No NameWilkie Collins
WILKIE COLLINS was born in London in 1824, the eldest son of the landscape painter William Collins. In 1846, having spent five years in the tea business, he was entered to read for the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, where he gained the legal knowledge that was to give him much material for his writing. From the early fifties, he was a friend of Charles Dickens, acting with him, contributing to Household Words, travelling with him on the Continent. Dickens produced and acted in two melodramas written by Collins, The Lighthouse (1855) and The Frozen Deep (1857). Of his novels, Collins is best remembered for The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868), which T. S. Eliot called ‘the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels’. Wilkie Collins, who braved Victorian morals by living with one mistress and maintaining another in a separate establishment, died in 1889.
MARK FORD was born in 1962. He has a BA and a D.Phil. in English Literature from Oxford University. His publications include the poetry collections Landlocked (1992) and Soft Sift (2001), and a critical biography of the French writer Raymond Roussel, Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams (2000). He is currently a lecturer in English Literature at University College London. He has also edited Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby for Penguin Classics.
Edited with an Introduction and Notes by
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First published 1862
Published in Penguin Books 1994
Reprinted with a new Chronology and updated Bibliography 2004
Introduction, notes and bibliography copyright © Mark Ford, 1994, 2004
Chronology copyright © Matthew Sweet, 1999
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A note on the text
No Name (1862) is the second, and perhaps the least characteristic, of the four great novels published by Wilkie Collins during the 1860s. It was written at the height of his popularity; his previous book, The Woman in White (1860), had proved a runaway bestseller, and Collins suddenly found himself at ‘the top of the tree,’1 as he gleefully remarks to his mother in a letter of 1861 detailing the results of some typically shrewd negotiations with his publishers. In addition to the £1,600 he had been paid for serialization rights, Collins received £3,000 from Sampson Low for book publication of No Name (‘The most liberal price that has ever been given for the re-printing of a work already published periodically’2), while its successor, Armadale (1866), he pre-sold to Smith and Elder for the even more outlandish sum of £5,000. ‘Nobody but Dickens,’ he notes proudly, ‘has made as much.’
It is generally agreed that The Woman in White inaugurated the genre of the Sensation Novel which so dominated the fiction market of the ensuing decade, during which writers such as Mrs Henry Wood, Mary Braddon, Charles Reade and Sheridan Le Fanu all achieved impressive sales with variations of the essential Collins theme – the grisly skeleton lurking in the highly respectable cupboard. ‘To Mr Collins,’ as Henry James pointed out in a review of Mary Braddon’s Aurora Floyd in 1865, ‘belongs the credit of having introduced into fiction those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries that are at our own doors.’3
Collins was determined, however, to avoid simply repeating the winning formula of The Woman in White. In the preface to No Name he draws the reader’s attention explicitly to the new novel’s divergence from its predecessor:
It will be seen that the narrative related in these pages has been constructed on a plan, which differs from the plan followed in my last novel, and in some other of my works published at an earlier date… In trying this new ground, I am not turning my back in doubt on the ground which I have passed over already. My one object in following a new course, is to enlarge the range of my studies in the art of writing fiction, and to vary the form in which I make my appeal to the reader, as attractively as I can.
Charles Dickens, for one, was particularly impressed by this aspect of his protégé’s inventiveness: ‘I find in the book every quality that made the success of the Woman in White without the least sign of holding on to that success or being taken in tow by it,’4 he commented enthusiastically in a letter to Collins shortly before serialization began in Dickens’s own magazine, All the Year Round.
The suspense generated by No Name is of a quite different kind from that which mesmerizes the reader of The Woman in White, Armadale or The Moonstone (1868). The book features no mysterious apparitions, foreboding dreams, Shivering Sands, or exotic Orientals. Combe-Raven, where the story begins, is a placid, utterly commonplace country residence which Collins takes pains to evoke in the opening pages in the most realistic of ways: details such as the ticking clock, the red-nosed housemaid, the snoring dog, the cook with her rheumatism, the kindly twinkling head of the family taking his Scottish terrier for an early morning walk, combine to create a reassuring tableau of stability and ordinariness. Subliminally – and because this is a Wilkie Collins novel – one intuits everything is about to go horribly wrong, but the subtly suffused aura of impending catastrophe is all the more disturbing for being so hard to locate.
