Monday, September 24, 2012

No Name - a Wilkie Collins headfake

The Woman in White was a smash hit for Wilkie Collins in 1860; No Name is the 1862 followup.  Those of you who have written a bestselling novel, or perhaps had a big hit record, or, like me, have read about people who have done so, will know that Collins faced all sorts of new anxieties, especially the problem of writing a book as good without merely repeating himself.  No Name is comparably good, and Collins repeats himself only in knowing, jokey ways.  Perhaps he experienced no anxiety at all.

The repetitions are, roughly:  two sisters are at the center of the story; one of the sisters behaves quite differently than I was first led to believe; characters who at first appear to be grotesques or caricatures move into central roles and achieve a pleasing degree of fictional reality; some of the story is told through documents.

Collins begins the novel with a clever expectations-defeating trick.  A happy couple lives in a jolly country house with their blissful daughters.  One of the daughters gets tangled up in a shocking affair – an amateur theatrical performance.  Romantic complications ensue.  Is Collins writing some sort of domestic novel – something like Trollope, who had just had his own first smash hit with Framley Parsonage.  Perhaps Collins has given up the Hitchcockian thriller game which he had more or less just invented.  I am pretending I am a contemporary reader, ignorant of The Moonstone (1868).

Suddenly – I will become increasingly vague about the details of the plot – there is a crash and the novel turns into a melodrama, perhaps designed to evoke tears of pathos or to reform a social wrong.  We learn the meaning of the title: a character has “No Name,” no rights, no property because she is of  illegitimate birth, a discovery caused by the melodramatic crash.

Collins is about ten percent of the way through the book, which perhaps does not seem like much, but this is a long book.  I remember wondering when the book was going to turn into a Wilkie Collins novel.  But here it comes:  No Name has been cheated.  No Name vows revenge!  And No Name is not exactly the Count of Monte Cristo, who is super-strong, unfathomably wealthy, and owns a steamboat, but is instead an eighteen year old girl without rights, property, etc.  Strangely, both the Count and No Name are Masters of Disguise.

What I am getting at is at this point the novel has, after some teasing, turned into a Wilkie Collins novel, with great promise for twisty craziness, and that Collins has set himself a fine challenge.  How can No Name avenge herself and reclaim her name.  It is impossible; there is no way.  What could possibly occupy the next five hundred pages?

Tomorrow I will try to write about how the plot works without writing anything about the plot, which will be a good challenge for me.  Collins employs an ingenious device.  The supporting characters, as in the other good Collins novels, are so much fun; I might write about that.  There is a particularly good chapter I might investigate.  At some point, I should quote at least one line from the book.


  1. I think I've tried to impress so frequently upon so many that there is more to fiction than merely plot, I have tended perhaps sometimes to overlook the skill required firstly to devise a good plot, and, secondly, to communicate it to maximum effect. I've only read the Big Two by Collins - The Woman in White & The Moonstone - but this sounds like great fun! I look forward to your writing about the plot without revealing it.

  2. I enjoyed this book a great deal when I read it, oh, a couple of years ago. I think this post could be subtitled the Amateur Reader headfake, as we can wonder when your trademark critique will appear. But actually I love it when you write about plot because you are always hilarious. I still remember Hugo (and say to myself fondly, 'Tom and I, we'll always have Hugo'). I also recall another blogger telling me that Wilkie Collins' writing advice was: Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait. The waiting I can certainly attest to, particularly around page 500 when I was getting impatient to see things wrapped up. But even so, there were enough surprises left in the box to keep me entertained to the end.

  3. Strangely, both the Count and No Name are Masters of Disguise? Tom, if I got a penny for every 19th century hero and heroine who is a master of disguise...

    I've only read the two famous ones, but I loved them! I'm always fearful of reading more Collins because I read somewhere that his drug addiction led him to write some very strange things later in his life. I found those two novels perfect, and that's how I want to remember him.

    But I'll add this to my TBR list.

  4. I like the beginning of No Name. Collins rarely gets the opportunity to show happy domestic life because of his genre and it was a nice departure for him though I did wonder what was going on when I first read it and where the sensation was!

    Miguel - as far as I'm concerned, he goes off the boil a bit after The Law and the Lady (1875) though works before this date have more social messages and agendas than The Woman in White etc.

  5. I liked the beginning, too. The description of the amateur production (Sheridan, "The Rivals," good choice!) will be of high interest to any good reader of Mansfield Park - a bit of a parody, maybe.

    But it is all a deliberate tease, a cute tension-building exercise. Although Collins is efficient - he ends up using almost everything later in the novel (e.g., amateur acting = Master of Disguise).

    Lucy's advice fits what I have read elsewhere. You are safe with Collins for a little while after The Moonstone, and certainly fine between that novel and TWiW. Armadale, which I have not read, is in this high-creativity interval.

    Page 500, litlove, that's funny; that is just about where I was saying, with No Name, "Time to wrap up, Wilkie." Except, as you say, he still has a few good tricks left, almost but not quite all the way to the end.

    Collins has so many good tricks in this novel, tricks that become art. Maybe, as Himadri suggests, a narrow kind of art, but something few writers do as well.

  6. I am going to have to explore some more, since I'm experiencing my first Collins novel (TWiW--listening, not reading) and thoroughly enjoying it. When you know what's going to happen in advance, it is those secondary characters and (hilarious) stonefaced asides that make it so enjoyable.

  7. Personally, I don't think Collins is in the same league with Trollope.

  8. I would rank The Moonstone ahead of any Trollope I have read. This all has to do with how you and I weight different characteristics of fiction. The two authors have so little in common. They're almost opposites in the way they handle information.

    Those great characters are common to all three of the Collins novels I know. The asides work differently in No Name because the point of view is really different - huge change from The Woman in White.

  9. No Name is great! Of course I love most of Collins' books. I prefer No Name to The Woman in White.

  10. We have five or six Collins' books on the shelf at home. I haven't read a one of them, but ma femme assures me that they're all worthwhile, and better mysteries than those Christie books I read.

    You just read Drood, which was allegedly written under the influence of Collins. (Collins and Dickens were old friends, yes?) Do you see any resemblances between Drood and Collins' mysteries? Dickens liked big, hand-cranked plots, too. I don't know if you talked about that while you were writing about Drood. Maybe you did. Maybe I should go look.

  11. When I am done, Mme Vauquer, tell me what I missed. Come to think of it, don't wait until I am done.

    I do not doubt that Edwin Drood was influenced by Collins. Dickens published No Name and the surrounding Collins novels in his magazine - he was not just Collins's friend, but his editor! And co-writer, they wrote so-called Christmas stories together.

    My problem is that Collins plays around a lot with Dickens - parts of No Name and The Moonstone are built out of Bleak House. To make it worse, the biggest influence on Edwin Drood is Our Mutual Friend. So between the two, the Collins-on-Dickens influence was not visible to me.

  12. Ah, I don't know if this qualifies as an aside, but I think it one of the funniest things I've heard so far in TWiW (and that includes a hilarious reading of Pesca's comments) in the section by Eliza Michelson. (Sorry...just had to share)

    "My endeavour through life is to judge not that I be not judged. One of my beloved husband's finest sermons was on that text. I read it constantly—in my own copy of the edition printed by subscription, in the first days of my widowhood—and at every fresh perusal I derive an increase of spiritual benefit and edification."

    How that copy by subscription came about (I'm picturing something out of Paper Moon) is worth a chapter all by itself.

  13. What a great detail! The speaker or writer there is a minor character among minor characters, but that bit rounds her out so well - it gives her a past, an internal life. A very narrow internal life, but still.