Autumn isn’t my favourite time of year – I don’t mind winter but there’s something about the descent into it that I find dispiriting, but there are compensations. One of them is that autumn feels like the perfect season for Victoriana especially the more sensational kind and this September is being improved for me by Wilkie Collins.
There are a handful of his books I’ve been eyeing up for a read for a while and after ‘The Crimson Petal and The White’ I wanted to stay vaguely in period so went for ‘The Dead Secret’. It starts with a death bed scene followed by a dawn flight from a foreboding Cornish tower, and skips quickly to a dawn wedding some years later. In-between these events the only evidence of a Secret is hidden in said Cornish mansion...
When Rosamond Treverton marries Leonard Frankland it seems to be the most serendipitous of unions – childhood friends who fell in love, Leonards father has bought the Treverton family seat (that mysterious Cornish mansion again) Rosamond brings the money back to the family. Leonard Frankland has two important idiosyncrasies; he’s recently become blind and he’s very proud. His family were once landed gentry but more recently the money’s come from trade, something his father has taught him to be ever so slightly ashamed of. He believes in keeping a proper distance from the lower orders, in fact fundamentally believes in the idea of lower orders.
Rosamond is free from these particular prejudices, she’s a happy, loving, open hearted, and cheerful young woman devoted to her husband. If she has a fault it’s a quick and passionate temper. As the young couple journey south to take up their inheritance they are somewhat delayed by Rosamond producing a son and heir a month early. During her convalescence at a country inn she’s attended by a mysterious nurse who seems strangely agitated and warns her to avoid the Myrtle room at all costs when she reaches her new home.
All this warning does is determine Rosamond to find the room and reveal its secret – and here’s where the resemblance to ‘Cousin Henry’ comes in. The secret is contained in a hidden document which has the power to destroy Rosamond’s happiness and deprive her of her fortune in one fell swoop. She’s faced with the choice of telling her husband everything and hoping that love is enough to overcome his pride, or of destroying all evidence of a Secret no-one even suspects – something that would be made even simpler by Leonards blindness.
I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it all ends happily – both Leonard and Rosamond are unhesitatingly honest but this is by no means all there is to the book. In good Collins style there are a host of other bit players vividly drawn and displaying a plethora of eccentricities, there’s also the hint of a ghost story that conjures both real suspense and comedy into a particularly fraught part of proceedings.