I’m suffering from the beginnings of what looks like being a really horrible cold (I’m taking it like a man) and have been procrastinating all day but it’s time to pull myself together, tear myself away from River Cottage which has been cheering me up for the last hour, and focus on Wilkie Collins.
Collins is my favourite Victorian writer by a distance (so far), I’ve tried with Dickens but have never really got beyond feeling quite worthy for making the effort. Why Dickens is so much better beloved is something I wonder about every time I pick up a Collins book, and ‘Hide and Seek’ has proved no exception to that rule, now I’ve finished it I find I’m missing it – a hard read to follow.
It’s not about the plot which in this case centres on a mysterious deaf and dumb girl. She’s a poor orphan who’s been raised in a circus, and is seen and rescued by an artist by the name of Valentine Blyth who takes her home to his bedridden wife. Terrified of losing the girl they christen Madonna (because of her resemblance to a Raphael Madonna) Valentine keeps what little he knows of her past a closely guarded secret. It’s a short but sad history of a dying mother with a starving baby – a Good Samaritan takes pity on her suckling the baby, and agreeing to foster the infant Madonna (real name Mary) according to her mother’s dying wish.
Madonna grows into a lovely and happy young woman secure in her family and on the verge of falling in love with one Zach Thorpe – the exuberant son of a strictly puritanical father. An ill advised foray to a low bar brings Zach into contact with a mysterious stranger, and leads to his speedy exit from home, and this is where the plot thickens. Through a series of extraordinary coincidences the stranger turns out to be Madonna’s Uncle (through some equally unlikely coincidences Zach will turn out to be her brother), but as I said before it’s not really about the plot...
There are two things about this book that really made it sing for me. The first was the story of Valentine himself – he’s a very mediocre artist, but that doesn’t stop him living for and by his art in the most sincere way possible. It sustains him against every disappointment and brings untold pleasure with it – I like to paint and once had artistic ambitions and can’t tell you how true this rang for me, as well as being a happy reminder of something I hadn’t given much thought to recently.
The second was the story of Mary Grice the hapless young mother. She’s young, innocent, and not altogether wise when she falls in love, and falls from virtue – for which she pays a very heavy price. Forced to flee from her home she’s cheated of her savings and left alone and friendless; an absolute outcast from society. It’s a harsh punishment for a momentary lapse from virtue, but very much the correct fate for a Victorian maiden who strayed. It’s worth remembering too that it’s not very long since having a child out of wedlock was a disgrace. My grandmother put the fear of god in my mother when she was a teenager in the sixties by telling her that pregnancy would result in all of them being thrown out of home (it’s just possible that my grandfather would have done it to – that or not raised an eyebrow). Granny was speaking from not altogether happy experience of her own youthful mishap.
Collins however makes it clear that Mary is a relatively innocent victim, the reader is first invited to apportion blame to her seducer, and then the finger is unmistakably pointed at evangelical puritans; those who live by the bible but without an ounce of Christian charity. Mary’s lover is ignorant of her fate – he’s never given the chance to make things right. Her father would have forgiven and sheltered her, but he too is denied that chance. As everything unfolds it’s equally moving and thought provoking; if Collins could find a sympathetic audience in the 1850’s why was illegitimacy still such a disgrace 100 years later?