The Law and the Lady–Wilkie Collins (1875)

The critical consensus is that Collins’s great period is 1860-68, when he produced the four masterpieces Woman in White, No Name, Armadale, and The Moonstone. A couple of summers ago I devoured the first three, and loved them all, especially No Name, which I think about often. I was fortunate enough to have read the fourth in college under the expert guidance of Rohan, but I think it’s time to read it again.

At any rate, for once, the critical consensus seems to be right, at least judging from this later work. The Law and the Lady is very good but not quite top-shelf Collins. It hasn’t the seat-of-your-pants excitement of his best work, but it’s perfectly enjoyable and spry enough to keep readers guessing. Plus if you’ve any interest in Freud, you will enjoy the novel’s uncanny prefiguring of the theory of the unconscious.

The book opens with Valeria Brinton having just become Valeria Woodville—except that in a slip of the pen (paging Dr. Freud…) she signs her maiden name. The mistake isn’t just an indication of Valeria’s independent mindedness, although that will be amply demonstrated in the book’s events. It’s also an unconscious recognition that something isn’t right about the name she’s taking on.

It isn’t long before Valeria learns that her husband’s name isn’t Woodville. Her husband implores her not to look into the matter further. But that’s just what she does. Could we possibly be interested in a book about any woman who wouldn’t have? Before long she learns that her husband, whose real name is Macallan, was tried in Scotland for poisoning his wife. The Scottish part matters because Scots’ law apparently still to this today allows a verdict of Not Proven, which is somewhere between acquittal and guilt. The accused is free to go, but not free of suspicion or innuendo. Insisting that no one, not even his wife, could believe entirely in his innocence, Macallan leaves for the Continent. Yet Valeria is undaunted by this dereliction and sets out to prove Macallan wrong by proving him blameless

Valeria’s first step is to read the trial proceedings. Collins first published his works in serial form, and like other writers of the period, most notably his friend Dickens, he was a genius with suspenseful chapter endings. Here for example is Valeria launching her career as detective:

I drew down the blind, and lit the candles. In the quiet night—alone and unaided—I took my first step on the toilsome and terrible journey that lay before me. From the title-page to the end, without stopping to rest, and without missing a word, I read the Trial of my husband for the murder of his wife.

After a paragraph like that, who’s not going to turn the page/buy the next installment/watch the next episode? Indeed, Valeria’s description of her reading experience—at once breathless and assiduous—is a good description of our own. But although she might have taken her first step unaided, she gets a lot of help the rest of the way. A friend of her husband’s, Major Fitz-David, an aging ladies’ man, introduces her to some of the people who testified at the trial. Her late father’s law clerk, Mr. Benjamin, together with a Mr. Playfair, the lawyer who represented Eustace at trial, support her inquiries and eventually uncover the crucial piece of evidence. And even her new mother-in-law, who at first refuses to speak to her, begrudgingly comes to her side, even though she insists to the end that Valeria must not tell Eustace what she has found.

It is true, though, that Valeria is the force that keeps the investigation going, even when it seems to flag and even when she has to leave England to nurse Eustace back to health. He lies unconscious for weeks after having been wounded in Spain (for the life of me I can’t remember why he went there or what the fighting was about—I can’t seem to find it by flipping though the book, either). His actions exemplify his character: he’s supposed to be gallant but he’s always making a mess of things—indeed, we learn that the same ambivalent mixture of righteousness and weakness characterized his relationship with his first wife, Sarah, whom he married because he felt sorry for her. (We’re supposed to think her nasty and shrewish, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her. Collins could have done a lot more with Valeria’s feelings about her predecessor—the way Du Maurier did so successfully in Rebecca.) The vacillation and general pain-in-the-assedness of Eustace’s character is a weakness in a novel that depends on Valeria’s profound belief in him. Any time Valeria seems to question her motives—to wonder what it means that she’s undertaking all this effort and risk for someone who has treated her so badly, or to acknowledge that what really thrills her is the investigation itself more so than the eventual exoneration of her husband—she pulls back. I don’t see much evidence that Collins wants us to do anything but take her at her word.

