Review: A Rogue’s Life by Wilkie Collins

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’.

Review: A House to Let by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Procter

A House to Let, at less than 100 pages, is a collaboration between four 19th century authors which originally appeared as the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine, Household Words, in 1858.

The book is divided into six sections; the first, Over the Way, and the sixth, Let at Last, are joint efforts by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and provide the framework for the story. The other four sections are individual contributions from Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Adelaide Anne Procter and Wilkie Collins, in that order.

Over the Way introduces us to Sophonisba, an elderly woman who has never married but has two men vying for her attentions – one is her old admirer Jabez Jarber; the other is her servant, Trottle. When Sophonisba’s doctor advises a change of air and scene, she leaves her home in Tunbridge Wells and moves into new lodgings in London, where she immediately becomes obsessed with the house opposite – a house which has been vacant for many years and is permanently ‘to let’. Determined to discover why the house has remained empty for so long – and convinced she has seen an eye staring out from one of the windows – she asks Jarber and Trottle to investigate.

Over the Way and Let at Last are credited to both Dickens and Collins, but there’s no way to tell exactly which parts were contributed by which writer. The other four chapters, though, are each written in the distinctive style of their respective authors and each tell the story of a previous occupant of the house to let.

The chapter I liked the least was actually the one written solely by Dickens, Going Into Society. The story of a showman and a circus dwarf called Mr Chops, it was just too weird for me and was also quite difficult to read as it was written in dialect. It’s probably significant that I found the two Dickens/Collins collaborations much easier to read than this solo effort, as I’ve always thought Collins was a lot more readable than Dickens.

Three Evenings in the House, the contribution by Adelaide Anne Procter, whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, is in the form of a narrative poem. I’m not a big lover of poetry but luckily for me this was only thirteen pages long and quite easy to understand. Other than providing some variety though, I don’t think this chapter really added much to the story.

The Manchester Marriage
by Elizabeth Gaskell stands out as an excellent piece of writing: a tragic story of Alice Wilson, who is widowed when her husband is lost at sea. After marrying again, she and her new husband move into the house to let where further tragedy awaits them. This is good enough to work as a stand-alone short story (and according to the Biographical Notes, it was actually published separately in its own right). This and the Wilkie Collins contribution, Trottle’s Report, were my favourite chapters. Trottle’s Report is a typical Collins story, with unusual, quirky characters, a mysterious secret, and a slightly dark and gothic feel.

After exploring the histories of the various tenants of the house, the mystery is finally solved in the final chapter, Let at Last, which neatly ties up all the loose ends of the story.

If you like any of these four authors or Victorian fiction in general, then A House to Let is definitely worth reading. It also provides a good introduction to Dickens, Collins, Procter and Gaskell without having to commit yourself to one of their longer works.

Classics/Pages: 97/Publisher: Hesperus Press/Year: 2004 (originally published 1858)/Source: Library book

Review: Basil by Wilkie Collins

In 19th century literature, a man can approach a girl’s father, ask for permission to marry her and be given that permission, all without the girl having any say in the matter whatsoever. Sometimes the potential husband has only actually spoken to the girl once or twice; sometimes not at all – and they certainly haven’t had time to get to know each other properly. Basil by Wilkie Collins is a good example of why these arrangements were often doomed to failure and caused unhappiness both for the husband and the wife.

Our narrator, the Basil of the title, is the son of a rich gentleman who is proud of his family’s ancient background and despises anyone of a lower social standing. When Basil meets Margaret Sherwin on a London omnibus he falls in love at first sight and becomes determined to marry her. Unfortunately Margaret is the daughter of a linen-draper, the class of person Basil’s father disapproves of most of all, so he decides not to tell his family about her just yet.

Mr Sherwin agrees to Basil marrying Margaret – but he insists that the wedding must take place immediately and that Basil must then keep the marriage secret for a whole year, not even seeing his wife unless Mr or Mrs Sherwin are present. This unusual suggestion should have told Basil that something suspicious was going on but he’s so blinded by love that he doesn’t care – until it’s too late…

Basil was one of Collins’ earliest novels and it shows, as it’s just not as good as his more famous books such as The Woman in White. The story took such a long time to really get started, with Basil introducing us to the members of his family, giving us every tiny detail of their appearance, personality and background. The second half of the book was much more enjoyable, filled with action, suspense and all the elements of a typical sensation novel including death, betrayal and adultery (Victorian readers apparently found the adultery scenes particularly shocking). There are lots of thunderstorms, people fainting and swooning, fights in the street, and everything you would expect from a Victorian melodrama.

