Wilkie Collins Classics Circuit: No NameNovember 24, 2009
This post is part of the Wilkie Collins Classics Circuit. You should check out the list of all the stops that Wilkie will be making on his blog tour. There is also a concurrent classics tour with Elizabeth Gaskell, and that tour has been filled with informative posts as well! (This post will be 100% spoiler-free.)
Wilkie Collins may not be as well known as his friend Charles Dickens, but his stories certainly do grab your attention and encourage you to stay up late reading! No Name is no exception. The story opens on a quiet family home in the country. By all appearances, the Vanstones are the ideal Victorian family with a straight-lacedgoverness and charmingly quirky neighbors. There is no lack of foreshadowing however, and you just know that something will go wrong. If you haven’t read the back of the book, you’re kept in suspense until about 150 pages into the novel. I won’t give anything away except to say that the mystery involves peculiarities of Victorian legal code, a woman who makes an excellent actress, and several fake identities.
In a somewhat unusual move for Collins, after the first 150 pages, there are no more “mysteries” that remain to be solved. After that, the book is entirely a standard literary novel, albeit with a few unusual plot turns and truly exceptional characterizations. Collins was actually quite proud of the fact that this book did not rely on secrets–he was hoping to silence his critics who felt that he used too many plot devices. “The only Secret contained in this book, is revealed midway in the first volume,” he insists. In fact, in between writing No Name for serialization and for publication in volumes, he slightly altered one or two paragraphs to make the novel even less “secretive.”
I believe that Collins is correct–No Name does not revolve around “whodunit?” or “who could she be?” Instead, the novel looks at a strong female protagonist and asks, “What would someone in her position, with her characteristics, be forced to do?” It turns out that she would break a lot of rules, do many things that she isn’t proud of, and fight until her body fails her. I loved this aspect of the novel. It isn’t often that we see a woman in Victorian literature with such a strong mind and such a firm determination to do whatever she deems necessary despite society’s disapproval. There are actually two characters like this–Magdalen, the protagonist, and Mrs. Lecount, her rival. The extent to which each succeeds or fails doesn’t seem as important as the cunning and the intellect that they employ to do so.
In No Name, Collins has presented readers with something even more mysterious than the theft of a jewel or the identity of a ghostly woman–he has explored how people react and develop as they confront life’s injustices. And isn’t that a hallmark of great, classic literature? I agree with Wilkie himself–it’s time to give Collins his due as an excellent writer, not just as a superb mystery author. This Classics Circuit seems to be doing just that!