Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Review : No Name by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 2004)

Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are the much-loved daughters of Andrew and Mrs Vanstone, who live comfortably with their governess Mrs Garth in Somerset. Norah is quiet and sensible, but Magdalen is high-spirited, a natural actress and who has fallen in love with the boy next door.But when Andrew Vanstone receives a letter that causes Mrs Vanstone and him to travel at short notice to London, all starts to unravel, as their parents are hiding a secret that neither of the girls suspect.

Within a short time, their parents have died tragically and Magdalen and Norah are cast out of the family home with their fortune passing, against their father's intentions, to their uncle - who believed that he had himself been cheated by Andrew Vanstone many years ago, and so was disinclined to help the girls. Norah accepts her fate, but Magdalen cannot, and with the help from the "moral agriculturalist" Captain Wragge, she sets out on an audacious journey to try to reclaim her rightful fortune.

For me, one of the biggest surprises in this novel of shocks is why this book is not as well known as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, as to my mind this book is easily their equal. It is classic Collins - densely plotted, twisting and turning - as he draws on his legal training to chart a convoluted course through the Victorian laws of inheritance that would have satisfied all at Dickens' Court of Chancery.

Magdalen Vanstone is a superb heroine. Collins contrives to ensure that whilst she is acting in a way that is, superficially, morally reprehensible, she has sufficient justification for her actions to keep her audience onside. Equally ambiguous is Captain Wragge, who, after some initial equivocation, shuns exploiting Magdalen when he could have easily done so. But much more subversive is the way in which characters glide with apparent ease between the rigid strata of Victorian society - the rapid fall of Magdalen and Norah, and Magdalen's subsequent donning of roles above and below her station - even, at one point, encouraging her lowly maid to impersonate a Housekeeper.

Equally ambiguous are Noel Vanstone and Mme Lecount, his faithful housekeeper. Noel Vanstone is a miser, a coward and a fool, yet he has come by his fortune honestly and is in a way unfortunate to inherit the baggage in the shape of Magdalen that comes with it. Mme Lecount may be icy and calculating, yet nevertheless she shuns the opportunity to manipulate Noel Vanstone's will for any more than what she feels she is due for many years of service.

Several of the minor characters are a delight - Mrs Garth and Mr Clare, both straight-talkers in their own way, and the bluff Admiral Bartram, scared of offending his cook, and Mazey the drunken coxswain. Only the mentally deficient Mrs Wragge, essentially an affectionate figure of fun, makes the modern reader uncomfortable.

But there are also two bigger shortcomings, familiar to readers of Collins' other books. Magdalen's sister Norah and Commander Kirke are both simply too good to be true, and consequently of little interest. And the coincidences required to effectuate the conclusion are simply too much to be able to accept - it's as if the author had simply run out of energy and invention by this point (Collins was in fact very ill when completing the novel).

However that is beside the point. One senses that Collins' delight was in the intricacy of the main body of the plot, which had been by now resolved - the final irony is that it is the passive Norah not Magdalen who effects this resolution. One cannot blame Collins for running out of steam at the end - true to the tradition of Sensation Novels, the pace of this book has never slipped, and if its moral ambiguities were too much for a Victorian audience, it suits it even better to today's readership.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review : Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet (Faber and Faber 2001)

Think of the Victorians. Do you conjure up pictures of sexually repressed patriarchs who covers their piano legs to prevent their wives, daughters and servants developing impure thoughts? Or do you have visions of stench and squalour, new railway lines being thrust through putrid slums whilst dark satanic mills belch the fumes of unfettered capitalism throughout the land? Or, for that matter, do think of Oscar Wilde and his aesthetic friends, sipping absinthe and giggling over improbably-endowed satyrs in Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations. Or Jack the Ripper, carving his way through Whitechapel?

All these pictures are valid, and Matthew Sweet explores each in his engaging work on Inventing the Victorians. His thesis is that time has distorted our vision of the Victorians and in actual fact they were very similar to us. They were less stuffy about sex than we imagine - the covered piano-legs in fact originate in the United States, and it wasn't Queen Victoria who first lay back and thought of England, but a certain Lady Hillingham in 1912 (although as a counter-example, the form of body-piercing known as a "Prince Albert" was actually the invention of an American proprietor of a string of body-piercing parlours around 1970.)

Despite the book's publicity which focusses on sex and serial killers, it also delves into less extreme byways, such as the nature of Victorian advertising which was, if it can be conceived, even more intrusive and less truthful than today, interior design, or the remarkable feats of the tightrope walker Blondin, who cooked dinner above the Niagara falls, and took a lion in a wheelbarrow on a wire slung between the towers of the Crystal Palace. Apparently spam mails originate in the nineteenth century, as does the first Indian Restaurant in Britain, which predates the first Fish and Chip shop by 54 years. It is an eclectic, enjoyable mix, with the emphasis on the interesting anecdote rather than the thesis which does get rather lost as Sweet gets carried away describing in detail the debauches of the Yellow Book set, or Charles Dodgson's attitude to little girls.

