Monday, April 22, 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Source of book: I own this.

As regular followers of this blog recall, I participate in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie at This is our second year, and we are focusing on classics - an even mix of adult and children’s books. This month’s selection was chosen by me. 

What does one do if one is unjustly deprived of fortune, reputation, and indeed, one’s own name?

Well, if one is Thorin Oakenshield, rightful “King Under the Mountain,” one might set off on a quest with eleven close friends, a wizard, and a hired burglar, and die gloriously in battle.

Or, if one is Hamlet of Denmark, one might dither until it is too late, and end up as one of many dead in a Shakespearian tragedy.

Or, if one is the Count of Monte Cristo, one might swear eternal revenge, and proceed to carry it out under a false name, punishing one’s enemies in one of the greatest revenge tales ever.

But what does one do if one is a female in the Victorian era? And what happens if said female chooses option number three?

It is always interesting to reread a book many years after a first reading. I thought about this book, and determined that I must have read it around age 18 or so. Or closer to my birth than my current age. Ouch. I’m getting old.

When I read this, I had not yet begun law school, so I missed many of the delightful legal references and quotable lines. I think that this book may have been at least partially responsible for my eventual decision to enter the legal profession - and to eventually make estate planning and probate a key part of my practice.

This book was also an important milestone in my reading. I believe it was my first foray into Victorian literature beyond Charles Dickens; I would become acquainted with my favorite Victorian, Anthony Trollope soon thereafter. This was also my first acquaintance with a strong heroine in a fully adult book. (I love Anne of Green Gables - at least the first four books, but those are geared toward children and teens.)

Of all the Wilkie Collins books I have read, I still have affection for this particular book because of its ambiguous characters, its transgressive heroine, and the complex issues presented.

In my introduction to this month’s book club selection, I gave some basic biographical information about Collins, which I won’t repeat here.

Like many books of the era, it takes awhile to get into the plot itself. The first hundred pages or so set the stage of a typical upper class English family. The father has a significant inherited fortune, and there are two daughters. Norah, the eldest, is practically an old maid at 26, and is less attractive and vibrant than her younger sister, the tall and gorgeous Magdalen. It is Magdalen who chooses the third option and seeks to repossess her fortune at whatever cost necessary.

The basic plot is driven by a legal issue. The parents are not legally married, because the father entered a disastrous young marriage abroad, but was unable to obtain a divorce. The parents lived together as husband and wife, but never made it legal until the first wife died. After the legal marriage, but before they can make a new estate plan, both die under tragic circumstances. This leaves the girls disinherited and without a name. Due to previous family quarrels, the nearest relative, who inherits the fortune, casts away the girls, considering himself morally justified as the “divine retribution” for the sins of the parents. (Mankind has a history of attempting to prevent illegitimate children by brutally punishing the children. As the family lawyer, Mr. Pendril says, “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.” Modern laws have remedied this result, at least, but I could go on at length at the way that welfare laws - particularly the Medicaid rules - punish marriage still today.)

Before this tragedy, the family enjoys some typical amusements, which end up being portents of the future. First, the girls accompany their father to a concert. As an orchestral musician myself, I snickered at the description of the scene wherein the audience seemed confused about when a symphony ended. While it was common at one point to clap between movements - and individual movements were often encored immediately - by Collins’ time, it had already become gauche to fail to wait until the very end for applause.

Later, Magdalen is convinced to take part in an amatuer production of Richard Sheridan’s play, The Rivals. (While I have not read The Rivals, I did read Sheridan’s other masterwork, The School for Scandal.) The Rivals is notable for the character of Mrs. Malaprop, who uses the wrong words to comic effect. It is also notable for matrimonial schemes involving impersonations and fraud. Magdalen takes naturally to acting, and steals the show. Both this fact and the subject matter of the play will be important later in the book.

During this time, Magdalen falls in love with Frank Clare, who she has known since childhood. Frank’s father is a scandalous free thinker - and the references to his favorite philosophers escaped me when I first read this, but were amusing on the second reading. Frank is, as his father fears, irresponsible and flighty. Magdalen correctly decides that he would be best served by marrying money.

When I first read the book, I didn’t really understand why Collins bothered writing the character of Frank Clare. He is a motivating factor in Magdalen attempting to regain her fortune, of course, but he abandons her soon into her quest, and appears at the end only when he has married a far older widow for her money.

What I did not realize at the time was that Collins has cleverly turned gender expectations upside down. Frank does exactly what a proper Victorian female was expected to do. He was a gentleman without a fortune, but a handsome face. What should a girl do? Marry an older man with money, of course! But Frank is castigated for his lack of fortitude in seeking an alternate means of making a living. (As he should be: he is an irresponsible and rather ungrateful slacker. Although he also resembles the young Wilkie Collins a bit.)

