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

The 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 Secret, Aurora Floyd, The Woman in White, East Lynne, The 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.

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