Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review : Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World's Classics 2008)

Despite the success of The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins did not follow up immediately with another mystery or detective novel. Having defined the Sensation genre and laid down the basics for proper detective fiction, he promptly changed tack once again and wrote Man and Wife, his first and probably his best "issues novel". Not that this was a complete departure from Sensation fiction - this still has all the usual sensational elements intact: bigamy, murder, jilting husbands, imprisoned wives and ghostly, malevolent dumb cooks. But the plot itself was this time overtly constructed around two contemporary issues - the ambiguous state of marital law in Scotland and Ireland, and the moral risks posed by a focus on a healthy body when not balanced by a healthy mind.

Anne Silvester was governess to the aristocratic Blanche Lundy, but as she had been placed in an "interesting" situation by the "Honorable" Geoffrey Delamayne, she plans to utilise ambiguous Scottish marriage laws which rely purely on witnessed consent and not the full sacrament sanctioned by the Church and State in England by escaping to a remote Hotel and have Geoffrey address her as "wife" before witnesses. However, Geoffrey is called away to his dying father, and asks his friend Arnold Brinkworth to stand in for him, knowing that Anne will be ejected from the hotel if approached by a man who is not her husband. So Arnold innocently poses as Anne's husband. Meanwhile, Geoffrey gets a better offer, and tries to wriggle out of his commitment.

Geoffrey is a cad, but an athletic one with a finely tuned body which he has devoted much time to honing.Collins' assertion is that in spending so much time on athletic pursuits, he has neglected his moral development through reading books and following the arts. Unfortunately he overstates his position since, bone-headed though certain denizens of the gym may be (and many are not too, I hastily add, as I hide away my bicycle clips), few are brought to the verge of death or cold-blooded uxoricide through their obsession.

The Scottish marriage laws, however, are much more conducive to Collins' enquiry. In fact, they could almost have been designed for would-be Sensation Novelists as within their ambiguities lie boundless possibilities.Collins lays bare the problems inherent in them, whilst nicely contrasting through the story of Hester Dethridge the iniquitous way in which English matrimonial law forced women to surrender all their rights on marriage, placing them beyond the reach of the law.

By now, Collins has refined his craft and despite the above-noted flaws in conception Man and Wife is never less than a compelling read. The complex marriage plot is handled lightly without too much need for didacticism, although Geoffrey's foot-race is trite and the final few chapters descend into melodrama.

The story is aided by some of Collins' best drawn characters. Sir Patrick Lundie is a shrewd, wry Scottish lawyer, permanently at odds with the impossible snob Lady Lundie. The roguish head-waiter Bishopriggs has walked straight out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott, and Geoffrey Delamayne starts interestingly before descending into the role of a steroetypical cad. These outweigh the blandness of Arnold Brinkworth and Blanche, whose escape with her Aunt from Ham Farm is the only interesting thing that she does.And the mysterious dumb cook Hester Dethridge is never really convinces.

Unfortunately one cannot see what the shy, sensitive and virtuous Anne Silvester sees in Geoffrey Delamayne at all, and least of all why she might get herself pregnant by him. And this is really getting to the heart of the problem with the novel - why should Anne get herself in the position she finds herself, and is it really in character for her to devise such a devious plan to be wed? Similarly, one cannot understand why Hester Dethridge acts as she does in the final chapters, even if she is being blackmailed by Geoffrey. However, one is prepared to overlook these points, as Collins never lets your interest flag once you start to race towards the conclusion of this interesting book.

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