Book Corner – October 2019 (3)

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

If you have been following these book reviews with even a scintilla of interest, you would have worked out that I am a fan of Wilkie Collins. This is his fourth book, originally serialised in 1856 in Charles Dickens’ publication, Household Words, and in book form the same year. Whilst even his most fervent advocates would not place it amongst his best, some rather churlishly call it the last of his apprentice novels before he wrote his acclaimed masterpiece, The Woman in White, it is a lovely story and a book which has endured in popularity.

The secret, the contents of which are disclosed to the reader early on but not to all the characters, is to do with the true identity of the leading protagonist of the story, Rosamond Treverton. The dying Mrs Treverton entrusted her maid, the scatty and possibly deranged Sarah Leeson, with a letter containing a deathbed confession to pass on to her husband, Captain Treverton. Sarah can’t bring herself to do it and hides the letter in the Myrtle Room, a room in a deserted wing of a Cornish gothic house, Porthgenna Tower. The story concerns the unravelling of the secret, the impact of which could affect the fortunes of some of the protagonists. I will not spoil the story as it is entertaining.

Along the way we meet a wonderful array of characters. Some are there purely for comedic effect like the dyspeptic Mr Phippens who would not be out of place in the pages of a Dickens’ novel. When a little girl is offered an extra slice of bread and marmalade at breakfast, the martyr to his intestines warns, “think of Mr Phippen’s clogged apparatus – and say No thank you next time”. Then at Porthgenna Tower we meet the comedy duo, the butler, Mr Munder, who “has a great reputation for wisdom without the trouble of saying or doing anything to deserve it” and his side-kick, the housekeeper, Mrs Pentreath. The misanthropic Andrew Treverton, the self-styled Timon of London, and his servant, Shrowl, are wonderfully drawn and add a layer of gothic horror to the tale, even if the former’s Damascene conversion at the end is a little out of character and a tad melodramatic for my taste.

Collins’ portrayal of Sarah Leeson’s uncle, Uncle Joseph, engaging. As is his wont Collins introduces a character with a disability, Leonard Franklin, Rosamond’s husband, is blind, and by Victorian standards his portrayal is sympathetic and free from any cloying sentimentality. Although a relatively minor character, he is Rosamond’s rock and fount of all knowledge, she wishing at one point that she could give him her eyes as he is cleverer than she.

Collins’ strength, though, is his understanding and portrayal of female characters. Sarah Leeson is melancholy and tormented with good reason and her character is portrayed with feeling. It would have been too easy to make her into a figure of evil but the writer shows great understanding of the crisis of conscience that made her act in the way she did, notwithstanding the consequences. The pairing of Rosamond with her blind husband is inspired. It means that standard Victorian portrayal of the dynamics of a marriage where the man is the protector and the woman the weak dependent is turned on its head.

The book is written in an engaging style and the reader is anxious to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. As with most sensation novels of the period the plot turns on coincidences, many of which are so far-fetched as to defy credulity. But you have to ride with it, suspend belief and keep going. If you do, you will find you have read an entertaining novel, the popularity of which through the ages is not difficult to understand.

Book Corner – August 2019 (3)

The Law and the Lady – Wilkie Collins

Published in 1875 this is not one of Collins’ finest works, it seems a bit rushed and unpolished, but there is enough in it to keep the reader interested. The plot is full of twists and turns, although some of the key clues are rather disappointingly signposted before the author reveals their significance and, as is the way with the genre of sensation novels, there are a host of improbable coincidences to keep the plot moving.

The plot turns on a peculiarity of Scottish law, the verdict of Not Proven, which means that the jury is not satisfied that there is enough evidence to convict or acquit, leaving a stain of doubt hanging over the accused. In this case the accused is Eustace Macallan who was tried for the murder of his wife, Sarah, by plying her with arsenic. Inventing a new identity to avoid the scandal, Eustace, now Woodville, marries the heroine of the novel, Valeria who, astonishingly, is unaware of her husband’s past. When she does, after bumping into her mother-in-law who had studiously boycotted the wedding, Eustace deserts her, leaving Valeria to try to prove her husband’s innocence and win him back.

The book is in the first person and narrated by Valeria. So, the reader sees events as they unfold through her eyes and their knowledge is limited by her’s. That said, a regular reader of detective fiction should guess what the answer to the problem is well before Valeria gets there. What is ground-breaking about Collins’ portrayal of Valeria is that she, a woman, is his sleuth, possibly the first female detective in English literature. Although nowadays, forensic techniques such as ploughing through court records, cross-examination and carrying out thorough searches of the scene of the crime are clichés, Collins was a pioneer in formulating what has become the bread and butter of this genre. There are red herrings galore, misdirections and foreshadowing of discoveries and mirrors, all used to good effect.

