No Name by William Wilkie Collins

Money, money, money…

😦 😦

When Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are left orphaned by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents, they are further shocked to discover that their parents had not been married when the girls were born. Not only does this make the sisters illegitimate – a shameful thing in itself – but due to a quirk of the law it also prevents them from inheriting their father’s wealth. The money goes to their father’s estranged brother, Michael Vanstone, who resolutely refuses to help them. Norah accepts this but the fiery Magdalen cannot. She decides she will regain their lost inheritance, whatever the cost…

It’s many years since I read Collins’ two most famous books, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, neither of which became a favourite. I thought perhaps the passing of time would have made me able to appreciate him more, especially since so many people hold him in such high regard. I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot.

As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically. He suggests the book is going to address a social injustice, as Dickens does so well, but in reality his treatment of the stigma of illegitimacy is superficial. He attempts to create characters with that kind of caricaturing Dickens does so well, but they come off like pale imitations. We have the swindler, Captain Wragge, who helps Magdalen with her revenge scheme. He’s given little quirks like recording all his swindles as carefully as if they were legitimate business deals, or having certain mannerisms in the way he talks. But he doesn’t have either the humour of Dickens’ minor characters nor the truly sinister feeling of Dickens’ villains. His wife is a simple-minded giantess, whom he treats despicably. In a Dickens story, she would either be tragic or comic. Here, she’s merely a plot vehicle – pitiable but irritating when she’s on the page, and forgotten when she’s not required.

Millais frontispiece to 1864 Sampson Low edition

Admittedly Magdalen is a more rounded character than some of Dickens’ many insipid young girls. Unfortunately, she’s such an unpleasant little money-grubber I found it impossible to get up any liking or concern for her. Yes, it must be sad not to be rich if you thought you would be, but frankly she’s hardly poor either in comparison to the true poverty of so many at that time. Norah is considerably more likeable – she decides to earn her living and gets on with it. She and Miss Garth, the girls’ old governess, were the only two characters I cared about at all, and unfortunately Collins dumps them a third of the way through and from then on we only hear little snippets about how they’re getting on, while we spend far too much time with whining Magdalen, the Wragges and the Vanstone household. The problem for me was that the villains were no more despicable than the ostensible heroine of the novel.

William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

But OK, so he’s no Dickens, and his characters’ sole obsession is with acquiring and hoarding money. I could probably still have squeezed some enjoyment out of that if only it hadn’t been so unnecessarily long! I hear you, Collins’ fans – no, it’s not as long as some of Dickens’ books, but Dickens would have had a cast of thousands, each described to unique perfection, with a dozen sub-plots all being juggled masterfully. Here we have one dull plot – “Give me back my money!” – and a handful of unattractive characters, and it’s dragged out for over 700 tortuous pages! Do we all know how it will end? I think we have a fair idea! It’s a Victorian novel after all and there are conventions. So the journey matters since the end is barely in doubt. And this journey is like being on a train for twenty hours with the blinds drawn, and nothing good to read…

Oh dear! I was going to try to make this sound more balanced but sometimes reviews take on their own momentum. There is an interesting introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by Virginia Blain, Associate Professor in English at Macquarie University in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, she’s considerably more enthusiastic about the book than I, and I enjoyed reading (and disagreeing with) her opinion!

I’m sure fans of Collins’ style will enjoy the book. But for those of us who prefer the flamboyance and genius of a Dickens, then I fear this will taste as thin and unappetising as a plate of Scrooge’s gruel…

Book 36 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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34 thoughts on “No Name by William Wilkie Collins

  1. Let me guess, FictionFan: not a fan of the fair Magdalen? 😉 I can see how this one might not appeal to you, especially if the ‘feature’ characters don’t appeal and don’t feel well rounded to you. As for Collins, I do respect his influence on the genre, but I can’t say that I’m a devoted fan of his work. I hadn’t thought about comparing him to Dickens as you do; that’s really interesting. Food for thought, for which thanks.

    • Haha – could you tell then? I thought I’d hidden it well… 😉 Collins is one of those authors I feel I ought to like, but just don’t. I can’t help comparing him to Dickens because I always feel as if he’s been heavily influenced by him, and that comparison is never going to work in his favour. However, I think his reputation will probably survive my criticism… 😉

  2. When my husband was in college studying radio and broadcasting, he directed a radio play of The Moonstone and loved it. Admittedly, I never listened to that radio play–I merely stared with my mouth open as he spent hours getting sound effects just right–and so don’t have an opinion on Collins.

  3. I’m the opposite – although I do usually like Dickens, I’ve always found Collins much more readable and more enjoyable. It sounds as though he just isn’t for you, though. At least that’s another book off your Classics Club list, anyway! 🙂

    • It’s interesting because I’ve usually found that people who like Collins aren’t great enthusiasts for Dickens and vice versa. I think maybe because they tend to write about similar things, but their style is so different. I love the over the top style of Dickens, but can quite see why many people prefer the quieter style of Collins. Apples and oranges… 😀

  4. I think you’re spot on about Collins. I’ve read The Moonstone, Woman in White and The Dead Secret – the latter is the only one I would read again. I really want to like this author but I just can’t.

  5. Oh no, another baddy! I would never want to be on a train with the blinds drawn, and without a good book to read? You’ve described pure torture. I hope your next read is a winner, FF. Maybe a horror winner?! ♥️

    • I know! I went from a run of great books straight into a little run of not-so-good – hoping it changes back again soon! I would probably have abandoned this if it wasn’t a Classics Club read…

  6. I liked The Moonstone and loved The Woman in White when I was a teenager, but neither have really held up to rereading as an adult. The multiple different narrators thing still appeals to me, but other than that I can take or leave Collins. I don’t think I’ll be picking this one up either, but I did enjoy your review!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 😀 I preferred The Woman in White too, but neither really stood out for me. It was worth seeing if I’d like him better after all these years, but I think I’ll leave him for other people to enjoy from now on…

  7. I enjoyed reading ‘No Name’ because it’s so ridiculously over the top. Unfortunately, his writing deteriorated as he got more and more addicted to laudenum. There’s a later novel with evil twins and people turning blue. I did love ‘The Woman in White’ when I was younger though.

    • Haha – I didn’t intend to read any more of his stuff but I must admit I’m fascinated at the idea of the blue people now!! I preferred The Woman in White to this and to The Moonstone, but even it never became a real favourite. I guess I just don’t get along with his style.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

    • Ha – yes, I like the frontispiece more than the book, too! I’m sure Collins fans would put up a good argument, but I think your TBR can happily live without this one… 🙂

    • You did! I kinda wish I’d given it to charity too. But if you enjoyed the others, it’s possible you might enjoy this, though I didn’t think it was as good as either of them, even though I’m not a big fan of them either…

  8. I don’t know that I would have finished this one if I were in your place, FF. So kudos to you! I hope you treated yourself to a big piece of chocolate upon finishing. I’ve not yet read Collins but I do have The Woman in White on my Classics Club list.

    • It was only chocolate that got me through! I did quite enjoy The Woman in White, though, so don’t let this review put you off that one. And it’s clearly to do with his style – plenty of people love his writing. Sadly, not me!

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