A big part of my fascination with Wilkie Collins stems from his fascination with the law regarding marriage and women (I also like his sensationalist plots and dashes of humour) 'Miss or Mrs?' delivers on all counts, but for a modern reader it has a decidedly disturbing element.
Briefly the plot concerns 15 year old Natalie and her two suitors - the definitely middle aged Richard Turlington who is 38 and Launcelot Linzie 15 years his junior (I make that 23). Launcelot is a cousin of Natalie's as well as acting in the capacity of family medical advisor whilst she, her father, and aunt, are cruising on Turlington's yacht to help Natalie recover her vitality after the transition from child to woman. 'Miss or Mrs?' was published at the end of 1871 when the age of consent for girls was still 12 (in 1875 it was raised to 13, it wasn't for another decade that it became 16) the plot demands that Natalie be 15 because at 15 she can be married, but if she's removed from her father's home before she's 16 without his consent it's abduction regardless of whether it's her husband doing the removing or not.
I assume that most current readers will share my distaste at Natalie's youth, Collins makes it clear that she's physically mature with the thoughts and desires of an adult woman, and of course legally she is above the age of consent (she's also mixed race which is another kind of interesting) but she's still only 15 and caught between the unwelcome attentions of Turlington who's determined to wed her, and the far more welcome attentions of Launcelot who is also determined to wed her. Now Turlington is very much the villain of this piece and a thoroughly Bad Man who puts considerable pressure both on Natalie and her father to get his own way. Launcelot is clearly a much better thing but he still puts considerable pressure on Natalie to fall in with his wishes regarding a clandestine marriage between the two of them and it made me uncomfortable.
I don't know if it should given the context of the times (it also turns out that Collins was caught up in just such a clandestine marriage in 1848 when he helped a 33 year old friend marry a girl not quite 16 so he very clearly had no qualms about young brides) but I can't help but read this as the story of a girl who is the property of her father being forced to become the property of someone else. It doesn't help that it's not a choice she's altogether willing to make.
Otherwise it's a thoroughly exciting and amusing story, Launcelot proves himself to be more than worthy of Natalie (and not a sexual predator) Turlington is a horrible villain, and the Father and Aunt are by turns comic and appalling. Natalie's sexual maturity and racial background are unique in my limited experience of Victorian literature, both challenge my preconceptions of Victorian society.
'Miss or Mrs?' is available free as an e-book (though quite apart from preferring paper copies I think it's worth paying for the introductions in my Oxford edition) and well worth reading - at just over 80 pages it doesn't take long.