The latest Classics Club Spin ended up with The Dead Secret as the book I should read. It is Wilkie Collins’ first full-length novel but unfortunately not his best.
Mrs. Treverton is on her deathbed at Porthgenna Tower, but she has a secret. She wants to disclose it to her husband but can’t bring herself to do it. So, she forces her maid, Sarah Leeson, to write it down. She makes Sarah promise not to destroy the confession or remove it from the house, but she dies before she can make her promise to give it to her husband. So, Sarah hides it in a ruined wing of the house and then flees.
Fifteen or sixteen years later, Mrs. Treverton’s daughter Rosamond is a young wife. She and her blind husband, Leonard Frankland, are on their way to Cornwall to take up residence at Porthgenna Tower, where Rosamond has not lived since she was five. They intend to renovate the house, including the ruined north wing, but they have had to stop their journey because Rosamond has gone into premature labor.
The local doctor, in seeking a nurse for the new mother and son, consults a householder only to have her housekeeper, Mrs. Jazeph, unexpectedly volunteer to do it herself. However, Mrs. Jazeph’s odd behavior that evening causes her to be dismissed. Before leaving, she tells Rosamond to stay out of the Myrtle Room.
With a ruined old mansion on the coast of Cornwall that is possibly haunted and a secret too awful to tell, this novel promises to be all that a sensation novel should be. However, Collins is clearly learning here, for this novel is dripping with sentimentality and soppiness. Moreover, the behavior of the maid (it’s not hard to guess who she is) is so exaggerated that I could hardly stand to read about her at times. Collins took Dickens for his model, and Rosamond is a typical type for Dickens—sweet, a little foolish at times, loving, needing the guidance of her morally correct husband. Without having spent enough time with Sarah for us to care much for her—in fact, at times her behavior is extremely irritating—he spends too long a time with a supposedly heart-rending scene.
The secret isn’t very hard to guess, nor are the events of the plot difficult to predict. This isn’t a terrible novel, but Collins has written better ones.