Saturday, November 30, 2013

Wilkie Collins, No Name (1862)


In for a dollar, in for multiple Wilkie Collins novels, as they say.  Let's not beat around the bush: holy shit is this novel good.  Better than The Woman in White?  Substantially better than The Woman in White.  The thing is, though, it's extremely hard to talk about in any meaningful way without venturing into spoiler territory, which is a place you really don't want to venture.  You kind of could talk about The Woman in White without spoilers, because that novel is all about its central mysteries, and there's no need to reveal those.  But as Collins himself notes in his prefatory note, No Name doesn't actually have a central mystery in the same way.  Instead, there's the sort of perpetual mystery of "holy SHIT what's gonna happen next?!?"  And you can't say anything without touching on that.  I know that nobody actually reads this blog for literary recommendations, but take it from me: you would do well to just pick up the damn novel in lieu of reading this entry.  I mean, I'm not going to go out of my way to spoil things, but spoil things I will.

Norah and Magdalen Vanstone, young women from a wealthy family, are abruptly orphaned and, due to an unusual situation and unfortunate quirks in British inheritance law, are left with nothing, the entire fortune going to their father's asshole brother and subsequently his asshole son.  Norah acquiesces to fate, but Magdalen takes matters into her own hands, determined to recover her birthright.

The most extraordinary character in the novel is one Captain Horatio Wragge, a distant relative of the family who had been sponging off of them to the extent that he was able.  He is quite transparently, forthrightly, a totally unscrupulous swindler, who agrees to help Magdalen in achieving her goals because he has determined that it is in his financial interests to do so.  The longest part of the novel (we're just plowing deeper and deeper into spoiler territory here, sorry, can't be helped) is when Magdalen, in disguise, is trying, with Captain Wragge's help, to marry Noel Vanstone, her cousin and the current holder of family's fortune.  Complicating this is the presence of his housekeeper and handler, Mrs. Lecount, a cold and calculating woman who suspects--with justification--skullduggery.  However, Captain Wragge is very much her match in the calculating department, and the sub rosa dueling between them is truly something to behold.  Morally speaking, it's not at all clear that there's any real space between them, but if Captain Wragge is a bastard (and he IS; see his deplorable treatment of his mentally disabled wife), he's OUR bastard, and there are numerous places where you just can't help but sit up and cheer for his endlessly clever, conniving ruthlessness.  And his character actually develops!  It is GREAT AS HELL.

But Captain Wragge isn't the only great character.  In fact, a good part of why No Name is more successful than The Woman in White is that the only lame characters are intentionally lame.  The aforementioned Mrs. Lecount is also great, as is the hapless Noel Vanstone, a hysterically dim, totally self-interested miser; he's really hilarious (damn right Collins could be funny), and its a testament to Collins' skill that one ends up feeling a sort of grudging pity almost (ALMOST!) shading into sympathy for him.  Magdalen herself is also very well-drawn in her endless, driven quest for retribution.  No one here is like Laura Fairlie, she of the mind-of-a-child.

The book's take on revenge is also very interesting.  There is no doubt about it: the Vanstone sisters have been horribly unfairly fucked over.  But the question of how far Magdalen can go before her behavior becomes totally unjustifiable looms large.  Certainly, by the end, she has inflicted some severe damage, being pretty directly responsible for at least one death.  All the respectable characters are of the opinion that what she did was very, very bad.  And yet, even though the ultimate happy ending (I don't think that's much of a spoiler) would seem to justify Norah's Job-like patience as opposed to Magalden's approach, Norah herself notes, accurately, that it wouldn't have been possible if her sister hadn't done what she did.  It's kind of cool and subversive.

Now, I also have to talk a little about the latter parts of the novel.  Those were where The Woman in White tripped up.  How about No Name?  Well, after Captain Wragge and Mrs. Lecount withdraw from the narrative, it does lose a certain amount of momentum.  Magdalen, again in disguise, is trying to‚Ķfind something out (see? I'm being as vague as I can), but it sort of feels superfluous and not really that dramatically interesting, especially given that we the readers are already privy to the information she's looking for.  However, while it never is quite as great as it had been before, the narrative does recover to a substantial degree.  There's a romance railroaded in very near the end (with a character who had appeared in one chapter much earlier in the story, leaving the reader to think, golly, I wonder if he's going to be a convenient love interest later on), and while on the one hand the reappearance of this character is a total deus ex machina, on the other, you (or I, at any rate) actually really want the happy ending, and there's nothing objectionable about the eventual pairing, as there was with Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie.  Only a maniac would try to claim that the last quarter or so of the novel is as good as the first three, but it didn't leave me feeling dissatisfied either.

There is one possible objection one could have to the whole thing, which is that it does feel a little overly drawn-out in places, and you have to acknowledge: yep.  Paid by the word.  This only very rarely bothered me (because most of it is just SO DAMN GOOD), but when, for instance, Magdalen is contemplating committing suicide by laudanum overdose, you kind of have to say, c'mon, Wilkie, you're not going to kill your heroine, and if you were, you wouldn't do it two thirds of the way through the novel.  Stop trying to make this suspenseful!  That, however, is the exception rather than the rule.  I am fast coming to the opinion that, faced with the popular "what historical figures would you invite to a dinner party?" question, Collins would have to be on the list.

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