Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review - A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins (Dodo Press 2007)

This early work of Wilkie Collins is little more than a novella, and completely lacking the finely architectured plots that we come to associate with Collins' novels, but it is nevertheless remarkable for the cynical, worldly tone adopted by the first-person narrator.

Collins is capable of writing well, but he can also be a very functional writer with flat prose driving forward a complex plot, as in the following example from "The Dead Secret" :

  The nurse who was in attendance on Mrs Frankland had suddenly been taken ill, and was rendered quite   incapable of performing any further service for at least a week to come, and perhaps for a much longer period...Mr Frankland suggested telegraphing a medical friend in London for a nurse, but the doctor was unwilling for many reasons to adopt the plan except as a last resort. 

As can be seen, the tone is flat and functional, without any frills except those relevant to the matter in hand.

A Rogue's Life is different, as the narrator's passage below demonstrates.

  After I had left school, I had the narrowest escape possible of intruding myself into another place of accommodation for distinguished people; in other words, I was very nearly sent to college. Fortunately for me, my father lost a lawsuit just in the nick of time and was obliged to scrape together every farthing of available money that he possessed for the luxury of going to law. If he could have saved his seven shillings, he would certainly have sent me to scramble for a place in the great university theatre; but his purse was empty, and his son was not eligible therefore for admission, in a gentlemanly capacity, at the doors.

The cynical, smart, sarcastic tone is ideally suited to the feckless Softly, the narrator, who dedicates what wit he has to schemes for getting rich quick and getting to know the beautiful Alicia Dulcifer. Unfortunately, his get-rich schemes come to naught, until he discovers Alicia's father's secret.

By this point, Collins command of tone has waned, and the novel becomes plot-driven once again, which is a shame as what plot there is is nonsense of the highest order and not really worthy of further discussion. However, it shows what tools Collins had at his command as a writer when he put his mind to it, and gives us a foretaste of bravura rogues such as Count Fosco in his later books.

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