Saturday, December 05, 2020

Wilkie Collins, The Dead Secret (1856)

So I had previously read Basil, Collins' second novel, and thought it flawed but still relatively fun and promising.  So I decided to read this one, his fourth--right before The Woman in White.  Surely it would be at least as good, right?

Okay, so it opens with this woman, the wife of a wealthy landowner, Captain Treverton, who, on her deathbed, insists on dictating this Terrible Secret to her maid, Sarah Leeson, with instructions to give the note to give it to her husband.  She doesn't want to, but she has a problem: her mistress has made her SWEAR that she wouldn't destroy the paper or remove it from the house, or else her spirit would haunt her.  But!  She died before she could actually make her swear to give to the Captain, so it's apparently kosher for her to hide it somewhere in the house and leave.  Ghosts are forced to respect loopholes like this, apparently.  So she does that and then flees the house.  What is the secret?!?  Well, we don't exactly have any reason to care about this or really be interested in it, is the problem.  

Well, twenty years later, Captain Treverton's daughter Rosamond is getting married to a guy named Leonard, who is blind, his blindness having very little relevance except to create, or try to create...suspense, I guess you'd have to say, at certain points.  But anyway, they get wind of this secret and try to uncover it, while meanwhile, Sarah is enlisting the aid of her Uncle Joseph to try to keep it hidden.  What will happen?!?  Will the secret ever be revealed?!?

Well, obviously.  Spoilers hereon in. You know, I had my reservations when I started the book: will the secret actually be something interesting, I wondered, or will it just be some Victorian shit like somebody is somebody's illegitimate child?  And then the secret is actually revealed and...yeah, it's the second one.  I kind of had to laugh, but really, what other dark secret do you expect to find in a Victorian novel?

"We have parted, Arthur, forever, and I have not had the courage to embitter our farewell by confessing that I have deceived you—cruelly and basely deceived you. But a few minutes since, you were weeping by my bedside and speaking of our child. My wronged, my beloved husband, the 283little daughter of your heart is not yours, is not mine. She is a love-child, whom I have imposed on you for mine. Her father was a miner at Porthgenna; her mother is my maid, Sarah Leeson."

Love child--never meant to be! Love child--born in poverty!  It's actually kind of funny how Collins tries to have it both ways: on the one hand, it's SCANDALOUS; but on the other, he takes quite some pains to clarify that this was in fact the most wholesome extramarital sex imaginable: this guy was extremely upright and honest and totally in love with Sarah and the two of them were all set to get married until he died in a mining accident.  Anyway, will Leonard accept his wife after this revelation?!?  It's been established that he's a classist, who doesn't approve of people not knowing their places, seemingly just so that there can be some question on this point, but then it's pretty much instantly resolved, so, uh...great.

So anyway, Rosamond is reunited with her mom, but then the latter dies.  As punishment, in a Dickensian sense?  Eh, maybe.  Hard to say, really.  Still, you compare it to Collins' later Man and Wife, where one of the heroines is seduced, impregnated, and abandoned by a douchebag jock and then gets a happy ending anyway...and the distinction is notable.  Ol' Leonard wants to relinquish the inheritance, since Rosamond not being the Captain's biological daughter, having been raised by him apparently doesn't matter and it's only "fair" that the inheritance go to his cartoonishly misanthropic brother.  It's pretty obnoxious, really; I'm not sure whether intentionally or not, but it's really obvious that someone doing something like that is doing it to feel self-righteous rather than out of any real concern for "justice."  I mean, obviously they end up getting to keep it all anyway, but GAH.

Yeah.  If the above doesn't make it obvious, this is a really bad novel.  I mean, the above plot could theoretically be made interesting, I suppose, but it sure ain't here.  It's kind of weird, given Collins' later knack for writing memorable characters, but everyone here is totally wooden and uninteresting.  Sarah in particular, good lord--she has zero personality other than being sad at having lost her daughter.  Not to sound callous, but it really gets very tedious.  The only character who makes any impression--not a huge one, but still--is Uncle Joseph, a German immigrant depicted in a mildly condescending way as the guileless, good-hearted foreigner, but his thing is that he worships Mozart, and has a music-box that he brings with him everywhere that plays "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto" from Don Giovanni.  The specificity is what makes that work.  Still, he can't carry the whole novel.

The other thing is that there are many parts of the novel that are just agonizingly, artificially slow, in an apparent attempt to create suspense.  The perfect example is when Rosamond and Leonard have found the room where the note with the secret is hidden, but can we just get on with it?  No.  First, let me describe the room to you.  Where shall I start?  First shall I say how big it is?  That's a great idea! What are the walls like?  Are there any pictures?  Okay, how about the furniture?  Oh, wait, here are some doors I forgot to tell you about?  Should I open them?  And how about this box I found?  Should I open it?  And JESUS CHRIST JUST GET ON WITH IT.  If that's your idea of a good time, this may be the book for you.

I don't know; apparently it was a learning experience for Collins, since he wrote a bunch of really great novels immediately after.  But except for reasons of scholarship, I really can't imagine why anyone would want to read this one.


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