Friday, 21 October 2011

The Man Who Outsold Dickens

Perhaps it’s a sign of a literary mid-life crisis that I’m finally getting around to reading minor classics that have been on my list for twenty years or so.  That, and the ease of downloading classics to my Nook for a couple of dollars.  Whatever the reason, over the past year I’ve read both The Woman in White and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – and I could barely put them down.

What puts Collins on my minor classic list is that, along with other authors I’ve reviewed, he could best be classed as a popular rather than a [classic] author.  Of all the fruits of his his forty-year writing career, only the two above-mentioned books are widely read, and only two others, Armadale and No Name receive much recognition.

Collins was famous – if not infamous – for his time.  He spent most of his life in liaisons with two women (simultaneously); his penchant for the sensational led him and his friend, Charles Dickens, into nights of “dissipation” on the streets of London and in brothels on the continent.  The Moonstone was written under the effects of laudanum, the only drug that offered him relief from several painful conditions that afflicted him for much of his adult life.  Like the physician Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone, this addiction caused him to suffer from terrifying hallucinations.

Collins struck up a friendship with the much older Charles Dickens at the instigation of the latter.  Dickens, it seems, recognized in Collins the creative drive and attraction to the seamier side of Victorian life in himself.  Dickens nurtured Collins’s career, publishing his work in his own magazines and helping him negotiate the publishing business.  The two eventually collaborated on a play, The Frozen Deep, about a woman’s two suitors flung together on an ill-fated trip to the Arctic (a plot which it is said gave Dickens the idea for A Tale of Two Cities).  However, Collins’s enormous financial and literary success rubbed his mentor the wrong way, and when he published The Moonstone, a book that outsold Great Expectations, Dickens testily complained that “the construction was beyond endurance.”

But to the novels themselves.  The Woman in White has a plot that hinges on stolen identity.  It begins with artist Walter Hartright’s mysterious encounter with a ghostly woman in white on Hampstead Heath.  On arriving at his new post in Limmeridge, he finds that his pupil, Laura Fairlie, bears an uncanny resemblance to this woman.  He finds himself falling in love with Laura, but she is pledged to Sir Percival Glyde.  When Walter flees to South America in hopes of forgetting his love, Laura is left in the hands of a husband desperate for money, and who, along with her uncle-in-law, Count Fosco, hatches a terrifying plan to gain her fortune.  Filled with melodrama, a full cast of conventional and unconventional heroes and villains, and captivating parallels in plot and character, The Woman in White delivers page after page.  And I have to add that Count Fosco is one of the most repulsive and fascinating villains I have ever come across in literature.

The Moonstone concerns the theft of the fabulous diamond of the book’s title.  Originally stolen from the forehead of a statue of an Indian moon-god, the stone arrives, along with a supposed curse, to England, only to be stolen again on the very night it is bequeathed to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday.  The list of suspects is long, the plot deftly twisted without ever quite being tied in a knot – and the truth had me guessing until the end of the novel.  The Moonstone is also notable for perhaps the first developed detective character in a British novel: the sharp-witted, rose-loving Sergeant Cuff.

Both novels are narrated in a manner that resembles a dossier on a crime, with each of several characters giving their story, or evidence.  With no single, controlling narrative voice to assure the reader of meaning, and no assurance that we are reading the truth from any one character, we are dragged along in fascinated compulsion to the end.

Like Collins himself, most of his works have been buried without ceremony.  Yet The Woman in White and the Moonstone remain as a fitting monument for the little man who caused such a big sensation in the Victorian literary world.