No Name – Wilkie Collins
What you need during the long, dark winter evenings is a book that will suck you in and make you fight long and hard to put it down and go to bed. No Name, published in 1862 after serialisation in Dickens’ magazine, All The Year Round, is just that.
Collins is an under-rated writer, tarred by the literary disdain of sensational novels, and No Name, which appeared between The Moonstone and The Woman in White, is shamefully neglected these days. Like many a good Victorian novel, the plot centres around what to modern eyes seems a very abstruse and unfair point of law. Mr Vanstone made an unfortunate marriage, as they say, abroad, left his wife and upon return to England lived with a woman who bore him two daughters, Norah and Magdalen.
News came from abroad that the original Mrs Vanstone had died and so the couple rushed to London to be wed. Alas, Mr Vanstone did not change his will to acknowledge the status of his daughters – they were born out of wedlock, after all – and before he could rectify his status he was killed in a train crash and within twenty-four hours, his wife, who conveniently was pregnant, died in childbirth.
The law at the time meant that the daughters could not inherit, the estate, some £80,000 or just over to £9 million today, which went to Vanstone’s elder brother. Naturally, Vanstone senior detested his brother and took delight in casting the daughters out from their family home to make their own way in the world.
Norah accepted her fate to become a governess but Magdalen goes to enormous lengths involving disguise, false identities, shady deals, duplicitous marriage and astonishing coincidences to get her hands on what she believes is rightfully hers.
Unlike the other Collins’ novels I have read, there is no mystery to be revealed. Instead we follow the twists and fortunes of Magdalen as she strives to regain her inheritance, the suspense and mystery provided by the fact that we don’t quite know what will happen next. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the story other than to say that events suggest that both women get what they want in the end in a rather roundabout way.
The tale contains some fine characters, none more so than the self-styled moral agriculturist and roguish Captain Wragge, who ultimately makes his fortune selling quack medicines and the fiendishly, devious (foreign, of course) servant, Mrs Lecount. Their plots and counter-plots are fascinating as they engage in a battle of wits and subterfuge to get the upper hand for their respective parties. For me this was the best part of the book. The latter part of the book seemed a bit rushed and patchier than the early part, reflective of the fact that Collins was in poor health and fighting against deadlines.
Structurally, the book consists of eight acts – Magdalen has a dalliance with the stage which signals to the reader that she is not an ordinary, demure girl – with interludes between each consisting of epistolary exchanges between the principal characters which move the story along. It is an unusual arrangement but works well.
For the modern reader it is instructive to see how powerless women were at the time, entirely at the mercy of men and with limited options to make their way in the world in a respectable way, other than getting married or working as a governess, little more than a paid skivvy in someone else’s house. The portrayal of a forthright, independent Magdalen would have been a shock to the average Victorian reader but Collins uses the populist form of the sensation novel to address major social concerns.
At over 700 pages No Name is not for the faint-hearted but it is a fascinating and rewarding book.