No Name by Wilkie Collins

So No Name is finally finished. This behemoth of a sensation novel that has fallen by the wayside by misfortune of being published in between Collins’ name making blockbusters, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, has actually become my favourite sensation novel so far. Even suspending my disbelief did not entirely eradicate the unconvincing and frankly easy to guess ‘mystery’ at the heart of The Moonstone, and The Woman in White was excellent, but, again, by half way through, if you haven’t guessed the finale, I’d worry for you. No Name is different from these in the fact that it doesn’t actually have a central mystery; the plot centres around two sisters (though only the younger sister’s story is really told), Norah and Magdalen, who, due to very unfortunate legal loop hole circumstances end up penniless after the sudden and tragic deaths of their parents. Their father’s money has gone to his older brother, who hated him, and he refuses to part with any of this money to support his estranged nieces. So, accustomed to living in luxury and with everything they hold dear swept away from them overnight, the girls are cast out into the world with nothing except what they can carry in a few boxes. They go to live with their governess, the wonderful Miss Garth, in London, but shortly afterwards Magdalen disappears, and Norah and Miss Garth are left distraught. Norah, a good, kind and sensible girl, takes the only course open to her and becomes a governess. But Magdalen has other ideas; she is determined to get her father’s money back, and she will do anything to get it.

The book follows Magdalen’s journey to reclaim this money; false identities, shady deals, crooks with hearts, nice but dim giantesses (yes!), incredibly brilliant villainesses and the best dodgy coincidences ever all build up to a cracking ending. As, unusually for Collins, there is no mystery element to this, and it’s more based on suspense and fear of what will happen to Magdalen than finding out a secret, it’s much more involving and also more convincing as a story. At some points I didn’t want to read on because I was so afraid of what Mrs Lecount, the villainess of the piece, was going to do, and unlike with the other novels of his I have read, it was difficult to predict what Magdalen’s next step would be. The plot is highly inventive and very unusual; it takes you off down numerous different paths and is so entertaining that I am disappointed I have left the world it created.

It’s also a very interesting exploration of the helplessness of women; once Norah and Magdalen have lost the protection of their father, and his money, they are cast out on the world, with very little means of supporting themselves except for becoming governesses or marrying someone who can put a roof over their head. Magdalen is forced into desperate measures because she cannot bear the degradation of living in someone else’s home as nothing better than a servant, when she was brought up to expect so much more from her life. Magdalen and Norah have had a life of ease and pleasantries, where money was no object and their future involved marriage to a suitable man who would give them the safe lifestyle their father had worked so hard to provide. They have not been taught how to live in the real world, and they are naive and delicate, totally unprepared for a life outside of their comfortable surroundings and social circle. Women like these girls, who, through no fault of their own, found themselves cast out of the only world they knew, were thrust upon a hostile and frightening environment, unable to even travel by themselves without causing suspicion or personal danger. I hate to think of the desperate situations women must have faced in these times, and the frustration of knowing they had so few avenues to support themselves if left alone, most of them impossibly degrading. It was also very eye opening for me to realise just how dependent upon men Victorian women were. It is humbling to see how far we have come, and to appreciate just how much freedom women have today to pursue careers, to live independently, to be educated and to support themselves, able to live meaningful, comfortable existences without having to rely on a man to be there to legitimise us or provide financial support. Wilkie Collins was really quite controversial, and forward thinking, in portraying a female heroine so independent and determined to get her own way; her intelligence and cunning show there is far more to her than the usual fainting madam who needs smelling salts at every opportunity, even if she does have the odd melodramatic breakdown now and again.

I think this is one of the more interesting sensation novels, in that it has a lot going on underneath the surface. There are the issues of a woman’s place, of how money buys security, of madness and of social problems such as domestic abuse and poverty. Outside of the central mystery there are many characters who have fascinating stories and are depicted so vividly that I felt they were completely real; the world of No Name is really a microcosm of Victorian England and I absolutely adored it. If you want to read a Sensation Novel, you can’t go wrong with this one.

ps. I had a bit of an exciting discovery with my copy of No Name – it’s an old pocket Collins Clear Type that was absolutely falling apart – I can’t show a photo because it’s currently with Bloomsbury Bell who’s going to rebind it for me. Inside I found two bookplates – one belonging to C R Ashbee and inscribed ‘E H P’ and the other ‘Felicity Ashbee‘. Just for fun I googled them and it turns out that C R Ashbee was one of the most famous devotees of the Arts and Craft movement and founded the Essex House Press – the ‘E H P’. It was wonderful to discover such history and from the state of the book the family must have loved it very much – I suspect the book came straight from the estate of Felicity as she died around the time I bought it. Felicity wrote a biography of her mother, Janet Ashbee, and the trials of a life living in an arts and crafts commune with a homosexual husband which sounds absolutely fascinating and I’d love to read it.

22 comments

  1. The bookplate story is indeed fascinating. I love seeing a book's history in its pages. Anyway, I had only planned on reading The Woman in White (just finished) and The Moonstone, but now have to add No Name to the list. Thanks!🙂

  2. I love finding books with a history too – that is such a lovely story!I haven't read No Name yet, but loved The Moonstone, so it is only a matter of time before I move onto his other books. I think I'll read The Woman in White first though.