Although Collins’ heroine carries the story through to its conclusion, I won’t spoil the story, through a display of doggedness and grim determination, characteristics that you wouldn’t have expected from a woman who seems demure and weak, his really memorable creation is Miserrimus Dexter. His physical deformities and disabilities, he was born without legs, hence his unusual first name, are presented in a way to create a sense of shock and horror in the reader. At one point he is described as “the new Centaur, half man, half chair”. Without sensitive handling, Collins’ character could easily become the embodiment of every stereotype about people with disabilities.

But Collins is more sympathetic in his handling of Dexter. He highlights Dexter’s tremendous upper body strength and his ability to transcend his physical deformities. Dexter is a performer, vain, a storyteller, someone who is in touch with his feminine side and he has an important part to play in the development of the plot. He conspires against Valeria, trying to throw her off the scent and to take over the running of the investigation. Collins’ depiction of Dexter allows the reader to see beyond the simple depiction of a man labouring under cruel disabilities, a remarkable achievement for someone living in the Victorian age. I have mentioned elsewhere that Collins is fascinated with characters who have some form of disability and in Dexter he educates the reader about what it is like to be disabled.

By comparison, Eustace is a pale shadow and the author spends little time in developing his character. There is enough, though, to make the reader wonder why Valeria hadn’t just counted her lucky blessings and let the wet blanket leave her. But then there wouldn’t have been a story.

It is a book worth reading just to meet the superb Miserrimus Dexter.

Book Corner – July 2019 (1)

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.

Book Corner – January 2019 (4)

Armadale – Wilkie Collins

This isn’t a book for the faint-hearted.

At over eight hundred pages long it is a bit of a doorstep and there are points in the book where it gets a bit turgid but it is well worth persevering with. It is Collins’ longest work, serialised in the Cornhill magazine between November 1864 and June 1866 before being published as a two-volume novel in 1866. It is considered to be up there with the finest of Collins’ novels and I think rightly so.

The plot is incredibly complicated and as I try to restrict my reviews to around 600 words I will not even attempt to summarise it. Suffice it to say, the action is kicked off by a foul murder and the deathbed confession of the murderer and his fears as to what would happen if his son and the murdered man’s son, both called Allan Armadale to add further confusion, ever met. Of course, they did and the rest of the novel plays out what happened.

What comes through loud and clear in this novel is Wilkie Collins’ interest in human psychology. Much of the drama and, certainly, the plotting involves a dream which foretells dread consequences. Ozias Midwinter, the improbable alias of the son of the murderer, seeks to analyse what the contents of the dream mean by way of premonitions and resolves, to the best of his abilities, to ensure that the situations that the vision foretells never occur. This allows the author to delve into the psychology of crime.

Of course, Midwinter’s plans are frustrated, not least by the cunning of one of Victorian fiction’s greatest femmes fatales, Lydia Gwilt. Perhaps the best thumb-nail description of her is that she is a flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband poisoner. Her portrayal shocked Collins’ publishers, the critics and readership alike and almost put the kibosh on the book ever seeing the light of day. That would have been a great pity as she is a wonderful creation, conniving, grasping, ruthless.

I cannot help think that Collins, who was highly inventive in his use of names, took care in naming his malevolent female lead Gwilt. There are connotations of guilt and gilt – Lydia is a consummate gold digger – and possibly even a hint of will – she is infinitely resourceful. But inevitably she meets a deserved end, overcome by remorse and guilt when she discovers a potentially lethal switch of victims. Was this Collins’ way of assuaging the moral sensibilities of his critics? After all, as T S Eliot, an ardent admirer of this book calling its construction “almost perfect”, remarked “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

Stylistically, the book is a mix of testimony, narrative, letters and Gwilt’s diary, each of which in their own way drive the story on. As you come to expect with Collins, the plot takes some surprising twists and the story relies on more than its fair share of coincidences. But that is in the nature of sensationalist novels of the period and at least Collins is the consummate master of the form.

I did find the middle section of the book hard going and the complexity of the relationship of the protagonists could be perplexing at time without reading the text with some attention. But having taken some time to set the story up the finale is gripping and a page turner and certainly worth the effort of having got there. Of course, there is melodrama but not the saccharine sweet guff of Dickens at his worst.

