and for practical (and some intellectual) activities. When Mrs Wragge is free of her husband – staying in London with Magdalen – she is shown chuckling “joyfully”“my heart alive!” she exclaims. She is also “affectionate and truly kind” towards Magdalen.  Although she finds it difficult to grasp new ideas – she is shown repeatedly fretting over her recipe book – she is literate and able to look after herself.

Ariel’s emotions are generally described in much more violent terms – as we have seen – but she evidently feels strongly, and her “devoted attachment” towards Dexter suggests she can feel some sort of love. She too is capable of practical tasks, conveying letters for Dexter, and able to fix verbal messages in her mind through rote learning.

We may ask ourselves whether these characters might not have given the game away if they had been properly entrusted with the secrets held by the others.

The way in which they are poised between capacity and incapacity – in terms of both emotion and intellect – does not, for me, preclude them playing vital roles in their narratives and fully participating in the demands of the sensation genre. Indeed, as we have seen, the plots are wholly dependent on their uncertainty as to what must be kept secret. Rather than seeing these characters as marginal, I wish to read them as liminal – occupying ambivalent or ‘in between’ spaces, rather than the peripheral ones. As numerous critics – from Andrew Lycett to Lyn Pykett – have noted, liminality is a crucial feature of Collins’ sensation fiction, and I wish to focus upon this.

While we do not have time today to fully explore the ways in which Mrs Wragge and Ariel are rendered liminal, I will draw upon a particularly pertinent example: the gender dissidence associated with both characters. The way in which Collins’ characters challenge gender stereotypes has long been recognised, and his characters with learning disabilities are no exception.

Although Mrs Wragge has several conventionally feminine attributes (particularly her love of finery and shopping), she is in other ways a very masculine character. At six foot two or three, she is described as a “giantess”, towering over her husband. She is also a clumsy character, berated by her husband for being “crooked”; even she admits her “conduct isn’t ladylike”. One might also pause to note that it is Mrs Wragge who brings the financial security to her marriage, thanks to a small inheritance.

Ariel is much more strikingly masculine, not only challenging – but wholly disrupting – gender ‘norms’. She dresses in men’s clothing, has a “coarse masculine voice” and a “clumsy gait”. Prior to her first appearance in the text, Mrs Macallan – Valeria’s mother-in-law – explains that Dexter’s cousin “is a woman. I may as well tell you that, or you might mistake her for a man”.

The masculinization of these characters is particularly interesting, given other contemporaneous portrayals of women with learning disabilities often emphasised their femininity. Both George Eliot’s Romola and Margaret Oliphant’s Salem Chapel depict characters seemingly associated with intellectual disability – Tessa and Alice Mildmay. They are beautiful, childlike and vulnerable to exploitation, particularly of a sexual nature. The way in which they seem almost hyperfeminine appears to suggest that those characteristics of learning disability – such as vacancy and naïveté – are simply an extension and concentration of those traits expected of all women.

Collins clearly departs from this tradition – perhaps because his own heroines (Valeria and Magdalen among them) are so transgressive. Thus, whereas Tessa and Alice figure as an ‘extreme’ version of the feminine innocence displayed by other women in their novels (namely Romola and Susan Vincent), Matilda and Ariel’s masculinity is arguably an extreme version of the gender transgression exhibited by Valeria – who defies social convention by wrangling with the law (a murder trial at that) – and Magdalen who compromises her femininity in her ruthless plans to win back her inheritance.

Furthermore, Collins’ intersection between gender and disability is fascinating given that both women and those deemed idiots were denied various legal rights. The intellectually disabled could be judged unable to manage their own affairs, and have their estates removed, just as a woman lost her property upon marriage. Some were also considered unable to give evidence under oath in a court of law (just as a married woman was barred from giving evidence against her spouse), and denied the vote.

It is hardly anachronistic to dwell on these similarities, given that the analogy between women and idiots was drawn upon by Victorian women’s rights activists. It was most famously invoked by Frances Power Cobbe in “Criminals, idiots, women, and minors: is the classification sound?” (1869), but had also been used much earlier, for example, in William Thompson’s  Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, published in 1825.

Of course the purpose of these writers was to emphasise that women should have equal rights to men and thus be raised above the status of idiots. While Collins does not explicitly address the legal status of either Mrs Wragge or Ariel, one might nevertheless be tempted to think of them as ‘doubles’ to Magdalen and Valeria given their similarly fraught status in the eyes of the law. Both No Name and The Law and the Lady clearly turn on questions of legal status, and it seems valuable to think of the way in which Collins may be using both women and those with learning disabilities as cynosures for exploring questions of identity, status and empowerment.

Indeed, one could think of Mrs Wragge as doubly disempowered. Her husband has already claimed her inheritance and, as he tells Magdalen at one point, were it not for the promise of further money to come, he would’ve “transferred her […] to the care of society at large”. Indeed, at the start of their charade, he suggests having her “comfortably boarded and lodged out of the way”; it is Magdalen who intercedes, protesting “I won’t have her sent away!”.