Sweet's conclusion is that the Victorians weren't as stuffed-shirt as we would like to think they were. To be honest, I don't think that most people actually think that - the cliché today, buttressed by numerous Sensation novels both of the 19th century and today, is of the hypocritical veneer of the Victorian patriarch whose outward respectability hides a penchant for prostitutes and pornography. However, let that minor cavil not detract from a most enjoyable romp through some of the less-well known byways of Victorian life.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review : Basil by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2008)

Basil is Wilkie Collins second novel, and the first in which the characteristics of what would become the Sensation Novels of the 1860s are apparent. However this book is a strange affair, both compelling and baffling, daring in its subject matter yet ultimately descending into trite melodrama.

Basil is the youngest son of an ancient family, a dreamy writer. One day, he sees a young lady, Margaret Sherwin, on an omnibus and immediately falls in love. He follows her and discovers that she is the daughter of  a draper. After a brief conversation he decides he must marry her but must do so without his father's knowledge, however he is told by her father, eager that the family should win such a prize, that he must therefore marry immediately but keep the marriage secret and unconsummated for a year. However, unbeknownst to Basil, Mr Sherwin's confidential assistant Mr Mannion has his own plans for Margaret.

Basil is one of these characters that you want to give a good shake. It is obvious that Margaret Sherwin hasn't  a thought of merit in her empty head, yet Basil ploughs on regardless. He disregards his father and his sister, he disregards the hints from Mannion, and when he finally realises what is happening he resorts to a surprising degree of violence.

If all representatives of the lower classes  were as odious and materialistic as Mr Sherwin, then Basil's father's snobbery could be tolerated. As it is, the class bias underpinning the book repels, since, with the exception of Mannion who bears his father's sins, all the genteel characters are good, sensitive, reflective characters, whereas the arriviste drapers are empty-headed and materialistic.

There's a lot here that is promising, though. Like all of Collins books it is well-plotted (except for an unbelievable and over-hasty ending) and strongly patterned, with striking contrasts set up between Margaret and Basil's sister, the virginal Clara; Basil and his reformed hellraiser-brother Ralph; and the propriety of Basil's father compared with the grasping Mr Sherwin. Mannion in particular is a finely-drawn picture of menace early in the book.

However, as the coincidences mount, the pace becomes more breathless and in the end it all rather predictable. I couldn't help wondering how the basic premise might have turned out in the hands of a Dostoevsky, where the penniless young author, a nihilist estranged from his family, sees a girl on an omnibus and marries her simply because he can. Now that might have been interesting...

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Book Review : The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 1998)

I can't really discuss this book without giving away snippets of its wonderfully labyrinthine plot, so if you have not yet read The Moonstone but plan to do so, may I suggest that you look away now, as the conclusion of this wonderful book retains its ability to surprise even today.

The Moonstone is so often cited as being the archetype of all detective novels that one is surprised in the first place of how little Sergeant Cuff appears in the novel, and how insignificant his role in the denouement. If one is forced to pigeon-hole this novel, then it is definitely a Sensation Novel in which a detective appears, rather than a Detective Novel with a sensational plot. However, over the course, Wilkie Collins establishes a number of the conventions of the Closed House detective novel which endure to this day.

Rachel Verinder has received The Moonstone - looted from an Indian temple - as a birthday present. However that night it is stolen, and all the inhabitants of the house are suspects for Sergeant Cuff, who has been summoned from London to replace the incompetent local police force (in this detail, there is a striking parallel with Inspector Whicher, upon whom Cuff was supposedly based,  and the Road Hill House murders).  Cuff is a solitary man with a melancholy face and, like so many of his successors, an eccentricity - in this case, an obsession with roses.

His suspicion falls on Rosanna Spearman, the servant with the plain face and crooked back who has been rescued by Lady Verinder from a home for women with criminal pasts. Rosanna is a genuinely interesting character as she has fallen helplessly in love with the charismatic young gentleman Franklin Blake. This unrequited infatuation across the class barrier is, as far as I am aware, quite unique in Victorian fiction, where love affairs between men and woman of differing degrees of gentility are quite common, but seldom involve the serving classes.

Eventually, Franklin Blake's quest for the hand of Rachel Verinder places the onus of revealing who had stolen The Moonstone on his head, and he is in for a shock.The denouement where Blake unlocks his memory of what happened a year ago under the influence of opium is exciting if not believable in the slightest - although as a seasoned habitue of the drug, Collins is in a better position to write about its impact than I am. However The Moonstone itself has not yet been retrieved, and indeed the final scene of novel sees a resolution which is both satisfying and subtly subversive  in a colonial context.

Since writing The Woman in White several years previously, Collins writing style has improved and he is in greater control of his material. Sergeant Cuff, Rosanna Spearman and the loquacious old House-Steward Gabriel Betteredge are finely drawn, but Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder hardly fly off the page as a romantic duo, and Godfrey Ablewhite is such a do-gooder that one wonders where's the catch. But the plot compels, it drives the book forward at a ferocious pace and it still retains a genuine ability to surprise - 150 years on, it is still a cracking good read.