Friday, June 27, 2014

Wilkie Collins, Basil (1852)

This was Collins' second novel, the first being some sort of historical romance that seems to have little bearing on his later career.  But this one is said to be maybe possibly one of the first if not the first "sensation novel."  I'd heard it was pretty okay, so I'd been wanting to read it for some time.  It's short, anyway, compared to the other Collins novels I've read, so not much of a time investment.

I thought the story might be related to Keats' "Pot of Basil," which would certainly be sensational.  But it's not; it's just the name of the narrator and protagonist.  A strange choice; it's not as though there's anything at all meaningful about it, and it's not some sorta Bildungsroman like David Copperfield, which in any case is a much more distinctive name and title.  But be that as it may, Our Basil is the younger son from a noble family who, after catching the barest glimpse of her, falls in love with Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a shopkeeper (he first sees her on an omnibus, and in his intro, Collins affects to believe that this a RADICAL OVERTURNING OF CONVENTION that may well SHOCK!!! the reader.  Clearly, there is cultural context I'm missing here.  Or else Collins had hit the laudanum a bit too hard before writing that).  But he knows that his father, being very aware of class differences, will not be at all accepting of this match, so what to DO?!?  Well, what to do, it turns out, is to marry her only keep it a secret for a while, with the hope being that pa will come to accept it as something that's done and can't be undone and that's that (the situation is slightly more complicated than that, but that's basically it).  There seems to be something a bit funny about this shopkeeper's family, though; the abused mother seems to know something that she's not saying, and this servant, Mr. Mannion, is certainly mysterious as well, isn't he?  Saying any more would involve spoilers.  Why the hell am I so morbidly fixated on avoiding spoilers, anyway?  I know damn well that this post is never going to inspire anyone to read Basil.  Oh well; I think the above description gives you the basic idea anyway.  No need to go crazy.

Well, as you would imagine things ultimately go south.  For a large portion of the novel, the only real conflict seems to be "oh no what will my father do when he finds out," which sort of clashes with Basil's account of the depths of his deception, depravity, &c.  It may be a big deal for the family, I guess, but I don't think that even an audience of the time would've seen it as that awful--Collins, who portrayed inter-social-class marriages positively in other novels, certainly didn't.  So I dunno.  Still, he's somehow able to make it more or less work through sheer conviction, and things do get a bit darker and more interesting.  

Basil certainly isn't boring; for an early, minor work, it's plenty engaging enough.  Still, it very obviously lacks the sophistication of Collins' later, better novels.  None of the characters are mesmerizing on the level of your Counts Fosco, your Captains Wragge, or your Lydias Gwilt (although you can here and there see in some of them bits of the DNA that would go on to take fuller form in later novels), the exact mechanisms of the villain's scheming are never really clarified, and the conclusion--in which a happy ending is achieved pretty much purely by dumb luck--does not do the story, the final section of which had prior to that been getting more and more interesting, any favors (okay, SPOILER: the villain accidentally offs himself, in a very Disney-esque way, with no input whatsoever from the protagonist.  It's very anti-climactic, particularly as said villain had been by far the most engaging character in the novel).  Also, the clueless way that Collins inadvertently very strongly suggests that Basil's sister is also his love interest is…well, clueless, though also sort of interesting.  

So in sum: not too terribly bad, but if Collins hadn't gotten a lot better, he'd be barely remembered today.  I don't regret reading it, but I think it's mostly valuable for providing some context for Collins' career.  His later novels look all the more impressive when you know where he started from and how much he improved his craft over the years and books.


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