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Troisième partie : Montagnes imaginaires

"On the very brink of a precipice": Landscapes of the Mind in Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852)

Laurence Τalairach-Vielmas
p. 183-190


Le roman de Wilkie Collins, Basil (1852), se déroule en plein cœur de Londres, décrivant les mésaventures amoureuses d’un protagoniste nerveusement éprouvé par le rythme effréné de la capitale. Pourtant, c’est sur les falaises de Cornouailles que l’intrigue mène finalement le lecteur, alors que le héros regarde chuter le "villain" gothique qui le poursuit. C’est à partir des échos entre le roman de Collins et Frankenstein de Mary Shelley que cet article mettra en lumière l’importance de l’espace déchiré de la fin du roman où les falaises et les gouffres servent à Collins à métaphoriser l’esprit tourmenté de son protagoniste, réécrivant ainsi les clichés romantiques du promeneur solitaire

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1In her introduction to the Standard Novels edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote on 15 October 1831: "It was... on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near, that my true composition, the airy flights of my imagination, were born and fostered" (Shelley 260). The writer’s association of the Scottish mountains near Dundee with literary creativity reflects, of course, the clichéd Romantic projection of the self on the rugged and picturesque sublimities of mountainous scenery. However, if Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein—born and brought up amidst the Swiss mountains a league from Geneva—first seems to echo his creator’s fascination with climes and peaks, Shelley makes radical changes to the Romantic painting of mountainous sublimity.

2At the opening of the novel, the narrator of the frame narrative, Robert Walton, who has just started on his journey to the North Pole, believes he is already being inspired by the cold northern breeze playing "upon his cheeks, ... [and] brac[ing] [his] nerves" (Shelley 269). The breeze gives him "a foretaste of [the] icy climes," making his daydreams "more fervent and vivid" (Shelley 269). From the start, therefore, the "icy climes" already merge the Romantic icon of sublimity with the explorer’s hubris, foreshadowing Shelley’s mad scientist’s Promethean quest and his exploration of other unknown regions: those of life and death, of the body and of the mind. Shelley’s mounts are thus no borderlands between the physical and the spiritual universe. The scientist, driven by a passion compared to ‘a mountain river’ (Shelley 297), carries out his scientific experiment by "tread[ing] in the steps already marked, ... pioneer[ing] a new way, [and] explor[ing] unknown powers" (Shelley 308). The depiction of the scientific experiment draws further on landscape metaphors: Frankenstein often finds himself "on the very brink of certainty" and "[clings] to the hope which the next day or the next hour will realize" (Shelley 314), and if clinging to the face of a rugged cliff, until he reaches "the summit of [his] desires" (Shelley 312).

3However, the scientist’s feverish "dream" soon turns into a nightmare, and Frankenstein is compelled to face the work of his own hands on "real" mountains. When he reaches Geneva after William’s death, he looks up at the snowy mountains. The contrasted "black sides of Jura and the bright summit of Mont Blanc" (Shelley 336) bring about electric tension in the text—discharged later on through the storm which illuminates some peaks while darkening others, and lets the thunder echo "from Salêve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy" (Shelley 337). The son et lumière show reveals double-faced mountains: what appears illuminated—or illuminating—on one side, is shadowed by a dark reflection on the other. The spectacle does not elevate the Romantic hero’s spirits for long. The natural spectacle prefigures the appearance of the creature, "hanging among the rocks of the nearly perpendicular ascent of Mount Salêve" (Shelley 338) and then reaching the summit and disappearing. Dramatically staged, the invasion of modern science, monstrously encroaching upon the natural landscape, turns the Romantic scenery into a wretched picture of Frankenstein’s own corrupt ambition and passionate drives. The creature, who is "capable of scaling the overhanging sides of Mount Salêve," appears among "the precipices of an inaccessible mountain" (Shelley 339), and changes heights into precipices. The mountain peaks reflect the depths of the ambitious scientist’s psyche—the murderous drives of the man who now wishes he could make "a pilgrimage to the highest peak of the Andes [to] precipitat[e] [the creature] to their base" (Shelley 355). The Romantic stereotype of sublimity and spiritual elevation is cut at its base: Shelley’s elated protagonist does not just parody the excesses of Romantic vision; he also illustrates how the progress of science and the secularization of the modern world have replaced the divine: revelation is not metaphysical, and Frankenstein’s scientific ascension and "lofty ambition" (Shelley 484) is no moral ascent but a fall down a precipice.

