Frank Softly is a Rogue. Refusing to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, he has tried out a number of different careers since leaving school – and failed at them all. However, he remains optimistic and sees each failure as an opportunity to make a fresh start. Even when he is sent to a debtors’ prison he simply asks himself, “What of that? Who am I that I should object to being in prison, when so many of the royal personages and illustrious characters of history have been there before me?”
While working as a forger of old paintings, Frank meets Alicia Dulcifer in an art gallery and immediately falls in love. Unfortunately even this relationship seems likely to fail, because Alicia is the daughter of the sinister Dr. Dulcifer – a man who lives in a house with bars on the windows, never receives visitors and conducts mysterious experiments in his laboratory. Frank becomes determined to discover Dr. Dulcifer’s secret, at all costs.
As in many Victorian novels, there’s also an inheritance involved: Frank’s sister Annabella will only receive her three thousand pounds if Frank outlives their grandmother Lady Malkinshaw. This leads to some amusing situations as Annabella’s greedy husband desperately tries to prevent Frank from dying!
This was one of Wilkie Collins’ first books to be published (in 1856) and I could tell it was the work of a young, inexperienced writer – the plot was less developed than in his later books and the characters (apart from the Rogue himself) were less memorable. However, his enthusiasm shines through on every page, making this a fun, light-hearted read – but with plenty of suspense and excitement too. Although Frank Softly is dishonest, irresponsible, reckless – and definitely a rogue – he tells his story with so much humour and energy that you can’t help liking him.
Rather changeable this life of mine, was it not? Before I was twenty-five years of age, I had tried doctoring, caricaturing, portrait-painting, old picture-making, and Institution-managing…Surely, Shakespeare must have had me prophetically in his eye, when he wrote about ‘one man in his time playing many parts’. What a character I should have made for him, if he had only been alive now!
While I don’t think I would recommend this as a first introduction to his work, if you have enjoyed any of Collins’ other books there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this one too. And the short length of this book – only 150 pages – makes it a quick, fast-paced read, so anyone who has had trouble getting into one of his longer novels may find this one easier to read.
I’m going to leave you with Wilkie’s own thoughts on this novel, taken from the author’s preface:
The Rogue may surely claim two merits, at least, in the eyes of the new generation – he is never serious for two moments together; and ‘he doesn’t take long to read’.