Review: Basil


Basil (Oxford World Classics), Wilkie Collins. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (originally published in 1852).

Summary: The account of a secret marriage between an aristocrat’s son and the daughter of a shopkeeper and all the ways things went terribly wrong.

You are the second, and favored son of a wealthy aristocrat. Your older brother, Ralph, is alienated from your stern father because of his indiscretions. Your sister, Clara, adores you, and delights in your company and wants only the best for you in all things.

And then one day you are smitten with a young girl you see on an omnibus–so smitten you discretely follow her home. Subsequently you see her in her window, talking to her parrot. You know this is love. You learn she is Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper, a shop keeper well below your social class. You know your father would never countenance such a relationship. Keeping your intentions secret from him and your sister, you manage an interview with Margaret’s father, speaking of your love, and seeking her hand in marriage. Mr. Sherwin agrees on one condition–that they marry in a week but not consummate the relationship for a year. He also has to take an insurance policy on his life. Without consulting anyone, he accepts. And so begins a strange relationship that eventuates in a betrayal, insanity, exile, death and mortal danger to the title character.

Basil goes through with the wedding, and is permitted to see her regularly, chaperoned by Mrs. Sherwin, who seems disturbed in some way about all this. Basil keeps all of this secret from his family. They know he has a secret, which estranges him, even as they respect the secret in their rectitude, and in Clara’s case, her affection and concern. At first, things seem wonderful between Margaret and Basil, with evenings spent reading and talking together.  Then Mr. Sherwin’s assistant Robert Mannion returns, with whom Mrs. Sherwin is decidedly uneasy. Margaret’s mood seems to change at this time, even as Mannion acts with unfailing courtesy toward Basil, even welcoming him to his apartment on a stormy night. As they part, a bolt of lightening illuminates Mannion’s face, giving it a sinister appearance. Only on the evening before the year is up does Basil discover the evil when he spots Mannion escorting Margaret, not to her home, but a hotel room!

I won’t spoil the rest of the story except that this is where the tale of insanity, betrayal, mortal danger, and death comes in–along with an element of family revenge. The buildup to all these things occupies roughly the first half of the book, and, at least this reader found himself wanting to shake Basil and alert him to how he is being taken advantage of by this conspiracy of father and daughter, and of the sinister Mannion. Ah, love is blind! It is the second half that is riveting as all of this blows up in Basil’s face, and his secret is exposed to his family. These pages seemed to read much more quickly, particularly as we discover the mania of Mannion (interesting name for a character!).

This is early Wilkie Collins, his second novel (the first was destroyed) and second publication, the first being a memoir on his father’s life. The plot seems a bit to obvious, and the characters are caricatures to a certain degree. It is obvious that Collins can tell a story, in this case through a first person narrative of the title character, and the story redeems some of the other flaws.

There are at least two aspects of Victorian society that Collins exposes. One is the rigid class structures that prevent marrying below one’s class and engender both the harsh rectitude of Basil’s father, and the resentments of Mr. Sherwin and the vengeance of Mannion.

The inferior place of women in this social structure also is in evidence. Basil and Mr. Sherwin really decide Margaret’s fate. Mrs. Sherwin is silenced (at least until the climactic events of the story). Clara is the loving but ineffectual sister. Ralph, the outlaw brother, is the one who gets things done. Margaret can only assert her wishes through manipulation, or an adulterous affair.

It seems here that Collins evolves in his later fiction. Consider the contrast between these characters and Valeria in The Law and the Lady (review). The Victorian structures still exist, but Collins has begun to envision stronger women characters and more creative plot possibilities for them.

If you are a Wilkie Collins fan and have read works like The Moonstone, or The Woman in White, or the above-mentioned The Law and the Lady, you will find this work of interest not only for the themes, but to see the development of Collins’s skill. If you are just discovering Collins, one of the first to write in the genre of crime fiction, I would go with either The Moonstone or The Woman in White first, and if you find you like him, then delve into other works, including this, the earliest published of his novels.



Review: The Law and the Lady

The Law and the Lady

The Law and the LadyWilkie Collins (edited with an Introduction and Notes by Jenny Bourne Taylor). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Summary: Valeria Woodville discovers her new husband has a past that is under the cloud of a “not proven” murder accusation, and pursues an investigation to fully vindicate his innocence.

Wilkie Collins is one of the early writers of detective fiction, most famous for his The Woman in White and The Moonstone, two works that established his reputation among the reading public of his time who eagerly awaited the serialized releases of each of his stories. The Law and the Lady is a later work (1875) with probably the first female sleuth in the genre.

