“For the sake of the right”: Wilkie Collins, No Name

nonameThe first book I thought of when I read Ana’s announcement of Long-Awaited Reads Month was Wilkie Collins’s No Name, which has been sitting on my shelf at work for several years. I acquired it in a fit of professional diligence: I include examples of Victorian sensation fiction regularly in my 19th-century fiction classes and I have several times offered a seminar specifically on sensation fiction — yet (shh!) the list of sensation novels I’ve read (as opposed to read about) is actually very short: Lady Audley’s SecretAurora FloydThe Woman in WhiteEast LynneThe Moonstone … and that’s about it. I admit my enthusiasm for reading more sensation novels has been constrained by my finding that a couple of these most canonical titles in the genre are really quite bad, though they are also very interesting. Few of us have the courage of Miriam Burstein when it comes to powering through truly terrible fiction in the interests of scholarship.

I do thoroughly enjoy both The Woman and White and The Moonstone, though, and so while I do also intend someday to get around to Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (which, as her rewriting of Madame Bovary, was an attempt to break out of what we would today call “genre fiction” and into “literary fiction”), a higher priority has always been to get caught up on Collins’s remaining top two, Armadale and No Name. Finally, I am half way to that goal!

And with what result, I’m sure you are wondering! Well, the short version is that I’m not about to substitute No Name for either of the other Collins novels I routinely assign. I just don’t think it’s as good. As good at what? Fair question, especially since in some ways it may in fact be better than at least The Woman in White, which thematically it most resembles. Let me try to explain — but keep in mind that so far I’ve read No Name only once, so my ideas about it are still a work in progress. I think it is better than The Woman in White in that its protagonist Magdalen Vanstone is a more layered and conflicted character than either of the female protagonists in The Woman in White. Laura Fairlie is a hopeless case: that the hero falls in love with her is as inevitable as it is annoying. Her half-sister Marian Halcomb is a fabulous character (she is twice the man the hero is, and/or twice the woman Laura is) — but her path is a straight one that calls for no self-doubt and leads her into no regrettable actions. Magdalen, in contrast, is flawed in all kinds of ways, does all kinds of bad things knowing they are bad, and thus embodies moral struggle rather than moral heroism.

But that’s actually where my complaints begin: if Magdalen was going to be bad, I would rather she be very, very bad — even horrid. The hair-tearing and hand-wringing got wearisome, perhaps because it didn’t lead to any moral growth. There was also absolutely no necessity for her to do as she did: her own obstinate desire for revenge and for what she perceived as justice were the whole driving force, and so she has nobody to blame but herself for somehow, despite clearly knowing what would be right, not being able to just do it. It’s true that compared to her, the “good” sister Norah seemed dull (though she’s not as insufferable as Laura). In the end, too, though Norah’s more passive virtues seem to be hailed and rewarded, the good results could not have come about if it weren’t for Magdalen’s stratagems. She’s brought down before she can be restored to her rightful place, though: much more than The Woman in White, in which Marian’s variance from feminine norms is applauded, here such deviance is regretted in the moment and exorcised in the conclusion.

Compared to The Woman in White, I found No Name laborious in its set-up and long-winded in its execution. The elaborate plots and counterplots and the “she knows that he knows that she knows” machinations were entertaining but I felt could be skimmed through without risking the loss of either comprehension or pleasure (unlike, say, Count Fosco’s exuberant riffs – and speaking of Count Fosco, Wragge is an ingenious schemer, as is Mrs. Lecount, but between them they aren’t a fraction as evil or delicious as the count!). Both novels do a lot to explore how identity is defined, lost, and won, with special attention to problems of law and inheritance and the ways women in particular are vulnerable (“It is your law, not hers,” as Magdalen exclaims). No Name does effectively dramatize a gendered struggle for power in which the recovery of a stolen inheritance is actually about the restoration of a place in the world: it’s fought “not for the sake of the fortune,” Magdalen right declares, but “for the sake of the right.” In this way the novel is certainly provocative, and I can imagine that it would spark good class discussion. But The Woman in White is just a lot more fun: it is, in both the literary-historical and the everyday use of the word, more sensational. Sometimes a less famous novel seems to have greater, if less accessible, literary merits than the one that overshadows it (arguably, for instance, this is true of Villette and Jane Eyre), but in this case (usual caveat: so far!) I think the front-runner deserves the win.

