An image labeled The Dinner Horn appears on Page 377 of Harper’s Weekly, dated June 11th, 1870, printed from a drawing by Winslow Homer. The picture is a kind of rural idyll of nineteenth-century, post-Civil War America: a young woman blows her horn to let the people working in the distant fields know it’s time to eat. Ivy grows around the farmhouse door, and a contented-looking cat scratches itself against the door jamb; you can almost hear it purring with delight. A large cooking-pot hangs over the fire in the kitchen grate, steam rising from its contents, and the table is laid with neat place settings. The people who live here may not be rich; their food may be simple and they may have to work hard for what they receive, but the war is over. Their lives have returned to normal after its upheavals, and the farm laborers can look forward in safety to a hearty meal at the end of a working day. If we turn the page, however, we will encounter a story of a very different kind.
Most of this page is printed with text from the beginning of chapter forty-six of a novel called Man and Wife, by the English writer Wilkie Collins. Collins worked with Charles Dickens during the 1850s and ’60s, contributing chapters of what were called at the time “sensation” novels, for serial publication in Dickens’s journals Household Words and All the Year Round. This episodic format lent itself to scenes of high melodrama, with a cliff-hanger at the end of each chapter to keep readers on the edges of their seats, eagerly awaiting the next exciting installment. The son of a professional painter, Collins was highly adept at telling a good yarn in graphic prose. Novels like The Woman in White and The Moonstone are among the earliest examples of the classic mystery, with fantastic descriptions (a ghostly female appearing out of the darkness on a quiet Hampstead street; an unbalanced maidservant who drowns herself in a stretch of quicksand ominously called “the shivering sands”—you get the general idea), and with astute investigators who predate Sherlock Holmes by about 20 years.
But—like Dickens—Collins also wrote about current social issues, often choosing legal anomalies with which to prick the conscience of his Victorian readers. My favorite of Collins’s novels, No Name, revolves around the plight of two genteelly brought-up young women who discover, after their parents’ tragic and unexpected deaths, that they had not in fact been married at the time of their daughters’ births. This leaves the girls not only alone in the world, but without legal status, unable to inherit their parents’ possessions and, through no fault of their own, literally with no name.
Man and Wife, though not perhaps as gripping as some of Collins’s earlier tales, challenges the inconsistency, the inequity, and the iniquity of the marriage laws in different parts of Victorian Britain. Chapter forty-six brings many of the novel’s protagonists together in a chilly formal room in London to present arguments and evidence to determine the legality of a betrothal and a marriage. The text drops us into the middle of a convoluted plot. Unfortunately—and tantalizingly—we know neither the story so far nor what happens next. The text ends not just in mid-chapter, it ends in mid-question: “From the moment when you entered the inn to the moment when you left it, were you also…”??? How’s THAT for a cliff-hanger? Presumably, the rest of the question and its answer would appear on subsequent pages, but we don’t have any other pages. Oh, the suspense…
Well, I could tell you what happens next, but where’s the fun in that? Maybe seeing this ‘midstory’ in the Backstories exhibition will encourage some of you to look up Man and Wife and Collins’s other novels in your local library or bookstore. Many of them are as intriguing as the backstories revealed in the show.