The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

I can imagine how intriguing Wilkie Collins’ novel The Dead Secret must have been when it was first serialised in weekly episodes in Household Words in 1857, every episode ending leaving the reader eager to know what happens next. It’s a sensation novel* (see my note below) , with many twists and turns, giving hints to the secret (which I did guess fairly early in the book) gradually and surely building up the suspense and with a final twist at the end (which I hadn’t forseen).  I’m reading Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and this is what he had to say about his friend, Wilkie Collins:

 When I sit down to write a novel I do not all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing, which does not dove-tail with absolutely accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful.

And the plotting is like this in The Dead Secret – detailed and dove-tailed right from the powerful beginning at Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall in the 1820s, at the bedside of a dying woman, Mrs Treverton as she commands her maid, Sarah Leeson, to give her husband a letter confessing a great secret, to its end when all is revealed.

I think that to the modern reader the impact of this book is not the revelation of the secret but the manner of its style of delivery – the initial questions about the secret, what is in the letter, why has Sarah’s hair turned prematurely white, why she visits an an old grave set apart from others in the graveyard, why she talks to herself and why she disappears from Cornwall soon afterwards, having hidden the letter.

Fifteen years later, Rosamund, Mrs Treverton’s daughter returns to Porthgenna Tower to live in her old home. By an accident of circumstances, before Rosamund and her husband reach Cornwall, she gives birth a month earlier than expected and Sarah under an assumed name, is appointed to nurse Rosamund and the baby. Overcome by emotion Sarah cannot stop herself from warning Rosamund not to go into the Myrtle Room, which of course arouses Rosamund’s curiosity.

Trollope, however, says he ‘can never lose the taste of the construction’, feeling that Collins ‘books are ‘all plot’. I think this is a harsh judgement. In The Dead Secret, I think that on the whole the characters do come across as real people – I particularly like Rosamund and Sarah’s Uncle Joseph, both are sympathetically drawn – and there are other characters that add colour and interest. The settings and details of Victorian life are clearly described.  It also examines several social and moral issues of period, such as the role of women and respectability.

I don’t think The Dead Secret is in quite the same league as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it has all the elements of a good mystery story, drawing out the secret in tense anticipation of its revelation and making me as eager as Rosamund to know the secret and then almost as paranoid as Sarah that it should remain a secret!

*Sensation Novels*

I wrote about sensation novels,  in an earlier post and have reproduced the information here for ease of reference. It is a novel  with Gothic elements  ‘“ murder, mystery, horror and suspense ‘“ within a domestic setting. They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law ‘“ wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge 2015, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Victorian Bingo Challenge 2015 

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins: a Book Review

I read The Woman in White (TWIW) by Wilkie Collins in January and have been wondering how to do justice to it in a post, because it’s a real chunkster of over 700 pages. (For a summary of the plot, with spoilers see the article on the book on Wikipedia.)

It’s one of the first if not the first ‘sensation novel‘. A ‘sensation novel‘ is one with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. Since reading TWIW I’ve read The Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett, which describes such novels as a ‘minor subgenre of British fiction that flourished in the 1860s only to die out a decade or two earlier.’ They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

These issues and more are present in TWIW. It has several first person narrators, who are each not in possession of the whole story. Their accounts from letters, diaries and formal statements are limited to what each one knew or had experienced, and are not always reliable. It begins with Walter Hartright’s meeting with the mysterious Woman in White, as he is on his way to take up the position of drawing master to Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie at Limmeridge House, in Cumberland.

 There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London as I faced her.

Just who she is only becomes clear much later on the story. During their conversation she reveals that she knows Limmeridge House and its occupants. Walter helps her, but then is filled with guilt when he is told that she had escaped from an asylum.

Laura and Marian are half-sisters, living with their uncle, Frederick Fairlie, a weak, effeminate invalid. Walter is immediately struck by the beauty of Marian’s figure, but astonished when he saw her face:

The lady is ugly! …

The lady’s complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead.

Marian, clever and assertive is in complete contrast in both appearance and character to the lovely Laura. Walter falls in love with Laura, but she is pledged to marry Sir Percy Glyde, a marriage arranged by her dead father. Matters are complicated by the fact that Laura and the Woman in White look remarkably alike, which is central to the plot. Sir Percy attempts to gain total control of Laura’s money and property, aided by the villainous Count Fosco.

I found it a book of two halves – slow to get going, full of descriptive writing and I was beginning to wonder when something was actually going to happen. Then in the second half the pace increased, the action was fast and complicated, with plenty of tension and melodrama. I enjoyed it, although I do prefer The Moonstone.

I read this book as part of November’s Autumn Classics Challenge and The Book Garden’s Tea and Books Challenge (reading books of over 700 pages).