Article body

At the end of his collection of short stories entitled New Arabian Nights (1882), Robert Louis Stevenson insists on the fictional nature of his enterprise by sending both the collection’s protagonist, Florizel, Prince of Bohemia and the collection’s purported “Arabian Author, “topsy-turvy into space” (212). That an author could jettison both narrator and principal character in so casual a manner was disturbing to the late Victorians, according to one contemporary review of the collection. Reviewer W.H. Pollock complains at angry length about this line, arguing that “no reader of intelligence can wish to be reminded that Prince Florizel is merely a device of Mr. Stevenson who has ‘served his turn.’” More extremely, Pollock wishes “that this last paragraph of Mr. Stevenson’s first volume could be blacked out like articles supposed to be dangerous in English newspapers sent to Russia” (110).[1] I begin with this mention of Stevenson because, while his use of the Arabian Nights is explicit in the title of his work, it was by no means original. What was dangerous about Stevenson’s abrupt disposal of his narrator was the death blow it dealt to what was by the 1880s a well-established literary tradition of British short stories—stories that were structurally, but not thematically, modeled on the collection of Persian, Arabic and Indian folktales known in England as the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. It is this tradition that I mean to examine, particularly as it is developed in the short fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s collection of stories Round the Sofa (1855-1859) and Wilkie Collins’ collection After Dark (1856) owe their structure not to the linear and self-contained conceptions of plot that inform realist novels of the nineteenth century. Instead, they owe their structure to the alternate structures of storytelling made famous by the Nights. While short fiction during the mid-Victorian period was both popular and profitable, the principal model for “literary” fiction remained the novel. Seeking inspiration, authors looked to the Nights. The structure of stories in the Nights offered an alternative, but still cohesive, model for fiction, and this alternative model inspired story collections characterized by a reliance on embedded stories within a frame narrative. An embedded structure exposes a tension between the part and the whole, between texts that are seen to be fragmentary and the narratives that contain them. The story collections of Gaskell and Collins are exemplary. This trend persists until the 1880s, when the short story in Britain begins to become a defensible genre in its own right, allowing Stevenson to spoof the practice in his New Arabian Nights. Use of the Nights in Victorian short fiction emerges as a way to create a recognizable coherence that is fundamentally different from traditional poetics and imagined against the more linear structure of the dominant form, the novel. This common structure for short fiction is notable for the following characteristics: a deferral of knowledge and endings, repeated thematic elements across frames and stories, and embedded narratives that emphasize their metafictionality by gesturing towards oral traditions of storytelling.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, generations of children reading Antoine Galland’s Arabian Nights’ Entertainments grew into generations of adults who turned to Edward Lane’s, and then later John Payne’s and Richard Burton’s, translation of the Nights for information about the East.[2] The literary influence of such a widely dispersed text was enormous. In her book on Edward Lane, Leila Ahmed notes that

scarcely a writer—Byron, Scott, Tennyson, Dickens, Thackeray, Carlyle, Ruskin, George Eliot—whose childhood fell between, approximately, the 1750’s and the 1840’s, did not, in some way, pay tribute to the work, either explicitly, or in the body of his writings.


That the Nights were a nursery staple meant that the range of their influence was perhaps greater than other texts. Henry Weber, a nineteenth-century compiler of the stories, writes,

It may be safely asserted, that such fictions as the magic lamp of Aladdin, and the cavern of the Forty Thieves, have contributed more to the amusement and delight of every succeeding generation since the fortunate appearance of these tales in this quarter of the world, than all the works which the industry and imagination of Europeans have provided for the instruction and entertainment of youth.


George Meredith expresses what would have been a common sentiment when he writes, “As for me, you ask of my reading of the formative kind. They were first the Arabian Nights, then Gibbon, Niebuhr, Walter Scott; then Molière, then the noble Goethe, the most enduring” (1556). Not only were the Nights a prominent influence on many Victorian authors, but they were very often remembered fondly as the first influence.