At times, the book gets distracted from its protagonist and her husband. In those other books by Collins I admired his unusual narrative structures—his shifts in points of view or in media (from third person narration to letters, for example) all within a single book. That play with structure doesn’t work as well here. The trial, for example, is presented to us indirectly, through the report Valeria finds. But the book chooses to summarize it rather than transcribing it as a “found text”, presumably because that would be more interesting than a lengthy legal document, but the result is just the opposite: all the momentum the book had built up gets killed and it takes a while to recover. Similarly, a lot of the detective work is done by Playfair and Benjamin, but we hear about it through their letters to her instead of seeing it first hand.

But the real distraction doesn’t lie in the narration—it comes from the introduction of the character Misserimus Dexter, an old friend of Eustace’s and a house guest at the time of Sarah’s death. Dexter is supposed to be a menacing yet magnetic character of the kind that appears elsewhere in Collins—Count Fosco of The Woman in White might be the best example. But where Fosco genuinely is magnetic Dexter is more irritating. We hear a lot about his eccentricity, his genius, his mania. He lives in an isolated half-lavish, half-dilapidated mansion with a cousin who herself is a grotesque figure, a lumpen simpleton who is nonetheless devoted to him and, come to think of it, in this regard acts as a mirror for Valeria’s relation to Eustace. Dexter is a dandy, an elegant and beautiful man despite what the novel calls his “deformity”: he is a paraplegic who is mostly confined to a wheelchair except in some dramatic moments that Collins clearly relishes when he slips its chains and propels himself along by only the force of his arms. Valeria coaxes from Dexter his memory of the events around Sarah’s death—yet in doing so brings him closer and closer to madness until, having mentioned a letter written by Sarah on the day she died, a letter that promises to clear up the circumstances behind her death, he lapses completely into insanity.

The last part of the book concerns the search for this letter, which, we learn, is a suicide note from Sarah to Eustace that fully exonerates him. (That isn’t much of a spoiler, since we’re led to believe from pretty early on that Eustace didn’t do it. But this is a spoiler: Sarah kills herself by taking arsenic she had had Eustace purchase because she is convinced that in small doses it could remedy the kind of skin conditions that disfigure her—and she does so because Dexter, who had loved her before her marriage and is still furious that she rejected his proposal, shows her Eustace’s diary, in which he laments having married her and complains of her incessant wheedling and general poor character.) The letter leads us to the best part of the book: its fascination with the permanence of objects, especially those we think to be junk.

That fascination is already evident when Valeria first visits Dexter at what her mother-in-law satirically calls his palace:

We had got out of the carriage, and we were standing on a rough half-made gravel path. Right and left of me, in the dim light, I saw the half-completed foundations of new houses in their first stage of existence. Boards and bricks were scattered about us. At places, gaunt scaffolding-poles rose like the branchless trees of the brick-desert. Behind us, on the other side of the high road, stretched another plot of waste ground, as yet not built on. Over the surface of this second desert, the ghastly white figures of vagrant ducks gleamed at intervals in the mystic light. In front of us, at a distance of two hundred yards or so, as well as I could calculate, rose a black mass which gradually resolved itself, as my eyes became accustomed to the twilight, into a long, low, and ancient house, with a hedge of evergreens and a pitch-black paling in front of it. The footman led way towards the paling, through the boards and the bricks, the oyster-shells and the broken crockery, that strewed the ground.

I’m intrigued by the bathos of this would-be Gothic scene (the ancient house amidst abandoned construction sites: it’s unclear whether the new will even have the vigor needed to replace the old). It reminds me of something from Dickens, maybe Our Mutual Friend, probably because of all the waste, the oyster-shells and broken crockery (where’s that come from?). Waste is central to the resolution of the plot. Before being called to her husband’s bedside in Spain, Valeria visits his former country house, the place where Sarah died. Wandering the “wilderness of weeds” that is the garden of the shut-up house, something catches her eye:

Beyond the far end of the garden, divided from it by a low paling of wood [Collins will never say “fence” when he can say “paling”—though admittedly it has that fitting resonance of shock and suspense—turning pale, etc—though maybe I’m doing him an injustice and “fence” is just an Americanism], there stretched a piece of waste ground, sheltered on three sides by trees. In one lost corner of the ground, an object, common enough elsewhere, attracted my attention here. The object was a dust-heap. The great size of it, and the curious situation in which it was placed, roused a moment’s languid curiosity in me. I stopped, and looked at the dust and ashes, at the broken crockery and the old iron. Here, there was a torn hat; and there, some fragments of rotten old boots; and, scattered around, a small attendant litter of waste paper and frowsy rags.