One thing I did really appreciate in No Name, which is something that the more rapid plotting and shifting voices of The Woman in White does not show off as much, is Collins’s own prose. When he’s writing as himself and not ventriloquizing one of his colorful characters, he can be every bit as descriptive and evocative as his buddy Dickens. Here’s a good bit of grim social realism, for example:

The network of dismal streets stretching over the surrounding neighborhood contains a population for the most part of the poorer order. In the thoroughfares where shops abound, the sordid struggle with poverty shows itself unreservedly on the filthy pavement; gathers its forces through the week; and, strengthening to a tumult on Saturday night, sees the Sunday morning dawn in murky gaslight. Miserable women, whose faces never smile, haunt the butchers’ shops in such London localities as these, with relics of the men’s wages saved from the public-house clutched fast in their hands, with eyes that devour the meat they dare not buy, with eager fingers that touch it covetously, as the fingers of their richer sisters touch a precious stone. In this district, as in other districts remote from the wealthy quarters of the metropolis, the hideous London vagabond—with the filth of the street outmatched in his speech, with the mud of the street outdirtied in his clothes—lounges, lowering and brutal, at the street corner and the gin-shop door; the public disgrace of his country, the unheeded warning of social troubles that are yet to come. Here, the loud self-assertion of Modern Progress—which has reformed so much in manners, and altered so little in men—meets the flat contradiction that scatters its pretensions to the winds. Here, while the national prosperity feasts, like another Belshazzar, on the spectacle of its own magnificence, is the Writing on the Wall, which warns the monarch, Money, that his glory is weighed in the balance, and his power found wanting.

 And here’s a little bit of nice seaside scene-setting:

It was a dull, airless evening. Eastward, was the gray majesty of the sea, hushed in breathless calm; the horizon line invisibly melting into the monotonous, misty sky; the idle ships shadowy and still on the idle water. Southward, the high ridge of the sea dike, and the grim, massive circle of a martello tower reared high on its mound of grass, closed the view darkly on all that lay beyond. Westward, a lurid streak of sunset glowed red in the dreary heaven, blackened the fringing trees on the far borders of the great inland marsh, and turned its little gleaming water-pools to pools of blood. Nearer to the eye, the sullen flow of the tidal river Alde ebbed noiselessly from the muddy banks; and nearer still, lonely and unprosperous by the bleak water-side, lay the lost little port of Slaughden, with its forlorn wharfs and warehouses of decaying wood, and its few scattered coasting-vessels deserted on the oozy river-shore. No fall of waves was heard on the beach, no trickling of waters bubbled audibly from the idle stream. Now and then the cry of a sea-bird rose from the region of the marsh; and at intervals, from farmhouses far in the inland waste, the faint winding of horns to call the cattle home traveled mournfully through the evening calm.

I’ve put Armadale on my e-reader (somehow, I don’t actually own the Oxford edition of this one – how did that happen?), so stay tuned … though I probably won’t get to it for a while.

Open Letters, November 2013!


The November issue is up! Headlining it is Steve Donoghue’s review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (spoiler: he doesn’t like it!). Other recent fiction reviewed includes Jhumpa Lahiri’s The LowlandChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Richard Kadrey’s YA novel Dead Set. Sam Sacks takes a look at a new book on Hamlet that “attempts to illuminate the play’s darker corners, and in the process provides useful glosses on some of the more rebarbative thinkers of the modern era”; Greg Waldmann reviews Collision 2012, another entry in the usually short-lived genre of the campaign book; Ivan Keneally explores what sounds like a wonderful exhibition of Sargent’s watercolors at the MFA; and our new poems for the month, from Katy Bohinc, take the form of letters to Alain Badiou. My contribution this time is a ‘second glance’ at one of my long-time favorites to read and teach, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone: I needed a break from disappointing contemporary fiction! Add in Irma Heldman’s regular mystery column and some well-chosen pieces from our archives (especially worth another look is John Cotter’s piece on Sargent’s El Jaleo), and that’s a wrap! Please go on over and check it out, and if you like what you find, help us get the word out.

This Week In My Classes: Men and Women and The Woman in White

The Woman in White isn’t the only thing going on in my classes this week, but it’s by far the most fun–and happily, it seems as if the students like it too. They had to submit their questions today for the next round of letter exchanges, and I saw more than a few comments about how much more suspenseful and enjoyable it is than our first two novels. I’m a bit surprised that they didn’t find Great Expectations suspenseful: Collins doesn’t have any moments better than the one in which Pip returns to London from a visit to Miss Havisham, only to be met at the gate by the note in Wemmick’s writing, “Don’t go home!” But I can see why they are feeling the suspense more in The Woman in White: Collins sets a faster pace than Dickens, and he builds the suspense less by images and intimations and more through heavy-handed foreshadowing and cliff-hangers. It really is great fun–and part of the fun comes, I think, from the impression the whole novel gives off of a writer having a blast with his own material.

