“No Aspirations”: Jezebel’s Daughter

I’m always berating myself for writing such long posts: just one of many ways I can second-guess myself. But I may have hit on a solution: all I need to do is write about something I read so long ago I can hardly remember it.

The book in question is Jezebel’s Daughter (1880), a rather creaky but pleasurable enough novel from Wilkie Collins’s last decade. Longtime readers will know I’m a Collins fan. I read the famous ones pre-blog, but wrote about two of his less well-known books last year. This one kept me amused on a longish flight earlier this year.

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Jezebel’s Daughter is narrated by the now-elderly David Glenney, who reflects on some sensational events from his youth in the 1820s, some sixty years before the time of his telling. In this sense, it is much more conventional than the works of Collins’s prime, Woman in White, say, or the brilliant, underappreciated No Name.

Glenney works in the firm of Wagner, Keller, and Engelman. No idea what this firm does—maybe we’re told and I’ve forgotten, but I actually think Collins can’t be bothered to tell us. I’ve a vague idea they’re a bank. At any rate, they’ve offices in London and Frankfurt. The book begins with the death of Wagner; in his will he has appointed his widow, David’s aunt, as his sole successor. Mrs. Wagner has a shrewd head for business, but her real distinguishing characteristic is her love of socially progressive causes. She immediately hires women to work in the office—and demands the same happen in the much more conservative Frankfurt office. And she rescues a foundling, named Nicholas Grimm but called Jack Straw by the other characters, from a madhouse that she and her late husband had worked hard to reform. Straw becomes a kind of pet or devoted servant to her and affirms his benefactor’s conviction that all anyone needs is to feel useful and loved.

Glenney is sent from London to Frankfurt on a kind of exchange program. Keller, one of the German partners, has sent his son, Fritz, to London to get him away from a girl. Minna is sweet but insipid, of no real interest to anyone in this novel. The editor of this edition puts matters in the best possible light when he says that unlike in many of Collins’s earlier books, where spirited young women are at the center of the action, Jezebel’s Daughter concentrates on two mature women. That means the title is a misnomer: what matters in this book isn’t the daughter, but the mother, the Jezebel of the title, one Madame Fontaine, whose husband, an experimental chemist, bequeathed several vials of deadly and recherché poisons along with their antidotes to his not especially grieving widow.

But it’s not that Madame Fontaine is looking for a man for herself. All her attention is directed toward her daughter. She’s so desperate to marry her daughter into the Keller family that she insinuates herself into the firm by charming—and eventually humiliating—the good-natured bachelor partner, Engelman. Having gained access to Keller’s household, Madame Fontaine poisons him with one of her late husband’s concoctions, carefully measuring the dosage so that he hovers on the brink of death. Then she nurses him back to health (using the antidote), eventually becoming his housekeeper. Keller, grateful to the woman who in fact almost killed him, consents to the marriage between Fritz and Minna. The wedding date falls just before a large debt owed by Madame Fontaine falls due, which is important because Keller abhors debt and would stop the marriage if he found anything so disreputable in his future daughter-in-law’s family.

At the last minute, though, the wedding has to be postponed. The debt comes due; Madame Fontaine is desperate and she steals the money from Mrs. Wagner, who at some point in all this has arrived in Frankfurt—for the wedding, I think, but also because she is determined to force Keller to hire women in the office. The supposedly mad Jack Straw—who has suffered greatly at the hands of the Fontaine family, in a complicated and fairly preposterous back story I won’t go into here—discovers the theft and when Mrs. Wagner confronts Madame Fontaine she does the only thing a woman in her terrible position would do: she poisons the other woman. This all leads to the climactic scene in the Frankfurt mortuary, the Dead House, in which Mrs. Wagner is revived from the dead and replaced by Madame Fontaine who accidentally poisons herself.

Cue the happy ending. Minna is blonde and sweet enough that no one really minds that her mother is an attempted murderer. The wedding goes on as planned, Jack Straw remains devoted to his benefactor, and has the satisfaction of having proved himself more competent than most of the so-called sane characters, and Mrs. Wagner recovers enough to push through her egalitarian vision of the workplace.

