This is the first book of Wilkie Collins I have read and it won’t be the last. Don’t you just love it when you can say that about an author? Many people have highly recommended The Woman in White to me since but I decided to read this one first as it has been on my TBR for about 4 years.
I actually remember buying it in Waterstones bookshop because I’d never seen this title before and in fact haven’t seen it in a bookshop since. I had a good feeling about it then even though I put off reading it until now.
All books have their time and place and No Name found its time in 2012. I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it and found it quite hard to put down once I started reading it. Wilkie Collins, unlike his friend Charles Dickens did not fill his pages with long winded diversions (as much as I like Dickens this has frustrated me in the past) and keeps his plot and characters tightly under control.
No Name is the story of two young women who find themselves ousted from their home and all that they had known, by the mere fact their parents had not been married at the time of their birth. In the eyes of society, they were illegitimate bastards despite the fact that their parents had lived together for so long, loved each other and their children and been otherwise upstanding members of society.
Wilkie Collins himself had a rather unusual home life for a man of his social class, living with a woman for many years but refusing to marry due to his belief that ‘the general idea of the scope and purpose of the institution of marriage is a miserably narrow one’. He even went onto having three children with a second woman whilst continuing to live with the first until the end of his life.
In the modern day western world the social stigma of illegitimacy is no longer such an issue and being openly unmarried with children is not such a problem. No Name is no longer quite so relevant to modern day society – such a story would have quite a different take. In this way it is interesting, although I’m sure a better understanding of social history and the law of the time would come in handy.
The beginning depicts the Vanstone’s blissfully happy family life. Mr and Mrs Vanstone love each other devotedly and they have two children who are now young women. Miss Garth their governess still lives with them as a family friend because they cannot bare to part with her.
Norah is a quiet rather studious girl, whereas Magdalen is full of gaiety and games. She has unconventional beauty and a bright and breezy personality that verges sometimes on the excess.
When they lose both their parents under tragic circumstances they find that their parent’s marital status at the time of birth means that they have been left destitute whilst their father’s money and estate is automatically inherited by the brother he fell out with when they were younger.
Whilst Norah passively submits to what has befallen her and becomes a governess – one of the few careers open to people of their class and often not a very nice position to always be in, Magdalen sets off on a course for revenge.
Wilkie Collins developed Magdalen from a happy and confident young lady who is brought down to the life of a depraved fallen woman who is scorned by society because she wishes to throw her morals aside to reclaim what should have belonged to the two sisters.
No doubt Magdalen’s behaviour would have been shocking to a Victorian society, who I believe, valued women who were more submissive rather that one who tried to fight back. Yet despite Magdelen’s deviance from this accepted norm, she is the main character we follow and thus sympathise with.
Magdalen’s constant battle with herself over her desired course causes her great mental stress. Part of me just wishes that she could throw those Victorian values of hers aside and embrace revenge Monte Cristo style. Not that Edmond Dantes didn’t have his own problems with revenge in the end, but at least he embraced it with some sort of relish. Maybe that is more to do with the fact that Dantes is a man and French.
Despite being over seven hundred pages in length, No Name passes really quickly and one chapter easily leads on to the next. As a reader, you want to follow Magdalen’s story to see what happens to her, to unfold the story – will she go through with her plan or won’t she? She is an extraordinary complex character who you see develop from the beginning into someone who has been so changed by her circumstances. I really enjoy stories like this, where the characters are forced to change and develop.
One of my favourite things about this book is the “between the scenes” sections that came in between each part. They were a series of letters or journals between the characters, almost like a behind-the-scenes view.
No Name is a well written and well rounded novel and also one of the books that I’ve really, really enjoyed this year too. I’m glad to have “discovered” Wilkie Collins for myself and have no regrets about buying this book all those years ago.