Wilkie Collins’ No Name

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.

19 thoughts on “Wilkie Collins’ No Name

  1. Oh! I read this one a couple of months ago, and I totally didn’t see the chronic fatigue thing, but now that you mentioned it, I love what you said. I can see it perfectly. Especially this part:
    “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?”

  2. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of The Common Reader (now defunct). It was a wonderful little American mail-order book catalogue started by James Mustich (who is now, I believe,the editor of the Barnes & Noble Review.) Its in-house publishing group was The Akadine Press. Anyway, The Common Reader touted obscure literary classics and forgotten authors and contained beautifully written blurbs, mostly by Mustich, about the offerings. I loved the catalogue for its own sake. One of the books Mustich called “a thumping good read” was Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White. I trusted him, I ordered it, loved it, and went on to order The Moonstone and The Haunted Hotel, also by Collins. The are all “thumping good reads.” For those times when you just want to “read” read. I’ll look forward to reading No Name as well.

  3. I’ll echo Grad’s sentiments about The Common Reader–it was a wonderful little catalog, and I’m a great fan of thumping good reads–all of which of Wilkie Collins’s that I’ve read are! I’ve only just skimmed your post as I don’t want to know anything before reading No Name, but I’m so glad you liked it. Some books are indeed overlong (one I’m reading now is and it’s only 400-ish pages….), but Wilkie Collins is one author who is always forgiveable on this point! Will you report back what your group through? And did you like the Summerscale, too? Another book I wish I could just go and start now….why am I such a slow reader?

  4. Well, I am definitely “out of the loop” when it comes to reading Mr. Collins. Must amend that. Also I love your description of 19th century French–which I do not know–and German literature, which I do, a little. Makes me want to take all those skinny little yellow books off the shelf and hug them. Reading, alas, will require many hours with the dictionary. Someday…

  5. Great to hear that you liked this as I am aware of your aversion to the great Victorian novel. I enjoyed The Woman in White and The Moonstone years ago and I shall have to read this now as it reminds me of them. If I remember correctly the former looks at madness of sorts, so perhaps Wilkie Collins had an interest in such things. Now if only I could get through all the other books I’m waiting to read, including Mister Pip, perhaps I’ll get to this by Christmas!

  6. I loved The Moonstone and The Woman in White — for some reason, I stupidly assumed the others weren’t as good. I’m so glad to hear how wrong I was. I just requested this from our local library and just wish I could take some time off to do nothing but read and drink iced tea.

  7. I have long adored this book. And I love it how the Victorians are always falling ill with “brain fever” and “neurasthenia” … and, as you remark, there’s little or no stigma attached to it; if anything, it’s a sign of exceptional sensitivity, which they usually rated a virtue.

  8. Oh, I forgot to say, in my earlier comment … Wilkie Collins’ advice to writers was as follows: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” I’ve seen writers come out of MFA programs without any innate sense of these exemplary principles.

  9. I’m in the middle of the Summerscale’s and already it made me want to grab yet another Wilkie Collins… and now your review! It’s funny how you prefer to read French 19C writers while I find English Victorians so fascinating (maybe it has to do with the way we were taught our national literature at school, that made Balzac a complete bore at the time). I read Collins in installments, and I can sneak a few chapters online during my lunch break… or even in between meetings!

  10. I was going to say what would you recommend by George Sand as I know nothing of her apart from her Chopin connection? I like the novel (sorry pun), concept of mass adultery as a literary quality marker. Could be a whole new school of lit. crit. there.

  11. What a marvellous review, Litlove! I definitely think you should read more Victorian novels, and am sure you would love ‘Armadale’, which was Collins’ next work. Lydia Gwilt is a deliciously evil heroine, and most definitely a woman of action. There’s an interesting piece on the setting of ‘No Name’ on wilkiecollins.com (http://www.web40571.clarahost.co.uk/wilkie/Aldeburgh/Aldeburgh.htm). Annoyingly, I’ve recently been to Aldeburgh and had temporarily forgotten its literary significance! Captain and Mrs Wragge are two of my favourite Victorian characters. And, as you say, the battle between the Captain and Mrs Lecount is exquisitely narrated.

    I know only a little about 19th-century medical discourses, but believe chronic fatigue syndrome would have been diagnosed as neurasthenia. You rightly say that such cases were often treated far more sensibly and sympathetically than they are now.

  12. You make me want to load all of Wilkie Collins’s books up on my Kindle and take a long vacation in order to properly luxuriate in a wilkie-fest. I’ve not read him before and with Danielle seeming to read and rave about him regularly and now you, I really must find the time!

  13. Many apologies to be slow with comments! It’s been a very busy week, somehow, but I have loved reading your thoughts even if I couldn’t find a moment to respond yesterday.