4The precipice soon becomes a trope mapping out Frankenstein’s fate, though the scientist hardly sees its vertiginous depths, unlike his wife-to-be, Elizabeth: "I feel as if I were walking on the edge of a precipice, towards which thousands are crowding and endeavouring to plunge me into the abyss" (Shelley 356). The scientist then attempts to confront his "ephemeral, because human, sorrows" (Shelley 357) to the eternal rock face, and starts on a walk towards Chamonix. Once again, his literal ascension is followed by a fall: the sublimity of the scenery, speaking "of a power mighty as Omnipotence," the sight of the "mighty Alps," the "supreme and magnificent Mont Blanc, rais[ing] itself from the surrounding aiguilles, and its tremendous dome overlook[ing] the valley" (Shelley 358) only pave the way for a deeper disenchantment. Frankenstein roams through the valley, surrounded by mountains, the wall of the glacier overhanging him, and decides to ascend the summit of Montanvert. Yet he cannot experience again, as in the past, "the sublime ecstacy that gave wings to the soul and allowed it to soar from the obscure world to light and joy" (Shelley 361). The ascent is, indeed, "precipitous" (Shelley 361), and when Frankenstein arrives at the top of the ascent and sits upon the "rock that overlooks the sea of ice," he starts descending upon the glacier ‘interspersed by rifts that sink deep’ (Shelley 362). Ironically, just as he calls up the "Wandering spirits," he beholds the figure of his creature bounding over the crevices in the ice "with superhuman speed" (Shelley 362). The climax of the novel, as the creature tells his story at the summit of the glacier, becomes a literal cliffhanger. Frankenstein listens to the tale of his own creature and, with sensations weighing on him "with a mountain’s weight" (Shelley 416), sees his ambitious scientific project precipitated down the mountain.

5The monster, who has taken refuge in the Alps, is the offspring of modernity and its aggressive science, precluding all kind of rapture and exaltation. Because they are associated with the murderous creature, the high mountain slopes cannot figure as a significant landmark separating the physical from the spiritual. Terror is not holy; horror is man-made. The mountain stands out as a representation of Frankenstein’s "superhuman" ego, a "platform of hubris," in Simon Schama’s terms (Schama 426), revealing the extent to which Frankenstein’s quest for knowledge is, in fact, no more than a discovery of his inner truth—an exploration of his own psychic depths. As Simon Schama argues, in the eighteenth century, the Swiss Alps were "not just temples of sublimity... they were also the seat of virtue" "free from urban debauchery" (Schama 478, 480). Shelley’s subversion of the Romantic "cult of moralized mountaineering" thus literally reverses traditional manichean patterns. The successive ascensions and descents of Shelley’s hero become disorientating as Frankenstein’s scientific elevation, represented by the creature inhabiting the top of the mountain, marches hand-inhand with the scientist’s moral downfall. The perspective is reshuffled, compelling the reader, like a beholder, to witness Frankenstein’s descent as he climbs up, and preventing sublime experience.

