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.

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