Valeria Woodville’s marriage to Eustace Woodville begins with an ill omen when she signs the wedding register with her married rather than maiden name. On her honeymoon she discovers the Eustace’s real surname was Macallan after a chance encounter with her mother-in-law, who had disapproved of the marriage. Valeria recognized her from a photograph she had found among her husband’s effects. She is discouraged by her husband from inquiring further into the circumstances that led to their marriage under an assumed name.

Instead she persists, returns to London, and tracks down Major Fitz-David, a ladies’ man who, while refusing to divulge her husband’s secret, permits her to discover it in his study. She finds a picture of her husband with another woman, Sarah Macallan, and after further searching finds a book with a narrative of the trial of Eustace Macallan for the murder of Sarah by arsenic poisoning. The trial ended with neither a “guilty” nor a “not guilty” verdict but a third allowed in Scottish law, “not proven.” Such a verdict left Eustace under a cloud of suspicion, a permanent blot upon his reputation.

Valeria determines to remove that blot, even though Eustace, and her old family friend, Benjamin, urge her to leave it alone. When she refuses, Eustace leaves her to fight in a distant war in Spain, where he is later seriously wounded. Assisted by Benjamin, and Eustace’s attorney, Mr. Playmore, who is eventually won over to her cause, she pursues an investigation to uncover the real murderer. Much of the inquiry centers around Misserimus Dexter, a friend of Eustace born without legs, an eccentric bordering on madness, whose testimony on behalf of Eustace may have saved him from a guilty verdict, and suggested suspicion of a female guest. In the course of the novel, Dexter descends into insanity, but one of his last, raving statements, taken down by Benjamin, leads Mr. Playmore to the discovery of the truth.

One of the distinctive features of the novel is that it is written as the first person narrative of Valeria. Combined with the fact that she is one of the first female detectives, the novel gives us one of the more memorable character portrayals in detective fiction that paved the way for other women detectives. Valeria’s determination to read the trial accounts, to familiarize herself with the law, and to mount an investigation (helped by the fact that she was a woman of independent means), in defiance of all the urgings that she content herself in her husband’s love, makes her a strong female character pushing the boundaries of Victorian role expectations.

At the same time, most critics do not consider this among Collins’ best, and I would have to agree. Given Valeria’s strength of character, at least this reader thought that Eustace wasn’t worthy of her, and I wondered what she saw in him. But, the heart has its reasons! I wondered why Eustace, if innocent, did not himself pursue the efforts Valeria pursued to find his former wife’s murderer but acquiesced in the “not proven” verdict.  He chose instead to marry under an assumed name, and false pretenses. Even his mother, also a strong character, considers this unworthy of him. Also, there is a studied avoidance of the one possibility that turned out to be the truth, one that occurred to me early in the narrative. I can even think of some red herrings Collins might have used to put the reader off the track.

What redeemed it for me was the strong character of Valeria, who is the good wife in the best sense, and yet refuses to be “the good wife.” Her persistence despite setbacks and apparent dead ends, and the bizarre character of Dexter and his household, her ability both to take counsel and make up and assert her own mind (even while expressing her inner misgivings in the narrative) offers us not merely a female detective but a woman of refreshing and unusual strength who must have appealed to Collins’ female readers. Her strength combined with her loyalty suggests possibilities for a richer, yet unconventional, marriage with Eustace, possibilities it appears he only begins to grasp in his convalescence from his wounds. How interesting it would have been if Collins had made Valeria into a recurring character!

Review: Desperate Remedies

Desperate Remedies
Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently I read and reviewed Wilkie Collins Man and Wife. What that book and this had in common is to underline the plight of women in 19th century British society, and to this day in many parts of the world, where they are vulnerable to the use of power of unscrupulous men.

So it is in this story. Ambrose Graye and Cytherea Aldclyffe fall in love but she suddenly and mysteriously breaks off the relationship and moves away. Ambrose eventually marries, but never forgets his first love, naming his daughter after her. When Ambrose dies Cytherea and her brother, Owen are cast upon the world. Owen tries to make it as an architects assistant. Cytherea advertises for positions as a “lady in waiting.” While she waits, she falls in love with Edward Springrove. Then comes a summons to become the lady of waiting for her namesake, Cytherea Aldclyffe. It turns out that this is part of a mysterious plan to marry her to the estate steward, Aeneas Manston (who in fact is secretly married and whose first wife seemingly dies in a fire). Manston seems to hold over Miss Aldclyffe knowledge of some horrible deed and forces her to poison the relationship between Cytherea and Edward.

In the plot that develops, Manston controls the lives and fates of three women, in addition to his hold over Miss Aldclyffe. The resolution is in fact quite exciting as one waits to see whether Manston will succeed in his schemes.

This is one of Hardy’s earliest works, and while not perhaps the best of his writing, is still quite an engaging read, and one less familiar than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, or The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I would consider his masterpieces.

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Review: Man And Wife

Man And Wife
Man And Wife by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

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