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.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I am loving reading Sensation novels at the moment. I just can’t get enough! I love the mystery, the suspense, and the fact that I feel really clever every time I finish them because I haven’t failed to guess the guilty party yet!

I’ll start by saying that I didn’t find The Moonstone as good as The Woman in White. It lacked the compelling, all consuming central mystery of the latter; it also wasn’t particularly menacing in the way that I found TWIW to be.It was a tad unconvincing too, and rather easy to guess who the guilty party was, but even with all these things considered, it was still a gripping and very entertaining read.

As with all novels of this type it’s hard to give a proper synopsis without ruining the plot for those who haven’t read it, but I shall try my best. The book opens with a transcript of a ‘family paper’ detailing the stealing of a famous Indian diamond, known as the Moonstone, from a ransacked temple during a battle between the English and the Indians in the late 18th century. Fast forward to the ‘present’ day (the mid 1800s) and we have Gabriel Betteredge, the faithful retainer of the good Lady Verinder and her beautiful teenage daughter Rachel, narrating the story of how the said Moonstone comes into the Verinder household.

It is important to know that the Moonstone was stolen from a Hindu temple; it is sacred and was always guarded by three Hindus who would fight to the death to protect it. They are supposed to follow it everywhere, and this duty is passed down the generations. Wherever the Moonstone goes, the guards follow. Now, Lady Verinder’s brother was part of the group of officers ransacking the temple, and he brought the Moonstone back with him after stealing it. There is a vague fear of curses etc associated with the diamond and so it is kept locked away during Lady Verinder’s brother’s lifetime. When he dies it emerges he has left it to his niece Rachel to be given on her 18th birthday; is this as a revenge to his sister who refused to acknowledge him because of his dastardly ways or an atonement (the diamond is worth £20,000, a collossal amount at the time)? No one is sure. But, Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and Lady Verinder’s nephew, is trusted by the family solicitor to deliver the Moonstone to Rachel on her 18th birthday, as instructed, and this is where the problems begin.

Rachel is duly given the Moonstone, but not without plenty of misgivings on Lady Verinder, Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteredge’s parts; three Indian conjurors have been hanging about the house since Franklin arrived, and knowing Lady Verinder’s brother’s hatred of her, everyone is concerned that the Moonstone is indeed cursed, and could bring harm to the lovely Rachel. On the morning after her birthday, Rachel wakes to find the diamond gone, but after preliminary investigations it emerges that the suspicious looking Indians have an alibi, and there is no sign of a break in; the theft had to be an inside job. Inside the house at the time were Rachel, Lady Verinder, Franklin, another cousin, Godfrey Ablewhite, an upstanding do gooder who longs for Rachel’s hand in marriage (as does Franklin), plus a large crowd of servants, some of whom have plenty of secrets of their own. Who could have done it? And why? And if it has been stolen by a member of the household, where has it gone? A famous detective from London, Sergeant Cuff, is called up to give his assistance, but there is great resistance from Rachel, who doesn’t seem to want the identity of the thief to be discovered, and is acting very strangely. As the mystery grows deeper, even the Sergeant is left baffled, and with various changes of narrator down the line, we are left hanging almost to the very end, a year later in the story, until all of the clues are unravelled to find out who stole the Moonstone, and why.

It’s a gripping read, with plenty of twists and turns, and some very interesting characters. I liked the way the narrator kept changing; it was interesting to see how different a take the various story tellers had on the events and the people involved. The most exciting thing for me though was that Wilkie Collins took part of his inspiration from the murder described in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; Sergeant Cuff is based on Mr Whicher, and the idea of the perpetrator of the crime being within the household was taken from the same situation in the Road Hill House murder. This aspect is fascinating; the idea that you can have people you trust living under your roof without really knowing them at all is something that must have sent a chill down contemporary readers’ spines, especially with the saga of the Road Hill House murder being all over the papers at the time, and with most households employing at least one servant, whose private life was usually an enigma to its employers.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed The Moonstone, but I did find in places it betrayed its serial origins; inconsistencies abound where Collins clearly changed his mind about people half way through, plot lines are tidied up too hastily and in places too much is given away too early. It certainly wasn’t as slick as The Woman in White. Even so, this is still a brilliant, suspenseful and marvellously wintry read; perfect to curl up in front of the fire with on a dark and dreary November afternoon. It’s left me with a longing for even MORE sensation novels, too; my next is going to be No Name.

p.s. The image I’ve used is by an artist called Alfred Stevens, who painted the picture OUP have used for their Oxford World’s Classics edition. Personally I think the painting of his I have used is far more appropriate!