  3. That book plate story is amazing – I love finding out the provenance of books, but it is rare to find an exciting provenance of a book that I own.I did get No name out of the library for my boyfriend but he couldn't concentrate enough on it at the time; I think I'll get it out again for our Christmas holiday as he loved both Woman in white and Moonstone.

  4. I am so, so pleased that you liked this. I was impressed by this novel not only for the plotting, I did think there was some mystery and intrigue but your right suspense is possibly the best word, but for the female lead. Collins is absolutely brilliant at writing women leads and also what I loved about this was it was a fascinating insight into the society at the time and also the dealings with women.The book plates sound utterly wonderful, how thrilling is that?

  5. Wow! That bookplate story is so neat! No Name will probably be my next Collins. I keep hearing great things about it. My own favorite is Armadale, which I just read. I whole-heartedly recommend it. It's also more of a suspence novel than a mystery, and the villian, Miss Gwilt, is one of the best I've ever read. She's a deliciously fun character!

  6. What a find – and what a nice idea to get it rebound. I'm sure CR would approve and is beaming down on you! Bet you spent your lunch-hour in the V&A jewellery gallery swotting up!I once bought a secondhand copy of Consider the Years (by Virginia Graham, Joyce Grenfell's great pal) and there was a signed letter tucked inside from Virginia grieving about wartime damage to Bath. I was delighted to acquire a tiny bit of literary history .. but not nearly as delighted as I'd be about an Ashbee bookplate!

  7. I think Collins always does a great job at showing how trapped women were in Victorian times. I appreciate that a lot, from a man of the times.

  8. What a cool story behind the book! You'll have to share a photo of it when it's been rebound. It's only sad that their library was probably sold off in bits and pieces, though they were lucky in that you have this book as it's obvious you will appreciate it! I think this will be my Wilkie Collins novel for 2010!

  9. I'm still making my way towards the end Rachel. Last night, I was supposed to be getting ready to go out and thought I would just read one or two pages. R came upstairs to find me sitting on the floor by the lamp reading away. I just hate putting this book down!

  10. I love the history of old books! This is a new wilkie collins to me and it sounds as if I'd like it. Maybe I'll save it for next october???

  11. First post! I also recently read "The Moonstone" (loving it) and had just ordered "No Name" when I discovered this blog and your review… now I can't wait to read it! Looking forward to reading you in the future!

  12. Claire – I'm so glad No Name has been added to the list! I think it's a shame Wilkie Collins' fame seems to just extend to those two novels these days – there is much treasure to be found in the rest of his canon.Jackie – Yes The Woman in White is probably his masterpiece of proper sensation fiction! No Name is less sensation and more suspense so you might find it appeals more!Verity – Me too! I was shocked that the book had belonged to someone so famous, and if it hadn't, I would have chucked it as it's in such bad condition. I hope Ken can get back into No Name over Christmas because it is such a good escapist read.Simon – Absolutely – Wilkie Collins has written some terrific female characters and his fascination with women clearly shines through. What I love is that he writes complex women – they're not boring angels in the house like in typical Victorian fiction.Teresa – I have made a note of Armadale! Do read No Name, and when you do, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!M – I did! I know I am so glad I know a bookbinder. What a wonderful find! I dream of finding something like that…a piece of lost correspondence that turns history on its head…Jenny – Yes, Collins is a real sympathiser and lover of women. A good man!Danielle – I will do! I know, it's a shame to think that all of their books have gone off into the ether and will never be together again.😦 I look forward to your thoughts on No Name!Darlene – I know, it is so addictive! Can't wait for you to finish and tell me your final thoughts!Heather – Can you wait until next October?!?Leticia – Thank you so much for commenting! I'm so pleased to see a new face! I hope you enjoy No Name – be sure to come back and tell me how you got on!

  13. What a great review of a lesser-known novel by Collins. Thank you for putting so much thought into it as well. I don't have this one, but I really feel I should read more Collins now that everyone else is reading him!You're up for Rosie's Riveters next week! Will send you the template now🙂

  14. I've been wanting to read this book for so long, and I'm so glad you liked it as your review has made me determined to read it next year. I think it would be a great book to read for the Women Unbound Challenge. I loved both The Moonstone and The Woman in White which I read years ago.And it's really exciting when you find out that your book belonged to someone special.

  15. Aarti – Thank you! Yes you must read it! And I can't wait to do my Rosie's Riveters post!Verity – How annoying! Let's hope they give it back very quickly!ChasingBawa – Hello! Thanks for commenting. Do read it next year – you won't regret it. It would be great for the challenge – and that reminds me, I need to choose my books and sign up!

  16. I loved The Moonstone, and was wondering which Collins book to try next. Now I know!Jealous about the bookplate story.

  17. Writers Pet – Yes, this must be next! Hopefully you'll find your own bookplate story soon – you never know who's famous and recently donated a book collection near you!

  18. I'd second that recommendation for Armadale (if you've not got around to it) – not quite as immediate as TWIW, but it's a slow burner. And yes, Lydia Gwilt is a terrific character.Another top-notch sensation novel is Uncle Silas by J Sheridan LeFanu.

  19. Hi! A late bloomer here when it comes to falling in love with the works of Wilkie Collins. I must admit that I’ve only read The Woman in White last month, and no turning back after! Next on my list was Jezebel’s Daughter, then The Haunted Hotel. Just started with No Name.

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