Such a deal. Last spring I purchased the collected works of several writers from Delphi Classics in e-book form. I made my choices from authors whose works I thought may not all be available in hardcover, which I prefer. Wilkie Collins was one of them, although I already own copies of several of his novels.
I also decided to tackle these works in the order in which they appear in each collection, which is often in order of publication. That may not have been the best idea, because in some cases, although not all, it subjects me first to the novels that are, shall we say, less polished. In the case of Collins, I found his first novel, Antonina, unreadable. It is his only historical novel, set in Roman times, and it features turgid prose and overblown pseudo-archaic dialogue.
Basil is his second novel, and here he gets right into the sensationalist fiction for which he was known. The first thing I want to say about it is that usually I try not to judge an older book by modern standards, especially in regard to customs or mores. But I am going to have to address this subject a bit later on. First, I’ll tell you what the book is about.
Basil is the younger son of a very proud, wealthy upper-class man. Basil has always striven to please rather than to disappoint his father, unlike his older brother. But one day Basil decides on a whim to take an omnibus home. Such daring! On the bus, he sees a beautiful young woman and falls madly in love with her. To his dismay, he learns she is the daughter of a linen draper named Sherwin. Even though Basil knows his father will never approve, he enters into a secret marriage with Margaret. However, he agrees with her father’s demand that he live apart from her for a year, never to see her alone during that time.
Although any child could see through the cupidity behind this demand and understand that it was suspicious, Basil goes through with it. He marries Margaret when he has known her about a week and spoken to her only a handful of times.
Already, before the plot even thickened, I was close to putting the book down. I don’t like femme fatale plots, and it was clear this was going to be one. Collins does not even attempt to fool us that this is going to come out well, because Basil says at the beginning that he is writing the manuscript while living alone and in disgrace.
But here is where I might be judging the book based on modern ethos. What occurs between Margaret and Basil gives me the creeps. He follows her home from the bus and bribes her servant to tell him when she is going out. He ambushes her on her walk. Then after one conversation, he arranges the marriage with her father. If you’re thinking that marriages at that time were all arranged, it is clear by Mr. Sherwin’s reaction that this was a very unusual situation. That he leaps to take advantage only shows his greed. Basically, I had a hard time not thinking of Basil as a stalker, when I believe we’re supposed to be impressed by his virtue in offering marriage rather than something else. A stalker and an idiot.
Then Mr. Mannion returns and things get a little more interesting. Mr. Mannion is Mr. Sherwin’s confidential secretary, who has been doing business for him in France. Mr. Mannion is described as a handsome man with a wooden face. He seems to be a person originally from a higher class. It is clear to the reader that something is going on among Mannion, Margaret, and Mrs. Sherwin that Basil doesn’t notice.
The novel becomes darker and more complicated than I anticipated. Does this save it? Well, it kept me reading, but no, not really. Collins hasn’t yet figured out how to structure a narrative. He includes pages of fretting that are supposed to make us sympathize with Basil but instead are annoying. For example, after the main action ends in the wilds of Cornwall, he includes several letters. This technique allows him a bit of a cliffhanger (in more ways than one) while also leaving room to tie up loose ends. But the last three or four pages are almost entirely unnecessary, and they seem to go on and on.
My conclusion? Read some Wilkie Collins but not this one.
Sleep, Pale Sister
Christowell, a Dartmoor Tale
Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland, of Sunnyside