No Name, by Wilkie Collins

I finally finished reading this baggy monster! Actually, it’s by far my favorite of the three Collins novels I’ve read. I feel that all good Victorianists are supposed to revere The Woman in White and The Moonstone as paragons of sensation fiction, since they’re so formally inventive, but I think No Name is far more controversial. There’s no way I can do justice to any of it of this amazing novel yet, since I literally just finished it, but I’ll sketch out some initial thoughts to pursue in future posts.

First of all, a character list:

Magdalen Vanstone: Wild protagonist of this wacky novel, but also one member of a family of four: Dad (Andrew Vanstone), Mom (Mrs. Vanstone), and older sister (Norah). Magdalen has a theatrical streak, which she employs to the fullest extent of its capacity in this novel, by making a living on the stage briefly, then impersonating her governess, Miss Garth, in order to get close to Noel Vanstone, then impersonating a Miss Bygrave in order to marry Noel Vanstone, then impersonating Louisa, her maid, in order to get close to her dead husband’s uncle, Admiral Bartram. Her one purpose in all of this–to get back the fortune her parents meant to leave she and her sister, but couldn’t–fails at every turn. All her strength, power, and passion ends up nowhere, really, except in the middle of a convenient marriage plot. Like many strong Victorian heroines, her strength ends up wearing her out, and she gets a near-fatal brain fever that molds her into a properly idolatrous wife for a sailor we only meet at two points in an almost-800-page novel.

Norah Vanstone: Magdalen’s long-suffering older sister. When Mom and Pop Vanstone die intestate, she accepts her disinheritance with the steady resignation worthy of a George Eliot heroine’s standard of perfection (although her heroines never seem to reach that standard very easily, either). She becomes a governess for an awful family, then she eventually gets a better situation with a family who loves her. Her letters pop up at intervals throughout the novel, usually begging Magdalen to write to her, reunite with her, or just generally start resigning herself to fate. Eventually, Mrs. Lecount writes to Norah asking her to describe Magdalen for the purposes of preventing her from being prosecuted for a crime, and Norah starts pursuing any trace she can find of her sister. This is how she meets George Bartram, who later proposes to her twice, and who she ends up marrying. This puts Norah in control of the fortune that Magdalen has spent the entire plot trying to swindle back. Also, Norah finds the codicil letter that Magdalen went into domestic service to try to find.

The Vanstone Parents: Mr. Vanstone married a creole woman from New Orleans when he was in the military, but the marriage was a terribly bad idea from the beginning. His wife left him, so he provided her with an allowance, and headed back to England, where he met “Mrs.” Vanstone. They lived together as man and wife and had two daughters together. When the creole wife dies, Mom and Pop Vanstone immediately run off to get legally married. But by a quirk of British inheritance law, the children that were completely provided for in their unmarried will, are no longer provided for after the legal marriage of their parents, since technically, there were no children born within the marriage. Mr. Clare, the next-door neighbor, tells Mr. Vanstone of this detail after Mr. Vanstone tells him the secret of his situation, and Mr. Vanstone again runs off to take care of that pressing matter. Unfortunately, he dies on his way home from writing a new will. And the new will isn’t valid until the new Mrs. Vanstone signs it. And she’s pregnant. And she faints as soon as she hears that her beloved husband is dead, goes into early labor, gives birth to a child that promptly dies, and then promptly dies herself. No signature. No will. No inheritance. Huge novel.

Frank Clare: The son of the next-door neighbor, Mr. Clare. He’s a good-for-nothing lazy guy, who gets all kinds of awesome job opportunities and then whines about how hard he has to work. When he falls for Magdalen, he lets her convince him to be in a private theatrical with her, and she promptly falls madly in love with him. They want to get married, and Mr. Vanstone gives his blessing, as long as Frank proves himself by going to China for a year and learning a trade so that he can support his wife. Frank bellyaches, Magdalen tries to reach a compromise, but her father’s death and her newfound poverty make it imperative for Frank to go to China. He eventually breaks off their engagement and falls out of the narrative. At the end of the novel, we find out that he has stowed away on a ship headed for England and married a rich colonial widow who is old enough to be his grandmother.

More later…

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