31 May 2013

The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

In my humble opinion there are certain genres that fit certain seasons superbly and usually a highly dramatic sensation novel would be well-suited to a first frost.  In this instance though the soaring temperatures of late May and the whir of a fan have been every bit as suitable for one heck of a fun read through cobbled London and an abandoned manor house in chilly Edinburgh.

Published in 1875 The Law and the Lady was written a few years after the death of Charles Dickens, a close friend of Wilkie Collins.  With his own failing health came a reliance on opium to relieve his symptoms and who knows - perhaps there was a certain pleasure to be had in its recreational value.  In any case, a note of the bizarre proved to be an asset with this book and once settled into the landscape I was stealing every moment possible to get stuck in.

The first chapter is titled The Bride's Mistake.  There is no pussyfooting around, the reader is presented straight away with the crux of the matter.  Written in the first person, Valeria describes her new husband's physical appearance which sounds suspiciously like Collins himself but nevermind.  Next comes the anxiety when she discovers quite early on that the name she has taken on, Woodville, is not the family name her husband grew up with.  A chance meeting with her mother-in-law while visiting the beach in Ramsgate only results in more confusion when Mrs Macallan declares pity for her family's newest member.  On a quest for answers, Valeria, sets off for London and becomes entwined with Major Fitz-David.  He would willingly accept the description of himself as an aging Lothario and yes, all the hand-kissing is a bit cringeworthy but he is also incredibly helpful so I quite liked the fellow.  In the meantime, unable to discuss his past, Eustace flees to Spain leaving his wife to get to the bottom of things.

Valeria's character has been described as one of the first female detectives and while there were times when I would have given the lily-livered Eustace a good slap instead of a kiss I did admire her tenacity.  And let's face it, after spending six days as a married woman it was in her best interests to prove she hasn't been a fool.

The story takes on a mild Gothic tone with the introduction of Miserrimus Dexter.  Born without legs he speeds along the passageways of his crumbling pile in a wheelchair, his oiled locks flowing behind him.  More than a tad eccentric he has a penchant for his pink jacket in quilted silk and other such showy adornments.  He also plays a harp when he needs a delay tactic and picks up his embroidery to help him think.  When impatient, Miserrimus 'leapfrogs' about using his hands to propel himself from place to place, he's also quite skilled at peeking in keyholes.  He keeps Valeria on her toes trying to anticipate his next move...or motive.  Major Fitz-David describes him...
'He is a mixture of the tiger and the monkey.  At one moment, he would frighten you; and at the next, he would set you screaming with laughter.  I don't deny that he is clever in some respects - brilliantly clever, I admit.  And I don't say that he has ever committed any acts of violence, or ever willingly injured anybody.  But, for all that, he is mad, if ever a man was mad yet.'
 Ariel is Miserrimus's faithful companion, she runs his errands using a pony and cart and favours men's clothing.  Her jealousy of anyone in contact with her master is so acute that she sniffs at Valeria's gloves to find out whether she has touched or groomed him.  Described in Victorian terms as an 'idiot' the reader can safely assume that as a cousin of Miserrimus, madness runs in the family.

The plot of The Law and the Lady is the unravelling of secrets surrounding an incident so traumatic as to lead a man to conceal not only his association with it but his identity.  So well-paced are the tidbits that as a serialized story in the Graphic I can easily conjure up images of customers champing at the bit while waiting for the next installment to hit the shops, or the docks. 

Having really enjoyed Collins's No Name I promptly bought up a few of his other more popular works.  I must confess that The Woman in White didn't do a thing for me so it came as a relief that The Law and the Lady has me back on track as a fan of Wilkie Collins' highly entertaining writing style.  Were it not for a Barbara Pym Reading Week soon underway I would promptly head back to my shelves for Armadale or The Moonstone!
  Victorian mourning brooch

11 comments:

  1. I loved this. A friend gave it to me for a birthday present years ago and really launched me into Collins as I'd only read Woman in White and Moonstone until then. I'd shove Barbara Pym under your cushion until another time! I've always found a little of her is more than enough.

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    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Mary! My Pym is in 'hold mode' as it so happens. Rachel sent me a copy of Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple and I couldn't resist diving straight in. It's only 126 pages so it won't take very long. Have you read it?

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  2. I love Wilkie & Valeria is one of his best heroines. I've always found it interesting that he has such a fascination with disability. He nearly always has a disabled character in his novels, although not all as bizarre as Miserrimus. In Poor Miss Finch, his blind heroine falls in love with a young artist who has a blue face! If it's weird, you'll find it in Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone is one of my favourites so I'd recommend that next.

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    1. Great...The Moonstone will be the next novel by Collins I pick up! It's a very un-PC thought but I found myself wondering if Wilkie had toured the odd Victorian sideshow. Your comment about his fascination with disability makes it even more probably that he did!

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    2. I wouldn't be surprised, the Victorians had different attitudes to disability, didn't they? Think of the Elephant Man & people sightseeing at Bedlam Hospital. Wilkie was such a fascinating man with a very unconventional private life & I think he was fascinated with transgressions of all sorts. His heroines are much feistier than Dickens's, for example.

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  3. I too love Wilkie and have never read this -- but have just whizzed over the project gutenberg and ordered a kindle edition free. Thanks so much!

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    1. That's terrific, Harriet! Glad to be of service and I look forward to reading your thoughts about the book one day. There was a couple of nights while I was reading this that it poured rain and thunder rumbled nearby. It ramps up the suspense a bit but in a fun way...enjoy!

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  4. I like a bit of Wilkie Collins so I shall look out for this one

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  5. I've never read him (and it wasn't until I read a bio of Charles Dickens that I knew he was a he!) You're enticing me. And I love the brooch...I wrote a paper about mourning pictures (all those embroidered willow trees) when I was in college (that was in the last century, as our friend JoAnn has reminded me).

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  6. Ooh, does that explain the tree that Fanny embroidered on Tom's pillowslip in Bright Star? Hopefully you have seen the movie or you won't have a clue what I'm going on about. And never read Wilkie Collins, Audrey?..put him on your list!

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