    Eva – I am so happy that you see the chronic fatigue thing, too! If it strikes you, then there must be substance to my feelings about it. I often think I ought to compile a list of examples of chronic fatigue in literature (George Sand often has her characters suffer from something similar)!

    Grad – The Common Reader is sort of familiar, but I didn’t know what it was and have sadly never seen a copy of it. It sounds absolutely wonderful! Why don’t we still have something like that? And it’s a lovely way to come across Wilkie Collins and begin a life-long appreciation of his work. I’ll certainly be reading more of his novels now.

    Bluestocking! – how nice to have you drop by. I’d love to know what you think of this – it was a lot of fun.

    Danielle – oh I really think you will love this one, but believe me I sympathise when you say you’re a slow reader. I don’t think you are, I just think, like me, your desire for books outstrips by far the time allotted to reading them!🙂 I very much enjoyed the Summerscale – thought it was an extraordinary synthesis of material and a really cracking read again. The book group liked both books very much, and I was really glad to have read them.

    ds – ooh! ooh! I have a pile of those skinny yellow books on my shelves and wish so much I could still read them. I’ve forgotten all my German vocabulary these days, but I can’t bring myself to throw them away (or pass them on). I would warmly recommend Wilkie Collins, and as for French authors, I’d suggest Zola’s Nana or The Masterpiece, or George Sand’s Indiana as good places to start. Or a book of Maupassant’s ghost stories if you like that sort of thing!

    Lilian – I’m not a chunkster reader generally, but I will say that this one did slip down much easier than most!

    Bookboxed – lol! If it’s any consolation, my tbr pile is ginormous and we’ll be hosting the Olympics before I reach the end of it! I thought this was a very good novel and I really must stop being so unfair to the 19th century. It’s only age-old associations with school that make me unwilling to tackle the Victorians.

    Bloglily – oh you are so right to get the tea in for this one. It’s definitely a snacking/reclining/indulging sort of book. You will appreciate his plotting in this for sure.

    David – quite so – it’s a mark of refinement. In a book I read a little while back, the author suggested that about 30% of the population is what she terms ‘highly sensitive’, but given that makes us a minority in a civilisation where the mass counts, we have no concessions to our sensitivities and are indeed often scorned for them. But she suggests that sensitive people are often in great demand as friends and employees.

    That’s wonderful advice from Mr Collins – absolutely to the point and right on the money.

    Smithereens – school has a lot to answer for! I love Balzac, but can imagine how tedious he could be made to be. I really enjoyed the Summerscale too, and came away from it with several more Victorian novels to add to the tbr pile, sigh!

    Bookboxed – I can see a whole revitalisation of literary theory starting here, with cognitive dissonance theory (or whatever we called it) and now adultery theory! As for Sand, I think you may be obliged to begin (and possibly end) with Indiana, as I’m not sure how much of her remains in print. But Indiana is very good. Yes, I’ve just checked amazon and it’s a funny old selection. ‘The Devil’s Pool’ is Sand doing her pastoral idyll thing, and pretty good, too.

    Catherine – I feel I have been unfairly damning the Victorians for many a decade, and should make amends! Armadale sounds most intriguing. And thank you for that most interesting link! My husband’s godfather lives in Aldeburgh and we visit it regularly. Also, I come from Colchester, near where the Admiral lives. So it was an added delight to me to have local markers to enjoy. And yes, neurasthenia – a topic of interest in itself and one I shall be looking out for in my reading!

    Stefanie – oh I think you would find him fun. And I can see how a kindle would be useful here, if you were considering two or three of his novels!🙂 They are most certainly delightful holiday reading, and I would love to know what you think of him if you get the chance to pick up one of his books.

  14. You make me want to read lots more Collins (and as I understand it, there is lots he wrote, so I’m in luck!), and I’m glad I’ve got Armadale upstairs so I can pick up a novel of his whenever I want to. I love 19C novels because although they are so often very long, so don’t very often feel dull — the best authors knew how to string along one’s interest and keep one reading.

  15. I just discovered Wilkie and fell in love with his style whilst reading The Woman in White. Currently reading No Name. I shall return when my Restoril wears off and these tiny letters on my iPhone ate easier to manage. The joy of reading is elevated to an entirely new rcoeriece when shared, and I find I am often prompted to revisit an d favorite with the insights of others as a guide.

    I’m not very far along, but thus far itt reminds me of Counte of Minte Christo in many ways. Probably stating the obvious. I’ve only read one post. I can’t read my own post. Lol. A word to the less than wise,,.take your sleeping pill After you decide to post on a blog.

  16. I just finished reading “No Name” on my tablet. I wish the book was longer so I could read about Madelene and Kirke’s life together!

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