Stories so commonly read in childhood necessarily find their way into the literature of the period. Benjamin Boyce points out that the Nights began influencing short fiction from the moment the stories entered the English consciousness, listing the “‘oriental’ tale” among the main types of short fiction published early in the eighteenth century. Boyce is interested in how the Nights shaped the content rather than the structure of stories: he observes that these stories are noted for elements such as “magic rings, wildly improbable shifts of good and evil fortune, visions of supernatural places, contrasts of simple peasants and luxurious palaces to make up for the lack of serious characterization” (101). However, the “oriental” content Boyce describes is not the only, nor even the primary, way the Nights were reflected in English literature. In a survey of the Nights in English literature, Peter Caracciolo goes further than any critic to date in his appraisal of the influence of the Nights. Caracciolo sees the Nights in any work that makes use of a “recursive” structure: any narrative that continually returns to narrative frames, and frames within frames, as well as any work that relies on a series of witnesses. This structure, he argues, is found in Scott, and then continues to gain in influence throughout the nineteenth century. Caracciolo’s argument gives the Nights an impressive legacy in gothic and Victorian literature, and one that goes well beyond a narrow conception of “Orientalism” in literature.

In fact, the influence of the Nights on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature is both immense and varied. With different translations of the texts, the cultural significance of the Nights in England changed. Muhsin Jassim Ali’s study of English critical reception of the Arabian nights argues that the Nights began in the eighteenth century as a childhood or nostalgic pleasure, but by the mid- to late Victorian period the work was considered an educational account of another culture. If this was the general trend, there were dissenters. Ali writes,

In its scholarly and dignified garb, this [Lane and Harvey’s illustrated] edition was different enough to provoke some critics to break away from an age-old sentimental attachment to the Nights as a dear storybook associated with childhood and recalled with affection and melting emotion. Nevertheless, Scheherazade’s passionate admirers never felt the desire to terminate this attachment. Thus, such romanticists as Dickens, Hunt, Henley and Stevenson, to mention only a few, continued through their lives to read and recollect scenes from the Nights.[3]


For these dissenters, loyalty remained with the Galland translation. Not surprisingly, “adventure” writers such as Stevenson preferred the Galland over Lane’s more academic translation, with its appeal to realism through heavy annotations and documentary style. By the time the authors I will be considering were writing, the Nights had come to represent a form of Orientalist study: a way of learning about the East that has its roots in a theory of realistic representation, comparable to the period’s travel accounts (Ali 27). This, however, is in the critical writing of the period. In the literature of the nineteenth century, I would suggest, romanticized references remain the rule and Galland’s translation is not supplanted by Lane’s. The growing interest in Eastern cultures as suitable areas for academic and anthropological study identified by critics such as Edward Said and epitomized by figures such as Edward Lane is not reflected in the literature I am considering. Instead, the short fiction of the period adopts the tales primarily as a structural influence, though one colored by the older romanticized association of the Nights with fantastical tales.

An accurate understanding of the influence of the Nights in British short fiction of the nineteenth century must go beyond an investigation of texts overtly “Oriental” in their subject matter to consider the way the Victorians defined the aesthetic of the “arabesque”—an aesthetic that crossed artistic forms. Ruskin writes (of architecture),

the Arab rapidly introduces characters half Persepolitan, half Egyptian, into the shafts and the capitals: in his intense love of excitement he points the arch and writhes it into extravagant foliations; he banishes the animal imagery, and invents an ornamentation of his own (called Arabesque) to replace it: this not being adapted for covering large surfaces, he concentrates it on features of interest, and bars his surfaces with horizontal lines of colour, the expression of the level of the Desert. He retains the dome and adds the minaret. All is done with exquisite refinement.


