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 

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Wilkie CollinsOn Thursday I finished reading Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd and it was also the anniversary of his birth – he was born in Marylebone at a house in New Cavendish Street on 8 January 1824.

I’ve read just two of Wilkie Collins’ books – The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and this year I hope to read more. I knew that he was a friend of Charles Dickens, but that was about all I knew of him. Peter Ackroyd’s biography looked as though it could be a good book to start with. And it is – it’s short, just over 200 pages, very readable and a clear and concise account of Collins’ life and work.

Wilkie’s father was William Collins, an English painter, a member of the Royal Academy, who specialised in landscapes and seascapes. He was christened William Wilkie – Wilkie after his godfather, the painter Sir David Wilkie.

Ackroyd’s account may be brief but he gives details of Wilkie’s childhood, his schooldays – the books he liked as a child – The Arabian Nights, Robin Hood and Don Quixote, books by Sir Walter Scott and he admired Byron. He moves on through Wilkie’s struggle to become a writer, his friendship with Charles Dickens, his travels abroad, his unconventional life style, never marrying but living with Caroline Graves for thirty years whilst having a liaison with Martha Rudd, his ill health and reliance on laudanum, his tour of America, his relationships with and views about women and their place in society, as well as discussing his short stories, articles, novels and plays.

Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889 after a year in which he had suffered from neuralgic attacks, a stroke that paralysed his life side and affected his brain, and a bout of bronchitis, but he  had still carried on writing.

I marked several passages as I was reading. Here are just a few of them:

He was essentially liberal in his social and political views, averse to coercion and conflict; he showed some sympathy with the principles of socialism as it was then understood, and was instinctively on the side of the oppressed. (page 46)

He might best be described as a Christian humanist who accepted Christ as his Saviour but detested all formal and outward shows of religion. He preserved his particular wrath for evangelicals. … he was not an atheist. He rarely entered a church, and his actual beliefs are hard, if not impossible, to unravel. (page 47)

He may have believed with Charles II that God would not punish him for a few sins of pleasure. (page 47)

He lived through a period in which the audience for fiction was rapidly widening, and the novels themselves were increasing in importance. … Novels had become the repository of dreams and ideals, the fantasies and the speculations, of the nation. (page 81)

One of the characters in ‘The Diary of Anne Rodway’ said -‘what I want is something that seizes hold of my interest, and makes me forget when it is time to dress for dinner – something that keeps me reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state to find out the end.’ That is precisely the excitement Collins conveys to his readers. (page 88)

Collins was writing about mysteries ‘deep under the surface’ three decades before Freud began his own enquiries. He was concerned with doubles and double identity, with monomania and delusion. He traced the paths of unconscious associations and occluded memories. (page 93)

It was believed that the ‘detective element’ disqualified the novel as a work of art, when in fact it opened up the way for an entirely new direction in English literature. There had been earlier exercises in the genre, but all of them are inconsiderable besides the over-whelming power and authority of ‘The Moonstone’. Collins’s novel, since its publication in 1868, has never been out of print. (page 132)

There is an awful lot packed into this short biography! And it’s an excellent stepping stone into Wilkie Collins’s novels.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (23 Feb. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701169907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701169909
  • Source: a Christmas present

A Classics Challenge – February Prompt: Character

This month’s focus from Katherine of November’s Autumn for the Classics Challenge is on character. Write about a character you find interesting, it doesn’t have to be your favorite. Perhaps your least favorite or a minor one: choose any.

I’m answering a combination of her Level 1 and 2 questions. What phrases has the author used to introduce this character? Find a portrait or photograph that closely embodies how you imagine them.  Has your opinion of them altered? Do you find them believable? Would you want to meet them?

I read The Woman in White in January and wrote some thoughts about previously. The book has some very interesting characters and I’ve chosen to describe the villain – Count Fosco, a friend of Sir Percy Glyde.

We see him first through Marian Halcombe’s eyes (see my earlier post for her description). She is Laura’s half- sister and I think she is the real heroine of this book. She describes Fosco:

He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress.

The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him.

he is immensely fat. Before this time I have always disliked corpulent humanity.

here, nevertheless, is Count Fosco, as fat as Henry the Eighth himself, established in my favour, at one day’s notice, without let or hindrance from his own odious corpulence. Marvellous indeed!

She is impressed most by his unfathomable grey eyes, which have a cold, beautiful, irresistible glitter and hold an extraordinary power, one which forces her to look at him and causes her sensations she would rather not feel. Although an Italian, he speaks excellent English. He is old (sixty!), but his movements are light and easy. He is very sensitive to noise and winced when Sir Percy Beat one of the spaniels – he cares for animals more than he cares for humans.

And his most curious peculiarity is his fondness for pet animals – a cockatoo, two canaries and a whole family of white mice, all of which are familiar with him. The birds sit on his fat fingers and the mice crawl all over him, popping in and out of his waistcoat. He kisses them and twitters to his birds.

Below is an illustration from the 1865 edition of the book, which doesn’t really portray him as I see him.

But this is more like it – Michael Crawford’s portrayal in the West End musical in 2004.

As for his character, Marian may be attracted to him, but he is is a true villain, completely domineering, sinister, clever and untrustworthy. He is powerful, a sensualist whose wife is completely besotted by him. Whilst it might seem from my description that Fosco is a caricature, he does come across as a believable character and certainly one I would not wish to meet.

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).

Wilkie Collins: A Classics Challenge – January Prompt

The Classics Challenge has started and the first book I’m reading is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Katherine at November’s Autumn has provided some questions at different levels, depending on how much of the book you’ve read. I’m starting with level 1:

The Author:

Who is the author? What do they look like? When were they born? Where did they live? What does their handwriting look like? What are some of the other novels they’ve written? What is an interesting and random fact about their life?

Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889)

Wilkie Collins was born in Marylebone, London and lived in a number of houses in the area:
  • Blandford Square (1848-1850)
  • Hanover Terrace (1850-1856)
  • Harley Place (1856-1857)
  • Harley Street (1860-1864)
  • Melcombe Place (1864-1867)
  • Gloucester Place (1867-1888)
  • Wimpole Street (1888-1889)

He wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces. His best-known works are The Woman in WhiteThe MoonstoneArmadale and No Name.

Collins’s handwriting:

Collins also considered a career in painting and exhibited a picture at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1849.

The Holly-Tree Inn by Charles Dickens

The Holly-Tree Inn by Charles Dickens and others is a lovely little book, both to hold and to read. It’s a Hesperus Press publication, smooth paper and a softback cover with flaps you can use as bookmarks. I received my copy via Library Thing Early Reviewers Programme. I enjoyed reading it.

This was originally published in 1855, being the Christmas number of Dickens’s periodical Household Words. It was so popular that it was then adapted for the stage. It’s a collection of short stories by Dickens, Wilkie Collins, William Howitt, Adelaide Anne Procter and Harriet Parr, around the theme of travellers and  inns. I liked Collins’s and Howlitt’s stories the most.

It begins with a story by Dickens, The Guest in which a gentleman on his way to Liverpool is snowed in at the Holly-Tree Inn in Yorkshire. To keep himself entertained he reminisces about inns he has visited, giving glimpses into travel and inns in the 19th century. Having exhausted his own memories, this story ends with the idea of asking the inmates of the inn for their own stories.

So, the next stories are from:

The Ostler by Wilkie Collins. In this the landlord tell’s the ostler’s tale of his dread of his wife after dreaming that she is about to murder him, a tale of impending doom:

His eyes opened owards the left hand side of the bed, and there stood – The woman of the dream again? – No! His wife; the living reality, with the dream spectre’s face – in the dream-spectre’s attitude; the fair arm up – the knife clasped in the delicate, white hand. (page 53)

The Boots by Charles Dickens – according to Melisa Klimaszewski’s Introduction this tale was such a favourite that Dickens included it in his later public readings. It’s not quite to my taste, a sentimental tale about two young children determined to elope, staying at the Holly- Tree inn:

Boots could assure me that it was better than a picter (sic) and equal to a play, to see them babies with their long bright curling hair, their sparkling eyes, and their beautiful light tread, a rambling in the garden, deep in love.

The Landlord by William Howitt. An entertaining tale of the landlord’s brother who emigrated to Australia in order to better himself. But when they get there they wished they’d stayed in England. It seems they arrived just at the wrong time. Howitt, himself had travelled to Australia in search of gold and his experience is reflected in his tale. 

The Barmaid by Adelaide Anne Procter – a sad story told in verse by the landlord’s niece of Maurice and his love for ‘the loveliest little damsel his eyes had ever seen.’  Not the most challenging of tales.

The Poor Pensioner by Harriet Parr. Hester lives at the inn on ‘broken victuals’, now a poor demented creature refusing to believe that her son was guilty of murder. She waits in vain for his sentence to be reversed. This tale reveals how her wild and wilful ways as a young woman led her to seek for change and excitement with disastrous results. 

The Bill by Charles Dickens. This story completes the cycle. A week has gone by, the Guest’s route is now clear of snow and he can leave.He then discovers that his enforced stay at the inn has changed his life!

Reading this book has made a welcome break in reading modern fiction and has made me keen to read more of Dickens’s and Collins’s books.  I knew nothing about the other authors but fortunately there is a short section at the end with biographical notes about the contributors.

Drood by Dan Simmons

Drood was the first book I finished reading this year and I do hope I’m going to read better books than this, this year. My complaints about it are:

  • It’s too long
  • It’s too wordy
  • It’s too full of facts described in great length
  • It’s too full of Wilkie Collins
  • It’s too full of hallucinatory nightmares, involving in particular a black beetle scarab.

I  began to dislike all the characters, in particular Wilkie Collins, but then I realised this is fiction, not biography and I disliked it even more for initially lulling me into thinking this is what Collins and Dickens were like. But perhaps that’s a good point  – I began to believe what I was reading. I began to believe Dickens and Collins were involved in trying to find Drood, that Drood really existed, that he wasn’t just a figment of Dickens’s imagination, or Collins’s opium induced nightmares and that Collins actually planned to kill Dickens.

Wilkie comes over as a bombastic hypocrite full of his own self-importance and with a chip on his shoulder as far as Dickens is concerned. He’s not a well man, riddled with rheumatic gout, living with a woman he refuses to marry and with a mistress who has three children by him. He sees a green- skinned woman with teeth like long, yellow curved tusks who wants to fling him down the stairs and he is haunted by the ‘Other Wilkie’. He takes laudanum by the jugful, but insists the Other Wilkie has been with him all his life and is not a laudanum-induced dream. The Other Wilkie sits and watches him, lunging for the pen as Wilkie writes and eventually writing his novels for him.

Drood as portrayed in this book is horrific, a half-Egyptian fiend, who, according to Inspector Field is a serial killer. I suspect that this bears little relationship to Dickens’s Drood. I haven’t read The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but having read Drood, I feel I really should.

The plus points for Drood are that it does contain some vivid descriptions bringing the period to life for me – the slums of London, the train accident at Staplehurst and the fantastical “Undertown” with its miles of tunnels, catacombs, caverns and sewers are good examples. It has also made me keen to read more books by Dickens and Collins and biographies of them. There is a list of biographical and other sources in the Acknowledgements at the end of the book, so I’m adding some to my wishlist such as Dickens by Peter Ackroyd.