Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

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.

Its Collins touches of comedy and the grotesque that make him so dear to me as a writer, but I think it’s his social conscience that elevates him to classic status. If ‘The Dead Secret’ is anything it’s an attack on the idea of class superiority. Here fortune is an accident – not even one of birth, what matters is a good and true heart, the rest being down to education and opportunity. Collins plays with ideas of legitimacy and identity in several of his novels, and reading ‘The Dead Secret’ it struck me again that surely some of the things he suggests must have been shocking to the society he belonged to. I think there’s some pretty revolutionary socialism going on here – as well as a turning on the head of my pre-conceived notions of what a Victorian audience would have found acceptable. Anyway I’m blowing the trumpet for Wilkie Collins – I think he deserves far more attention – especially when it comes to the lesser known novels, as the nights draw in and the duvet calls you can’t do much better for thought provoking entertainment!

The Augustus Egg painting above (one of a triptych called 'Past and Present') is just because I like it and because I feel it's in the spirit of Collins, though Collins would never allow such injustice to pass unpunished!


  1. Autumn makes me impatient for winter; I hate the in-between seasons whether it is never warm or cold enough to wear what I want.

    It is the perfect season for Victoriana, agreed, and I've been indulging in some Dickens.

    I have only read The Moonstone and The Woman in White by Collins and must branch out to his other lesser known works.

  2. Do read more Wilkie - I somehow never get very excited by Dickens being a total sucker for the sensationalism of Collins. He does such fantastic strong women and seems so indignant about the position of women in society.

    I'm not good on inbetween seasons either, autumn especially makes me feel like times running out like nothing else. It's daft but there you go - and what do you wear? Silly time of year...

  3. I actually prefer the in between times only because where I live summer and winter can be so terribly extreme--far too hot or far too cold to actually be outside and enjoy the miserable weather. The bad thing is the in between times are far too short here, too. I love Wilkie Collins and read your post with the tiniest bit of apprehension. I really liked this book but a couple of people who read it on my suggestion didn't like it a bit, which always makes me feel a bit bad and wonder if my choices are a little off, but you have made me feel confident once again. I'm reading No Name at the moment, which is also about legitimacy and identity.

  4. I have to confess to not having read any Collins, though I enjoyed the film of The woman in white very much. Ken quite likes them, and this one tempts me for the Halloween season especially as I'm just back from Cornwall. i shall get the copy from the library stacks at lunchtime.

  5. I have never read any Collins but you are right, it does seem to be the right time of year with misty evenings and the smell of woodsmoke in the air. I love the autumn as it is the perfect season for curling up with a book and getting cosy.

  6. I was very tempted to do a second Sensation Season this year as I loved reading these kind of books (ad indeed this very book) in the autumn and winter. I am so pleased you loved this you must read more Wilkie, he is brilliant always (well out of the ones that I have read so far) and just great as the nights get darker.

  7. Simon, I love Wilkie but haven't read much of him for years, I read 'The Law and the Lady' over the summer and am currently half way through 'Hide and Seek', the stumbling block might well be 'Armadale' which just looks so long, but is the next one on the shelf.

    Your sensation Season last year was a treat and probably why my mind has been running to all things Victorian at the moment.

  8. Verity - I hope you enjoy it, Danielle has infected me with her apprehension. I've always loved his writing for it's sensationalsim , and because he has some surprisingly modern attitudes. Look forward to seeing what you think.

    Bloomsbury Bell, I know you don't really do 19th Century but if you ever do (forget Jane Eyre) and have a bit of fun with Collins.

    Danielle, I have fond memories of 'No Name' - it was the first novel I bought myself when I became a student (a long, long time ago) and love Collins. I think your judgement is spot on:)

  9. Sounds like an ideal autumnal read. I've only read The Woman in White and have the Moonstone TBR but must add this one to my autumn reading pile. Thank you for the review.

  10. Ah you're making me want to read more Wilkie. I love his books so much!