Victorians were interested in the art of the Middle East as a particular pattern. The aesthetic of the arabesque was seen to be as much about repetition, ornamentation and lack of representation as it was about pictures of Djinns. Furthermore, the Victorians not only utilized this pattern in the visual arts, but they also interpreted it as a literary pattern, writing fiction that not only mimicked the arabesque as an artistic model, but also mimicked the Arabian Nights as a literary example of the same patterning. (In America, Edgar Allan Poe’s collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque [1840] also invokes the arabesque as an aesthetic, or a “tenor” [473], not as a description of subject matter.)

The arabesque as a visual pattern is related to the way Western readers have perceived the structure of the Nights, as Sandra Nadaff points out in her study Arabesque: Narrative Structure and the Aesthetics of Repetition in 1001 Nights. “The term arabesque,” Nadaff explains, is “in its essence an orientalist expression created to signify a kind of artistic motif that the West saw as indigenous to the Arab East” (111). First, drawing on Islamic traditions of non-representational art, arabesque is characterized by repeating abstract motifs or patterns, a structure that can also be seen to inform the progress of the narrative in the Nights, which also operates by repetition (111). It is this repetitive structure that is picked up by Victorian short story writers in their interpretations of the Nights. Second, the Nights observe a pattern in which there is an infinite deferral of knowledge and endings. In the frame story of the Nights, King Shahrayar, enraged by his wife’s adultery, begins marrying the women of the land and having them decapitated the next morning—in this way he can avoid being betrayed again. To delay her own execution, Shahrazad tells nightly stories to the king and to her sister, but she always delays the endings by linking the stories together. (Here and throughout I am following the transliteration of names used in Husain Haddawy’s 1990 translation of the Nights as a reflection of the most current practice. Victorians would have been more familiar with Galland’s spellings— Scheherezade and Schahriar for example—which remain in use.) Finally, the Nights achieve this deferral by placing a seemingly infinite number of elements within a frame. Shahrazad tells stories about characters who have stories of their own to tell (and they, in turn, tell about others who have other stories). This embedding, as Nadaff argues, suggests a metaphoric, or vertical progression of the text rather than the usual metonymic, horizontal process of prose: the stories make the most sense when read against frames and other stories via thematic links, rather than considered as separate texts chronologically, contiguously or causally linked (47-50).

A characteristic example of thematic connections in the Nights occurs in the sequence of stories that begins with “The Story of the Hunchback.” In this series, a number of characters are assembled before the King of China—he plans to execute them all for murder unless one of them tells a story that is more interesting than the story of the hunchback’s death. The narrators’ connections to one another seem tenuous (they are only together because the hunchback’s corpse came to them each sequentially), but, in fact, their stories show a deeper connection: all have been maimed, and each story is about that maiming. All of the characters are also connected to Shahrazad—like her, they must tell stories to stay alive under a tyrant.[4]

Repetition, delayed endings, and embedded narratives contribute to the content of the Nights. Like the “Hunchback” sequence, most of the stories are about storytelling, and this is because of their repetitive nature. Nadaff argues that, like the “antimimetic” patternings of arabesque, “so do the persistent repetitions at the level of story and discourse turn the narrative back on itself, point[ing] to its fundamentally narrative source” (118). The Nights, in other words, are self-referential stories about narrative more than they are representational.

The pervasive influence of the Nights explains a body of literature that has only recently been coming to critical attention: the large amount of short fiction being published in Victorian periodicals before the familiar short stories of Stevenson, Kipling, and others in the 1880s and 1890s.[5] Much of this earlier fiction drew on the Nights for its familiar structure—readers were able to recognize framed stories as coherent because of the great familiarity that the general reading public had with the Nights. Vertical progression, relation between frame and inset story, and self-referentiality characterizes much Victorian short fiction, which, like the Nights, emphasizes plot at the expense of more realistic presentations of characters or life in general.