6Similarly, after their wedding, Frankenstein and Elizabeth behold Mont Salêve, Mont Blanc, the mighty Jura, and the spire of Evian—the heights ironically once more foreshadowing Frankenstein’s next plunge into despair with the loss of his wife on their wedding night. Hence, throughout the novel, tops are murderous spears, sharp as lancets cutting through the bodies of those he loves; the mountains around Geneva only echo the creature’s laugh "as if hell surrounded [the scientist] with mockery and laughter" (Shelley 475). The picturesque mountainous scenery must be fled. So Frankenstein leaves Geneva and commences his "destructive and almost endless journey across the mountainous ices of the ocean" (Shelley 479), exchanging the Alps for the mountains of ice of the North Pole. The change is highly symbolical. The Gothic sublimities of the Alps, linked to Frankenstein’s past, give way to the mountains of ice of the North Pole—directly alluding to Britain’s imperial ambition with its modern polar expeditions, such as the quest for the North-West passage. As ice replaces rock, the narrative revamps the Gothic mysteries of mountainous scenery. Frankenstein’s journey into the unknown territories of the body has eventually led him to embark upon a voyage towards the polar regions, chilling blood not just mentally, but also physiologically. Snow covers Gothic traces, freezing the flame of passion of the scientist who handles icy blades, offering horror wrapped up in a pure white coat. Awesome crests melt away, revealing the fathomless depths of the human mind under the coat of ice. Indeed, as Mariaconcetta Costantini argues, though Shelley prefers open spaces to the prototypical Gothic sites of persecution, the characters are "constrained within their tortured consciousness," their "mental enclosure [being] most effective in the description of frozen landscapes, whose cold expanses become all-encompassing metaphors of loss and captivity" (Costantini 10). Increasingly, the Gothic quest becomes a psychological exploration—horror is located in the self.

7It is this very idea that one of Wilkie Collins’s early novels, Basil (1852), explores. The novel revisits Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, laying stress on the reworking of Gothic motifs throughout the nineteenth century. The cliffs, chasms and abysses stand for the obscure depths of the mind. Just like Shelley’s mad scientist, Collins’s eponymous hero is fatally pursued and persecuted by a monstrous being. Set at the heart of London, the novel traces the day-dream of Basil, the son of an ancient family, who is lured by a linen-draper’s daughter. Blinded by his passion, he proposes to the socially-inferior Margaret Sherwin, and agrees to postpone the consummation of his marriage for a year. Yet, the ‘beauty of the dream’ soon vanishes on the night before his year’s probation is completed. Basil sees Margaret and her father’s clerk, Robert Mannion, entering an hotel. Through the partition wall, Basil hears Mannion seducing Margaret. Out of anger, Basil then waits for Mannion and hurls him on the newly "macadamised" road, leaving him monstrously disfigured—a counterpart of Dr. Frankenstein’s creature. In fact, Mannion is the son of one of Basil’s father’s employees who was hanged for forging Basil’s father’s name. Monomaniacally obsessed with taking revenge on Basil, Mannion follows Basil to Cornwall. But as they meet on the cliffs, Mannion threateningly raises his hand in the air, loses his balance and falls down a precipice, disappearing into the mouth of a chasm.

  • 1 Tamar Heller, who focuses more particularly on the way in which Mary Shelley’s female Gothic narrat (...)

8The novel explicitly borrows from Shelley’s Frankenstein. The unconsummated marriage, the hero’s unrestrained passion, which disfigures Mannion and makes a monster of him, Mannion’s narrative, explaining the curse that follows him, embedded in Basil’s confession, and the emphasis on dreams, ravings, deliriums which punctuate the plot, strongly connect the two novels.1 However, Basil is bedazzled by the lures of commodity culture, which creates desires and fancies haunting him and literally leading him onto the brink of a precipice: the sublime assault on the senses of the Romantic traveller becomes an assault on the senses of the consumer.

9Indeed, Collins builds up his romance as a modern visual experience: the protagonist is dazzled by a linen-draper’s daughter whose appearance is as captivating as the commodities her father sells at the shop. Unable to "repress [his] desire" (Collins 33), Basil follows her and soon proposes to her. In fact, Basil is "blinded" (Collins 171, 224) by the surface appearance of things, and refuses to acknowledge the depths of his own desire. Revealingly, Basil very quickly projects his feelings of guilt onto natural scenery. In one of his dreams, he sees a woman, dressed in pure white, descending from the bright summits of the hills, and a dark woman coming out of the woods. Following the dark woman and turning his back on the fair hills, Basil enters the "secret recesses that lay amid the unfathomable depths of trees" (Collins 46)—mapping out his desire through the trope of the forest.

