Friday, May 17, 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins

Reading to Know - Book ClubCarrie hosts the Reading to Know Book Club each month, and there is a great line-up of children's and adult classics this year! Since I've read and enjoyed both The Woman in White (linked to my review) and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, when No Name was chosen for the April selection, I decided to join the fun. I did actually finish it at least a week before the end of April, but I'm late, as usual, to the party when it comes to writing my summary post. Such is life.

No Name is quite different from the other two Collins titles that I have read. Where the other novels were full of plot twists and surprises, this novel seemed overly predictable to me, at least in the overarching plot. But in spite of the fact that it wasn't too difficult to guess the characters' purposes or designs, it was very interesting to see the details of the story unfold. I still think that Collins is a masterful storyteller, and I would choose him over Dickens any day!

This story begins as a seemingly benign tale of domestic life, focusing on the Vanstone family: a benevolent and cheerful father, a weak (sickly) but loving mother, a reserved and proper older daughter Norah, and a frivolous, carefree younger daughter Magdalen. When the fortunes of the family suddenly change and leave the two daughters penniless orphans, it is not difficult to predict how the two young women will react to their reduced circumstances. Norah accepts her lot with quiet dignity and strives to make the best use of the opportunities at hand, while Magdalen starts plotting revenge on the estranged relative who took advantage of the letter of the law for his own gain.

In her quest for revenge and vindication, Magdalen unflinchingly weaves a complex web of deception, though she is always just one small circumstance away from detection. She obtains the ends she desires, but at great cost to her principles and character.* As one would expect, she does not find happiness or satisfaction. Eventually, all her tangled web unravels, leaving her in even more dire straits than before: friendless, poor, and ill. At this point, Collins reintroduces a minor character, who, predictably arrives at the opportune moment to save Magdalen from the poorhouse and from herself.

Yes, the details all fall into place a little too perfectly in both her demise and her restoration, but in spite of the predictability and idealism of a happy ending, I was struck by an overwhelming picture of grace as it drew to a close. This novel is a prime example of the point made in my previous post regarding how the wretchedness of sin is sometimes necessary for the brilliance of grace to shine forth. I don't know if this was what Collins intended, but I can't help but think that it would have been obvious to his readers in the more culturally Christian mindset of the Victorian era. Even more pointedly, I realized in retrospect, that all that predictability really served to reveal my own propensity to sin. If I could so easily predict Magdalen's thirst for revenge and the downward path she would so doggedly pursue, it clearly shows that I could be capable of the same thing. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

So, while I enjoyed Collins' well-crafted story and unique characters, this novel proved to be more than just an entertaining period piece. Once again, classic literature reveals a depth and wisdom that is rooted in a Christian worldview (whether that was Collins' personal faith or simply a product of a largely Christian culture, I don't know), that is so often lacking in more modern novels. So if you're looking for an intriguing novel, I would recommend No Name - it's easy enough for summer (or anytime) reading, but will give you plenty to ponder if you choose! (It's even available free for Kindle, which is the format in which I read it.)

*Note: This is not a typical "fallen woman" story in the sense that Magdalen loses her purity, but she certainly compromises her moral character with the lies she must propagate to work her revenge. 

1 comment:

hopeinbrazil said...

What a great review - especially your comments on human fallenness. (I had some similar thoughts on the book I just finished reading, but couldn't articulate them as well as you did.) I look forward to downloading this one on my Kindle.