The large amount of short fiction being published in nineteenth-century periodicals had to be repackaged if it was written by major authors whose work might be marketable. Julia Briggs notes of English ghost stories, “By the mid-nineteenth century, when magazine stories were much in demand, frameworks were often built round a group of them so that they might subsequently be published in book form” (38). At mid-century, Elizabeth Gaskell structures her short fiction—markedly different from her longer fiction—into stories told Round the Sofa (1859). And Wilkie Collins’ stories in After Dark (1856) and The Queen of Hearts (1859) are also sensational stories that are told at night, according to the frames of those collections. Though it leaves the family hearth behind, Anthony Trollope’s short fiction in An Editor’s Tales (1870) is structured around an editor’s many dealings with his authors. Trollope maintains the tradition of the linking device to provide structure and coherence to short pieces—even as he eschews the traditional subject matter of sensation and the supernatural. His story “The Spotted Dog” nods to the more dominant tradition—Julius Mackenzie pleads with the narrator/editor to help him escape “the filth of his present position” writing “blood and nastiness” for the “Penny Dreadfuls” (237). Stevenson’s stories in New Arabian Nights (1882) and More New Arabian Nights, or The Dynamiter (1885) explicitly pay homage to the frame narrative as a descendant of the Nights. In the 1890s Thomas Hardy structures his short fiction within narrative frames though it was past the time when short fiction required that sort of justification. Even later, Rudyard Kipling gestures to a folk tale tradition in many of his stories. According to Kipling’s footnote, his collection ADiversity of Creatures (1917) even takes its title from the Nights.

Traditionally, most scholars of short fiction have agreed with Dean Baldwin’s argument that Poe invents the short story in America in the 1840s, and the form enjoys resulting popularity in France and Russia, but fails to thrive in England until the 1880s when Kipling, Stevenson, Wells, James and others finally begin to write in the style of Poe.[6] For a defining characteristic of “the modern short story,” critics have turned to the Edgar Allen Poe’s dictum that a “short prose narrative” should be characterized by a “unity of effect or impression.”[7] Some short story critics, Korte among them, have claimed a difference between an oral and a written tradition, and identified pre-1880s short fiction with the oral tradition. This creates a generic distinction between “short stories” (those stories which are literary in the sense of “writerly”) and “tales” (stories that claim to have been told orally, even though that claim is generally false).[8]

Increasingly, however, the modernist sense that the short story develops in Britain in the 1880s is being replaced by a growing awareness of the importance of short fiction throughout the nineteenth century. Dennis Denisoff has argued that in the mid-Victorian period, short fiction was “so common as to be invisible” (“Introduction” 17), while Tim Killick, in his introduction to a collection of stories from the 1820s, writes of the older model of short story theory that “the consensus is derived in the main from a theoretical approach that differentiates between the ‘true’ or ‘modern’ ‘short story’ and short fiction in general” (1)—that the theoretical definition of “the short story” has limited the short fiction that is studied. Instead, Charles May has suggested that our understanding of genres can be deepened by remaining simultaneously aware of both their form and their history, to “deal with the form both diachronically and synchronically, reflecting the relationships between the origin and development of the form and the modal perspective that finds expression in its many historical variants and particular instances” (470). By deemphasizing the (false) dichotomy between the old fashioned “tale” and the modern short story, a more open attitude towards the history of the short story reveals important lines of influence, lines of influence that were obscured by jumping from Poe to the 1880s and skipping forty years of short fiction by major literary figures.

Among the major authors to contribute to the development of the short story was Elizabeth Gaskell. The relative lack of critical attention to Gaskell as a short story writer—for despite all the criticism on Gaskell generally, there is still fairly little on her short stories—has to do with the hierarchy of genres in the nineteenth century, with Gaskell’s reputation as a realist writer and with the type of content particular to the short fiction of her period. Ghost stories tend to be short, argues Briggs, because “a horror that is effective for thirty pages can seldom be sustained for three hundred” (13). This may in part explain the discrepancy between Gaskell’s novels, which have been critically praised for their comments on political struggles and women’s private spheres, and her short stories, many of them ghost stories, which have been rarely considered critically at all. Hilary Schor, in her study of Gaskell, writes,

An examination of Gaskell’s works leads one to see as arbitrary the divisions between the problem novel and the nostalgic idyll, between gothic romance and urban realism, between the development of character and the intricacies of plot. Victorian fiction looks very different when these boundaries, distinctions no Victorian would have made, begin to break down.