All of Collins’ books are filled with strong, memorable characters and this was no exception. There’s Basil’s lively, carefree brother Ralph, his gentle, kind hearted sister Clara, the poor, frail Mrs Sherwin and the sinister Mr Mannion. However, I thought the overall writing style of this book was slightly different to what I’ve been used to in his later books – although I can’t put my finger on exactly what the difference was. This is not a must-read book but if you like the sensation novel genre, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Review: Drood by Dan Simmons

I think I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself. A gothic mystery/horror story set in Victorian London, featuring Charles Dickens and narrated by Wilkie Collins sounded like exactly the kind of book I would enjoy. Unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to its fascinating premise and I was left with mixed feelings about it.

Drood is told in the form of a memoir written by Wilkie Collins (a close friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens, as well as being the author of The Woman in White, The Moonstone and many other novels and plays) and addressed to an unknown reader in the future – that is, to us.

The story begins with the Staplehurst Rail Disaster of 1865, when the train on which Charles Dickens is travelling crashes, sending most of the carriages plummeting over a viaduct into the riverbed below. Luckily Dickens is in one of the few carriages that doesn’t fall. As he helps to rescue people from the wreckage, he encounters a mysterious figure dressed in a black cape who introduces himself only as ‘Drood’. In the days following the train crash, Dickens becomes obsessed with finding Drood and discovering his true identity. With the reluctant help of Wilkie Collins, Dickens begins a search for Drood which leads them through the dark alleys and underground catacombs of London.

Interspersed with the Drood storyline are long passages in which we learn about the family life and living arrangements of both Dickens and Collins, how much they earned for their various novels, their walking tour of Cumberland in 1857, the details of Wilkie’s laudanum addiction, the story of the Swiss chalet given to Dickens by his friend Charles Fechter, Dickens’ interest in mesmerism and every other piece of biographical information you could possibly want to know. Simmons also incorporates some genuine historical letters and quotes which adds some authenticity to the book. I can see why some readers might find this boring, but I enjoyed these sections – I thought the descriptions of Dickens’ reading tours were particularly fascinating.

Simmons has attempted to imitate Wilkie Collins’ narrative style (including the Victorian habit of talking directly to the reader) but I felt that he didn’t get it quite right. He also uses a lot of words and phrases that just sound either too modern or too American to me (the real Collins or Dickens would have walked on the pavement rather than the sidewalk, for example). This is only a small complaint though, as overall, Dear Reader, I thought his style was quite convincing.

I do like the way the book takes us through the process of researching and writing The Moonstone. However, some important plot points are given away so if you haven’t already read The Moonstone and think you might want to, then I would suggest you read it before you begin Drood. It might also be a good idea to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood first (I didn’t and kept wishing I had). Another thing I liked about the book was the way Simmons deliberately tries to confuse and mislead the reader – at several points in the novel we are made to wonder whether something we’ve just read is real or an illusion.

This journey through the cemeteries, opium dens and underground sewers of London is a good atmospheric read for a cold dark night, but I was slightly disappointed by it and despite reading all 775 pages I still can’t decide whether I enjoyed it or not! However, it will almost certainly leave you wanting to learn more about Dickens and Collins and their works, which can only be a good thing. If you like this type of book I would also recommend The Quincunx by Charles Palliser – another book set in Victorian England and written in a 19th century style.

Before I come to the end of this review I would just like to say a few words in defence of poor Wilkie Collins, who happens to be one of my favourite authors. Simmons clearly doesn’t rate Wilkie as a writer (I saw an interview where he described him as ‘mediocre’) and in Drood, the character is portrayed as a not very talented, second-rate author who is consumed with jealousy of the more successful Dickens and becomes increasingly bitter and unlikeable as the book goes on. I admit I’m biased because I’ve absolutely loved every Wilkie Collins book I’ve read; he was a much better writer than Drood suggests and definitely not mediocre, at least in my opinion!

*Pictures of Charles Dickens (top) and Wilkie Collins (bottom) both in the public domain

Genre: Historical Fiction/Horror/Pages: 775/Publisher: Quercus Fiction/Year: 2009/Source: My own copy bought new

Fiendish Fridays #1: Count Fosco

Fiendish Fridays is hosted here at She Reads Novels, profiling some of our favourite literary villains. You can see a complete list of previous Fiends and suggest one of your own here.