Litter here of course means trash, but the word can also refer to a vehicle, and in The Law and the Lady this trash becomes the vehicle for Eustace’s exoneration and Valeria’s triumph. Biggest spoiler alert of all: the torn pieces of Sarah’s letter are exhumed from this pile and pieced together forensically. There’s nothing frowsy about this waste after all!

Here’s where the novel got spooky for me. For these descriptions of waste, on top of or beside which life goes on, and which never fully decay, reminded me uncannily of Freud’s descriptions of the unconscious. Already in “The Aetiology of Hysteria” from 1896 Freud compared the analyst to an explorer who excavates a ruined site and is able to uncover from its remains whole vanished way of life. He never wavered from the image of the unconscious as a wellspring to be excavated (lest its unhealthy manifestations—its symptoms—continue to debilitate the patient) but towards the end of his career he modified the image. In the great Civilization and its Discontents (which could be the motto for Gothic and Sensation fiction) from 1930, for example, he returns to the image of the mind as a ruined city, even the Eternal City, Rome, yet admits that the image doesn’t quite work because unlike in Rome, where the present day covers up the past, so that only hints of its past strata are apparent, in the mind nothing ever goes away. If we wanted to think of the unconscious as a city, we would need to conceive of every era of its history as coexisting so that we would, for example, need to imagine new buildings superimposed over the old ones they replaced.

In The Law and the Lady the future is only possible because the past persists. But what would that mean for a crime novel? Can we speak of solving a crime when any resolution comes from the fact that nothing is ever settled? What else from the past might surface to trouble this marriage that seems now to have been saved? Interestingly, Eustace elects not to learn what his first wife wrote in the letter, preferring only to know that it is enough to absolve him of blame. The novel’s resolution is thus appropriately qualified, and Collins gives us a powerful image of that uncertainty in the envelope containing Sarah’s letter, which Eustace elects to save for his soon-to-be-born child. That’s a potentially explosive inheritance, maybe not quite the bombshell that Pinkie leaves his progeny at the end of Greene’s Brighton Rock (which I read as a modernist Gothic/Sensation novel), but pretty strong stuff nonetheless.

It must be significant, too, that this all takes place in Scotland, one of those Gaelic Gothic dark undersides to English modernity—right after the passage I quoted in which the dust-heap makes its first appearance, Playfair ruefully says to Valeria that something like that wouldn’t be tolerated in the grounds of an English house—though of course the passage describing Dexter’s wasteland “palace” suggests he’s not entirely right.

At any rate, it’s that ending that makes me think The Law and the Lady is more than merely competent and engaging. The whole time I wanted Collins to leave us in doubt as to Eustace’s innocence, the way Du Maurier or Patricia Highsmith would have. Making Valeria protect a murderer would just be more interesting, though perhaps more sadistic. But in the end there’s enough unsettling about The Law and the Lady to make it a fitting depiction of the past’s similarly unsettling refusal to go away.

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7 thoughts on “The Law and the Lady–Wilkie Collins (1875)

  1. Good question, Tom. I just started Dead Secret, and it seems very good too. Maybe there are no super-duds in the Collins oeuvre. Though I bet there are. There’s one about a blind girl (Poor Miss Finch?) that has the potential to be pretty soppy. The Law & the Lady is totally worth checking out. I cannot believe I’ve now read a 19th century novel that neither you nor Rohan has read….

    • The duds are all rumors – maybe they do not exist. Such is often the case.

      If you can read a 19th century novel that The Little Professor has not read, I will really be impressed. In some post, she put up a photo of her shelf of Collins novels, complete, potential duds and all.

  2. I am just a humble modernist. So that is not likely… Speaking of 19th Century novels, I just finished Pere Goriot. Wonderful! Hoping to make time to write about that before too long.

  3. Pingback: The Dead Secret–Wilkie Collins (1857) | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  4. Pingback: 2015 Year in Reading | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

  5. Pingback: “No Aspirations”: Wilkie Collins’s Jezebel’s Daughter | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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