Wilkie Collins wrote four major novels during the 1860s, and they made his reputation as an author of excellent literary sensation fiction: The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name, and Armadale. I read The Woman in White when I was about twelve (what can I say, my mother majored in 19th-century British literature and liked to share), and over the past few years have read the rest, with the total shivery enjoyment meant for the original readers and a critical eye acquired since. But now what? Collins wrote somewhere in the region of thirty novels, and most of them didn’t make his reputation. If I want more Collins, where should I begin? Should I even read any more at all? I decided to take a gamble, and read The Law and the Lady, a detective story of sorts published in 1875. I will say that, although it didn’t quite reach the heights of the four novels from Collins’s golden age of the 1860s (no Lydia Gwilt! no Count Fosco!), it was still a fast-paced, sensational thriller, worth every nail-biting minute.
At the beginning of The Law and the Lady, the narrator, Valeria Brinton, marries her true love, Eustace Woodville. There are apparently very serious objections to the marriage, but of course no one will tell her exactly what the objections are: Eustace’s family has forbidden it, and Valeria’s family, though not understanding the grounds of their aversion, has also counseled Valeria not to go ahead with the marriage because there’s obviously something really wrong. Valeria and Eustace, however, those crazy kids, decide to go ahead with wedded bliss and complete openness and trust. (Cue ominous music.)
Mere days after they are married and preparing to go to Venice on their honeymoon, Valeria stumbles on evidence leading her to realize Eustace married her under a false name. (Awkward.) Eustace won’t tell her one single thing and threatens to leave her if she finds out the truth (and then asks her to trust him) but Valeria is having none of that nonsense. Further investigation on her part uncovers the secret: Eustace was tried for the murder (!) of his first wife (!!) by arsenic (!!!) and was given the Scotch Verdict, Not Proven (!!!!). Unless Valeria can clear his name with fresh evidence, Eustace will leave for the continent and never see her again and probably die of a swoon because the woman he loves can never truly believe him innocent.
Reader, I am not spoiling anything. All this happens in about the first fifty pages. The rest of the novel is about the completely indefatigable Valeria, who uses every technique legal and illegal, from early forensics to feminine wiles, from interviews with madmen to sending private detectives to America, from seducing elderly gentlemen to learning about the law, to uncover the truth about the murder of her husband’s first wife.
The book is crammed, as you might expect from a Wilkie Collins novel, with jaw-droppingly amazing characters. It is true that there is no Lydia Gwilt, no Count Fosco. But there is instead… Miserrimus Dexter, a man born with no legs:
A high chair on wheels moved by, through the field of red light, carrying a shadowy figure with floating hair, and arms furiously raised and lowered working the machinery that propelled the chair at its utmost rate of speed. “I am Napoleon, at the sunrise of Austerlitz!” shouted the man in the chair as he swept past me on his rumbling and whistling wheels, in the red glow of the fire-light. “I give the word, and thrones rock, and kings fall, and nations tremble, and men by tens of thousands fight and bleed and die!” […] The strident wheels turned at the far end of the room and came back. The fantastic and frightful apparition, man and machinery blended in one—the new Centaur, half man, half chair—flew by me again in the dying light. […] He ground and tore his way back toward the middle of the room. As he approached the fire-place a last morsel of unburned coal (or wood) burst into momentary flame, and showed the open doorway. In that moment he saw us! The wheel-chair stopped with a shock that shook the crazy old floor of the room, altered its course, and flew at us with the rush of a wild animal. We drew back, just in time to escape it, against the wall of the recess. The chair passed on, and burst aside the hanging tapestry. The light of the lamp in the circular room poured in through the gap. The creature in the chair checked his furious wheels, and looked back over his shoulder with an impish curiosity horrible to see.
Dexter hovers on the cusp between madness and genius throughout the book. He has a servant he has called Ariel, who would be sunk in idiocy if not for her devotion to Dexter; he teases her cruelly and smothers her with kindness at whim. Dexter’s own devotion is equally whimsical, and Valeria is able to tease information out of him by manipulating his affections and desires. Which is cruel? Which is for the greater good? It is fascinating to watch Collins playing with disability of mind and body in this way, and reflecting it in the narrator as well.
Valeria herself is an interesting character. She spends a good deal of time denying her own virtues. She insists that any progress she makes is through the sheer stubbornness and willfulness that cause grief to the men in her life: old Benjamin, her retainer; her lawyer; her guardian; and most particularly her husband. She defends her husband to his mother:
“What I complain of in my son,” proceeded Mrs. Macallan, “is that he has entirely failed to understand you. If he had married a fool, his conduct would be intelligible enough. He would have done wisely to conceal from a fool that he had been married already, and that he had suffered the horrid public exposure of a Trial for the murder of his wife. Then, again, he would have been quite right, when this same fool had discovered the truth, to take himself out of her way before she could suspect him of poisoning her—for the sake of the peace and quiet of both parties. But you are not a fool. I can see that, after only a short experience of you. Why can’t he see it too? Why didn’t he trust you with his secret from the first, instead of stealing his way into your affections under an assumed name? Why did he plan (as he confessed to me) to take you away to the Mediterranean, and to keep you abroad, for fear of some officious friends at home betraying him to you as the prisoner of the famous Trial? What is the plain answer to all these questions? What is the one possible explanation of this otherwise unaccountable conduct? There is only one answer, and one explanation. My poor, wretched son—he takes after his father; he isn’t the least like me!—is weak: weak in his way of judging, weak in his way of acting, and, like all weak people, headstrong and unreasonable to the last degree.”
Well, yes, Mrs. Macallan. We can all see that, too, from about the third page of the novel. But Valeria will have none of it. She insists that Eustace is delicate-minded, not weak. She protects him, excuses him, adores him. Why? We don’t know. To the very last line of the novel, Valeria pleads with us to think kindly of Eustace, for her sake. The narrative effect of this, of course, is to make us think of Eustace as a damp rag, and to admire Valeria enormously. What other woman, having been treated this way, would do so much? Valeria’s faults become her virtues; Eustace’s delicacy is his worst fault.
Indeed, this helps explain the title of the book. This novel isn’t about Eustace and Valeria at all, even though the trial is about his behavior and his verdict. It’s about Valeria struggling with evidence, with law, pure and simple. Eustace is more or less a cipher and an abstraction. It is the law and the lady — (or the lady, or the tiger?) — and it is up to you to read the book and see which will win, and how.