The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins wrote in the late 19th Century, publishing The New Magdalen in 1873. He had very enlightened ideas about the treatment of women for his time. His most well-known novel, The Woman in White, revealed the practice of inconvenient women being placed in lunatic asylums for the convenience of their families or their husbands. 

Asylums, diagnoses of madness and incarceration have a long history as a method of dealing with inconvenient people of whom the powerful disapprove:

  • Dissidents in Soviet Russia,
  • Unmarried, pregnant women in Ireland
  • Refugees and asylum seekers in the UK today.

In The New Magdalen Wilkie Collins takes up the issues of women who are deemed to have fallen, and in particular how society at that time did not understand how women in poverty might become prostitutes and did not allow her to redeem her reputation. She was forever judged by the lowest point of her life, not by her character.

The New Magdalen

Wilkie Collins was known as a sensational writer, that is one who could provoke sensations or emotions through writing. Since the novel was originally published as a weekly serial there needed to be many cliff-hangers. The novel is full of will she/will he? moments, or of people listening outside doors, decisions needing to be made immediately, and if only she had known moments.

Mary Magdalene is a New Testament character, who travelled with and supported Jesus and the apostles. Very early commentators interpreted her as a reformed prostitute or a promiscuous woman. Mercy Merrick is the new Magdalen, and her character is contrasted with Grace Roseberry. 

We meet the two women as their paths cross in a cottage in France in the middle of a French war with Germany. Grace is returning to London after the death of her only close family to find refuge in the household of a wealthy relative. Mercy is a nurse caring for some French soldiers. She tells Grace her story and her despair at being a permanent social outcast.

‘… Society can’t take me back. You see me here in a place of trust – patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn’t matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn’t matter. Once my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me, the kindest people shrink.’ (16)

The able-bodied French retreat and Mercy and Grace remain with the injured until a bombardment is launched by the Germans. Grace is wounded and pronounced dead by the French surgeon before he flees to escape the German advance. Mercy is rescued by a journalist who provides her with safe passage. Despite some misgivings she has decided to take on the identity of Grace Roseberry. 

And so the scene is set for the contrast between the two women to emerge, and especially for reactions when the real Grace appears, having been restored to health. In the interval between her escape and the second section of the book, Mercy has established herself as a much-loved companion to Lady Janet Roy and the fiancée of her nephew, Horace, the journalist who rescued her. But when the real Grace arrives to claim her position in the household the dilemmas and tensions begin.

Around the same time as Grace reappears, so does Julian Gray, an unconventional preacher who has previously inspired Mercy. He too is a nephew of Lady Janet Roy. The true Grace is at first dismissed as a mad woman, so convinced is Lady Janet that Mercy is her relative, and Horace that his fiancée is who she says. But Mercy finds that her honesty will not let her maintain the fiction for very long, even if Grace is spiteful and vindictive and judges her according to the history she heard in the cottage.

‘Lady Janet! Lady Janet! Don’t leave me without a word.’ Illustration by George du Maurier

When Mercy finally confesses, each of the characters in turn must decide how they react. Lady Janet Roy wants to sweep everything under the carpet and maintain the fiction that Mercy is her ‘adopted daughter’. Horace is horrified and cannot imagine being married to such a woman, influenced in part by his mother and sisters who would never accept a wife from a disreputable background. Julian Gray supports her, and eventually falls for her, inspired by her bravery and determination.

It falls to Horace Holmcroft to articulate the prevalent view of society at the time in a letter in the epilogue which he writes to Grace Roseberry.

‘The existence of Society, as you truly say, is threatened by the present lamentable prevalence of Liberal ideas throughout the length and breadth of the land. We can only hope to protect ourselves against imposters interested in gaining a position among persons of our rank by becoming in some sort (unpleasant as it may be) familiar with the arts by which imposture too frequently succeeds. ‘ (374)

In the first scene, in the French cottage, when Mercy had told her story to Grace, the reader is reminded of the Christian attitude to sin. Mercy tells Grace that she had heard Julian Gray preach and it gave her the courage to persist in trying to make a good life for herself.

His text was from the words, Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over nine and ninety just persons which need no repentance.  …From that time I have accepted my hard lot, been a patient woman. (18-19)

Even when she becomes the wife of a man of standing and good reputation and is supported by Lady Janet Roy, Society does not relent. Mercy and her husband are forced to emigrate from England because she is not acceptable.

The novel was also produced as a play, and many scenes of the book can be visualised in this way: the French cottage, the room through which people can pass unseen, or hide from those meeting there. Some of the speeches were designed for theatre audiences.

Wilkie Collins

It is not irrelevant that Wilkie Collins himself ran two households, two women and their children, marrying neither woman. Both were acknowledged in his will: Caroline Graves was his ‘constant companion’, Martha Rudd as the mother of his children.  I suspect that such an arrangement would still be frowned upon today.

The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins, first published in 1873. I read the edition from Persephone Books, published in 2020. 397pp

Related post

Fallen Women about ‘fallen women’ in fiction, on Bookword October 2015

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

2 Responses to The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

  1. How very interesting. And how sad that women are *still* judged differently to men. Pertinently, the news all over the media today about Britney Spears just proves that women can *still* be controlled by men if their behaviour is considered transgressive or mad… 🙁

    • Caroline

      What an apt parallel. The Woman in White is all about imprisoning an inconvenient young woman in an insane asylum. Poor Mercy’s story of why she descended into prostitution, in The New Magdalen, is harrowing. Collins implies that she should be praised for her generosity and kindness despite what society has done to her. But few society members can rise to that. Lady Janet Roy, however, is one.
      It’s also a good story about deceit and stolen identity!
      Thanks for this.
      Cafroline

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