Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review : The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World's Classics 2008)

Having introduced the Victorian reading public to the professional detective in Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone, in The Law and the Lady Collins turns to what is probably the first full-length novel to feature a woman trying to unravel a mystery. Valeria Woodville has recently married, but she discovers that Eustace, her husband, is hiding a secret from her - in fact, she may not be married at all, as he has been using a false name. Naturally concerned, she starts to investigate Eustace's past, and discovers that he has been tried in Scotland for murder of his previous wife, and found not proven. Convinced however of his innocence, Valeria sets out to clear his name.

This is also the second of Collins' novels to try to address what he saw as being the iniquities of the Scottish legal system. The verdict of "not proven" is a distinctive feature of Scottish justice, indicating that the jury felt that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Whilst the accused on receipt of this verdict is free to walk from the court, it was perceived that it was not without a certain stigma.Collins felt that this ambiguity was a weakness in the Scottish legal system, yet does not examine the probably fatal consequences for Eustace if the jury had found him guilty. The "not proven" verdict had in recent years been topical due to the notorious  Madelaine Smith trial in Glasgow, where the pretty upper-middle class woman had been accused and found "not proven" of poisoning her lover.

As Valeria feels her way towards the truth, she meets Miserrimus Dexter, one of Collins more extraordinary creations. Strikingly handsome with long flowing hair and beard, yet born without legs, Dexter hauls himself around in a chair that he is capable of moving with great speed. He lives in a bleak mansion cared for by his devoted, subjugated sister with learning difficulties. Dexter has come straight from a gothic novel - he is a poet, improvisational actor, cook and aesthete, yet bizarre and unstable, given to extreme behaviour and mood swings which culminate in a clumsy attempt to kiss Valeria, who must nevertheless control her revulsion if she is to uncover the secret of the death of Eustace's wife.

As ever with Collins, this is a gripping, fast-paced and intriguing adventure, the labyrinthine plot creating sufficient false leads to fool at least this reader for part of the novel. Collins gave his female characters more independence and autonomy than most of his male contemporaries (compare with Dickens' anonymous heroines) and although Valeria is not as well-defined as Marian Halcombe or Magadalen Vanstone, she is yet another strong, stubborn headstrong female lead from this great unconvetional Victorian.

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