Thursday, January 09, 2014

Wilkie Collins, Man and Wife (1870)

Collins' reputation today rests pretty much exclusively on the four 1860s novels I've recently read (well, mostly on The Woman in White and The Moonstone, but the other two are considered to be of the same kind by people in the know).  He wrote prolifically right up to his death in 1889, but he focused his later novels on Social Issues, which--according to everyone--was very much to their detriment.  However, I decided to read the first of these later novels, which seems to also be generally acclaimed as the best of the lot.

The premise of the novel is sort of convoluted, so bear with me: there are two young women, Blanche Lundie and Anne Silvester, who are very close friends (as were their mothers before them).  Blanche is heiress to a large fortune; Anne, unfortunately, did not do so well, her mother having been abandoned by her father after the discovery of a loophole in the marriage law.  However, she was taken in by the Lundies and (being a few years older) served as Blanche's governess.  

Later, Blanche becomes engaged to a young man named Arnold Brinkworth.  This is all well and good, but again, Anne's fortunes are not so hot.  She has been "gotten into a scrape" (which is about as explicitly as you can say these things in a Victorian novel) by another young man, Geoffrey Delamayn.  She insists that he marry her so as to avoid disgrace and social ruin, to which end he is to follow her to an inn in Scotland where they can do this discreetly.  He doesn't feel any sense of responsibility to her, but reluctantly goes along with this because his future, inheritance-wise, is looking very dicey (like everyone else here, he comes from a rich family), and if his name becomes associated with a scandal, he's almost certainly going to lose out altogether.  However, as he's about to go to her, it turns out his father has taken a turn for the worse and it's imperative that he go to see him, so he ropes in Arnold to go in his place to explain to Anne what's happening.  Given the innkeeper's sense of social propriety, it is necessary to that end that he identify himself as Anne's husband.

Meanwhile, the Delamayns decide that Geoffrey needs to get married if he wants in on the family fortune, and they come up with a rich widow for him to court.  This seems like a much better deal than marrying Anne, but what to do?  Aha!  Scottish marriage law is kind of vague and unclear, and it's quite possible that, by identifying themselves as husband and wife in front of witnesses, she inadvertently got herself married to Arnold, helpfully letting him off the hook.  The balance of the book consists of people trying to figure out what's going on, and what to do about it, the good guys and girls being aided in their inquiry by the other major character, Blanche's uncle, Sir Patrick Lundie. 

As you've no doubt surmised, the main social ill being railed against is Scottish marriage law.  Lest we doubt that it was as Collins describes it, he jams an authorial note between two chapters, pointing us to official sources where we can read all about it--although to tell the truth, although I don't doubt his facts, he never really demonstrates that it's such a massive problem as he wants readers to think it is.  The situation in the novel is pretty extraordinary.  How often did things like this ever actually come up?

There's also a secondary social ill being railed against, which is what Collins perceives as an excessive public interest in physical prowess over the mental and moral.  Geoffrey Delamayn is well-loved as one of the nation's greatest athletes, but he's also a total sociopath--this, according to Collins, because athleticism emphasizes winning winning winning above all else, which is fine if confined strictly to athletic competitions, but becomes a problem when applied to life in general (one shudders to imagine what he would've thought of contemporary professional sports).  It's not a bad analysis, actually (although he also gilds the lilly a bit by insisting that by exercising excessively, you're somehow sapping your vital energy no matter how strong you get, and will likely end up dead, paralyzed, or permanently enfeebled, which seems like it would only be true in the most extreme of cases), but I think if this really was an increasing problem in Collins' time, the blame should probably really be apportioned to the first flowerings of capitalism more than sport per se.  Where did this increasing interest come from, after all?

Now, you may think the above makes the novel sound maybe less-than-riveting.  Scottish marriage law, what, who cares?  Well, that just goes to show how dumb you are, because regardless of whether the topic in itself holds any great interest, Collins uses it as a framework for a really suspenseful, gripping story, and he seems to have cured himself of the problem he had in The Woman in White and No Name--that is, running out of gas before reaching novel's end.  Man and Wife just gets better and better, and the climax is almost unbearably tense.  It's true that the characters, for the most part, aren't really as effectively developed as those in previous novels, but they are perfect for creating an exciting mellerdrammer, and Geoffrey, at any rate, is a truly frightening villain: dumb, conscience-free malevolence mingled with a kind of low cunning.  It's a great deal of fun to hate him.  And the ending is more satisfying than any I can remember.

Given that my responses to Collins' novels seem to only incidentally fit with the conventional wisdom, it seems entirely probably that there are at least a few great ones I haven't read.  Still, insane as the idea seems on the face of it, there may be other authors also worth pursuing.  We may look back on Mr. Collins later.

Oh, but before I go, I have to warn you, as much as I liked Man and Wife, I can't help noting that there's a certain amount of sexist crap in it--I mean, even beyond the sexist assumptions that just about any novel of the time (by a male novelist, at least) is like to display.  Unlike his pal Chuck D, he doesn't believe that a woman who gets into a bad marriage or even, heaven forfend, has non-marital sex is therefore permanently Damaged and must never, ever be able to find romantic happiness (he even wrote a whole novel, The New Magdalen (1873), on that theme), and one likes to fondly imagine that this makes him some sort of super-enlightened feminist type.  But…not so much.  To wit:

However persistently the epicene theorists of modern times may deny it, it is nevertheless a truth plainly visible in the whole past history of the sexes that the natural condition for a woman is to find her master in a man.  Look in the face of any woman who is in no direct way dependent on a man: and, as certainly as you see the sun in a cloudless sky, you see a woman who is not happy.  The want of a master is their great unknown want; the possession of a master is--unconsciously to themselves--the only possible completion of their lives. (355)

The alarming thing is, this is the same garbage you still see preached by our more Christianist wingnuts today.  Also, this (keeping in mind that Sir Patrick is meant to be, and generally is, one of the novel's most sympathetic characters):

"I suppose," mused Sir Patrick, thinking of his late brother--"I suppose poor Tom had some way of managing her.  How did he do it, I wonder?  If she had been the wife of a bricklayer, she is the sort of woman who would have been kept in perfect order by a vigorous and regular application of her husband's fist.  But Tom wasn't a bricklayer.  I wonder how Tom did it?" (319)

…which seems really awful in itself, but just seems baffling in light of the fact that the novel includes an entire subplot (and a quite well-done subplot it is) devoted to inveighing against the inadequacy of British law as it stands to protect wives from abusive husbands.  Hmm.


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