I have long been a fan of Wilkie Collins, ever since I first read The Moonstone as a child. Famous for being considered the first detective novel in the English language, this along with his other big commercial success The Woman in White are the books that come to mind when one thinks of Collins. Whilst researching for my own novel, set around the period when Collins was making a name for himself with his sensation novels, I read more about the man who, whilst never quite as famous as his great friend Charles Dickens, has achieved a longevity which most of his fellow sensation novelists failed to match.
Where Dickens is often criticised for his rather bland female characters, Collins, for the most part, was skilled in creating well-rounded women to populate his stories. Just as Dickens wrote about social injustice, so Collins used his pen to bring to the public’s attention those issues he felt passionately about. This particular novel is unusual in that his narrator is female. We follow this story through Valeria’s eyes, witness to the prejudiced ideas of the men around her and her reactions to them.
The novel begins with Valeria’s wedding to her beloved Eustace is overshadowed by a grave omen: instead of signing the marriage-register in her maiden name she accidentally writes her married name. This being a Wilkie Collins novel, the reader knows instantly from the second page that all is bound to go wrong! We find out that, though Valeria and her husband undoubtedly love each other very much, both families were against the match. Eustace’s family have refused to even meet Valeria. A mutual friend, Major Fitz-David dispels her concerns before the marriage takes place but we know that there is a secret there to be discovered.
In love and on honeymoon, who should Valeria stumble across on the Ramsgate sands one day but – Eustace’s mother! Coincidence has always been the friend of the sensation novel and this one is no exception. Some quick digging finds that Eustace has in fact changed his name, a fact he did not choose to disclose to his new bride. Heading back to London, she confronts Fitz-David and eventually, in a very convoluted fashion, comes across a book: the report of the trial of her husband for the alleged poisoning of his first wife, Sara. As soon as he realises that Valeria has sussed his secret Eustace vanishes, promising that she can have the marriage annulled and that he will not be a bother to her.
This is where the detective story begins. Valeria is no wallflower and is determined to win her husband back and prove his innocence. The story really hinges on the Scottish juries verdict of ‘Not Proven’. Eustace feels the shame of not being absolved of the crime (which of course he did not commit) and so Valeria’s only option is to discover who did. This investigation takes us through the trial report and into the homes of several of those who were present in Eustace’s home on the days surrounding Sara’s death.
As well as looking at the role of women, the novel also features a disabled character, Miserrimus Dexter. This gentleman receives unusual treatment by Collins. On one hand we are shown the grossly unfair prejudice that others heap upon a man who is acknowledged as highly intelligent, strong and determined to overcome the obstacles that his birth defect have left in his path. On the other, Dexter does descend into caricature, with even Valeria repulsed by him but forced into contact as he seems to hold the key to solving the mystery. It is no surprise that he meets a less than happy end, though it is suggested that his whole life has been so miserable and full of unrequited love, that this is a blessing.
Overall, this is an enjoyable read. It does not have the brilliance of Collins better known novels but is refreshing for its female narrative and lacks the stuffiness that stilts a number of other Victorian novels.