Today we talked about gender roles in the novel. We started with our hero Walter Hartright, whose heart certainly is in the right place, but who doesn’t exactly live up to the promise of that noble-sounding name in his actions. The advantages that accrue to him (socially, legally, economically) because he’s male are undercut by the disadvantages of his class position. It’s even made explicit that he is effectively neutered by his role as a drawing master:

It had been my profession, for years past, to be in this close contact with young girls of all ages, and of all orders of beauty. I had accepted the position as part of my calling in life; I had trained myself to leave all the sympathies natural to my age in my employer’s outer hall, as coolly as I left my umbrella there before I went up-stairs.

It’s possible to read the rest of the novel as the story of how Walter learns the value and use of his, um, umbrella. His polite propriety has costs, after all: when he learns that the woman he loves, Laura Fairlie, is engaged to the creepy Sir Percival Glyde, he mopes, weeps, and runs off to South America, leaving her to the ineffectual protection of her girly uncle Frederick  (“he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look–something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man”) and the ardent but also ineffectual care-taking of her manly half-sister Marian (“altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability”). Laura herself is almost too ideally feminine: “Think of her,” Walter muses, “as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir. . . . [she has] all the charms of beauty, gentleness, and simple truth, that can purify and subdue the heart of man”).

Laura epitomizes the ideal Victorian woman: she is pure, virtuous, innocent, and unworldly. Of course our hero falls in love with her! But actually Laura is so perfect she’s boring, and so Walter’s love for her seems oddly uninspiring and unheroic. It also seems significant that her double in the novel is a woman who has escaped from an asylum and is twice mistaken for a ghost. Readers since the novel’s first publication have found Marian much more attractive–in spite of (or is it because of?) the “dark down on her upper lip [which is] almost a moustache.” What do we really want in a woman, Collins seems to be asking? Or, for that matter, what do we expect in a man? If Walter, our good guy, disappoints by becoming so predictably infatuated with Laura, what does it mean that Count Fosco, Sir Percival’s flamboyant co-conspirator, is the only man in the novel with the good sense and good taste to appreciate Marian? “Under happier circumstances,” he effuses, “how worthy I should have been of Miss Halcombe–how worthy Miss Halcombe would have been of ME.”

This Week in My Classes (September 22, 2009)

Nearly two weeks in, we’ve moved past the throat-clearing stage in both of my classes and are deep into our first novels.

In The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy I’m leading off with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South this year. Last time I taught it I opened with Trollope’s The Warden, which I thoroughly enjoy, but I like to give Gaskell a turn too. Like her first novel, Mary Barton, North and South is a ‘condition of England’ novel, addressing the tensions between “masters and men” in the industrial north (yes, there are always a couple of students who are surprised that it is not a novel about the American civil war). Mary Barton is a passionate, sometimes gripping, deeply sincere but rather melodramatic novel. I quite enjoy it, especially the climactic boat chase (!), but I think North and South is both artistically and intellectually a better book. Its structure is more deliberate, its treatment of the central class conflicts more sophisticated, and its characters more complicated. Its protagonist, Margaret Hale, is a particularly interesting figure. Gaskell sets her up from the very first scenes as a woman not quite at home or at ease with the conventional feminine values of her time. It’s not until she is torn away from her idyllic country home to the rough environment of Milton-Northern (a.k.a. Manchester), however, that she begins to see what kind of work there is to be done in the world, and then to puzzle out her own role in it. The charismatic Milton mill owner John Thornton of course plays an important part in Margaret’s changing perspective, though in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice, it turns out that he has a lot to learn from her as well (ah, the courtship of the mind, truly the most seductive kind). Yesterday we wound up at the dramatic scene between Thornton and his striking workers. Goaded by Margaret into going down to speak with them “like a man,” Thornton confronts the mob:

