January 20th, 2011

Man And Wife: Wilkie Collins

According to the critical consensus Wilkie Collins wrote four good books- and that's it. I like to challenge consensus wherever I find it but my first reading of a "minor" novel by Collins leaves the consensus about him intact.  Man and Wife is the book he wrote after The Moonstone- and it's a mess.  He originally imagined it as a play- and the proscenium arch and orchestra pit get between us and the characters as they talk, talk, talk in one fixed spot- and enter and exit stage right and stage left.  The plot is intricate and preposterous, turning upon an anomaly in Scots marriage law that has long since been reformed- and  was indeed in the process of being reformed when Collins attacked it. The heroine- a wronged woman- is drearily noble and the villain- who wronged her- unremittingly brutish and ignoble- as mid-Victorian taste demanded. Collins himself was a polyamorous bohemian- and we feel his frustration (and share his boredom) at having to write what he knew to be false.  

Things get weird towards the end. Refreshingly so. There's a genuinely suspenseful denouement- with lashings of abnormal psychology- and a very tasty locked room murder.