Man and Wife – Wilkie Collins
This was Collins’ ninth published novel, published in 1870 after being serialised that year both in London in Cassell’s Magazine and in New York in Harper’s Weekly. Following on immediately after his meisterwerk, The Moonstone, did it no favours and its ability to stand the test of time has not been helped by the fact that the plot turns on a piece of legal obscurantism and that Collins was on a mission to expose what was a scandal. Too many critics have been influenced by Algernon Swinburne’s damning couplet – “What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?/ Some demon whispered – Wilkie, have a mission!” – to give the book a fair crack of the whip but I found it entertaining enough and the author’s moralising not too tendentious to be annoying.
In Scotland at the time the irregular marriage laws deemed that a couple who were of an age to be married and who had passed themselves off as married either before witnesses or in writing were indeed legally married. Anne Silvester fell victim to this legal oddity when, to save her honour as he thought, Arnold Brinkworth passed himself off as his wife in a remote tavern, thus giving the villain of the piece, Geoffery Delamayn, the opportunity to resile on his promise of marriage to Anne. That Geoffrey gets hung by this particular petard, albeit at the expense of the unfortunate Anne, is a form of rough poetic justice.
Collins, who had an unusual domestic arrangement himself with two families, writes with acerbic wit about the institution of marriage in general and the absurdities, in particular, of the situation in Scotland. Anne’s mother had also been a victim of a piece of obscure marriage legislation, the law in Ireland that allowed a husband to annul his marriage if he had converted to Catholicism within a certain period before his wedding. Inevitably, her mother’s desire that Anne doesn’t suffer her fate means that she will. We know what is coming but Collins holds the reader’s attention.
Stranger to modern eyes are Collins’ diatribes on the perils of athleticism and the mania for getting and keeping fit. As someone who will run a mile from exercise I am with him here but Geoffery Delamayn is the epitome of a muscly, sporty, fit young chap. He undertakes to represent the South, and is heavily backed in the process, in a four-mile race and undergoes a fierce training regimen, despite medical advice that he is damaging his health. Inevitably, Geoffery’s perceived mania for sporting prowess proves his undoing. It is an odd sub plot to what is a strange subject for a novel but then we are so removed from the social mores of the time that we have to run with it.
The pace of the book picks up as it reaches its conclusion and becomes almost a thriller. The odious Delamayn has found an ingenious way to kill Anne without detection, courtesy of the cook, Hester Detheridge, a truly Gothic character complete with slate upon which she writes with amazing speed, who did away with her old man in similar circumstances. Will he succeed or will Anne be rescued in time? The finale to this episode is a tad melodramatic for my taste but all ends well and Anne is able to find happiness (or so we hope) after all her travails.
One of the noticeable traits of this novel, and indeed in Collins’ other works, is the high proportion of characters with some form of disability. Sir Patrick Lundie, the Scottish lawyer, a wonderful character, has a club foot, this perhaps explains his aversion to physical sports, Hester is dumb (or at least pretends to be), the roguish Scottish waiter has but one eye and Anne carries a social stigma.
The scene in London when the protagonists meet to thrash out Anne’s future is a magnificent set piece full of tension. But Anne herself is a perplexing character. She is clearly meant to be more sinned against than sinner but during the course of the book she conducts an improper relationship, blackmails emotionally her lover into marriage, lies, and traipse around Scotland and England seeking revenge. She is a complex character and I didn’t feel that Collins had succeeded in making her wholly believable.
This is a minor quibble. For the most part it is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining read, not quite in the class of The Moonstone, but one which cements Collins as one of my favourite Victorian novelists.