Thursday, November 5, 2009

No Name by Wilkie Collins

I want to preface this review by saying it was very difficult to write. Ms Eva of Striped Armchair mentioned earlier in the week that this is her all time favorite Wilkie Collins novel. And while I was pretty blaise about the only other Collins book I'd read, it was a long time ago, and I had heard wodnerful things about the recent revived interest in The Woman in White. And the subject of this book (it has to do with the laws of illegitimacy in Britain in the Victorian period) was one that really interests me.

Sadly, I really didn't enjoy this book.

I know this must be me, in part. Again, I've heard people really enjoy it. But it bothered me, and the things in it that DID bother me were too omnipresent for me to overcome.

*** SPOILERS (but I'll try to keep them minor) ***
No Name is the story of two sisters who, through a uniquely Victorian literary twist of fate, find out after their parents die that they are illegitimate children, and that as a result, their entire estate will go to the their uncle, a man with a deep and abiding hatred for their father. The elder daughter submits to this painful fate, but the younger daughter proceeds, for the majority of the remainder of the novel, to scheme against the cruel uncle and his eventual inheritors to reclaim the family fortune, and return her sister and herself to the respectability that comes with it.

My first problem is with the entire part after the parents die, and before the girl accomplishes her first big scheme (sorry, trying to avoid spoilers, but for those of us who have read the book, this section ended for me, pretty much, with the will of Mr Noel Vanstone). The story is pretty straightforward through this entire section, and much like the Moonstone reads in the same way as a modern mystery, this reads like a con-job movie - think, The Sting, or Confidence, or Matchstick Men, or Sneakers for instance. Well, that's fine. This is a genre that doesn't deeply move me, generally, but which is a fun ride while it lasts.

Well, here's the thing about a con-job plot - the thing that makes the movie interesting is the feeling that you are watching the work of a master. The Sting is fun, because you can see them laying down all the brushstrokes throughout the film, you can see the vague outlines taking shape, but when the entirety of it is displayed in the final scenes, you realize that you were in the presence of masters, that the con is so carefully constructed, so intricately planned, that even the imperfections you thought you detected were just part of the master plan. At a moral level, it's difficult to admire people who are, quite frankly, trying to cheat other people out of money. But there is a piece of us all that can appreciate genius, even when that genius is not taken to ends we appreciate.

Well, the con in No Name isn't like that. It's honestly, in some ways, probably more like real life - con men in real life, I'm sure, are kind of flying by the seat of their pants, just trying to scrape by. If they were geniuses, they'd probably find a more rewarding line of work, after all. But, watching the two conmen bumble along, making error after error, being saved by a combination of luck, their own ability to come up with outlandish lies, and, frankly, the thickheadedness of their marks, is kind of depressing, if not downright irritating. I can IMAGINE a book that was about unskilled conmen that was good - but this wasn't it. Honestly, what it ended up feeling like was that Collins simply hadn't planned out the entirety of the con, so he COULDN'T prestage the careful falling into places of the pieces. RAther, he just plopped his characters in, and every week threw up another obstacle and another razor's edge escape, and dashed it off to the publisher three hours before deadline. In a suspense novel, this is okay - in a move like North by Northwest, we can sympathize with incompetence, because we feel like the guy is stuck in the situation through no fault of his own, and we can see him learning, getting more talented, and defeating the odds in the end. In No Name it just feels kind of sickening - lurching back and forth between seeing that Collins seems to genuinely like his conmen, watching him carefully preach about the fact that what they are doing is utterly wicked, and, as a reader, suppresing the urge to shake the book, and shout at the conmen that they need to try thinking ahead more than one move at a time, and think through their decisions.

Luckily, this ended. The second attempt to con the money was equally incompetent, but DID manage to be engrossing, because A) it seemed fairly obvious that she would, eventually, fail and B) it's feels like the purpose of the con is less to impress us with her skill and more to show that she is slowly falling apart (and even so, the second con still had moments where it felt a little frustrating).