  • 2 Frankenstein is also described by Walton as "a volcano bursting forth" (Shelley 482).

10Another example of such projections onto natural scenery is found after Basil’s discovery of the truth and his disfigurement of Mannion. He starts raving, and in his delirium, heights and domes illustrate his soaring passion. Basil’s modern urban world is recast here as mountains and volcanoes,2 As in Frankenstein, hell is high overhead on top of flashing ruby summits. Light gives way to shadow, sound to silence, heat to cold. Then Basil sees Mannion and Margaret lifting a veil made up of a network of twining worms. The lifting of the veil, revealing Mannion and Margaret as two monsters, recalls Frankenstein’s dream after the creation scene, with the shroud enveloping the corpse of his dead mother and grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel:

[A] sudden strength and fury possessed me, and I plunged down through a vast darkness into a world whose daylight was all radiant flame. Giant phantoms mustered by millions, flashing white as lightning in the ruddy air. They rushed on me with hurricane speed; their wings fanned me with fiery breezes; and the echo of their thunder-music was like the groaning and rending of an earthquake, as they tore me away with them on their whirlwind course.
Away! to a City of Palaces, to measureless halls, and arches, and domes, soaring one above another, till their flashing ruby summits are lost in the burning void, high overhead. On! through and through these mountain-piles, into countless, limitless corridors, reared on pillars lurid and rosy as molten lava. Far down the corridors rise visions of flying phantoms, ever at the same distance before us – their raving voices clanging like the hammers of a thousand forges. Still on and on; faster and faster, for days, years, centuries together, till there comes, stealing slowly forward to meet us, a shadow – a vast, stealthy, gliding shadow – the first darkness that has ever been shed over that world of blazing light! It comes nearer – nearer and nearer softly, till it touches the front ranks of our phantom troop. Then in an instant, our rushing progress is checked: the thunder-music of our wild march stops; the raving voices of the spectres ahead, cease; a horror of blank stillness is all about us – and as the shadow creeps onward and onward, until we are enveloped in it from front to rear, we shiver with icy cold under the fiery air and amid the lurid lava pillars which hem us in on either side.
A silence, like no silence ever known on earth; a darkening of the shadow, blacker than the blackest night in the thickest wood – a pause – then, a sound as of the heavy air being cleft asunder: and then, an apparition of two figures coming on out of the shadow – two monsters stretching forth their gnarled yellow talons to grasp at us; leaving on their track a green decay, oozing and shining with a sickly light. Beyond and around me, as I stood in the midst of them, the phantom troop dropped into formless masses, which the monsters advanced. They came close to me; and I alone, of all the myriads around, changed not at their approach. Each laid a talon on my shoulder—each raised a veil which was one hideous net-work of twining worms. I saw through the ghastly corruption of their faces the look that told me who they were—the monstrous iniquities incarnate in monstrous forms: the fiend-souls made visible in fiend-shapes—Margaret and Mannion!
A moment more! and I was alone with those two. Not a wreck of the phantom-multitude remained; the towering city, the gleaming corridors, the fire-bright radiance had vanished. We stood on a wilderness—a still, black lake of dead waters was before us; a white, fain, misty light shone on us. Outspread over the noisome ground lay the ruins of a house, rooted up and overthrown to its foundations. The demon figures, still watching on either side of me, drew me slowly forward to the fallen stones, and pointed to two dead bodies lying among them.
My father!—my sister!—both cold and still, and whiter than the white light that showed them to me. (Collins 172-4).