#1 – Friday 22 January 2010: Count Fosco

Name: Count Isodor Ottavio Baldassare Fosco

Appears in: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Who is he? Count Fosco is an Italian friend of Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet who marries Laura Fairlie.

What is he like? He’s old and very fat with a fondness for wearing brightly coloured waistcoats and playing the concertina. Doesn’t sound like a typical villain, does he?

What makes him a Friday Fiend? Although Sir Percival is the nastier of the two and initially appears the more villainous, it quickly becomes obvious that Fosco is more dangerous due to his intelligence, charm and ability to fool people (even Laura’s half-sister Marian Halcombe originally admits to liking him, though her opinion changes drastically later on). Fosco is the brains behind the scheme to steal Laura’s identity and gain her inheritance.

Redeeming features: He shows tenderness towards his pet mice and birds, and admiration for Marian Halcombe (although this unfortunately doesn’t stop him trying to destroy her sister’s life!)

New Book Arrivals – 28th November 2009

I won a £10 Amazon voucher with an online survey panel that I belong to, so of course I decided to spend it on some books. The books I chose were Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte and The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories by Wilkie Collins. I want to read the Jung Chang and Anne Bronte books for various challenges I’m participating in (in particular Women Unbound and All About The Brontes) and they’ve been on my wishlist for years anyway. I wanted The Haunted Hotel because I love Wilkie Collins and am trying to read as many of his books as possible.

The books are now on my TBR list for 2010.

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.

I first read The Woman in White in 2006 – it was the first Wilkie Collins book I ever read and the one that turned me into a huge fan of his work. I just wish I had discovered him sooner!

The Woman in White was the most popular book of the 1860s; when it was originally serialised in Charles Dickens’ periodical All The Year Round large crowds gathered outside the newspaper offices every time the latest edition went on sale; you could buy Woman in White perfume, bonnets and shawls and dance the Woman in White waltz…and all of this was 150 years before Harry Potter!

So what is it about? I won’t go into the plot in too much detail, as I don’t want to spoil the fun for those of you who haven’t read it yet. The story begins with drawing master Walter Hartright’s meeting on a lonely London road with a mysterious woman dressed all in white who has escaped from an Asylum. The next day Walter takes up a teaching position at Limmeridge House in Cumberland where he finds that one of his students, Laura Fairlie, bears a striking resemblance to the woman in white…

The novel follows an epistolary style, meaning it is narrated by several different characters in turn, sometimes in the form of journal entries or letters. I love the way Collins gives each of his narrators a unique ‘voice’ – he really makes the characters come alive. Another thing I love about Wilkie Collins’ writing is his sense of humour…some of the scenes involving Laura’s hypochondriac uncle Mr Fairlie are hilarious!

Marian Halcombe, Laura Fairlie’s sister, is one of my favourite female characters in literature. Contrary to the usual portrayal of 19th century women, she is a brave, intelligent, courageous person who on several occasions puts herself in danger in order to protect her sister Laura. Another great character is Count Fosco. One of the most unusual and memorable villains I’ve ever encountered in any book, he’s an old, fat, opera-loving Italian completely devoted to his pet canaries and white mice. I remember being surprised when I first read the description of Fosco, as he wasn’t what I had been expecting at all!

The Woman in White is an example of the genre known as sensation fiction – including elements such as forgery, identity theft and insanity. Although it was written in the 19th century it’s as exciting and gripping as a modern day thriller – even when reading the book for the second time and knowing what was going to happen! It’s a long book (569 pages in my Penguin Popular Classics version) but there’s enough tension and suspense to keep the reader interested right through to the end.

There are some classics that are a struggle to read but you persevere with them simply because they’re classics and you feel as if you should. The Woman in White does not fall into that category – yes, it’s a classic but it’s also one of the most readable and enjoyable books I’ve ever read.

If you liked this book I would recommend you read The Moonstone, Armadale or No Name next. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I am a big fan of Wilkie Collins so you can expect to see more of my reviews of his work coming soon!

Highly Recommended

Genre: Classics – Sensation Fiction/Pages: 576 pages/Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics/Year: Originally published 1859/Source: Purchased new from Amazon.co.uk

This review is part of my Great Books series.