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Yes, I gave a few things away here, but unusually for Collins the book isn’t that suspenseful. And that’s a pity, because suspense is what Collins does best. It’s pretty clear what Madame Fontaine is up to. A different novel would have kept us unsure about whether she had actually poisoned Keller. So why should anyone read this book? Its interest is in the pairing of the two widows, both of them smart and determined, and more interesting than any of the men in the book. Because Mrs. Wagner’s drive is channeled in socially productive ways, we’re meant to sympathize with her rather than with her continental (read louche, untrustworthy) opposite number. But Mrs. Wagner is a bit too decent to hold too much of our interest (though she’s never saccharine, I will give Collins that—quite unlike any of the good female characters in Dickens, say.) At the same time, Madame Fontaine isn’t quite compelling enough to be a study in glamorous evil, the lurid reference to Jezebel in the title notwithstanding. Indeed, at its best the novel suggests she’s simply a mother who will do anything to see her daughter made happy. It seems as though Collins is suggesting that in the absence of the reforms desired by Mrs. Wagner a woman could be forced to the excesses of Madame Fontaine. Unlike someone like The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, who does evil for the hell of it, Madame Fontaine does evil for her daughter. She’s as exhausted as I expect today’s Tiger Moms are.

In the end, the only really engaging and sympathetic character is Engelman, the old bachelor. Here’s how Glenney introduces him:

Mr. Engelman, short and fat, devoted to the office during the hours of business, had never read a book in his life, and had no aspirations beyond the limits of his garden and his pipes. “In my leisure moments,” he used to say, “give me my flowers, my pipe, and my peace of mind—and I ask no more.”

The redundancy of the last sentence—it pretty much repeats the previous one—gives you a sense of Glenney’s prose. (He’s just prosy and complaisant enough that I’m willing to believe Collins is aiming for dullness here, rather than just being dull.) Sadly, Engelman’s peace of mind is ruined when Madame Fontaine ensnares him. The kindhearted Engelman is ready to throw over his tidy, careful, indolent bachelor life for the captivating widow but when he realizes she is only using him as part of a greater plan he withdraws to his hometown and dies of apoplexy aka shame. He’s a more tragic version of Joseph Buschmann from The Dead Secret. At least he had the wisdom not to fall in love. Does love ever work out in Collins? It’s enough to make me wonder if there isn’t something ominous (rather than, say, sickly sweet) in the tears which, filling Glenney’s eyes at the end of the book, oblige him to break off in his description of Minna and Fritz’s wedding. Wishful thinking on my part, no doubt, but even in a minor work Collins always leaves us a little uncertain.

Minor Collins, no doubt, but props to Oxford to putting this out in a decent, affordable, well-edited edition.

2015 Year in Reading

2015 was a good year in reading. Better than 2014, though nowhere near the annus mirabilis of 2013 (pre-blog, alas). I read 80+ books. Here are the ones that most stayed with me:

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A Little Life—Hanya Yanigahara

The reading event of the year for me. Everyone has an opinion about it, and they’re mostly strong opinions. I understand the main objections—it’s too long, it’s indulgent, it gets off on abusing its main character and even maybe its readers, its prose is sometimes clunky, even embarrassing—but I don’t feel them. These days I struggle to keep my attention away from my phone, social media, hockey scores, you name it. Sometimes I worry I don’t have the reading stamina I used to. In this regard, A Little Life was a gift: an intense, immersive reading experience that captivated me not just for the week of the reading but throughout the whole year. I wrote about it here.

Married Life—David Vogel

Written in Hebrew and published in Vienna in 1930, this is an extraordinary book that expands our sense of what European modernism was all about.

If I read Hebrew, I would write Vogel’s biography. Born in the Pale of Settlement, Vogel made his way via Vilnius and a brief stint as a yeshiva student to Vienna just in time to be interned as a Russian citizen during WWI. After the war he loafed, nearly penniless, in Vienna’s cafes, finding a little translation work and writing his first poems and novellas. He immigrated briefly to Palestine in the late 20s but Zionism never held much appeal for him and he returned to Europe, eventually finding his way to Paris in the early 30s. Tragically he was interned in the next war, this time as an Austrian citizen, and was deported via the infamous transit camp at Drancy to Auschwitz where he was murdered in 1944.