This is not the book to start one’s acquaintance with Wilkie Collins with but, if you like him, it is one that definitely deserves to be rescued from the obscurity in which it now languishes.

Book Corner – January 2019 (1)

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.

Book Corner – March 2017 (3)

womaninwhite

The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

Operating in the not inconsiderable penumbra of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins is a rather forgotten man these days. Collins may not have the resonance and poetry of Dickens at his best but his characterisation is subtler and there are fewer passages of grandiose, highfalutin prose that you can skip without losing any of the plot, characterisation or sense of the story. Collins’ prose is sparer and leaner and he just gets on with the job of telling a story.

And Collins was inventive with the novel’s form and subject. He created what is now acknowledged to have been the first detective story, the Moonstone, and The Woman in White, which I finally read over the Christmas holidays, is considered to be the first mystery novel and to have started the genre for sensationalist fiction which, probably, found its nadir in the penny dreadfuls so popular with the Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century. He is one of Victorian literature’s under-appreciated men.

The Woman in White, Collins’ fifth novel, first appeared in serialised form in Dickens’ weekly magazine, All The Year Round, in 1859 and appeared in book form a year later – the edition carrying the first instalment had the closing instalment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. You certainly got value for your money in those days. The constraints of weekly serialisation meant that the author was forced to leave reader on a metaphorical cliff edge, anxious to find out what happened next. One of the joys of reading Wilkins’ works is identifying those moments where one episode ended and the next began – the equivalent of the dum-dum moments on Eastenders. I reckon I identified at least 40.

The story – I won’t spoil it – centres around the attempts of the principal protagonist, Walter Hartright, to untangle the dastardly plans of Percival Glyde and his seductive and cunning side-kick, Count Fosco, to access an inheritance to which they are not entitled. Along the way we meet with some of the literary tricks which to the modern reader somewhat hackneyed – two characters of similar appearance being the foremost, Italian political feuds and sleuthing techniques deployed by Hartright which become the modus operandi of literary detectives to come. Structurally, the book is a series of narratives by the principal characters in time sequence, giving their version of events, as though they were testifying in a court. This means that the book travels at some pace and you have a variety of opinions and insights to illuminate the story.

The book was a wild success – the public could not get enough of it. The first edition of the book sold out on publication day and his publishers offered Collins the princely sum of £5,000 as an advance for his next work. There was also a bit of a spin-off boom with people being able to buy Woman in White perfume, cloaks and bonnets and you could dance the Woman in White quadrille.

For the modern reader, there is a streak of women know your place to the book – they are generally portrayed as weak and inferior to men, although Marian Halcombe, who is naturally unattractive and unmarried, does her bit to redress the balance – and there is a tad too much little Englander about the treatment of foreigners. But if you can shut your eyes to these attitudes that were current at the time it was written, then you have a rip-roaring, entertaining story. And that, after all, is really what you want.

Whodunit?

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It’s a curious thing. At a time when, according to Government statistics – and we know how inventive they have become in their use – the level of crime here in Blighty is on the decrease, our TV screens are chock full of murder and crime series. It seems we have not lost our love for stories of crime, although preferably as dispassionate observers from the comfort of our armchairs.

Our love affair with whodunits dates back to Victorian times. Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is generally acknowledged to be the first major detective novel introducing the sleuth Sergeant Cuff, modelled on Mr Whicher of the Yard, to the great British public. No less a critic than T S Eliot thought it to be not only the first but also the best of its genre. The hey-day of the detective novel was the 1920s and 30s when the format became formulaic and anyone who transgressed from the norm, notably Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and her use of unreliable narrators, they faced a storm of criticism.

So formulaic had the genre become that S S van Dine, an American detective writer who created Philo Vance, published 20 rules for writing detective fiction in 1928. According to van Dine, the author should ensure that the reader is as able to solve the mystery as the detective and shouldn’t have any wilful tricks played on them. Love interest was out of bounds and the detective should never be the culprit. The culprit’s identity should be revealed by logical deductions and there must be at least one corpse. The story must feature one detective, the culprit must be someone who has played a more or less prominent part in the story and the use of spiritualism to reveal their identity is taboo. The culprit should not be a servant – too obvious a suspect states the lofty van Dine – and there should only be one. Secret societies have no place in a detective story nor do professional criminals. Long descriptive passages are to be avoided – they just get in the way of moving the story along – and the truth of the problem should always be apparent, assuming the reader was bright enough to piece all the clues together. Finally, the crime should not turn out to involve an accident or a suicide and the motivation should always be personal.

Next time you pick up a detective novel, see how many of van Dine’s rules are observed.