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The Secret Theatre of Suburbia: Identity and Roleplay in Wilkie Collins’s Basil

Derek F Stewart (University of Aberdeen, Scotland)

Abstract


Victorian popular novelist Wilkie Collins was, like many other writers of the period, fascinated with the stage. Amongst the literal dramatic activities that he engaged in, Collins was, for example, a keen amateur actor, and he regularly wrote theatrical reviews. This essay seeks to contextualise Collins’s knowledge of acting alongside his depiction of the London suburbs in Basil, his 1852 novel of modern life. In this text, Collins’s presentation of the city as a kind of theatre is prominently established in a key scene where he describes domestic unrest within the imaginary suburban location of Hollyoake Square as ‘the secret theatre of home’. While Collins’s evocation of the theatrical metaphor to superimpose urban with theatrical space is effective in augmenting the novel’s central theme of identity, I demonstrate with close attention to conventions of the popular mid-nineteenth-century stage how Collins takes this further. Developing recent criticism that has considered Collins as an urban writer, I argue London and its surrounding suburbs are, for Collins, a site of roleplay, which serves to underscore the theme of identity that is central to his work and address anxieties relating to identity and selfhood therein.

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