Or the best possible holiday reading. I’ve had a soft spot for Wilkie Collins for a long time now, indeed since finding a Victorian set (cheap green cloth covers and an aroma of mildew) lurking in our old house. I ran out of things to read and hit the Collins and I’ve read him on and off ever since. As an aside most the books went when the house did, but for some reason –and I’m assuming it’s because I didn’t put it back where it was meant to go – Dad still has ‘The Law and The Lady’, which also explains why it seemed slightly familiar.
It is now my firm intention to include Wilkie Collins in my packing any time I’m away for more than a few days. ‘The Law and The Lady’ has plot holes aplenty but I don’t care – it’s a ripping good read. It’s a good old fashioned story of girl meeting boy, marrying him then finding he was accused of poisoning his first wife. Boy abandons girl and she dedicates her life to proving his innocence. To do this she takes on her mother in law, the most startlingly un-politically correct insane cripple and his equally grotesque cohort, the law, and a woman chasing major. She travels the length and breadth not only of the country but the continent, refuses to listen to advice or reason, never gives up on her (frankly unworthy) husband and is in every way a pretty good heroine.
This is what I loved about Collins when I was in my teens and it’s what I love about him now. The hapless husband is a poor kind of a creature who Collins wastes very little time on, all his attention goes into Valeria – heroine and narrator, to Sara the Ill - fated first wife, and the supporting cast of improbable players that make the book such a page turner. It was a revelation then, and it still makes me wonder how his heroines went down in the 1870’s. Were they scandalous? Inspirational? Plausible?
I found them inspirational – far more fun than Dickens as well, no offence to Dickens fans, I like him too, but Collins adds an element of what I can only describe as high camp which I’ve never been able to resist. More importantly though he mixes it with remarkably strong women wronged by law and society and then brings them out triumphantly on top. It’s telling that the accused murderer in this book – the only character who can really know for sure he’s an innocent man, is yet content to accept an ambiguous verdict (and indeed behave like a fairly guilty man). It’s his wife who shows ingenuity, intelligence, bravery and determination, his wife who risks her reputation to save his, and his wife who succeeds where all the men have failed.
It’s a pacy and surprisingly fresh read. I can’t say modern because a contemporary writer wouldn’t get away with Miserrimus Dexter, and actually the only way I can think to put it is to say that if Dan Brown could write he’d write like this. I also got the feeling that this was the sort of things Wilkie dashed off to pay the bills with, which I also think has a direct relationship with how readable it feels today, ‘The Woman in White’, or ‘The Moonstone’ are better written but harder reading if you’re not really a fan of nineteenth century fiction... Now – off to amazon to make a comprehensive Collins list, and perhaps time to dust down ‘Armadale’ and give it another go.