By no stretch of the imagination can this be counted a great novel: at best, it is engaging, tightly plotted, reasonably well-written with some interesting satire on the art market. However, it is also full of unbelievable coincidence, over sentimentalised, with a lead character so irritating that one could cheerfully throttle him. It certainly offers no great insight on the human condition. Compared with Basil, the controversial novel which preceded it – and despite Basil's many faults – this is a step backwards.
Collins is a master of the slow-reveal, the plot which reveals its secrets layer by layer, and this is a good example. Mystery surrounds the background of saintly deaf and dumb girl Mary, known to all - heavy symbolism alert – as Madonna, who has been obtained from a circus, where she was being mistreated, by artist Valentine Blythe. Blythe wants to hide her so that she cannot be reclaimed from him by her real family, but unfortunately his ne’er-do-well young friend Zack Thorpe has met with a mysterious character in a punch-up in a
drinking den who is also on the
lookout for Mary. London
Zack is an impetuous, rash young man: rebelling against his repressively strict father he is much given to carousing, but his heart is in the right place. He is however totally unreflective and has a mouth on overdrive that gets wearing after a while. Valentine is probably the most believable character in the book, not a particularly good artist, but one good enough to make a living from those who didn’t know any better. Having an artist-father (a very good artist at that), Wilkie Collins knew what he was talking about here. Valentine’s wife and Mary herself are simply too good to be true. However, it is the mysterious Matt that dominates the second part of the book. Is Zack being naive in trusting him? Is he a force for good or evil? What is his link to Mary?
Throughout his writing career, Collins is a consistently harsh critic of hypocrisy. As the father of at least three illegitimate children himself, his respect for such children’s opportunities in life and contempt for those who seek to evade their responsibility for them is clearly shown through all his works. Eventually, the mystery of Mary’s origins are explained, whilst – unlike in Basil – Victorian proprieties are respected. Whilst this is a neat resolution, the novel lacks the real cutting edge that one associates with Collins’ best fiction.