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.