Analysis of Wilkie Collins’s After Dark

A number of Wilkie Collins’s contributions to Charles Dickens’s Household Words were reprinted in a short story collection titled After Dark (1856) published in two volumes by Smith Elder. The stories included “The Traveller’s Story of a Terribly Strange Bed,” “The Lawyer’s Story of a Stolen Letter,” “The French Governess’s Story of Sister Rose,” “The Nun’s Story of Gabriel’s Marriage,” and “The Professor’s Story of the Yellow Mask.” “The Lady of Glenwith Grange” was the only story that not been published previously.

The stories are contained within a frame narrative titled “Leaves from Leah’s Diary.” Leah Kerby serves as amanuensis for her husband, an itinerant artist whose temporary blindness forces him to take a break from his painting. During William Kerby’s convalescence, Leah transcribes several mystery tales that her husband entertains her with “after dark.” These are not William’s own stories, however; they have been recounted to him “by accident” by his various clients as they sit for their portraits. Leah plans to publish these stories in a collection titled After Dark and hopes that the sales of the book will make up for the lost income caused by her husband’s unemployment.


Boston Public Library / Public Domain

Set during the 1789 French Revolution, “The French Governess’s Story of Sister Rose” is a tale about a young woman named Rose and her devoted brother Louis Trudaine. Rose marries the treacherous aristocrat Charles Danville, who betrays his brother-in-law when he reports Trudaine’s suspicious behavior to the revolutionary authorities. What Danville does not realize, however, is that the clandestine activities of Trudaine and Rose are part of an effort to help Danville’s royalist mother seek asylum outside of France. Though brother and sister are condemned to the guillotine, their lives are saved by a former servant who has since become a police agent. Three years after the Reign of Terror ends, Rose and Trudaine expose Danville before he can commit bigamy. His mother disowns him, and he is killed in a duel by the father of the woman he had intended to marry.

“The Angler’s Story of The Lady of Glenwith Grange” is told by a gentleman farmer named Mr. Gathwaite who has employed Kerby to paint one of his bulls. One morning, when the bull refuses to be a cooperative “sitter,” Garthwaite and Kerby decide to go fishing. During the day’s angling, Garthwaite recounts the extraordinary story of the reclusive Miss Ida Welwyn, also known as the Lady of Glenwith Grange. Years earlier, Ida Welwyn had promised her dying mother that she would always take care of her infant sister, Rosamond. Through her sister’s devotion and attention, Rosamond matures to be an accomplished and beautiful lady who is highly regarded throughout society. After rejecting two marriage proposals, Rosamond falls in love with the dashing Baron Franval, whom she meets in Paris. Ida though she secretly dislikes and distrusts the Baron, allows him to marry her beloved sister on the condition that she and Rosamond are never to live apart. Ida’s “vague sense of terror” is finally confirmed with the appearance of a French police agent who exposes the Baron as an imposter. The man Rosamond has married is, in fact, an escaped convict who bears an uncanny likeness to the real Baron Franval. The criminal is killed while attempting to escape, and Rosamond dies of shock. Ida Welwyn returns to Glenwith Grange to spend her remaining years caring for Rosamond’s child and the neighboring “peasant population.”

“The Professor’s Story of the Yellow Mask” is recounted to Kerby by an eccentric Italian political exile, Professor Tizzi, who has spent his life researching “the principle of life.” As he sits for his portrait, Professor Tizzi tells Kerby the story behind a strange decorative object that he keeps in his study: a stuffed poodle named Scaramuccia that once belonged to a young woman named Nanina. The story begins with Father Rocco, the brother of the master-sculptor Luca Lomi, who devises a plan for Luca’s daughter, Maddalena, to marry Count Fabio d’Asocoli, who is studying under Luca. Father Rocco believes that the Count’s inheritance, which supposedly originates from stolen Church money, can be rightfully restored if Maddalena marries Fabio. The only obstacle to this plan, however, is Nanina, a poor young model and the true love of Fabio, whom Father Rocco persuades to leave Pisa. Though Fabio subsequently marries Maddalena, she tragically dies in childbirth the following year. To prevent Fabio from remarrying, Father Rocco employs a woman, who also once had designs on Fabio’s wealth, to impersonate Maddalena at a masked ball. Wearing a yellow mask over a cast of Maddalena’s face, the woman reveals herself to Fabio as his dead wife and almost shocks him to death. Nanina, who has returned to Pisa, nurses Fabio back to health while also proving over time that he was tricked by Father Rocco.

After Dark represents one of Collins’s earliest experiments with a multiple narrators, a polyphony of voices that leaves the reader to discern whether narrative control is ultimately exercised by a particular voice (the male artist, the female amanuensis, the lawyer, the governess, the farmer, the nun, the political exile) and, if so, what the implications of that dominant voice are. While the framing narrative provides a formal link for the stories, there are certain recurring motifs and thematic impulses that can be traced throughout the collection, such as disguise and mistaken identity, secrets and lies, crime and detection, dreams and the supernatural, and death and resurrection (also referred to as “the dead alive”).

Collins, Wilkie. Complete Short Fiction. London: Constable, 1998.

Categories: British Literature, Detective Novels, Mystery Fiction, Short Story

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