So I’m not generally a big fan of British 19th century literature. I love the French nineteenth century – they have George Sand, mass adultery and excursions into the fantastic. I love the German nineteenth century – they have the novella, one of my all-time favourite dinky little genres. But the British has often failed to appeal, with its sentimental rusticity or its dingy mill towns, and endless finely sliced arguments about different religious denominations. But I’d heard good things about Wilkie Collins in blogland, and I decided I wanted very much to see what the book club was like that’s organized for parents at my son’s school. So last week I womanfully plowed through 741 pages. I will admit that I don’t see any justification for a story ever requiring more than 500 pages to tell, but I forgave No Name for its excess, and I forgave it for being in the nineteenth century, because it really is a cracking story.
The novel begins in the peaceful, contented household of the middle-class Vanstones, who live on an idyllic countryside estate called Combe-Raven. Mr Vanstone is a genial, soft-hearted sort, generous and benevolent. Mrs Vanstone is loving and gentle. The old family retainer, no-nonsense Miss Garth, lives with them and there are two daughters with notably varying temperaments. The eldest, Norah, is a good girl in the traditional mould, obedient, disciplined, reserved. The younger, spoiled and headstrong Magdalene, is proud and beautiful and determined. She shows her spirit early in the story by taking the local amateur dramatics by storm and then becoming engaged, arousing the mild misgivings of her family, to the ne’er do well son of a neighbour, Frank Clare.
But then tragedy strikes. A mysterious letter, arriving at the start of the narrative, has hinted that there are machinations at work of which the reader knows nothing. When the elder Vanstones die in quick succession, the daughters are plunged into catastrophe. It turns out that for various reasons, their parents were not in fact married when they were born, and in his ignorance of the law, Mr Vanstone has failed to renew his will since that grave error was rectified. The girls are disinherited and turned out of their home without compassion, as the last remaining member of their father’s family has borne a spiteful grudge against their father which now comes to full, evil fruition. So what are the two young women to do? Norah, predictably, buckles under. She accepts the charity of her former governess, Miss Garth, and moves into her old home to learn the trade of governess in her turn. Magdalene, by contrast, is overwhelmed by misfortune. Not only has she lost her beloved parents and her home, but the situation has abruptly curtailed her hopes to marry. With much foreboding from the other characters as to how the disaster has altered the healthy course of her mind, she commits herself to the path of revenge and vows to regain their inheritance from her bitter uncle or his invalid son.
At this point, pause for exclamation. Wow! A woman in the nineteenth century who gets to do something! This surely cannot end well. And at this point there’s still another 600 pages to go, which could indicate a lot of divine punishment to be meted out by the author. But in fact the story sets off at a clip, with Magdalene joining forces with a distant, murky relation of her mothers, the accomplished swindler, Captain Wragge. To begin with, I was not sure I was going to like this character, but he swiftly grew on me because he is such a hoot. He has with him a wife, poor Mrs Wragge, who offends his sense of order and neatness in every part of her muddled and confused soul. But the three of them end up quite the hot shot team, as Magdalene tries first of all to exact the money by appealing to her dastardly rival, and, when that fails, she dreams up her most ambitious plan of all and sets out to marry him.
Wilkie Collins was a lawyer and then, like so many authors of his era, published his novels in serial installments, and my goodness me can he plot. This story is an absolute masterclass in how to create narrative tension. In one corner we have stubborn Magdalene, ably aided by the ingenious Captain Wragge, in the other, the repulsive potential bridegroom, sickly Mr Noel Vanstone and his gorgon of a housekeeper, the machiavellian Mrs Lecount who is equally determined to keep him single. How these two teams slug it out, each second-guessing the other, laying traps and side-stepping them, sparring with oodles of cunning and connivance. The battle of wits between Captain Wragge and Mrs Lecount really is a thing of exquisite narrative beauty. I could not possibly give any more away, because not knowing how it’s going to come out is essential to the reader’s pleasure, but there is many a twist and a surprise before the conclusion is reached.
I don’t think I’m giving away too much, however, if I say that at one point, Magdalene falls ill with what looks to me exactly like chronic fatigue. It struck me as most interesting to see the respect with which the Victorians treated illnesses that involved both body and mind. There is no stigma attached; it is simply understood as the natural consequence of a period of intense mental and emotional strain. And the recovery and convalescence that she undergoes is an exemplary instance of what doctors nowadays call ‘pacing’, a minutely slow return to activity that is alive to the dangers of overstimulation. How can we have forgotten all this in the modern world?
Anyway, I am looking forward now to discussing this book in a group, to see whether my own readings are an obstinately perverse as I fear they may be. Doubtless if anything of interest happens, I will report it here on the blog. In the meantime, I do recommend No Name as a delightfully enjoyable read, ideal for vacations, convalescences or a long stretch of installments at bedtime.