And yet, Schor’s study itself considers only Gaskell’s longer fiction, with the exception of the hyper-realistic, even quotidian Cranford. Perhaps this is how Gaskell would have wanted it. The lack of contemporary critical attention to short stories, argues Vanessa D. Dickerson, allowed Gaskell “more license.” She used “the supernatural to isolate and explore more intensely and dramatically—because at a remove from both her long social novels and her short realistic tales—the phenomena of power and the interrelations of women” (113-14). Jenny Uglow makes the same point, arguing that the short fiction Gaskell wrote for Household Words enjoyed a reassuring critical neglect: “All contributions were anonymous, designed for entertainment, slipped out to the public at a level below the fierce gaze of literary reviewers” (vii). Like Dickerson, Uglow asserts that Gaskell found more freedom in the low, popular format of the short story: “Under the guise of pure fun, Gaskell could be far more outspoken in such stories than in her ‘serious novels,’ where she had to brace herself for controversy” (ix).

Not only are the majority of Gaskell’s stories more sensational than her novels, but they also participate in the trend of establishing a frame narrative that encloses the shorter tales. Cornelia Cook, who finds Nights references throughout Gaskell’s work, mentions the linking narratives of Round the Sofa and explicitly connects them to the Nights: “Gaskell also exploits Arab narrative forms. The ‘entertaining’ frame became a simple unifying device, collecting some of her periodical essays as a set of inset tales partially framed by the introduction, ‘Round the Sofa’”(199).[9]

The “stories” collected in Round the Sofa (collected 1859, stories written 1855-1859) are ill-defined. The first, My Lady Ludlow, is a novella in the domestic and realist style of Cranford. The second, “The Accursed Race,” is not even fictional—it is an essay on the French Cagots. Two stories, “The Doom of the Griffiths” and “The Poor Clare,” are ghost stories. The narrative that collects and unifies the stories in Round the Sofa is told by a young woman who regularly attends the calling hours of Mrs. Dawson, her physician’s ailing sister. Mrs. Dawson begins the story sequence, “on condition that each one of us should, after she had ended, narrate something interesting, which we had either heard, or which had fallen within our own experience” (Gaskell 440). The frame narrative of Round the Sofa mimics frames within the Nights, such as the frames that introduce both the “Porter and Three Ladies” and the “Hunchback” series of stories. Though there is no Eastern characterization of any of Gaskell’s narrators, they, like Shahrazad, repeat the theme of compulsory storytelling within their stories, linking frames and stories that are chronologically and causally incongruous. As in the Nights, this refers back to narration as both the motivation and central subject of the stories, and explores the role of power in determining who talks and who listens.

Enforced story-telling and its associated comment on power relationships contribute to the frame stories of both “The Story of the Hunchback” sequence and “The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies” in the Nights. In Round the Sofa, as in the “Hunchback” and “Porter” sequences, the power relations of the text are figured in the act of narration, which becomes a reenactment of Shahrazad’s storytelling in the opening frame of the Nights. Both sequences are structured around a group of people who must tell stories in turn. In “The Story of the Hunchback,” the King of China requires each character to tell a story more amazing than the story of the hunchback to avoid death. In “The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies,” the question of who must tell stories and who has the power to require them is more directly in question. When the seven male guests of three mysterious ladies try to force the ladies to reveal their secret histories, the three ladies reclaim their command as hosts by having slaves threaten the men with swords. Stories—the very thing they had hoped to forcefully compel from the women—become the price for their life. Yet, for the three women, power is short-lived, for the Caliph Harun al-Rashid is disguised amongst their guests. The following morning, the women are summoned to the palace where the Caliph’s vizier compels the subversive women to tell their story for the entertainment of all of last night’s guests, restoring the balance of power wherein women must tell stories at the command of men. “The Porter and Three Ladies Cycle” replicates, as Nadaff has argued, the larger thematic issues of the Nights overall, both in its multiple frames and in its thematic treatment of the complex interplay between gender, storytelling, and power.