However, Magdalen has exactly what Frank lacks, which is determination and fortitude. Frank takes the passive, “female” approach, while Magdalen opts for the “male” approach. Although she has fewer options, she basically opts to imitate the Count of Monte Cristo and win back what is hers by whatever means are available.

If the genders had been reversed, both Frank and Magdalen would have taken socially acceptable attitudes about their fate.

Of course, this is a Collins novel, so Magdalen’s attitude will lead her to go beyond any reasonable course of action, stooping to shocking lows and nearly destroying herself in the process. What makes her unable to embrace the “female” approach? Surely she could, with her good looks and vivacious personality, charm a handsome and wealthy suitor despite her illegitimate birth.

I found the musings of the old governess, Miss Garth, to be interesting on this point.

Does there exist in every human being, beneath that outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change?  Is the philosophy which denies this and asserts that we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper a philosophy which has failed to remark that we are not born with blank faces—­a philosophy which has never compared together two infants of a few days old, and has never observed that those infants are not born with blank tempers for mothers and nurses to fill up at will?

The “nature” versus “nurture” argument is as old as time, and both extremes have been used as justification for evil acts. Racists and eugenicists have always pointed toward nature as an excuse for the superiority of some. In contrast, the Stalinists, as I noted in my post on Iron Curtain, believed in human beings as a completely blank slate - and that by changing the nurture, one could change the nature.

Certainly, Norah and Magdalen are strong arguments for nature as a determining factor. One of the surprising things about being a parent was that I found that I had far less control than I had thought. My children have been pretty well set in personality since birth, really. I have five children with strong wills and characteristics of their own, totally different from each other.

Old Mr. Clare, curmudgeon extraordinaire, has no high opinion of his child, but neither does he think much of women.

"These are the creatures," he thought to himself, "into whose keeping men otherwise sensible give the happiness of their lives. Is there any other object in creation, I wonder, which answers its end as badly as a woman does?"

Mr. Clare underestimates Magdalen, of course. And Magdalen herself has yet to realize what she can do. Late in the book, as she finds herself falling for Captain Kirke, (did Gene Roddenberry steal the name?), she thinks, “Oh, if I could be a man, how I should like to be such a man as this!” That is, a man who is both strong and decisive, but also gentle and kind. Magdalen is capable of both, but she simply cannot be passive, which is the very thing society demands of her. 

So, does Magdalen have a defective nature? Or does is she just not cut out for the role that society has set for her? The novel ends with a conventional Victorian ideal. Norah’s approach wins in the end. By being the good girl, patiently resigned to her fate, she is eventually rescued by a wealthy man. This is ludicrously unlikely to have really occurred, as Collins is clearly aware. In fact, he sets up the scenario exactly so that it is unrealistic. Norah is the unattractive sister, and she is already age 26 when the story opens. By the time of her marriage, she would be around 28, if I am counting the months correctly. Certainly past the average age of marriage, and unlikely to have caught the eye of a dashing young gentleman.

(Side note: I shouldn’t be unfair to Norah here. While she must play the part of the Good Victorian Girl, she is more human than I remembered from my first reading. She is too good and perfect to be realistic, of course, but she has her moments of humanity. She is jealous of Magdalen’s beauty and charm. When she objects to Magdalen’s infatuation with Frank Clare, she knows that mixed with her good sense is also a certain amount of envy. She isn’t exactly an angelic Dickens female.)

Magdalen herself also succumbs at last to the societal ideal, by falling in love with a man twice her age who will rescue her. (Collins makes a big point of the age difference - at the same time as he notes Frances Clare’s marriage to an older widow. I doubt this was accidental. Although the Victorian reader would probably not find it bothersome, we moderns find this idea a bit icky - at least I do, and Collins portrays Kirke as uncomfortable as well.)

Thus, the ending of this book is ostensibly happy, but tragedy lurks below the surface. In reality, we know that it would be more likely that Norah would live out her life as a governess, and probably end it in the workhouse. Magdalen would die of her fever, and the insufferable Noel Vanstone would live to hoard his wealth for his eventual children. As in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, we escape disaster, but only by unbelievable coincidences and turns of the plot.

Not only does the plot turn on a legal issue, there is much in this book about lawyers and clients. Collins studied for the law prior to his writing career, and was actually admitted to the bar, although he never practiced.

Thus, unlike many authors (and even more television shows), he writes accurately. One of the curses of being a lawyer is that we wince whenever we watch courtroom dramas or read about legal cases. The ignorance is usually laughable, but we can’t even do that. Collins gets it right, however, and his portrayals are quite familiar.

First of all, Mr. Pendril is an ideal lawyer. He is scrupulous in his confidentiality and management of potential conflicts of interest. (The other attorney, Mr. Loscombe is likewise admirable for his professionality.)  