Ariel’s rights aren’t considered in quite the same way; indeed, Valeria thinks an asylum is the best place for her once Dexter is committed. Nevertheless, one might be tempted to reflect how both Ariel’s sex and her disability have served to fully disempower her. The desirability of placing her in the asylum is partly occasioned by the fact she has “no friends, and no money”. She also has no name – Ariel is the moniker conferred on her by Dexter. Her identity thus is as fraught as any of Collins’ heroines.

The eventual fate of Ariel, who escapes the institution to visit Dexter’s grave and then dies of “cold and exposure”, atop his grave, “faithful to the last”, is a world away from Mrs Wragge’s ending. Mrs Wragge comes into her second inheritance, which is appropriated by Captain Wragge, and put towards his new business venture in quack medicines. Rather than prospering at her expense and putting her away (that possibility he has always considered), he makes her the poster girl of his quack advertising campaign. “Mrs Wragge contributes her quota to the prodigious enterprise,” he says. “She is the celebrated woman whom I have cured of indescribable agonies from every complaint under the sun”. Although Collins’ intention might be ironic – given the ‘buzzing’ in Mrs Wragge’s head and her bodily disorganization – the last time we see her she is in “ecstasy”.

What is especially interesting is that Mrs Wragge has something of a happy ending without being ‘cured’ or ‘relieved’ of her intellectual disability. In her last appearance her cap is “all awry”, she has left one of her shoes in the next room, and she imparts not one “coherent sentence”. This is a marked difference to the end of Oliphant’s Salem Chapel, in which Alice Mildmay’s inclusion in the happy ending appears partly contingent on her recovery or rehabilitation.

One may suppose that Mrs Wragge’s happier ending reflects the notion that ‘imbeciles’ had better prospects than ‘idiots’, or perhaps the more optimistic mood surrounding intellectual disabilities that prevailed in the 1860s compared to the hardening of attitudes by the mid-1870s, as anxieties about degeneration increased. However, it would be simplistic to assume Collins need have a consistent view on learning disability. After all, one would not attempt to draw an overriding conclusion about his attitude to physical disability from characters as diverse as the eccentric, agile and vindictive Dexter; to the bedridden Mrs Milroy in Armadale, who is tormented by petty jealousies; or the lively and vivacious blind girl Lucilla Finch in the ironically named Poor Miss Finch.

Whether they are contained or cast out of the novels’ denouements however – both Ariel and Mrs Wragge retain a primacy, a visibility. As Meredith Miller recognises, in her recent book Feminine Subjects in Masculine Fiction, despite “the moral hegemony” of the conclusion to The Law and the Lady – which seems to exchange female transgression for wifely submission –  it was “the dissident and fascinating narrative middle” which “sold the novel”. Further, the spectre of this dissidence seems to loom large over the novel’s ending – the illustration that accompanied the final instalment was not an image of Valeria’s marital bliss but of Ariel lying prostrate over Dexter’s grave.

Although transgression may not always sit comfortably with narrative closure in Collins’ fiction, it is what drives the plot. Liminality and negotiating those ‘in between’ spaces is what sits at the heart of both novels: the whole plot of The Law and the Lady is driven by the liminal ‘Scotch’ verdict in Eustace Macallan’s trial – the fact he has been found not ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, but only that his culpability is ‘not proven’. Likewise, No Name is based on the Vanstone sisters’ liminal status in the eyes of the law, the shift in their identity from wealthy heiresses to illegitimate daughters forced to fend for themselves. Thus, the liminality of Mrs Wragge and Ariel does not leave them marginalised in their respective narratives, but rather puts them at the forefront of the sensation in sensation fiction. While Wilkie Collins participates in many of the discourses of his day which would have characterized them both as ‘trash’, they are clearly treasure for the writer (and reader) of sensation fiction.


Cobbe, Frances Power, “Criminals, idiots, women and minors: Is the Classification Sound?” (1868) <; [Accessed 14 July 2014]

Collins, Wilkie, No Name (1862) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Collins, Wilkie, The Law and the Lady (1875) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Eliot, George, Romola (1863) (London: Penguin Books, 1980)

Holmes, Martha Stoddard, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004)

Lycett, Andrew, Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation (London: Hutchinson, 2013)

Martineau, Harriet, “Idiots Again” (1854), Household Words (15 April)

McDonagh, Patrick, Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008)

Miller, Meredith,  Feminine Subjects in Masculine Fiction: Modernity, Will and Desire, 1870-1910 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

“Nocturne”, Endeavour, prod. by Mammoth Screen and Masterpiece, ITV, 6 April 2014.

Oliphant, Margaret, Salem Chapel (1863) (London: Virago Press, 1986)

Pykett, Lyn, Authors in Context: Wilkie Collins (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Thompson, William, Appeal of One Half of the Human Race (London: Richard Taylor, 1825)

Wheeler, Gem, “Endeavour series 2 episode 2 review: Nocturne”, Den of Geek (8 April 2014) <; [Accessed 25 May 2014]


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