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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Tuesday Terror! The Ghost in the Cupboard Room by William Wilkie Collins

“Blow Up with the Brig!”

 

When we think of hauntings, we think first of the supernatural, but sometimes the things that haunt us have their roots in the actions of man. Here is William Wilkie Collins telling us a tale of horror and madness for this week’s…

 

TUESDAY TERROR!

The Ghost in the Cupboard Room
by William Wilkie Collins

 

William Wilkie Collins Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann
William Wilkie Collins
Portrait by Rudolph Lehmann

This story was first published in the 1859 Christmas issue of Charles Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round. The conceit of the issue was that a group of people were gathered together in a haunted house, telling each other ghost stories. It is the turn of Mr Beaver to tell his tale, but the ghost which haunts him takes a strange form indeed…

The fact of the matter is – and I give you leave, ladies and gentlemen, to laugh at it as much as you please – that the ghost which haunted me last night, which has haunted me on and off for many years past, and which will go on haunting me till I am a ghost myself (and consequently spirit-proof in all respects), is, nothing more or less than – a bedroom candlestick.

Many years earlier, Mr Beaver had been a seaman, in the days when the Spanish South American colonies were in revolt. He was serving on an old merchant ship, The Good Intent, heading for the Spanish Main with a cargo of gunpowder, which was intended for the leader of the revolutionaries, General Bolivar.

In consideration of the nature of our cargo, we were harassed with new regulations which we didn’t at all like, relative to smoking our pipes and lighting our lanterns; and, as usual in such cases, the captain who made the regulations preached what he didn’t practise. Not a man of us was allowed to have a bit of lighted candle in his hand when he went below…

Brig

…but the captain ignored his own rule and kept a candle burning in his cabin. On arrival at their destination, they expected to see a light shining to show them all was safe, but instead two men rowed out to meet them. Spanish ships were on the prowl, so the General had sent a message that they should go to another part of the coast, and one of the men, a native pilot, would stay on board to show them the way.

This same pilot was about as ill-looking a vagabond as I ever saw; a skinny, cowardly, quarrelsome mongrel, who swore at the men, in the vilest broken English, till they were every one of them ready to pitch him overboard.

Catching the pilot making to go below with a lit pipe, our narrator stopped him. It turned into a scuffle and the pilot pulled a knife.

I snatched it out of his hand, slapped his murderous face for him, and threw his weapon overboard. He gave me one ugly look, and walked aft. I didn’t think much of the look then; but I remembered it a little too well afterwards.

That night, while Mr Beaver slept, the Spanish quietly boarded the ship and murdered all the crew – all except Mr Beaver. It seemed that, in return for betraying the ship, the Spaniards had agreed to allow the pilot to have his revenge. The Spaniards took Mr Beaver, bound and gagged, to the hold and lashed him to the floor so that he couldn’t move. Before they left, taking most of the cargo but leaving some barrels of gunpowder behind, the pilot began his revenge. He laid a fuse of cotton and gunpowder running from one of the barrels, then put a lighted candle in the captain’s candlestick and placed it where our narrator couldn’t help but see it…

candlestick

…the next thing he did was to carry the free end of his long, lean, black, frightful slow-match to the lighted candle alongside my face, and to tie it, in several folds, round the tallow dip, about a third of the distance down… then he put his face down close to mine; and whispered in my ear, “Blow up with the brig!”

Lying for hours, watching the candle slowly, slowly burn down towards the start of the slow-match, afraid at every moment that a stray spark might land on the gunpowder, Mr Beaver is left a prey to the horrors of anticipation, which gradually turn to hallucinations of terror…

…nothing but the pilot’s face, shining red hot, like a sun, in the fiery mist; turning upside down in the fiery mist; running backward and forward along the slow-match, in the fiery mist; spinning millions of miles in a minute, in the fiery mist – spinning itself smaller and smaller into one tiny point, and that point darting on a sudden straight into my head – and then, all fire and all mist – no hearing, no seeing, no thinking, no feeling…

* * * * * * *

If you would like to read how it ends, here’s a link.

The ending is the teensiest bit anti-climactic, to be honest, and the story highlights nicely my recurring problem with first person narrations – it’s pretty obvious the narrator survives, which reduces the tension somewhat! But there’s some great writing, building up the horror brilliantly, as we see poor Mr Beaver descend into a madness of terror. At least half the story takes place during the few hours when the candle is burning down, and yet rather than flagging it gradually works up to a truly spine-shivering crescendo. It was apparently also published later under the much more appropriate title of “Blow Up with the Brig!” Great stuff!

 

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