The same dynamic occurs in the frame of My Lady Ludlow, where Mrs. Dawson’s insistence on stories is as commanding as that of the King of China or of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, though her weapon is humiliation and disgrace rather than the sword or the noose:

When this narrative was finished, Mrs. Dawson called on our two gentlemen, Signor Sperano and Mr. Preston, and told them that they had hitherto been amused or interested, but that it was now their turn to amuse or interest. They looked at each other as if this application of hers took them by surprise, and seemed altogether as much abashed as well-grown men can ever be.


Mrs. Dawson, holding court at her sofa, commands the two men to speak and thereby reasserts her own authority over the meeting.

The structure of My Lady Ludlow itself further extends the system of embedded narratives. Larry Uffelman argues that the framing of stories previously published in Household Words contributes a “new artistic vision” (15) and, in the case of the longer stories, may have solved certain artistic problems created by their serial publication (3). Though itself set within a frame narrative (the friends gathered round the sofa of Margaret Dawson), the novella also contains the inset story of the De Créquy family. Here, the telling of the inset story is mirrored in the frame of the novella itself. In My Lady Ludlow, wealthy and powerful Lady Ludlow tells the story of the De Créquy family for an audience that includes the narrator—young shy Margaret Dawson, who is disabled by a hip problem. In the frame of Round the Sofa, socially powerful Mrs. (Margaret) Dawson tells the story of Lady Ludlow for an audience that includes the narrator—young shy Miss Greatorex, who is ill with an unnamed disease.

In the inset story, Lady Ludlow tells of how her son’s friend, Clément de Créquy, returns to revolutionary France in an unsuccessful attempt to save his cousin Virginie, whom he loves. Lady Ludlow tells the story to illustrate that the lower orders should not be taught to read and write—the servant boy Pierre’s literacy condemns Clément and Virginie when he is able to read their correspondence. Gaskell’s (as opposed to Lady Ludlow’s) reason for including this story is a consequence of the metaphorical progression of text that Nadaff argues is characteristic of the Nights. The story of the De Créquy family comments on the larger theme in My Lady Ludlow—the superiority of the English historical model of gradual change as opposed to violent revolution. While My Lady Ludlow is a record of the slow dissolve of rigid class-based hierarchies into a more tolerant society, the French Revolution is included as an example of the wrong way to effect this change.[10] The adventure tale of the De Créquy family is framed within the glacial pace of Lady Ludlow’s advance toward tolerance. Finally, the largest frame shows the reasonable Margaret Dawson presiding over what was Lady Ludlow’s sitting room.

A similar relation between frame and inset story exists in the short fiction of Wilkie Collins. In his collection After Dark (1856), Collins, like Gaskell, uses a Nights-like frame for his short stories. The stories collected in After Dark (and his collection The Queen of Hearts [1859]) had initially been published in Household Words (beginning in 1852), but Collins evidently felt their collection and framing made them into something new. Caracciolo, who finds the influence of the Nights in much of Collins’ work, tells us that “When the Athenaeum described [The Queen of Hearts] as ‘a reprint of the author’s contributions to Household Words’, Collins protested indignantly” (“Wilkie Collins” 148). Although the stories in After Dark can be read separately, reading them in combination with the Nights-inspired frame emphasizes the extent to which they are stories about narration.

