Friday, 22 July 2011

In which I make the case for Wilkie Collins (and also review No Name)

There's an assumption that a lot of people have that The Classics (by which they generally mean large books published before 1914, at which point war broke out, modernism was discovered and everything went very thin and meaningful) are boring. While I have to admit that this is not an entirely wrong assumption in specific cases - writers like Dickens were paid by the word, and it shows - it is most certainly not true at all times, and never less so than in the works of Wilkie Collins.

The Victorians liked their fiction COMPLEX, and most things produced in the latter half of the 19th century are mad long convoluted kitchen-sink soap operas full of marriage and surprise deaths and tragic blonde orphans. This is not a bad concept, necessarily, but it can drag, and trying to hold the complicated emotional issues of five families in your head at once does tend to unfairly tax your powers of memory.

Sensation fiction, however, which is the stuff that Wilkie Collins wrote (a breed of pre-crime-novel that was insanely popular in the 1860s and 70s - imagine it as the Scandinavian thriller of its day) solves this knotty problem by taking the general concept, trimming down the cast size, removing all the dull bits about toil and poverty and making sure that every single one of the many, many things that happen are INSANELY EXCITING. Murder! Wasting diseases! Divorce! Infidelity! Bigamy! Illegitimacy! Robbery! Infamy! Tragedy! Foreigners! (Note that the Tragedy usually comes from the Foreigners, who are always Evil. There is also a general tendency to Capitalise Random Words to show how very, very Sensational they are). The pure and unashamed point of sensation fiction is to be incredibly entertaining, via lots of delicious Dastardly Plots and Wicked Women and Vast Fortunes which are always In Danger from the (Foreign) Forces of Evil, and because of this Wilkie Collins's books are all insanely fun to read. They're also, helpfully, quite easy to get through - you don't have to struggle with ridiculous word choices or complex flights of fancy. Booker Prize hopefuls they are not, and they are all the better for it.

The most famous Wilkie Collins, and the one that you should definitely start with if you haven't come across him before, is The Woman in White. Its fabulous plot revolves around forced marriage but also manages to involve insanity, mistaken identity, an obsession with white dresses, a cunning murder plot and an Italian with a villainous love for small animals, and it features one of the greatest female characters to emerge from 19th century literature. Marion Halcombe has a keen journalistic instinct and a small and delightful moustache, and she could crush 99% of Dickens's heroines to death with the force of her mind. I've never been able to work out why Walter decides he wants to marry Marion's sister, rather than Marion herself - I would personally marry the hell out of Marion, moustache or no moustache. But then I suppose that I am not a Victorian man.

No Name, which Wilkie Collins wrote in 1862, straight after The Woman in White, has its fair share of forced marriage and mistaken identity too, but mainly revolves around illegitimacy and the rather insane Victorian laws on the subject. This was a topic that he clearly felt very strongly about, since his rather racy personal life meant that he had had quite a few not strictly legal children of his own. The basic plot of No Name is as follows.

After the unexpected death of their parents, the Vanstone sisters discover that they are illegitimate, and therefore under English law cannot inherit any of their considerable fortune. Despised and cast out (of course) by a cruel uncle, they must fend for themselves. This causes Norah (the boring one) to nobly go forth and become a governess, and Magdalen (the heroine) to completely lose her mind and decide to take her revenge on her wicked relatives by marrying as many of them as possible and taking them for all the dough she can. Her nemesis, as she tries to carry out her plans, is the Evil housekeeper employed by her Evil uncle. You can tell she is evil because a) she is Foreign, and b) she keeps a toad in a tank. Wilkie Collins was obviously very much against small pets, especially when owned by Foreigners.

Predictably, lots of lovely shenanigans ensue, with Magdalen trying to con her wicked relations, the evil housekeeper trying to con Magdalen and Norah  popping up well-meaningly from time to time to thwart all Magdalen's cunning plans by mistake. It's all very tense and exciting, and I can't imagine how Collins's original readers coped during the months and months it took to be serialised. I assume there were many people whose dying thoughts were along the lines of "I may be leaving my wife and child destitute and forced to choose between starvation and prostitution, but at least THEY'LL get to find out how No Name finishes. Damn those lucky sods."

It all, actually, peters out into a rather piddly and saccharine ending (I really don't think I'm spoiling anything much if I tell you that Good Ultimately Triumphs), but I enjoyed the whole thing up until that point so much that I tend to forgive it its conclusion. After all, it wouldn't be a proper Victorian novel without a bit of ridiculous sentimentality and a fainting fit or two.  

No Name gets a solid 3.5 stars.

In conclusion, sensation fiction is really bloody good, and I think that everyone should read much more of it. Don't expect it to blow your mind with its truthful portrayal of the human condition, and do expect there to be moments where you stop, put down the book and think, well, that's bloody stupid, but definitely do expect to have a good time. Because you will.

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