These problems are probably partly me. I'm not a huge suspense novel fan, though I can appreciate a good one - I like Rebecca a lot, for instance. And, I imagine part of it was my disappointment at realizing that what I thought was going to be a social novel about illegitimacy was turning into a crime novel. The second issue, however, it's difficult to let go of for me, and honestly perplexes me a bit: the book felt, to me, terrifically chauvinist.

Let me qualify that. I do not feel, and did not feel in the novel, that Collins had the aggressive anti-woman sort of chauvinism that some authors display. I think Collins was an honest product of his times, and that he probably FELT that he was very pro-woman. And I mean this as no personal affront to Collins, or to anyone who likes him. As a historical document, I can appreciate that Collins did not intend to write a book that was chauvinist.

But the underlying message of the book, to me was pretty simple. There are two basic types of women: women like Norah (the older sister) and women like Magdalen (the younger sister). Women like Norah are women who have learned to submit, to accept sadness, to sacrifice themselves. Women like Magdalen are talented, self-motivated, and tremendously sensitive to injustice and attacks on their rights. Well, women like Magdalen are driven by these urges to do terrible, awful things. Women like Norah quietly submit to the trials of life, and in the end, are miraculously victorious. They get what they want simply as a result of their being so 'good', of towing the line and accepting that they should let society do what it wants. Women like Magdalen? Their assertiveness and resourcefulness will, of course, bring them lower, and lower, and lower - even, in the book, make them uglier and uglier and uglier. If they are to be redeemed, they must be ground into the dust, and have all their pride and dignity driven out of them, they must learn to submit to society. In the end, when they are driven low, then, a nice man can come along like a knight in armor and save them, and grant them the forgiveness that they so desperately need. Then, they can lead quiet little contented lives, having learned to subvert their talents and ambitions into nice, quiet, feminine pursuits.

I just don't see what else to read from the book. Collins obviously loves Magdalen to death, much as the governess of the girls loves her more than Norah. But, like the Governess, he quietly submits to us that the very things that we love in Magdalen are what must be ground out of her before she can be a proper woman. The woman in the end, after her great sickness and after she is nursed back to health by the captain, is not the woman I loved earlier. Her great intelligence has been devolved into nothing but a tool to trick the captain into bragging about himself - no seriously, think about that for a minute. In the end, when Magdalen is good, the best purpose she can put her intelligence to is to get a man to speak highly of himself to her. And in the end? She is hardly discernible from her sister, quivering and looking up to her strong-armed protection, as the music swells and the fuzzy filter goes over the camera lens.

I don't mean this as a dig against Norah - I like Norah too. I like Norah because she is who she is. She lives the life she intends, and lives it well, and I feel happy for her when she gets what she wants. And I don't mean to say that the things Magdalen did in the book are right - on the contrary, it was their very wrongness that made the pursuit such an irksome one to read about - it's not much fun to read a book where you are sorry to hope that the protagonist wins, but where you hate the people she needs to lose to, just the same.

Honestly, I guess, the main reason I wrote this post (because I considered writing a tepidly subtle post saying a few strengths and quietly admitting to some weaknesses) is because I feel like I must of missed something. People love this book. Ms Eva recommended it as a good book for the Feminism challenge, recently, even. I must be off base, something has flown over my head. There were things I liked - the scene where Wragge tells about his pill company nearly had me laughing out loud, for instance, and the scene where Magdalen considers suicide was heart-wrenching and suspenseful even though you know it will end up for the best from the beginning. I just didn't get it. Hopefully you, my dear commenters, can help enlighten me


Amanda said...

While I like Collins, from the parts of this book you described to me, I really don't have much of an interest in reading this one.

Rebecca Reid said...

subscribing here too because I want to hear any conversation....

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

The cover alone is very amazing. I need to check out this book a bit more; thanks

Unknown said...

Ms Diane - I'm afraid that's not the cover :). I never use the actual cover photograph...

Anonymous said...

I understand your concerns about the passive woman winning out over the active one, but there seems to be no doubt that Collins' sympathies throughout are with Magdalen. Maybe he's suggesting that society just isn't ready yet, and that's why an energetic and enterprising woman is doomed to failure.

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