For those new to my blog, I am participating for the second year in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie, who has a popular book blog, Reading to Know. I am no longer the token male member, as she has convinced her husband to participate this year. My selection is No Name by Wilkie Collins. If you want to join in or see what we are reading, the link to that post is here:
Wilkie Collins (named William Wilkie after his father) was one of the most influential authors of the Victorian era, yet his name is often just a side note. He is known for The Woman in White and maybe The Moonstone, but little else. During his lifetime, his best known novels were classified as “sensation novels.” We now recognized them as early examples of detective and suspense fiction. Although Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first true detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which set the conventions of the genre that would eventually be associated primarily with Sherlock Holmes, it was Collins who expanded the form into the full length mystery. The Woman in White is his first effort, containing most of the usual elements; but it was The Moonstone that is the fully developed prototype of the genre. T. S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers (herself a master of the mystery) both gave high praise to The Moonstone.
No Name belongs to the other side of Collins’ writing: suspense fiction. There is no mystery to be solved - unless you count the mystery of what will happen next. The book begins a bit slowly, and appears to be a novel of domestic manners, perhaps in the vein of Jane Austen, or Anthony Trollope (one of my favorite authors); but it eventually goes completely off the tracks as tragedy strikes. The two daughters are orphaned, left without an inheritance or means of support and must fend for themselves. The elder, Nora, is quiet and staid - completely the conventional Victorian female. She finds work as a governess. Magdalen, on the other hand, is a force of nature. It is her adventures that are chronicled in this book. Actually, “chronicled” is a completely insufficient description of what happens. Magdalen drags the author and the reader along on her outrageous escapades at a breathtaking pace. When I first read this book in my late teens, I found myself gasping at the crazy things she does, and her supreme force of will. Whether she is a heroine or an antihero is an open question, but she is unforgettable.
Collins and Charles Dickens were close friends throughout a good part of their lifetimes. They were each influenced by the other, collaborated on several projects, and probably influenced each other’s writing. Certainly they both shared a concern for social issues, and brought servants from their roles as background figures to the forefront as human, sympathetic characters. Although Dickens was more successful in his social criticism, Collins has some good points to make in this book. The ending (which I will not disclose) would have been affirming to many Victorians, but it is about as convincing as the living statue in A Winter’s Tale. I believe Collins, like Shakespeare before him, backed away from the more realistic tragic ending, while understanding that those of his readers that would look beneath the surface would find the underlying injustice readily apparent.
You don’t have to be an official member of the book club to read along. We post our reviews the last week of April. Feel free to link your thoughts on my page in the comments.