Saturday, March 19, 2011

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Ah, the poor neglected blog. It's a little like those books I have on my shelf that I want to read so badly. I need to get around to them soon, but when I do, it's usually only to dust.

I've been meaning for weeks to write about No Name by Wilkie Collins. I've read the obligatory The Moonstone and The Woman in White, as well as two others, Armadale and The Haunted Hotel. Collins was as prolific as Dickens, and is at least as wordy, but there is something different about his books. He is a master of suspense. The tension builds and builds, and you know something terrible is going to happen. And then it does. Because he is a Victorian author, you sort of know how things are going to come out in the end, to a point. Virtuous behavior will be rewarded, and evil behavior will either be repented of or duly recompensed.

In No Name, we meet a quiet country family (genteel and wealthy, of course) consisting of father, mother, two grown daughters, and their faithful governess/companion. The eldest daughter, Nora, is quiet and old enough to be well and truly in danger of being considered an "old maid." The younger daughter, Magdalen, is just reaching maturity. She is impetuous and spoiled, and falls unfortunately in love at the first opportunity. However, her indulgent father plans to do what is necessary to make her marriage possible, which basically involves giving her a large sum of money, as her chosen partner has shown himself unable to succeed at any profession.

However, before this marriage can take place, a shocking series of events leaves the girls orphaned and penniless, without even a legal right to their father's name. This seems like enough to be a whole story in itself, but this is a Victorian novel, so it is just the very first section, laying the scene for the rest of the story.

Nora, assisted by her former governess and friend, quietly makes plans to support herself as a governess. Magdalen, willful and angry, vows revenge against the uncle who has behaved so cruelly to her and prevented her marriage. She runs away from her sister and friend, and embarks on a course of action that would have been shocking to Victorian sensibilities, but tends not to horrify me in the same way. (She begins by going on stage.)

Magdalen must fight all her better instincts and finer principles as she pursues her course of revenge and her attempt to recover her father's fortune. Nora never stops believing in her sister, and hoping and praying for her recovery and redemption. How far does Magdalen go? Does she succeed in the end? Will it be in her own best interests if and when she does? Well, that would be spoiling it, wouldn't it? I can't imagine that anyone is going to line up to read this book, and if you haven't read any Wilkie Collins, you certainly want to start with The Moonstone or The Woman in White. I'd probably suggest Armadale before this one, too. But if you already have a taste for Wilkie Collins, and you enjoy having suspense built to a fever pitch in long, long chapters before the conclusion is reached in a credibility-stretching series of coincidences (it was all I could do not to roll my eyes), this story will repay the effort to read it. Magdalen is a well-drawn, complex character, and I enjoyed the story very much. Most of Wilkie Collins characters are caricatures (Dickens-like), but they are fun to watch. There is a whole company of them in this book, aiding or thwarting Magdalen in her ventures.

If you have a large crochet project (or other handiwork) to work on, this will occupy 29 hours of time if you listen to at Librivox, as I did. It took about two months to complete, and I suppose it's only fair to say that I have several other Wilkie Collins titles on my to-be-read list (I do enjoy them), but I'm not in a hurry to start another one.

By way of a teaser, though, I'm listening to another book at Librivox right now--Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.