Wilkie Collins reported that when he was a boy at boarding school, he was bullied by a fellow pupil who forced Collins to tell him a story every night before they went to bed. This Sultan-and-Scheherezade setup is like no other form of school bullying I’ve ever heard of (you mostly get beatings, vicious practical jokes, and ostracism, don’t you?) but even if it’s apocryphal, it’s the perfect origin for Collins’s writing. His novels, so often serialized, lead you on, night after night, keeping you on the edge of your scandalized seat, unwilling to let the novel fall until you’re sure what’s around the next bend — and that, with Collins, is impossible.
No Name is the second of the four novels Collins wrote in the 1860s, the ones that refined his craft and made his name. It’s also the last one of the four that I’ve read: the others are The Woman in White, Armadale, and The Moonstone. All four are innovative technical masterpieces, juggling narrative voice, technique (such as the documentary evidence and letters in The Moonstone, something that also pops up in No Name), and style. All four have hints of the occult — ghosts, twins, somnambulism, psychic phenomena — though none go so far as to leave the reader with strange explanations in the end. And all four are taut thrillers, combining humor and pathos with many (many!) surprises. I didn’t dare venture a guess about what would happen next, in case I missed what really did happen.
Caveat: I intend to go into a bit of detail in this review, so if you want to remain completely unspoiled about the book’s events, best quit reading now and go get the book. It’s highly recommended!
As the novel opens, the Vanstone family — father, mother, quiet daughter Norah, age 26, and irrepressible daughter Magdalen, age 18, are at home on the Combe-Raven estate. Their lives are happy; the worst that comes to trouble them is (as in Mansfield Park) the dreaded amateur theatricals, during which Magdalen comes to fall in love with the weak and petulant Frank Clare, much against her sister’s wishes. (These theatricals, by the way, are wonderfully portrayed, and Fanny could have done nothing but say “I told you so.”)
One day, Mr. Vanstone receives a letter from America. He and his wife, much troubled, promptly set off for London, without telling their daughters or the beloved governess, Miss Garth, the purpose of their trip. But a few months after their return, the bottom drops out of the Vanstones’ world. Mr. Vanstone is killed in a train accident, and Mrs. Vanstone (along with the nearly-full-term child she is carrying) dies of the shock. That same day, it is revealed that the purpose of the Vanstones’ trip to London was to be married, and so Norah and Magdalen were illegitimate — are Nobody’s Children — have No Name — and that Combe-Raven and all other property is to go to their uncle, Michael Vanstone, a vicious and vengeful man who has no intention of giving either girl any portion of the inheritance that should have been hers!
Norah, after her initial storm of grief, accepts her lot and decides to become a governess. But Magdalen is consumed with fury, and, swearing revenge on her uncle, leaves the protection of her sister and governess in order to enact her plans. She winds up with a distant relation of her mother’s, a certain Captain Wragge:
Taking his portrait, from top to toe, the picture of him began with a tall hat, broadly encircled by a mourning band of crumpled crape. Below the had was a lean, long, sallow face, deeply pitted with the small-pox, and characterized, very remarkably, by eyes of two different colors — one bilious green, one bilious brown, both sharply intelligent.
Wilkie Collins’s personal descriptions are some of the best things about this book. Look at that: the false mourning, meant to elicit sympathy when Wragge does his “moral agriculture” (scamming.) The small-pox: he’s a survivor. The eyes — you can’t trust him — but watch out; he’s no fool.
Here’s another portrait:
Seated not far from the front window, with his back to the light, she saw a frail, flaxen-haired, self-satisfied little man, clothed in a fair white dressing-gown many sizes too large for him, with a nosegay of violets drawn neatly through the button-hole over his breast. He looked from thirty to five-and-thirty years old. His complexion was as delicate as a young girl’s, his eyes were of the lightest blue, his upper lip was adorned by a weak little white mustache, waxed and twisted at either end into a thin spiral curl. When any object specially attracted his attention he half closed his eyelids to look at it. When he smiled, the skin at his temples crumpled itself up into a nest of wicked little wrinkles. He had a plate of strawberries on his lap, with a napkin under them to preserve the purity of his white dressing-gown.
That’s Mr. Noel Vanstone, son and heir of Michael Vanstone. Could there be a picture of more delicacy and weakness, like a debutante or a kitten — except for those wicked little wrinkles?
But Magdalen is not chiefly pitted against Noel Vanstone or Captain Wragge. Instead, her arch-enemy is an unimpeachably respectable housekeeper named Mrs. Lecount (an anglicized version of Leconte, and we all know we can’t trust the French.) Collins does an absolutely magnificent job of playing with our sympathies here (and how much more with Victorian sensibilities!) Magdalen is doing something genuinely wrong: seeking revenge, deceiving, hoping to hurt and defraud, and many other things that I won’t name. Mrs. Leconte has a few hidden motives — the mainspring of her action is to be right — but her goal is to protect her employer. Yet all the time, we want Magdalen to win. We want Mrs. Leconte out of the way, no matter what the cost. Here is part of a hair-raising description of the first encounter between the two, when Magdalen is waiting in Mrs. Lecount’s room:
On the table stood a glass tank filled with water, and ornamented in the middle by a miniature pyramid of rock-work interlaced with weeds. Snails clung to the sides of the tank; tadpoles and tiny fish swam swiftly in the green water, slippery efts and slimy frogs twined their noiseless way in and out of the weedy rock-work; and on top of the pyramid there sat solitary, cold as the stone, brown as the stone, motionless as the stone, a little bright-eyed toad. The art of keeping fish and reptiles as domestic pets had not at that time been popularized in England; and Magdalen, on entering the room, started back, in irrepressible astonishment and disgust, from the first specimen of an Aquarium that she had ever seen.
“Don’t be alarmed,” said a woman’s voice behind her. “My pets hurt nobody.”
Magdalen turned, and confronted Mrs. Lecount.
Solitary, cold, camouflaged, and bright-eyed! Oh, Magdalen, be careful, be careful…
One of the themes of the book — so ably foreshadowed by the amateur theatricals — is how a person can maintain her integrity in the face of actions that betray her values. Magdalen is forced, or rather forces herself, into deeper and deeper degradations and falsehoods, but her tearing regret always reveals that her soul is still there. She encounters people along the way for whom we initially believe that not to be true — that they are so jaded by crime and fraud and deception that they no longer have true selves — but Collins peels away the layers: Magdalen herself is so blunt, so willing to name her agony and to say what her aims are, that the people around her inevitably respond in kind, and she finds help when she needs it most.
The book has many more twists and turns before the ending, and there is a great deal more to say about it: about intelligence (Mrs. Wragge, with her mental Buzzing, is a character right out of Dickens), and about voice — who is allowed to speak and who is not — and about whether Magdalen is actually reformed at the end (I think not — not any more than Captain Wragge.) But instead of discussing all this, I’ll let you read the book. It’s so well crafted, so well written, so well thought out, and also so purely exciting, that it has been one of my most satisfying reading experiences of the year so far.