11As typified by Basil’s dream and deliriums, Collins reworks the Gothic quest into an exploration of mental obsession, and systematically projects his hero’s inner conflicts on natural scenery miles away from the lights and sounds of modern urban life. Revealingly, Mannion, once disfigured, becomes a dangerous monomaniac determined to make Basil’s life "one long expiation of this deformity" (Collins 304). The "work of [Basil’s] own hands" (Collins 303) is thus not just a sensational transformation of the handsome-looking clerk into a monster; it also deals with the reframing of the characters’ hauntings and superstitions in medical terms. As the ‘evil spirit’ (Collins 264) starts pursuing Basil, Mannion’s face, with ‘its ghastly discolouration of sickness (Collins 303), aligns the medical and the moral, revamping the Gothic narrative. Gradually, Basil’s creation appears not so much as Basil’s monstrous double as an allegorical representation of repression. The creature, imprisoned in the hero’s mind and "moving always to and fro in it—moving, but never getting free" (Collins 169) recasts Gothic topos of confinement and tropes of persecution into an exploration of repression and guilt. The inaccessibility of the creature is eventually projected onto Cornish scenery, a few miles from the Land’s End, using the cliffs and chasms to figure Basil’s mental recesses and haunting secrets. The setting is sharply contrasted with London, where, as Jonathan Crary contends, "capitalism uproots and makes mobile that which is grounded, clears away or obliterates that which impedes circulation" (Crary 10). As firm boundaries, marked by crevices and holes, the Cornish cliffs stand out as counter reflections of the deceptively flat urban images, enabling the character to explore his own psychic instability. Indeed, the transposition of the setting from the civilized city to the wild Cornish precipices inhabited by superstitious people has a view to figuring and framing Basil’s repressed wildness. Basil and Mannion’s obsessions—their idées fixes—are this time projected onto ‘real’ natural scenery where the immutability of rock reverberates their fixations. Hence, Basil’s forebodings increase: everywhere about the place, he feels "the unknown dangers which hang over [his] head... the threats of [his] deadly enemy strengthen[ing] their hold fearfully on all [his] senses" (Collins 314). Basil fears he is being followed, and reads the mist, which shrouds the scenery, as "the dim and ghastly personification of a fatality that is lying in wait" (Collins 314). In fact, as the mist precludes sight, Basil’s blindness draws him further inwards while he vainly seeks to flee his responsibility on the cliffs.

12The shift from the character’s figurative blindness to a literal sightlessness brings about the climax of the narrative—rocks, abysses and holes acting as so many images of Basil’s limited freedom. Locked up within his own psyche, Basil walks along the edge of the precipices "only by keeping the sound of the sea always at the same distance from [his] ear" (Collins 320). As the cliffs excite Basil’s sensations, the scene revisits the cliché of the Romantic traveller looking for the sublime at the edge of the precipice. We may imagine here one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, from his Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) to his Ravine (1821), both works typically using outside reality as projections of the artist’s inner self. If Collins reshapes the cliffs as a symbolic site revealing inner truth, the truth lies in a medical exploration of the self, which leads Basil to reassess his fears in physiological terms: "Does this foreboding that Mannion’s eye is always on me, that his footsteps are always secretly following mine, proceed only from the weakness of my worn-out energies?" (Collins 314). Basil ascends the cliff path in order to get to Penzance, climbs on the highest point of the surrounding rocks, painted with glaring red and white, "one of the great granite promontories which project into the sea" (Collins 321). In one of the highest parts of the wallside of granite opens "a black, yawning hole that slanted nearly straight downwards, like a tunnel, to unknown and unfathomable depths below" (Collins 321). Basil then becomes aware of the dangers of the "narrow ledges and treacherous precipices" (Collins 322) he has just unconsciously passed. Still, he walks closer, morbidly longing to look on danger, like many a man "led... to the very brink of a precipice" (Collins 322). The sight bewilders him, and the depths and wild shapes formed by the rocks foreshadow the appearance of Mannion—his creation.

13The encounter with the evil creature gives a modern kick to the Gothic revision. As Maurice Levy argues, the sight of precipices frequently punctuates the Radcliffean heroines’ journeys to the sites of persecution, such as when Emily St Aubert approaches Udolpho in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) or when Ellena is kidnapped in The Italian (1797) and taken to a convent (see Lévy). In both cases, their journeys along cliffs and abysses are forced voyages, constructing the vertiginous chasms as illustrations of the weak women’s lack of control of the situation. Moreover, the depths trope the villains’ fallen natures—as exemplified by the end of Lewis’s The Monk (1796) in which Ambrosio is taken to the highest peak by the devil and falls down the precipice (see Lévy). The end of Basil on the Cornish cliffs reworks such stereotypes, and Collins goes a step further in his use of rocky scenery as illustration of the nature of his hero’s will: the cliffs allegorize the hero’s volition as he struggles against his own repressed desires. Indeed, Mannion lays his hand firmly on Basil’s arm as the latter is visualizing the depths of his own psyche, with "tortured waters imprisoned in the depths of the abyss," "boil[ing] and thudder[ing] in their imprisonment, till they seemed to convulse the solid cliff about them" (Collins 322). The sight of Mannion, his vacant eye glaring as a sign of madness, echoes the tumultuous abyss. Like the sprays steaming up like smoke, Basil feels his brain "turn[ing] to fire; [his] heart to ice" (Collins 324). As suggested by the merging of fire and water, heat and cold, – or as foreshadowed by the surrounding mist, fusing water and rock—boundaries dissolve and Basil loses his mental grip: he feels his own hands stretching themselves out to dash Mannion down the hole, but flees just in time. Mannion, on the other hand, shakes his hand threateningly in the air, which destroys his equilibrium and makes him fall backwards and slip down into the mouth of the abyss. The sight of Mannion’s disruption of balance, which paralyzes Basil’s faculties, haunts him through his following delirium, revealing Basil’s repressed feelings, in a glass darkly:

The frightful scene that I witnessed yesterday still holds the same disastrous influence over me.... Waking or sleeping, it is as if some fatality kept all my factulties imprisoned within the black walls of the chasms.... I am afraid my mind is seriously affected; it must have been fatally weakened before I passed through the terrible scenes among the rocks of the promontory. (Collins 327-8)

14Revealingly, when Basil recovers, he no longer envisages his life as a glittering mountain-path, preferring instead the darkness of the valley. The end of the narrative hence reworks the motifs of the novel, concluding Basil’s experience as a journey from bedazzling lights to dark recesses and from heights to depths:

I am still resolved to live on in obscurity, in retirement, in peace... The glory and glitter which I once longed to look on as my own, would dazzle and destroy me, now... The mountain-path of Action is no longer a path for me; my future hope pauses with my present happiness in the shadowed valley of Repose. (Collins 342)

  • 3 De Quincey, like many opium dreamers, used buildings as an embodiment of his psychological state. P (...)

15As one of Collins’s earliest novels, Basil enhances Collins’s interest in the visual, as he uses landscapes to figure his character’s repressed desires. Heavily influenced by De Quincey’s descriptions of opium-dreams and reveries, the depictions of chasms, abysses and depths below depths, the collapsing of boundaries and the plays on the expansion of space, underline Collins’s oscillations between pictorial and symbolic representations. Little by little, his Gothic sublimities and/or Gothic locales function as allegorical representations of his characters’ minds – climaxing in The Haunted Hotel, in which his painting of the palace bears a resemblance to the type of visionary architecture that, for instance, Piranesi devised in the eighteenth century with his Carceri d’Invenzione.3 In fact, as Alethea Hayter contends, Collins’s prose became increasingly marked by the effects of his use of opium, which altered the ‘power to convey the visual impact of landscape’ (Hayter 166).

