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.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This has been my first foray into ‘sensation’ fiction since reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White several years ago so I was very excited to get back into the genre, which I thoroughly enjoy, as well as discover a new author in Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

As with a lot of the blockbuster novels of the Victorian era, this was produced originally for magazine publication, printed serially to keep addicted readers buying the magazine week after week (or month after month, as the case might be). This means that each chapter ends with a tantalising cliffhanger to keep the reader in suspense, and leave them desperate for the next keenly awaited installment. I enjoy this style of writing immensely, as there is nothing better than a book you can’t put down. I discovered after reading The Children’s Book that a good plot is something I can’t do without in a novel, and sensation fiction puts the plot above all other considerations. This does mean that the writing is decidedly ropey in places, and the characterisation could certainly be a lot better, but I am not complaining; Braddon wasn’t attempting to win any prizes with her writing; she wrote furiously, often with more than one serial on the go at the time, in order to put food on the table for her ten children (she was quite the woman!), and so she focused on writing a jolly good story more than anything else, and she certainly succeeded in doing so with Lady Audley’s Secret. I don’t know how the original readers coped with having to wait for their next installments; I was hooked from page one!

Now the plot itself is interesting in that, by about half way through, the solution to the central mystery is pretty obvious; it’s no mindbending Jonathan Creek episode, that’s for sure. This surprised me as I thought there would be a lot more build up and confusion and subterfuge than there was. However, there are several more secrets tied up in the mystery that keep the reader guessing until the very end, and there is a very nice, and very unexpected, final twist that I really didn’t see coming. So, there is plenty in this for the amateur detective to unpick, even though the clues are not the most well hidden.

The basic premise is this; a young man named George Talboys returns from Australia to England with a small fortune he has earned over the past three years. He abandoned his wife and child in England to go to Australia and swore he wouldn’t come back to them until he has earned enough to keep them in comfort. In high spirits he comes back to London, anxious to meet his much beloved wife again and share their newly found wealth. He bumps into his old schoolfriend, a young, goodnatured and idle barrister named Robert Audley, to whom he relates his good fortune. They go off to the pub to celebrate, and in this pub George has asked his wife to leave a letter for him to tell him where she is, so that he can go to her upon his return. George is surprised to find no letter waiting for him; then, deathly pale, he shows Robert the page of The Times with the death notices in; his wife’s name, Helen Talboys, is listed as a recent death, on the Isle of Wight. Shocked and disbelieving, George and Robert go to the Isle of Wight to see Helen’s grave; her father is there, and confirms her death. George is broken and devastated, and Robert takes him back to London to care for him in his grief.

Robert has a wealthy uncle, Sir Michael Audley, who owns a stunningly perfect house, Audley Court, in Essex. Sir Michael has recently married a beautiful woman, Lady Lucy, who was of humble origin; a governess in the local doctor’s house. Everyone who meets her falls in love with her; she is sweet and good and gentle and docile; everything the perfect Victorian ‘Angel in the House’ should be. Robert decides a visit to Audley would be the perfect rest for George, and so they set off for a trip to the country. However, one afternoon George disappears, never to be seen again, and the last person he was seen with was Lady Audley. Robert, devastated at the disappearance of his friend, sets out to discover what may have been his fate.

Dum dum dum. And so the mystery begins, and while, as I say, it becomes perfectly obvious what has gone on fairly quickly, there are also several other characters who have things to hide, and there is also the mystery of Lady Audley’s ‘secret’, which may, or may not, hold the key to it all…

It’s hard to properly review a book that depends so much on its plot, as I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice to say it is a wonderful slice of Victorian reading history, a terrifically good mystery story, and very difficult to put down; I highly recommend it. Also, it is very interesting from the point of view of portrayals of womanhood in Victorian Britain; Lady Lucy is on the surface a ‘wax doll’ – all innocently wide eyed and helpless, but underneath the surface she is something else entirely. Braddon makes frequent comments about the artifice of female beauty, and the daringness of making a woman who appears to so embody the Victorian feminine ideal into a villainess, hiding much darker depths under that tranquil surface, is perhaps not as obvious or shocking to us now as it would have been at the time. Also, the idea of madness as a female disease, as something that explained away ‘deviant’ behaviour in a woman, is raised, and I found it fascinating how anxious male characters were to find a medical excuse for villainy in a woman, rather than accepting that women, just like men, can have base and evil characters.

I really did thoroughly enjoy this; thanks so much to Simon for launching his Sensation Season; I know I’d never have picked this up if I hadn’t have been nudged to by his challenge. Next up on my Sensation pile is Collins’ The Moonstone…I can’t wait!

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

What books could be lovelier than Victorian children’s books (follow this link for some very interesting articles on the topic)? They are so prettily made and have delightful picture plates of healthy rosy cheeked children doing wholesome things like strawberry picking inside, grubby finger marks and colourings-in of various children who have owned and loved the book over the years splotched across the pages, and wonderful titles usually involving a very period name, like ‘Bess’s Adventure’ or ‘Dick’s Nasty Scrape’. It just makes them such a pleasure to read, even when the subject matter is so didactic that it baffles me as to how whole generations of children could have borne being told to shoulder their burdens with selflessness and good grace, look to Jesus, and learn their lessons well if they wanted to grow into good young citizens of the world.

I wonder sometimes whether the world would be a different place if today’s generation of under tens were reading stories with such a message rather than being fed a diet of broken marriages, teen crushes and diets. The morals Victorian children were brought up with led to millions of young men marching out to their deaths in both wars with the conviction that they were fighting for the honour of their motherland and the protection of its women and children; such patriotism and selflessness would never be seen today. Was their character partly formed from the consistent message of How to be Good they received from the books they read as children? I suppose it depends on how much you believe the books you read influence the way you think and act and are. I think literature has a power that many underestimate when it comes to forming young minds…and old ones, too. Many a book I have read has made me understand or appreciate something differently, has encouraged me, inspired me, and made me aspire to being better at something or more grateful, or even more adventurous. Some books have even helped me make big life decisions. There is a lot of power to influence in the humble written word.

So the point of this ramble is…I have just re-read Little Women. The self imposed book ban made me reorganise my bookshelves so my unread books are all grouped together, and Little Women happened to jump out at me from its place within this new arrangement, and so here we are.

It was wonderful. I was transported back to a world when hardship was borne with Christian grace, when poverty didn’t necessitate the firing of servants, and when a hard earned treat was a pickled lime. Marmee was the most delightful, warm, generous and unbelievably good mother I have come across in literature and I adored the four girls with their striking personalities, inner struggles and love for one another that always won out despite their disagreements. Laurie, Mr Lawrence and Mr Brookes, as well as the ever distant figure of Mr March are all excellent examples of strong, upright and protective manhood, and I just loved the small world of gentle kindnesses, neighbourliness, companionship and little adventures they all shared. The image of the March women curled up in their living room around a warm fire, just enjoying each other’s company and keeping busy with their work is something I will always treasure as the picture of what family should be; a loving unit that accepts each other for who they are, weaknesses and strengths, and that helps each other along as they all journey on through life. What marvellous role models there are contained within the pages of this story; Mrs March’s instructions to her daughters on how to improve themselves certainly inspired me to work harder at checking my own quick temper! I hope I have little girls to read this story to one day; nothing could sum up what women I would want my girls to grow into more than the delightful Marches.