My (very slow) journey through the complete works of Wilkie Collins continued this weekend with The Dead Secret (1857). This was Collins’s fourth published novel, the one right before he hit the big time with The Woman in White. It’s really quite good, absolutely enjoyable if a bit soppy at times and a little baggy. But there are a number of wonderful characters and some genuinely creepy and atmospheric scenes.
In his preface to the one-volume edition of 1861, Collins describes the phrase of his title as if it were a familiar idiom (he mentions it couldn’t be translated into French). I’d never heard the phrase “a dead secret” before, but apparently it means an “absolute secret, not to be revealed under any circumstances.” In this sense, Collins’s title is ironic, since the secret the story revolves around is supposed to be revealed in the first chapter—and it sort of is, though not conclusively enough for readers, or at least this one, to be sure what it is—but the person who is supposed to reveal it chooses not to.
As I observed recently in regards to The Law and the Lady, Collins here too anticipates Freud’s belief that “no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips.” Collins is fascinated by the idea that whatever is buried will eventually come to light. The Dead Secret begins with the maid Sarah Leeson attending the deathbed of her mistress, Mrs. Treverton, in a remote and falling down Cornish mansion called Porthgenna. Mrs. Treverton writes a letter to husband revealing a secret only she and her maid have known about until now, and just before she breathes her last she is on the point of making Sarah swear that she will pass the letter to Captain Treverton. Instead Sarah—whose hair is shockingly gray even though she is still a young woman, a sign of some terrible thing in her past—hides the letter in a locked room in the disused wing of the house and runs away from the Captain and his five-year-old daughter.
We pick up events fifteen years later when that little girl, Rosamond Treverton, marries a young man, Leonard Frankland. Frankland is blind, blindness being a motif, I gather, that reappears in later works, and of course fittingly literalizes the figurative state of most of Collins’s characters. Collins uses Leonard’s blindness as a way to mediate the telling of the story even in the midst of the action. In this sense it seems an even more sophisticated version of his preference for shifts from third or first person narration to epistolary, or amongst various narrators or between various interpolated texts. These shifts emphasize the telling of the story over the events that are told. So for example Rosamond must describe everything she is doing to Leonard, especially once they find themselves caught up in trying to find the mysterious letter in a place Leonard has never been. This has the effect of slowing down the action while also ratcheting up the suspense, even in instances where there shouldn’t be any. We know where the letter is hidden, after all.
Although the mystery—which concerns them more than anyone—couldn’t be solved without them, Rosamond and Leonard are the book’s least interesting characters. The most interesting is Sarah—certainly she gets the most extraordinary scenes. She’s not really the heroine—the book’s attention is too diffuse, too decentralized among so many characters to have a heroine, and besides it’s unclear for the longest time whether or not we’re even supposed to like her: she’s continually rubbing other characters the wrong way—but she is at the heart of its enigma. Collins loves disguises, and in the scenes that most stuck with me Sarah hides her identity without actually lying about who she is. In the first, under the name Mrs. Jazeph, she becomes the nurse to Rosamond when the latter’s journey back to Cornwall is interrupted by the early arrival of her first child. The nurse, who has been nervous and flighty all evening, keeping herself at an unnatural distance which makes her charge increasingly uneasy, finally approaches Rosamond—but now she comes too close:
[T]he nurse was stopping midway between the part of the room from which she had advanced , and the bedside. There was nothing wild or angry in her look. The agitation which her face expressed, was the agitation of perplexity and alarm. She stood rapidly clasping an unclasping her hands, the image of bewilderment and distress—stood so for nearly a minute—then came forward a few steps more, and said inquiringly, in a whisper: —
‘Not asleep? Not quite asleep, yet?’
Rosamond tried to speak in answer, but the quick beating of her heart seemed to rise up to her very lips, and to stifle the words on them.
The nurse came on, still with the same perplexity and distress in her face, to within a foot of the bedside—knelt down by the pillow, and looked earnestly at Rosamond—shuddered a little, and glanced all around her, as if to make sure the room was empty—bent forward—hesitated—bent nearer, and whispered into her ear these words: —
‘When you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room!’
The hot breath of the woman, as she spoke, beat on Rosamond’s cheek, and seemed to fly in one fever-throb through every vein of her body.
The creepiest part of this passage is the qualifying clause “as she spoke,” which seems initially redundant—did we think the breath came from anywhere else?—but which in the end focuses our attention on the almost animalistic quality of Sarah. Similarly disquieting is the ambiguous pronoun at the end, which makes it hard to distinguish Sarah from Rosamond. (Shrewd readers will guess already that this suggestion of symbiosis is fitting.)
The scene could easily have been risible—and depending on your appetite for sensation fiction maybe it is—if it weren’t so true to the proto-Freudian theory of the unconscious (later Sarah will marvel that she said the last thing she wanted to say, or at least the last thing she thought she wanted to say) and so well executed.
Similarly dramatic is the second scene with Sarah that impressed itself on me. Sarah and her uncle Joseph (more about him in a second) rush to Porthgenna in advance of Rosamond and Leonard and brazen their way into the house, but Sarah is unable to retrieve the secret letter because she is overwhelmed on the threshold of the nfamous Myrtle Room by guilt and anxiety and maybe a genuine ghost. I’m too pressed for time to cite the passage: suffice it to say Sarah confuses the flapping of loose wallpaper with the admonitions of her late mistress and collapses in a dead swoon. Collins shows his genius in making us feel anxious and upset even though we know the (ostensible) cause of the disturbing noises. You can see Collins figuring out how to unsettle readers, and two years later he’ll write a masterpiece in which the kind of scenes I’m talking about here, which here are scattered across the book, will be much more prominent.
But The Dead Secret isn’t just apprentice work. I was disappointed by Ira Nadel’s introduction to the Oxford edition (unusual for that estimable line). Nadel meanders through the novel’s motifs, content simply to point out similar instances in other books by Collins. He never tries to interpret this book on its own merits. I was especially let down because the blurb tells me Nadel is the author of a book called Joyce and the Jews. And my pet theory about this book is that Sarah’s uncle, Joseph Buschmann, is in fact Jewish. Collins never says so, and he never resorts to the typology of this and other periods (hooked nose, swarthy, lecherous, usurious, etc) that would telegraph to readers, even unconsciously, a character’s Jewishness. We do know that Joseph is German, though he proudly asserts that he is also a citizen of England. We know he loves music—his prized possession is a music box given to his elder brother by Mozart himself: this automaton is just part and parcel of the book’s fascination with the uncanny, the Gothic, etc. We know he’s not quite five feet tall. He’s endearing in his insistent guilelessness, and kind and loving to Sarah despite all her troubles. Basically he’s a total mensch and I really wanted him to be Jewish not just because he was my favourite but because he is so determinedly not characterized by negative stereotypes. But being musical and short and kind and a little schmaltzy isn’t enough to make someone Jewish—though it’s a pretty good start.
Can anyone who’s read this book help me out here, and support this fancy of mine?
Either way, The Dead Secret doesn’t deserve to be one. A great book for your vacation reading.