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.

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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)

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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.

 

Book Corner

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The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

One of the delights of using an e-reader is that it encourages you to rediscover the joys of Victorian novels which are generally available in digitised format at no cost. The oeuvre of Wilkie Collins represents a lamentable gap in my knowledge, something I sought to rectify by tackling the Moonstone.

Published in 1868 it is regarded as being the first detective novel in the English language and centres around a valuable diamond, the Moonstone, which, as well as having been stolen from India, is stolen from the latest custodian, Rachel Herncastle, who was bequeathed the stone by her wicked uncle, Colonel Herncastle, who had acquired the gem as a result of a murderous theft in the aftermath of the Siege of Seringapatam. Three Indian Brahmins are tasked with returning the stone to India and, naturally, suspicion falls on them. The thief is unmasked – the use of laudanum, a tincture of opium which included powdered opium in its ingredients and was a medicine of choice amongst many Victorians and Collins’ own predilection, initially to treat gout, plays an important role in the execution of the robbery – two of the main protagonists live happily ever after and the Indians are ultimately successful in recovering their prize. I won’t ruin the intricacies of the plot any more.

For a lengthy book – around 1,200 pages in digitised format – it is an easy read and zips along at a fair pace. It is humorous in parts with maiden aunt, Miss Clack, and Gabriel Betteredge, the butler, providing much of the comedic value. The narrative style is broken up by having the story told from the perspective of some of the main characters, allowing Collins to keep the story moving, adding different perspectives and insights as we go along. The inherent racism and sexism does occasionally grate on the modern reader. In Collins’ defence he is reflecting the mores of his time and he is actually quite liberal and enlightened in his depiction of and attitude towards the servants.

The plot contains many of the classic ingredients of the later English detective story – a country house robbery, an inside job, red herrings galore, a celebrated professional investigator, Sargeant Cuff, a bungling local constabulary, a large number of false suspects, a locked room murder, a reconstruction of the felony and a final plot twist.

Cuff actually only plays a relatively small part in the plot and fingers the wrong person when he concludes his preliminary investigations but many of his premonitions and predictions come true. He has a passion for the cultivation of roses which seems out of place for a hard-bitten sleuth and is observant, intelligent and sly. Without doubt, he is a prototype for the most eminent English fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

The book was published in 1868 having been initially serialised in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round.