Basil is my second Victorian sensational novel of the week (following the wonderful Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, published ten years later in 1862). It was written by Wilkie Collins and published in 1852 - one of his first novels, and some would argue one of the first sensational novels.
A sensational novel is melodramatic, with hints of the Gothic and romantic tradition, and often has themes relating to crime, murder, bigamy, adultery; all perfectly horrid and exciting subjects designed to appeal to the masses, which sadly leads some parts of the literary set to dismiss them as low literature.
Basil, however, is not low literature. It's a thrilling and an intelligent read (such combinations do exist despite what certain folk may say) about a young man, Basil. Collins, or Basil, writes,
I am the second son of an English gentleman of large fortune. Our family is, I believe, one of the most ancient in this country. On my father's side, it dates back beyond the Conquest; on my mother's, it is not so old, but the pedigree is nobler. Besides my elder brother, I have one sister, younger than myself. My mother died shortly after giving birth to her last child.
Circumstances which will appear hereafter, have forced me to abandon my father's name. I have been obliged in honour to resign it; and in honour I abstain from mentioning it here. Accordingly, at the head of these pages, I have only placed my Christian name—not considering it of any importance to add the surname which I have assumed; and which I may, perhaps, be obliged to change for some other, at no very distant period. It will now, I hope, be understood from the outset, why I never mention my brother and sister but by their Christian names; why a blank occurs wherever my father's name should appear; why my own is kept concealed in this narrative, as it is kept concealed in the world.Basil's misfortune is owed to falling love at first sight with Margaret Sherwin, the daughter of a linen draper (quite below his station). He sees her in a cab whilst staying in the family's London residence:
Among the workings of the hidden life within us which we may experience but cannot explain, are there any more remarkable than those mysterious moral influences constantly exercised, either for attraction or repulsion, by one human being over another? In the simplest, as in the most important affairs of life, how startling, how irresistible is their power! How often we feel and know, either pleasurably or painfully, that another is looking on us, before we have ascertained the fact with our own eyes! How often we prophesy truly to ourselves the approach of a friend or enemy, just before either have really appeared! How strangely and abruptly we become convinced, at a first introduction, that we shall secretly love this person and loathe that, before experience has guided us with a single fact in relation to their characters!Immediately he is obsessed, seeking first discover who she is and who her family is, which he manages quite quickly, and then establishing a relationship with her. She has high dreams, higher than her station, and marrying Basil will enable her (and her father to realise them). Such is the intensity of Basil's obsession, or crush (which essentially is what it is) he forgives her anything, even dreadful portents of the unhappy life ahead (catching her in an attempt to kill her mother's cat, for example, didn't bode well!). But he persists, and without his father and beloved sister's knowledge he marries Margaret, though they live apart hoping to somehow ease Basil's father into the situation gently whilst guaranteeing that they will never be parted.
But, Margaret is foul. He soon finds out she is sleeping with a Mr. Mannion. Basil confronts him, they get into a fight, and here the action really starts, but I won't spoil the end!
Basil is a cautionary tale, albeit an exaggerated one. This is what comes, one thinks after reading it, of marrying someone one hardly knows, which was rather prevalent in the Victorian era. There is also a sense of the 'lower classes' wreaking havoc in the aristocracy (should the two worlds collide). There is a sharp contrast between Basil's idealised sister Clara (the "angel of the house") and the repulsive, immoral, and almost demonic Margaret. And, like all good sensational novels there are thunderstorms (as with Lady Audley), madness (Lady Audley again), violent crime (Lady Audley once more), and, while we're drawing comparisons with Lady Audley, canaries. But the latter detail may be a coincidence! It is a great book, and I dare say an excellent example of its genre.
On a final note: as this novel is partly set in Cornwall (south east of England) and I'm unable to find any illustrations from Basil, here's a painting by Thomas Moran - Sunset Near Land's End (1909).