Whereas in most Collins novels the narrative is determined by the characters’ attempts to follow a series of clues that lead them to the truth about some mysterious event in the past, in No Name, conversely, it is the disclosure of the book’s single secret early on which initiates its main action. ‘From that point,’ as Collins explains in the Preface, ‘all the main events of the story are purposely foreshadowed, before they take place – my present design being to rouse the reader’s interest in following the train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought about.’ Despite his meticulous researches, Collins’s fictions often contain turns of event so zany they leave even the most credulous staggering – one thinks particularly of Poor Miss Finch (1872), in which the blind heroine first recovers her sight, then loses it again, while the hero has dark blue skin as a result of the medicine he takes to cure his epileptic fits! – but in No Name Collins barely flouts the laws of probability. The revelation of the Vanstone daughters’ illegitimacy, and their consequent loss of social status and all in
heritance rights, is distressingly believable, and, more importantly, it opens the novel out towards all sorts of compelling moral, social and legal issues. Even the dour lawyer Mr Pendril is provoked into a growl of dismay when he contemplates the sisters’ plight:
I am far from defending the law of England, as it affects illegitimate offspring. On the contrary, I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two abominable results in the names of morality and religion.
Collins himself was later to father three illegitimate children, who, one imagines, might well have agreed with the lawyer’s outburst.
No Name is not at all, though, a protest novel concerned with the single issue of illegitimacy, any more than Dickens’s Little Dorrit (1857) is about debtors’ prisons or Bleak House (1853) about the iniquities of Chancery. Collins’s interest in the dilemma of namelessness is part of his life-long preoccupation with the means by which a social identity is constructed, and, equally, how it may be borrowed, invented, dismantled or buried. Similarly, his fascination with the narrative possibilities of doubles and disguise can be seen as embodying his sense of the arbitrariness and artificiality of Victorian social codes: ‘Shall I tell you what a lady is? A lady is a woman who wears a silk gown, and has a sense of her own importance. I shall put the gown on your back, and the sense in your head,’ Magdalen caustically explains to her maid Louisa, when, at the nadir of her fortunes, she begins hatching the last of her plots to regain her lost inheritance. This kind of awareness of the problems society has in distinguishing between the genuine and the counterfeit – hence its vulnerability to the contrivances of a clever trickster like Captain Wragge – is at its most impishly acute throughout No Name.
Much of the pious censure heaped by contemporary critics on the Sensation Novel, and on Wilkie Collins in particular, was incited by the genre’s refusal to sanction the moral absolutes or notions of divine justice on which Establishment values were founded. No Name’s ambivalence over such matters proved especially controversial. The disinheritance of the Vanstone sisters is flagrantly unfair, yet Magdalen’s exhilarating quest to reclaim her own by whatever means necessary generated conflicting feelings among Collins’s contemporaries. Alexander Smith, for instance, complained in the North British Review that the novel ‘enchains you, but you detest it while it enchains… the repulsiveness of the matter disturbs the pleasure of the reader’,5 while Mrs Oliphant focused her outrage on Collins’s leniency towards his heroine:
The Magdalen of No Name does not go astray after the usual fashion of erring maidens in romance. Her pollution is decorous, and justified by law; and after all her endless deceptions and horrible marriage, it seems quite right to the author that she should be restored to society, and have a good husband and a happy home.6
Collins must have anticipated such criticisms, but perhaps thought to pre-empt them with his frequent portentous references to the battle of Good and Evil taking place in Magdalen’s soul. In fact, though, these titanic inner struggles have no effect whatsoever on the actual course of the narrative, which, as so often in Collins, is the medium of his most potent meanings.
To modern readers Magdalen is interesting less for her anguish over the rights and wrongs of her great ‘Purpose’, than for the spiritedness and ingenuity with which she responds to each setback. While the older Norah meekly submits to her altered prospects, slipping almost without complaint into the grimly circumscribed life of a governess, Magdalen’s courageous quest to recover her lost social position and identity makes her into one of Victorian fiction’s most radical subversives. Many Sensation Novels feature dauntless heroines engaged in desperate enterprises, but few behave quite as uninhibitedly or unscrupulously as Magdalen. It is also worth remembering, when considering her imaginatively devious machinations, that the very concept of an active woman at the centre of a novel constituted something of a challenge to convention. This was a point the Victorian critic E.S. Dallas made when he turned his attention to the Sensation genre in his encyclopedic critical study, The Gay Science (1866): ‘It is not wrong to make a sensation,’ he concedes; ‘but if the novelist depends for his sensation upon the action of a woman, the chances are that he will attain his end by unnatural means.’7
Magdalen is Collins’s most active and resourceful heroine, an archschemer who shares with her inventor an understanding of the theatrical nature of all social roles. Many of Collins’s plots intertwine the conflicting motivations of a variety of characters, but No Name’s narrative drive proceeds really only from one source – Magdalen herself. Accordingly Collins invests her, in his introductory portrait in Chapter One, not only with tremendous sensuous vitality (‘She bloomed in the full physical maturity of twenty years or more – bloomed naturally and irresistibly, in right of her matchless health and strength’) but with the mercurial flexibility of a born actress. Her countenance is particularly striking in its ‘extraordinary mobility’: ‘all varieties of expression followed each other over the plastic, ever-changing face, with a giddy rapidity which left sober analysis far behind in the race’. She is a ‘self-contradictory girl’: her hair is ‘soft and plentiful’ but also ‘dull and dead’; her eyes should be dark, but are in fact ‘incomprehensibly and discordantly light’; her lips and cheeks are delicately feminine, but her mouth is ‘too large and firm, the chin too square and massive for her sex and age’. Collins obviously realized from the outset that his plot required Magdalen to be at once energetic, Protean and anomalous.
