The heroine of Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875), Valeria Macallan, is in many ways a typical sensation heroine.
She is resilient, independent and determined to get what she wants. What she wants, however, is not to marry rich, hide her
bigamous past or inherit a fortune that is rightfully hers, but to prove her husband’s innocence. I begin this chapter with
an example that emphasises women’s complex representation in sensation fiction, and the way that male characters were often
secondary to the action of the story, reduced to observing ‘high-strung women, full of passion, purpose, and movement’. Valeria
is married only a short time before she discovers that her husband was once on trial for the murder of his first wife and
that he received the ambiguous verdict ‘Not Proven’. Valeria’s excessive, selfless devotion to her husband seems to make her
the epitome of the good Victorian wife; however, her fidelity is paired with an independent streak, as she determines to prove
her husband’s innocence despite his protests. When he insists, ‘A good wife should know better than to pry into affairs of
her husband’s’, she inwardly retorts, ‘[h]e was treating me like a child’. Valeria ignores her husband’s wishes and stubbornly
gathers evidence; in one instance, she goes so far as to permit a hotel chambermaid to improve her appearance so that she
can draw information from her husband’s friend and well-known flirt, Major Fitz-David. Valeria records:
came back with a box of paints and powders; and I said nothing to check her. I saw, in the glass, my skin take a false fairness,
my cheeks a false colour, my eyes a false brightness - and I never shrank from it. No! I let the odious deceit go on; I even
admired the extraordinary delicacy and dexterity with which it was all done.
The example of Valeria Macallan
gestures to a number of themes characteristic of sensation fiction: false appearances, wilful female characters and cautious
men. This chapter will explore these themes, with attention to notions of identity and performance.