Wilkie Collins: No Name

July 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

I used to be able to read a book faster than my dog could masticate a bone, but no more. No more. If this is due to encroaching age, or more toward the increasing amounts of shitty books in my life, no one can really tell. Anyhow, somehow during the last two weeks of the World Cup I had two books going simultaneously: Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Wilkie Collins’ No Name. I know I should have been able to blitz through both in less than a week. The latter was fun and dense and absorbing; I wanted it to last long. The former was fun because I would sit and imagine the ways in which I could tug on Naomi Wolf’s thick, unrelenting hair (as per author cover on the back) and tell her that NO, anorexia is probably not comparable to death camps.

Someday in the future, when I’m a better person, I’ll be able to write about Wolf’s book with a modicum of healthy moderation.

But for now – Victorian bodice-ripper! No, sorry – Victorian thriller! A chilly thriller! Rife with intrigue, deception, and TRANSFORMATION. The story begins thus: Norah and Magdalen Vanstone, formerly happy, now orphaned and bereaved, are deprived of their family legacy because of something rather bad in their family’s history that did not come to their notice until after their parents died. The story continues from there.

And then it ends.

I can’t trust myself to give away much of the story, because as typical as it is in any of Collins’ novel, the mystery is in the details. No really, it is. Wikipedia has gleefully ruined much of the surprise for the first-time reader but I won’t, because I’m noble like that. While The Woman in White relied on a narrative that created questions more than it answered, propelling the reader inexplicably forward towards the inevitable end, No Name already prefigures what is about to happen next as you’re reading about what’s going on in the present. The suspense is built-up entirely on the characters’ interactions; aside from the deaths, all other events are largely driven the characters’ motivations, intent, and scheming. There is no clever change of point-of-view, no twisty double perspectives as in The Moonstone. Everyone is at cross-purposes; everyone that is, except for Magdalen and the devious Captain Wragge – she so pure and beautiful in her female radiance, he so slimy yet so damnably practical in his opportunism and material yearnings.

 What was really refreshing and enjoyable about the book, up until the last couple of chapters, is that Collins’ allowed Magdalen, our flawed female protagonist, her irrationality, her absurd drive to obtain what “should have been hers”, her relentless passion for one very useless man, and still have her be smart, kind, and thoughtful. She was largely motivated by selfish impulses spurred on by unselfish feelings – love for her sister and payback for injustice. At one point I forgot myself and thought, “My, this is rather… a feminist novel!” But I was wrong, after all. Because happiness does come to Magdalen, and thank god for that (confession: I cried), but it comes at the expense of ambition. It required repentance, yes, but also a disavowal of passion and a move towards nobility, gentleness, and sweet, pure thoughts. It required a retransformation on her part, a conscious re-entrance into docile, temperate, middle-class womanhood. This is further emphasised with the happiness her sister enjoys – Norah, who spent the entire novel being good and doing the right thing and feeling only regret, never anger, will win the biggest coup of all for the both of them by never once going nuts, yelling in rage at a man, or going after something that she shouldn’t want. Norah stayed well within her boundaries, well within the invisible markers of class and society that kept her untarnished and fully-blossomed, ripe, and ready for the love of a Good Man when it finally arrived – which, of course, it did.

No Name is all about transformation, but the underlying message seems to be that you can’t escape your family and your ancestry, and you certainly can’t escape who you are. Which is fine, really, assuming that people actually knew who they were. In the novel, of course, plenty of people have a strong sense of self – whatever that means – and thus are never maligned, distraught, or as reviled as Magdalen for wanting to be another person, if just for a little while, or wanting a different life (which, ironically, is the life she would have had circumstances not altered that life permanently). The only other character without an iota of selfhood and self-preservation is Mrs. Wragge, who is what one would call “soft in the head”, but also soft of heart.

The interesting conundrum presented by the intersection Mrs. Wragge’s softness with Captain Wragge’s hard, unrelenting cunning or Mrs. Lecount’s sharp-edged, harsh desperation seems to suggest that ambition, desire, and the capacity for evil seem to go hand-in-hand with being able to have your wits about you. Intelligence is truly nothing to shout about, Collins seems to imply; it just makes you dispassionate and cruel when life hands you lemons while you sat about waiting for sweet oranges. Mrs. Wragge’s occasional lapses into insanity echoes the kind of truth-telling so often found in the stock village clown or jester character in Elizabethan plays. Because she is the only nurturing and kindly character that Magdalen spends time with while on the run, however, Mrs. Wragge also stands in as the maternal figure; loving and affectionate, yes, but also blithely ignorant of Magdalen’s true motivations and sorrows, as mothers should ideally be in a culture where men think and women clean up the mess.

Collins, whose The Moonstone was hailed by T.S. Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels… in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe” is a masterful detective novel writer. Edgar Allen Poe, who mighty Eliot just so pitifully kicked into the gutter, said about the requirements of a detective story: “a tale, a species of composition which admits of the highest development of artistical power in alliance with the widest vigour of imagination.” Collins fulfills those requirements. He has brilliant control of pacing and setting, and is able to juggle several balls in the air and keep the mystery in equal parts both mysterious (bearing in mind how so many mysteries… aren’t) and taut without making the reader want to collapse onto the floor in hysteria.

It’s a great book to take under the covers with you on a rainy day – or onto the porch with you during on a sweltering mid-afternoon – but it’s such a shame that Collins never allowed to let his secret feminism flourish a little. Or simply come out for some air.

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