I’m on record as being a massive Wilkie Collins fan. I love his sensationalist prose and his twists and turns and especially his unctuous villains. The books I’ve read of his (six so far) have all been complete hoots. But now that I’ve read the four he wrote during the 1860s that made his reputation (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name, and Armadale) I’m always a little nervous that anything else I read of his will be downhill from there. What if the next book is dull, or preachy, or badly put together? I approach each one warily, as if it might be a bomb. I chose Man and Wife with some trepidation, but thinking that the title — well, nothing can go wrong there, right? Heh heh heh.
Another smash hit! Man and Wife is the complicated story of the evils of Scottish marriage law during the 19th century, and secondarily of the evils of working out. (I’m not kidding even a little bit. I shall explain.) The book takes place in Scotland, although almost all the people involved are English. Anne Silvester, a governess and a wise, kind woman, has been promised marriage by an absolute scoundrel, Geoffrey Delmayn. She is in a desperate position, because she is pregnant and he is not willing to marry her; she has no money to tempt him. She asks him to come and speak to her at a nearby inn, but he hears that his father is on the point of death and rushes off to see if he can talk his father into putting him back into the will. He sends his reluctant friend, Arnold Brinkworth, to speak to Miss Silvester instead, and unhappily Mr. Brinkworth is kept overnight at the inn by a savage storm. He leaves the next day, and is soon married to Miss Silvester’s best friend Blanche. But. BUT. According to the marriage laws of Scotland, this marriage is… BIGAMY! Because Arnold stayed overnight with Anne Silvester! At an inn! In the character of her husband, because otherwise the innkeeper wouldn’t let him in to see her! He could never be Blanche’s true husband! Their marriage is false!… OR IS IT???
This book is absolutely as wonderfully dramatic as anyone could possibly wish it to be. It has not one but two possible bigamous marriages; miscarriage; not one but several dramatic deaths and near-deaths and announcements that deaths will come; domestic abuse; changed wills and codicils; dramatic confessions both written and verbal; a menacing mute servant; Scottish servants with heavy accents for comic relief; weddings, brilliant comeuppances, and a murder. It is unbelievably satisfying from beginning to end. One of the best things about it is that only the worst characters suspect the good characters of evil intentions; the good characters trust each other almost entirely, which is consistent with human nature (unlike, say, Othello.)
Perhaps the oddest and most unexpected thing about the book is the issue about exercise. Wilkie Collins took it into his head to use this novel to expatiate about the trend in England at the time for men to harden their muscles, to run about, to use bats and balls, to row boats, and so forth. He was very much against this sort of thing. In the book, the villain, Geoffrey Delmayn, is one of these muscular fellows, and cares for nothing else — in fact, he is one of the fastest foot-racers in England, but he’s also an extremely nasty cad. “Look,” Wilkie Collins essentially says, “working your muscles but not your head or heart makes you a barbarian. What good will this do your nation or your soul? When it comes to making selfless decisions, how will your muscles help you?” The funniest thing about all this, of course, is that we’ve gone much farther this direction. Geoffrey Delmayn’s utterly exhausting foot-race is four miles (!). What would Collins think of an Ironman triathlon? (Of course, what do I think of one?)
This was a marvelous sensationalist novel, and totally enjoyable. Unless one of you has another suggestion, I’ll probably read Poor Miss Finch next, which is about a blind woman in love with twins. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?