Analysis of Wilkie Collins’s The Diary of Anne Rodway

First published in Charles Dickens’s magazine Household Words (July 19 and 26, 1856), the story was included in Wilkie Collins’s short story collection The Queen of Hearts (1859) as “Brother Owen’s Story of Anne Rodway.”

The narrative is composed of a series of excerpts from the diary of Anne Rodway, a “plain needlewoman.” In the opening series of entries, Anne recounts her concern over her troubled friend and fellow lodger Mary Mallinson. One evening, Anne is given a dreadful fright when she finds Mary sleeping heavily, her room in total disarray. She discovers a bottle of laudanum and jumps to the conclusion that Mary has given in to her despair and has attempted to end her life. Anne manages to awaken Mary, who reassures her that she is accustomed to taking a few drops of laudanum each night to help her sleep. Mary admits, however, that given her overwhelming debts, her ineptitude for needlework, and her estrangement from her family, her life is hardly worth living. Anne is haunted by Mary’s parting words: “I began my life wretchedly, and wretchedly I am sentenced to end it.”

Boston Public Library / Public Domain

A number of days are marked in Anne’s diary, but there are no corresponding entries. Finally, Anne returns to her narrative with news of a “dreadful calamity”— one evening, not long after the laudanum incident, two policemen show up at the lodging house carrying the almost lifeless body of Mary. They found her lying in the street having suffered a blow to the temple. The doctor who is called in concludes that Mary is the victim of a freak accident: She likely suffered a fainting fit, fell down on the street, and hit her head on the “kerb-stone.” While Anne stays up that evening keeping watch over the unconscious body of her friend, she discovers in one of Mary’s tightly clenched hands what appears to be a torn piece of a man’s necktie. Anne immediately concludes that Mary has been the victim of foul play, but when the doctor returns the next morning to check on Mary, he dismisses the torn cloth as significant evidence that a crime has been committed. Shortly thereafter, Mary dies. Some time passes, and then, by complete chance, Anne discovers the missing section of the tie in a rag and bottle shop. With this vital clue, she vows to track down the murderer of her friend: “[A] kind of fever got possession of [her]—a vehement yearning to go on from this first discovery and find out more, no matter what the risk might be.” The seamstress-turned-detective tracks down the owner of the tie, a “crooked-back dwarf.” Through a series of bribes, the dwarf leads her to the murderer, a drunk by the name of Noah Truscott, who coincidentally was also the wicked ruin of Mary’s father.

“The Diary of Anne Rodway” is an early example of Collins’s experiments with narrative form and perspective. Thematically, the story is provocative not simply because it features the first fictional female detective but because that amateur detective is an uneducated, working-class needlewoman who exposes the incompetence of male authority as represented by the doctor and the police. Anne Rodway sets a pattern for the strong, independent heroines that appear throughout Collins’s fiction: women who often dominate and control the action while the men passively stand by. Indeed, through her ingenuity and perseverance, Anne cracks the case single-handedly, but it is her absent fiancé, Robert, who ultimately reaps the rewards of her efforts. Mary’s long-lost brother reappears on the scene and expresses his gratitude by securing a job for Robert so that he can marry Anne. This so-called happy resolution of narrative events invites the reader to consider the nature of Anne’s success—whether Anne’s containment within the domestic sphere is reward or punishment for her transgressive acts.

The story also features the dream as a cryptic and awful foreboding, blurring the boundaries between the natural and supernatural and refl ecting Collins’s interest in contemporary dream theory. Collins had begun to use the dream as a narrative device in his novel Basil (1852), and he would continue to explore in more sophisticated ways the dream as psychic transmission in novels such as The Woman in White (1860) and Armadale (1866). Finally, the appearance of the “crooked-back dwarf,” though his role in the narrative is minimal, introduces another key feature of Collins’s fiction: the “freak.” Collins does not, however, showcase characters with various physical and psychological abnormalities simply for comic effect; rather, his fictional grotesques are figures whose motivations in the narrative are always ambiguous and discomfiting to characters and readers alike.

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

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

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