In his preface to After Dark, Collins discusses the framing of his stories, saying

I have taken some pains to string together the various stories contained in this Volume on a single thread of interest [….] If I have been so fortunate as to make my idea intelligible by this brief and simple mode of treatment, and if I have, at the same time, achieved the necessary object of gathering several separate stories together as neatly-fitting parts of one complete whole, I shall have succeeded in a design which I have for some time past been very anxious creditably to fulfill.


Accepting Collins’ assertion that the “separate” stories have now become a “complete whole” means not only that it is possible to discuss the frame of the stories in reference to the Nights but also that we can read “across” stories. According to Collins, the act of compilation is in fact an act of re-composition, designed according to an alternative and encompassing aesthetic.[11] This allows us to read Collins’ stories as Nadaff suggests we read the Nights: as an embedded narrative—a reading that suggests a metaphoric, or vertical, progression of the text. As in Nadaff’s reading of the story of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” repetition within Collins’ stories and his frame points to the “fundamentally narrative source” (Nadaff 118) of the text, and reveals the extent to which it is self-referential rather than representational. “The Yellow Mask,” the final story in the collection, is thematically similar to the frame narrative and, when read in relation to this frame, amplifies the self-referential nature of the collection as “one complete whole.”

As in the Nights, the multiple subdivisions of “The Yellow Mask,” especially when considered as part of After Dark, suggest the infinite—stories seems to lead to other stories without end. This characteristic is emphasized both in the structure of the story and in the structure of the whole collection. “The Yellow Mask” is divided into three parts, with each part divided into multiple chapters, but these parts and chapters are already set in a book that is itself subdivided into six stories with a seemingly endless set of frames. “The Yellow Mask” is framed by William Kerby’s description of the eccentric Professor Tizzi, whose stuffed dog Scarammuccia was, in livelier days, a character in the story. Even the end of After Dark promises that it is not, in fact, an end. Leah, the main narrator, writes, “William’s collection of stories has not, thus far, been half exhausted yet” (540).

The frame story of After Dark borrows significantly from the Nights. A portrait painter who is losing his sight must tell stories to make money for his family. Caracciolo has noted,

Both After Dark and The Queen of Hearts resemble the Nights in that they collect tales within tales; the inset stories are told in the evenings, while the outer stories are concerned with gaining time in order to forward a human relationship. As in the Nights Scheherazade spins out her tales to save her marriage, her life and the lives of other women from Shahriar, so in After Dark, at the instigation of his wife, a portrait painter threatened with blindness recounts nightly the stories he had heard from his sitters, thereby gaining time in which his ailing eyes may recuperate, and (since he is the sole breadwinner of the family) in hopes that, when published, his collection of stories will supply the money necessary for his family’s survival. ()

“Wilkie Collins” 148

As in the Nights, the storytelling occurs at night and has a feel of spousal compulsion, though the gender roles are switched—the painter is initially disinterested in the project until his wife insists.

Not only does the frame of After Dark allude to the Nights, but it also, like the Nights, makes use of repeating themes and motifs across its embedded tales. The representation of the trials and poverty of the artist’s life, which Collins’ preface identifies as the major concern of the frame narrative, connects the frame to “The Yellow Mask,” another tale in which different sorts of artists struggle to earn their living. In “The Yellow Mask,” Fabio (a young nobleman) marries the daughter of a sculptor. After her death, he is stalked at a masquerade by a figure who finally unmasks—and appears to be his dead wife. The marriage, though not unhappy, is mercenary, and the situation of the sculptor’s family is familiar from Collins’ frame: “The master-sculptor, Luca Lomi—an old family, once noble, but down in the world now. The master is obliged to make statues to get a living for his daughter and himself” (398). The impoverished artist crosses from frame to story.

Within “The Yellow Mask,” Collins connects sculpting to yet another artistic endeavor—dressmaking: “While the milliners of the Grifoni establishment were industriously shaping dresses, the sculptors in Luca Lomi’s workshop were, in their way, quite as hard at work shaping marble and clay” (405-06). Both instances reinforce Collins’ stated aim from the preface, to represent “that artist life which circumstances have afforded me peculiar opportunities of studying” (5). The pervasive theme of the artist introduced in relation to portrait painting and writing also references the artwork as child: “Our third child, as we have got to call it” (540), Leah says of her manuscript in the frame narrative, while, in “The Yellow Mask,” master sculptor Luca Lomi’s art is more concretely his child: his daughter poses for a statue of Minerva that is so true to life that Luca Lomi insists, in a reversal of the Pygmalion myth, “It is the girl herself ... Exactly her expression and exactly her features” (408). Like the repeating motifs characteristic of the arabesque, so in Collins’ collection themes repeat across story and frame, unifying a text that is made up of disparate parts. Milliner, sculptor, portrait painter, writer—all three are depictions of the same theme, the autobiographical theme of the artist struggling, Shahrazad-like, to survive through his or her work.[12]

The mise en abyme structure that critics have noted throughout the work of Wilkie Collins[13] is also apparent in both “The Yellow Mask” and the frame narrative of After Dark. Within the story, Fabio sculpts his true love, Nanina. In the immediate frame, the portrait painter William Kerby paints Professor Tizzi, who is telling Kerby the story. A storyteller (Leah), then, is telling a story about a painter who is painting a model who is telling a story about a sculptor who is sculpting a model. The structure of the embedded stories has an emblematic counterpart within the story itself: when the eponymous yellow mask is removed, it reveals yet another mask.[14] The mask that conceals a mask mimics Collins’ narrative structure. In After Dark, fictions encompass fictions, and the repeating occurrence of the struggling artist in the story calls attention to and is a model for the struggling artist of the frame. In this way Collins emphasizes the metafictionality of After Dark, and the extent to which it is at its core a narrative about narration itself.

This, then, is the tradition to which Stevenson responded when he wrote New Arabian Nights; it is not a tradition he invented. Stevenson’s reputation as an innovator has led Stevenson scholar Alan Sandison to the conclusion that Stevenson is an early Modernist because of his “abiding interest in indeterminacy, the deferral of closure, reflexivity (often represented in the mise-en-abyme tale), multiple narratives” and others (85)—many of the same characteristics I have discussed above in the work of both Gaskell and Collins. In fact, the popularity of short stories based on the Nights in the mid-Victorian period calls into question whether the foregoing attributes are specific to Modernism at all. Although Stevenson is often identified as one of the architects of the short story genre in Britain,[15] his use of the Nights locates him at the end of a specific short story tradition, rather than at the beginning. Stevenson does innovate: he dispenses with the narrator of New Arabian Nights. Such a move demonstrates his “artistic self-exposure” (Sandison 85) and his “play with narrative/linguistic technique” (Menikoff, “New Arabian Nights” 343). But the innovation lies in the destruction rather than the invention of the form. The device of the Arabian narrator is the same device that many Victorians had used to make sense of a new form—the short story—that had not yet become self-explanatory to its readers. As shorter fiction in the 1880s needs less justification as a form and structure in its own right, Stevenson is able to make light of a convention that, twenty years earlier, would be entirely necessary to explain a collection of stories like those in the New Arabian Nights.

Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights were followed up by More New Arabian Nights (1885) (also known as The Dynamiter), also modeled after Galland’s Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, and by his subsequent collection of (non-linked) short stories, pertinently titled Island Nights’ Entertainments (1893). For Stevenson, who renounces the mimetic function of literature, the ever receding narrators of the Nights highlight the stories as fiction. But, if Stevenson’s allusions to the Nights combine an element of parody along with his well-acknowledged attachment to Galland’s text, then it is not the Nights themselves which are being parodied. Rather, it is the idea of modeling stories after the Nights—an idea that had by the 1880s hardened into convention and grown tired as a justification for the short story.