Again she took her place by the farthest window. He was on the steps below; she saw that by the direction of a thousand angry eyes; but she could neither see nor hear any-thing save the savage satisfaction of the rolling angry murmur. She threw the window wide open. Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless,–cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, with starving children at home–relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher’s face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. If Mr. Thornton would but say something to them–let them hear his voice only–it seemed as if it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the stony silence that vouchsafed them. no word, even of anger or reproach. But perhaps he was speaking now; there was a momentary hush of their noise, inarticulate as that of a troop of animals. She tore her bonnet off; and bent forwards to hear. She could only see; for if Mr. Thornton had indeed made the attempt to speak, the momentary instinct to listen to him was past and gone, and the people were raging worse than ever. He stood with his arms folded; still as a statue; his face pale with repressed excitement. They were trying to intimidate him–to make him flinch; each was urging the other on to some immediate act of personal violence. Margaret felt intuitively, that in an instant all would be uproar; the first touch would cause an explosion, in which, among such hundreds of infuriated men and reckless boys, even Mr. Thornton’s life would be unsafe,–that in another instant the stormy passions would have passed their bounds, and swept away all barriers of reason, or apprehension of consequence. Even while she looked, she saw lads in the back-ground stooping to take off their heavy wooden clogs–the readiest missile they could find; she saw it was the spark to the gunpowder, and, with a cry, which no one heard, she rushed out of the room, down stairs,–she had lifted the great iron bar of the door with an imperious force–had thrown the door open wide–and was there, in face of that angry sea of men, her eyes smiting them with flaming arrows of reproach. The clogs were arrested in the hands that held them–the countenances, so fell not a moment before, now looked irresolute, and as if asking what this meant. For she stood between them and their enemy. She could not speak, but held out her arms towards them till she could recover breath.

‘Oh, do not use violence! He is one man, and you are many; but her words died away, for there was no tone in her voice; it was but a hoarse whisper. Mr. Thornton stood a little on one side; he had moved away from behind her, as if jealous of anything that should come between him and danger.

‘Go!’ said she, once more (and now her voice was like a cry). ‘The soldiers are sent for–are coming. Go peaceably. Go away. You shall have relief from your complaints, whatever they are.’

‘Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?’ asked one from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.

‘Never, for your bidding!’ exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,–but Margaret did not hear them. Her eye was on the group of lads who had armed themselves with their clogs some time before. She saw their gesture–she knew its meaning,–she read their aim. Another moment, and Mr. Thornton might be smitten down,–he whom she had urged and goaded to come to this perilous place. She only thought how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with his arms folded, he shook her off.

‘Go away,’ said he, in his deep voice. ‘This is no place for you.’

‘It is!’ said she. ‘You did not see what I saw.’ If she thought her sex would be a protection,–if, with shrinking eyes she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished,–she was wrong. Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop–at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot–reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret’s fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:’

‘For God’s sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.’ She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton’s shoulder.

Exciting stuff! In the reiterated imagery of storms and surging seas, and also in the emphasis on men driven beyond reason by hunger, ignorance, and powerlessness, you can hear echoes of Carlyle’s French Revolution. Margaret’s passionate and breathtakingly public intervention is charged with political and erotic energy, much of which is beyond her control–it seems nearly impossible for her to express her individual agency, to control the meaning of her own actions, so entangled do they inevitably become in other people’s assumptions (or what we might, if you’ll forgive a little jargon, call systems of signification). Of course everyone watching, not to mention Thornton himself, assumes that she is in love with him. As Dorothea Brooke will say about her own efforts to change the world, “How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?” (We will be reading Middlemarch later this term, and I hope we will make many such connections between these two women intensely struggling to answer the ultimate question of vocation–“What could she do, what ought she to do?”–in terms beyond those usually set for their sex, but without denying their own sexuality.)

In Victorian Sensations, we have begun with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. This novel is enormous fun: intricately plotted, with Collins’s special trick of multiple narrators stringing us along as we puzzle our way through its various mysteries. Each time I read it I am surprised all over again at how subversive it is: its noblemen are ignoble bastards (sometimes literally); its women have moustaches (OK, just one of them) and its men lounge around on sofas (again, just one of them, but another wears flowered waistcoats and embroidered trousers while fondling his pet mice); characters aren’t who they say they are, or who they look like, to the point that they aren’t always sure who they actually are. Dickens famously called the first encounter with the ‘woman in white’ one of the two best moments in 19th-century literature, and it is a great moment, but surely just as thrilling is the reappearance of **** (sorry, no spoilers allowed) from literally beyond the grave. Why just be suspenseful if you can be funny about it at the same time? For this course we are reading four of the most (in)famous examples of Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction and then considering a range of critical questions about them, from their contemporary reception to current critical approaches, to the meta-question of how far (and for what purposes) they can be distinguished from their canonical cousins. Inevitably, the question of their literary merit will come up, which will give us an opportunity to discuss how we measure “literary merit” anyway. I think The Woman in White is awesome by pretty much any standard except philosophical–but who says intellectual or theoretical substance is any kind of necessity in a novel? Henry James thought George Eliot’s philosophical tendencies interfered with the quality of her novels. East Lynne raises, well, different issues, about which, more when we get there!