Overall No Name propounds a rather gloomy view of generational decline from which only Magdalen – who bears ‘no recognizable resemblance to either of her parents’ – is exempt. Norah is compared unfavourably with her mother, whose beauty she inherits, yet whose refinement and nobility she lacks. ‘May we not observe,’ Collins asks, ‘that the moral force of character and the higher intellectual capacities in parents seem often to wear out mysteriously in the course of transmission to children?’ Magdalen’s impossibly weak and pettish fiancé, Frank Clare, is an even more attenuated product of once ‘stout old family stock’, endued with more ‘of the shadow of his ancestors than of the substance’, and the invalid Noel Vanstone similarly illustrates the second generation’s inferiority to the first. Old Michael Vanstone, for all his mean-spiritedness, was at least a bold financial speculator, but his son is a mere miser deficient in all will or initiative. ‘His heart,’ his housekeeper Mrs Lecount explains, suffers from ‘no positive disease; there is only a chronic feebleness – a fatty degeneration – a want of vital power in the organ itself. Magdalen, on the other hand, seems infused with all the freedom, vigour and powers of self-transformation that the other characters lack.
Her difference from all around her is made particularly vivid during the episode of Miss Marrable’s home theatricals. As a consequence of a series of disasters that befall this amateur production of Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775), Magdalen finds herself doubling up in the completely opposed roles of the scheming maid-servant Lucy, and the passive Julia, patient martyr to the fits of the tormented Falkland. Magdalen, it quickly transpires, is a stage natural, and she scores resounding hits with the audience in both parts, but it is a triumph that alienates her from both her class peers and her family. Miss Marrable and her entourage are aghast to find themselves completely upstaged, and consider Magdalen’s success the ‘crowning misfortune’ of the whole ill-fated business. More significantly, Magdalen upsets her sister by appropriating for her performance of Julia many of Norah’s habits of manner and speech. Norah’s distress is interesting because it so clearly illustrates society’s aversion to having what it likes to believe is natural and unique revealed to be conditioned and imitable.
Theatrical metaphors are pervasive throughout No Name. The book is divided up into eight scenes, with relevant letters and chronicles grouped together in secti
ons entitled ‘Between the Scenes’. Collins was himself a keen participator in amateur drama, and he wrote numerous plays, some of which were produced on the professional stage. Though few of these melodramas are particularly worth exhuming, the importance of the theatre to Collins’s fictions is everywhere apparent, as he readily acknowledged. In the ‘Letter of Dedication’ to the most effective of his early novels, Basil: a Story of Modern Life (1852), he formally declares his credo that ‘the Novel and the Play are twin-sisters in the family of Fiction… the one is a drama narrated, as the other is a drama acted’.8
In No Name Collins exploits this kinship between fiction and the drama more consciously than in Basil, or indeed than in any of his other novels. Banished from the idyll of Combe-Raven, Magdalen boldly decides to exploit her thespian talents, and, aided and abetted – and cheated – by Captain Wragge, she soon earns enough money from her ‘Entertainment’ to set about seeking redress from the usurping Vanstones. Her actual plots also involve extensive use of the theatrical: the various disguises she assumes – Miss Garth in Vauxhall Walk, Julia Bygrave in Aldborough, the parlour-maid Louisa at St Crux – literally convert all the world into a stage. It is this running dramatic motif which allows Collins to make some of his most trenchant points about contemporary mores. As a ‘vagabond public performer’ Magdalen is roundly condemned by pillars of respectability such as Mr Pendril and Miss Garth, but having acted her way into the most bogus role of all, that of a ‘respectable married woman’, she instantly achieves a legitimate name and place in the world. ‘Even the law,’ she points out in a bitter letter to her ex-governess, ‘which is the friend of all you respectable people, has recognized my existence, and has become my friend too!’
Her accomplice, Captain Wragge, is even more adept at the arts of impersonation. He carries around with him a book entitled Skins to Jump Into, which furnishes him with a series of ready-made characters to be assumed as his career as con-man demands. Wragge is wholly open about, even proud of, his achievements as a professional trickster, or rather as a ‘moral agriculturist; a man who cultivates the field of human sympathy’. He justifies his philosophy most eloquently to Magdalen when they first meet in York: