Wilkie Collins is known as one of the fathers of the mystery with The Moonstone and The Woman in White, both of which I would recommend. In this work, Collins also shows himself as a master of suspense while engaging in some pointed social commentary as well.
The suspense (and much of the commentary) is built around the Scottish marriage laws of the time, which recognized “irregular marriages” in which men and women, who wittingly or not, represented themselves as married were indeed married under law. The plot develops around Geoffrey Delamayn, who has gotten Anne Winchester “in trouble” and is compelled to meet her and marry her at a Scottish inn. Delamayn conveniently has to return to London because of an ailing father and sends the friend whose life he saved, Arnold Brinkworth, who is engaged to Anne’s best friend Blanche Lundie, to carry a message to this effect, a message which becomes very important and is the object of much scheming subsequently. Arnold arrives to find that to allow Anne to stay at the inn, he must represent himself as her “husband” even though Anne resists this. They stay in separate rooms and he leaves the next morning. This becomes the pretense Delamayn uses to escape his marriage obligation in order to marry a wealthy widow. Unfortunately the contention that Anne and Arnold are “married” only becomes known after Arnold marries. First we are in suspense as to when this will come to light. Second, we are in suspense as to the outcome and whether Blanche’s uncle and guardian, Sir Patrick Lundie, will be able to vindicate Arnold and his marriage to Blanche. And finally, we have the suspense as Delamayn plots against the life of Anne, compelling the help of mysterious Hester Dethridge. All this develops at a leisurely pace over 600 pages in this edition, yet this never seemed dragged out to me–a testimony to Collins art.
The book serves most significantly as social commentary on the state of marriage laws that may both entrap people into unwanted marriages and subject women to the brutality of unloving husbands who can seize property and endanger their lives without legal recourse. Although these laws have been changed in the U.K. as well as the U.S., women still live at the mercy of men in many parts of the world without legal protection of life or property.
Collins also engages in a critique of the culture of athleticism that emphasized the development of body at the expense of the formation of mind or character, represented in the character of Geoffrey Delamayn. Delamayn neglects his education to train for athletic events which both make his reputation and break his health. This doesn’t sound very far from the world of collegiate athletes in big money sports like basketball and football today.
Altogether, I thought this was a great read both at the level of suspense and for the issues it raises that are still with us today.