No Name by Wilkie Collins.
No Name is a novel by Wilkie Collins, his fifth novel I believe, which was first published in 1862, two years after The Woman in White. Collins is of course a sensational novelist who peaked with The Woman in White and The Moonstone (1868); his novels are thrilling, shocking, and full of suspense and drama. No Name is no different.
The title No Name refers to the legal state of two sisters, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone. They live with their mother and father and their governess Miss Garth in Combe-Raven (Somerset). Their life is calm, peaceful, and pleasant, and it would appear that Magdalen will marry Frank Clare, the son of their neighbour and close friend of their father. However, shortly into the novel, Mr. Vanstone is killed in a train crash. Though I knew he was going to die (simply by the description on the back), remarkably Collins talent still makes it a shock. A stranger appears at the door, and:
“I am sent here on a very serious errand.”
“Serious to me?”
“Serious to all in this house.”
Miss Garth took one step nearer to him—took one steady look at his face. She turned cold in the summer heat. “Stop!” she said, with a sudden distrust, and glanced aside anxiously at the door of the morning-room. It was safely closed. “Tell me the worst; and don’t speak loud. There has been an accident. Where?”
“On the railway. Close to Grailsea Station.”
“The up-train to London?”
“No: the down-train at one-fifty—”
“God Almighty help us! The train Mr. Vanstone travelled by to Grailsea?”
“The same. I was sent here by the up-train; the line was just cleared in time for it. They wouldn’t write—they said I must see ‘Miss Garth,’ and tell her. There are seven passengers badly hurt; and two—”
The next word failed on his lips; he raised his hand in the dead silence. With eyes that opened wide in horror, he raised his hand and pointed over Miss Garth’s shoulder.
She turned a little, and looked back.
Face to face with her, on the threshold of the study door, stood the mistress of the house. She held her old music-book clutched fast mechanically in both hands. She stood, the specter of herself. With a dreadful vacancy in her eyes, with a dreadful stillness in her voice, she repeated the man’s last words:
“Seven passengers badly hurt; and two—”
Her tortured fingers relaxed their hold; the book dropped from them; she sank forward heavily. Miss Garth caught her before she fell—caught her, and turned upon the man, with the wife’s swooning body in her arms, to hear the husband’s fate.
“The harm is done,” she said; “you may speak out. Is he wounded, or dead?”
The chapter ends there, and as this novel was first serialised in Dickens' magazine All the Year Round I would bet good money the instalment ended there! But, to continue, following the death of Mr. Vanstone, Mrs. Vanstone dies a little later in childbirth. Norah and Magdalen at this point should inherit the Vanstone estate however the shocking truth was that Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone were actually unmarried. When they did marry, Mr. Vanstone's will was invalidated and his sudden death prevented him from updating it. Norah and Magdalen Vanstone are thus illegitimate and the estate is inherited by Vanstone's cruel uncle, Michael Vanstone. As the lawyer, Mr. Pendril explains to Miss Garth,
“... No, Miss Garth, we must look facts as they are resolutely in the face. Mr. Vanstone’s daughters are Nobody’s Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle’s mercy.”
“A cruel law, Mr. Pendril—a cruel law in a Christian country.”
“Cruel as it is, Miss Garth, it stands excused by a shocking peculiarity in this case. 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. But it has no extraordinary oppression to answer for in the case of these unhappy girls. The more merciful and Christian law of other countries, which allows the marriage of the parents to make the children legitimate, has no mercy on these children. The accident of their father having been married, when he first met with their mother, has made them the outcasts of the whole social community; it has placed them out of the pale of the Civil Law of Europe. I tell you the hard truth—it is useless to disguise it. There is no hope, if we look back at the past: there may be hope, if we look on to the future. The best service which I can now render you is to shorten the period of your suspense. In less than an hour I shall be on my way back to London. Immediately on my arrival, I will ascertain the speediest means of communicating with Mr. Michael Vanstone; and will let you know the result. Sad as the position of the two sisters now is, we must look at it on its best side; we must not lose hope.”
This novel is so full of twists and turns it's best to end there with this synopsis. In short, Magdalen has proved herself to be a very talented actress and whilst Norah remains with Miss Garth and essentially tries to make the best of the situation, Magdalen leaves and uses her talent to attempt to regain her inheritance, all with the help of the dastardly Captain Wragge.
Above all else, No Name is a very entertaining novel. It completely lacks subtlety and is frequently improbable, but that doesn't matter as what it may lack in realism (and it was never supposed to be a realistic novel), it makes up for in sheer excitement; it is a true page-turner. But there is another very interesting element of No Name; women, inheritance and the law in Victorian England. It was not improbable that the two sisters lost their inheritance. Their status, through no fault of their own, abruptly changed to little better than a servant's. They were at the mercy of the law which abandoned them, leaving them to become either servants, governesses, or, with luck and understanding on behalf of a suitor, someone's wife. For this reason, Magdalen Vanstone is a controversial character in her independence and refusal to be beaten down by the law, using the few tools she could lay her hands on to build herself some kind of life. By doing so she no longer conforms to the ideal of the Victorian woman, she is disgraced, and Collins does give a neat little presentation of a fallen Victorian woman and the effect it has on her own sense of self and worth. It's a great novel, not as fine as The Woman in White or The Moonstone but nonetheless enjoyable and eye-opening. Naturally, it's highly complex but I don't believe I got lost too many times. I do love Wilkie Collins and I'm looking forward already to Armadale, the next Collins novel on my TBR.