Collins also notes a tendency of elderly clients to fail to plan their estates, because doing so would mean contemplating their own death. In Michael Vanstone’s case, “He announced his own positive determination not to die.” Until he did, of course. I see this all the time in my own practice. Clients are afraid that if they go see an attorney, they will die. Well, they will die, but not because they saw an attorney. And then everyone else will be left with the mess.

As a final legal note, additional trouble was caused by a legal document drafted by a non-lawyer. As is common with such documents, it had the opposite effect from what was intended. Again, I see this all the time. As Mr. Loscombe puts it, this “constantly happens when uninstructed persons meddle with law...”

My friend Carrie, in her review of this book, noted that she initially groaned when Captain Wragge was introduced, but later decided he was the best character in the book. I agree. Captain Wragge has to be one the most memorable characters in literature, and it is his duel with the equally formidable Mrs. Lecount that is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. 

Magdalen and Captain Wragge. Illustration by John McLenan (from my edition of the book).

Captain Wragge calls himself a “moral agriculturist,” that is, a swindler. He separates fools from their money, by whatever non-violent means he can find. While usually motivated by pure greed, he eventually becomes fond of Magdalen while he helps her further her own schemes. However, it is once he meets the equally unscrupulous and scheming Mrs. Lecount that he finds he is fighting for pure principle. As the two of them try to gain the upper hand and stay a step ahead of the other, it becomes a “wizard’s duel” of duplicity. 

Magdalen and Mrs. Lecount also have a duel going. Lecount seems motivated both by a desire to get the money she feels she deserves, but also a self-righteous desire to see Magdalen get her just deserts as a bastard. Her low opinion of Magdalen leads her to form an “astonishment...which is akin to admiration” upon learning that Magdalen has sought only to recover her father’s fortune and stopped there. (Lecount is led by this admiration to hate Magdalen even more.)

One more thing that I had completely forgotten since the last time I read the book was that Wragge eventually goes from being a swindler of the usual sort, to a swindler of the medical sort; or, as he puts it, “medical agriculture.” Selling what we would now call “alternative medicine,” in the form of pills, he uses language which is so familiar today. “Down with the Doctors!” Nothing mainstream can be trusted, and so forth. Nothing has changed about the nature of medical swindles - or about swindles in general. Captain Wragge delivers a penetrating line as he leaves the book forever:

“Don’t think me mercenary - I merely understand the age I live in.”

And this is why all swindles have been the same in all places and times in history. No matter what is being sold, it preys on the fears and insecurities and greed of the age. This holds true for financial scams (which I often see in my practice), medical scams (which I discussed in my post on The Flying Inn by G. K. Chesterton), and spiritual scams (which I discussed in my post about Tolkien and witchcraft).

One final thought on a line from this book. There is a scene in which Madalen is intentionally slighted by her fellow servants (she has taken a job as a parlor maid). Despite the fact that she outranks them (which they do not know), she still feels the cut deeply.

Resist it as firmly, despise it as proudly as we may, all studied unkindness—­no matter how contemptible it may be—­has a stinging power in it which reaches to the quick.

And this is to a large degree what fuels Magdalen. Her relatives, first her uncle and then her cousin, and then Mrs. Lecount, cut her and Norah off without feeling, because of an old family grudge. The girls must be punished for a quarrel that occurred long before they were born, and had no way of curing. They all get satisfaction from being unkind to Magdalen and Norah, and that is what stings. Surely all of us have felt at one time or another, the cut of a “studied unkindness.”

Although this book is less well known that Collins’ more famous works, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, it is a gem worth seeking out and reading.


  1. Wow, thanks for the little facts about The Rivals. That does spice things up quite a bit. I also didn't think about the gender roles of Frank and Magdelen being switched. What an interesting though.
    I really liked Norah, actually. I think she could have won herself a dashing young man just by being a good person. I actually meant to mention in my thoughts that I liked these female characters MUCH more than the flat saintly women of Dickens.

  2. I read The School for Sandals some time back. I didn't really clue in to the fact that she was performing a well-known play by a known playwright.

    I definitely think that Wragge makes the story worth reading.

    And I also agree that the gender roles of Frank and Magdelen were switched. I hated Frank. He was a lazy, no good bum of a man!

    Again, I'm very glad you chose this one for the month. It's interesting hearing your take on it upon re-reading it as an old man compared to when you were a wee babe. ;D

  3. Thank you for the insights in your review. I didn't evaluate it from a literary, social, or legal perspective, so appreciate your thoughts along those lines.

    As I read your second-to-last paragraph describing the unjust punishment of the inherited family feud, I had to smile as I imagined how different this story would have been if L.M. Mongomery had written it! Several of her short stories in Christmas with Anne deal with the "accidental" resolution of long-standing grudges by sweet and innocent young people who happen to be at the right place at the right time.

    Perhaps both Collins and Montgomery write of idealism at opposite extremes, but Collins crafted a better story!

    Thanks again for selecting this title. I really enjoyed reading it!