16On the other hand, as we have seen, the choice of urban London, as the place where Basil’s obsession with the linen-draper’s daughter originates, revisits the hero’s Gothic nightmare and turns it into a "hideous phantasmagoria" (Collins 169), leading the character onto the verge of madness. The characters’ monomaniacal obsessions, the revelation of their unrestrained impulses beneath the mask of civilization, like Margaret Sherwin, who has "simply instincts – most of the bad instincts of an animal" (Collins 239), may also hint at man’s potential degeneration in urban dwellings: after all, Basil’s hurling of Mannion’s face on the newly "macadamised" road has beaten out of him "the semblance of humanity as well" (Collins 164). Hence, though Basil is a mid-Victorian novel figuring nervously exhausted male characters, we could use here H. G. Wells’s mountain trope to envisage Basil’s final wandering on the cliffs of Cornwall as a symbolical representation of man’s step on the path of evolution and the danger which awaits him down the cliff:

In fact, the path of [evolution], so frequently compared to some steadily-rising mountain slope, is far more like a footway worn by leisurely wanderers in an undulating country. Excelsior biology is a popular and poetic creation – the real form of a phylum, or line of descent, is far more like the course of a busy man moving about a great city. Sometimes it goes underground, sometimes it doubles and twists in tortuous streets, now it rises far overhead along some viadux... Upward and downward these threads of pedigree interweave, slowly working out a pattern of accomplished things that is difficult to interpret, but in which scientific observers certainly fail to discover that inevitable tendency to higher and better things which the word ‘evolution’ is popularly associated. (Wells 159 in Hurley 89)

17Collins’s fascination with psychological disturbance may thus reverberate with the scientific and medical constructions of mental degeneration of the time. Collins’s representation of psychological disturbance in Basil through cliffs and chasms heralds, indeed, a long series of uncanny images of depths and heights, such as the shivering sands in The Moonstone, where a deformed and depressed servant, Rosanna Spearman, commits suicide. Though Collins is not, of course, dealing with fin-de-siècle issues yet, still, his promontories and abysses pave the way for his later preoccupation with man’s potential reversion into a monstrous creature.

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COLLINS, Wilkie. Basil [1852], Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

COSTANTINI, Mariaconcetta. "The Lure of the ‘Frozen Deep’: Nineteenth-Century Variations of a Gothic Trope", RSV. 11/22 (July 2006), 1–25.

CRARY, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass., London: MIT Press, 1992.

HAYTER, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.

HELLER, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

HURLEY, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, [1996] 2004.

LÉVY, Maurice. "La Montagne et la manière noire," paper presented at The Mountain conference, University of Toulouse-Le Mirail, 4–7 October 2007.

SCHAMA, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Random House, 1995.

SHELLEY, Mary. Frankenstein [1818–1831], Three Gothic Novels. London: Penguin, [1968] 1986.

WELLS, H. G. "Zoological Retrogression", Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction. Robert Philmus and David Y. Hughes eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

WILSON, Eric. G. The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science and the Imagination. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003.

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1 Tamar Heller, who focuses more particularly on the way in which Mary Shelley’s female Gothic narrative haunts the text, underlines other similarities: the use of the portrait of Basil’s mother, which, like Frankenstein’s mother, hangs above the fireplace; Basil’s mother’s death, shortly after giving birth to Clara, also recalls Shelley’s own mother (see Heller 58-81).

2 Frankenstein is also described by Walton as "a volcano bursting forth" (Shelley 482).

3 De Quincey, like many opium dreamers, used buildings as an embodiment of his psychological state. Piranesi’s engravings, which De Quincey had never seen but which he described through Coleridge’s account, matched the type of visionary architecture which the opium dreamer had.

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Bibliographical reference

Laurence Τalairach-Vielmas, « "On the very brink of a precipice": Landscapes of the Mind in Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852) », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 183-190.

Electronic reference

Laurence Τalairach-Vielmas, « "On the very brink of a precipice": Landscapes of the Mind in Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852) », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Laurence Τalairach-Vielmas

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS

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Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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