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...

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