Noa Reich, “Seeing ‘No Guiltless Minds’: Inheritance and Liability in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale” (pp. 30–67)
This essay suggests that the articulation of inherited guilt as a type of liability in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale (1866) invites us to reframe inheritance as central both to the Victorian credit economy and to the period’s fictional engagements with the effects of this economy. I begin by examining mid-nineteenth-century legal and political debates about limited corporate liability and estate debts, as well as legal theorist Henry Sumner Maine’s account of succession in Ancient Law (1861), which rests on an analogy between the family and the corporation. With their tropes of transmitted guilt, these discussions point to anxieties arising from the law’s construction of inherited identity as simultaneously individual and intergenerational, a paradox that both refracts and challenges nineteenth-century liberal contractual notions of identity. Armadale explores these issues through its depiction of the testator-heir dynamic as indeterminately singular and double, its association of inheritance with speculative ventures and impersonation, and its vacillation between affirming and limiting intergenerational liability. But it also fosters an alternative, mediating form of responsibility, which I call vicarious liability: a substitutive, imaginative liability both prompted and reinforced by the novel’s competing narrative perspectives and shifting or ambiguous focalization, as well as its embedded letters, diaries, and the depiction of reading as a path to identification with another’s guilt. Armadale’s take on inheritance may thus be read as a proposal for what the novel itself offers a hyper-contractual modernity: a framework for engaging in vicarious experiences of liability.