The Dead Secret–Wilkie Collins (1857)

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.

Ben Nicholson--Wrong Century, Right Place

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.

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.