In Married Life the poor but promising writer Rudolph Gurweil meets the impoverished and rapacious aristocrat Thea von Takov and falls immediately under her spell even though he’s not sure he likes her very much. The two marry after only kowing each other for a few weeks and things go badly from the start. Thea converts to Judaism to marry Gurweil but among other things she’s a terrible anti-Semite. The novel is a drawn-out depiction of a disastrous marriage, but it’s also a glorious depiction of shabby Jewish Vienna.

I started a review and got sidetracked. I’d really like to finish it. If it got this book even one more reader it would be worth it.

Heartfelt thanks to heroic translator Dalya Bilu and to Australian-based Scribe for publishing this masterpiece, not least in such a gorgeous edition.

The Vet’s Daughter—Barbara Comyns

Wonderful, heartbreaking novel about a young woman who levitates. I wrote about it at length here and my appreciation only increased when I taught it this fall. Happily, my students loved it too; I received several excellent papers about it. I’m about to write more about Comyns myself. More on that soon, I hope.

The Heat of the Day—Elizabeth Bowen

The same students who enjoyed Comyns did magnificently with this marvelous novel of the Blitz and its aftermath. The course is on Experimental 20th-Century British Fiction, and I hadn’t taught Bowen for a while (six years, in fact), after my previous attempt at teaching her failed spectacularly. I finally worked up the courage to try Heat again, and am so glad I did. It helped, of course, that this was a particularly strong group of students. It was really fun helping them work through Bowen’s famously thorny sentences. To the North might still be my favourite Bowen, but this novel about lying to one’s self and to others is one of her best. I often grumble about how teaching gets in the way of reading. But sometimes the chance to return to the same set of books is a joy. As Roland Barthes once said, those who don’t re-read are doomed to read the same text over and over again.

Bernard Malamud

Another one from the teaching files, at least in part. I taught an introductory level course on short fiction this fall. (For a while I blogged about it regularly—the first installment is here, if you’re interested—but eventually I capitulated to the semester’s demands and gave up.) The touchstone text was Malamud’s first collection, The Magic Barrel. I’d taught these marvelous stories before but it had been a while and found I liked them even more this time.

I’ve always loved their enigmatic qualities, and had long been curious whether his novels were like that too. So I read The Assistant over Thanksgiving (I started a post on that too which I also failed to complete). It tells the story of Morris Bober’s struggle to eke out a living from his small grocery store in a poor part of New York, a struggle that only deepens when he takes on a drifter as a de facto assistant. It is also one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, with a scene that genuinely shocked me. Malamud’s stories are hardly heartwarming, but they have a lightness missing from this novel. Absolutely worth reading, though.

Various short stories

The Penguin Book of the British Short Story—Philip Hensher, Ed.

As I said, I taught a lot of short stories this fall, and in the process I remembered how much I love the form. Edith Pearlman, Katherine Mansfield, and D. H. Lawrence were particular favourites. I also want to tip my hat to this wonderful two-volume edition of short stories edited by Philip Hensher. I’ve got volume 2 (they’re only available in the UK and a bit pricey but the production values are amazing) and I’ve only read a handful of the stories. But the roster is exciting; not just the usual suspects. Hensher plowed through a ton of late-19th and early-20th century magazines and has found some amazing stuff. I especially like one by “Malachi” (Marjorie) Whitaker, called “Courage”: it’s going straight on to the Spring syllabus. Hensher’s introduction makes a fascinating case for why Britain produced such good short fiction in the years 1890-1940 and why economic and structural conditions make it unlikely for the form to flourish in the same way again (which isn’t the same as saying there are no good instances of the form today: volume 2 goes from P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith). Please Penguin, bring this out in the US.

The Book of Aron—Jim Shepard
A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz—Göran Rosenberg

Holocaust literature is central to my teaching, and so also to my reading. These two books impressed me this year, the first a novel of the Warsaw Ghetto that I wrote about at Open Letters Monthly and the second a second-generation memoir that I reviewed at Words without Borders.

Death of a Man—Kay Boyle

Thanks to Tyler Malone of The Scofield I learned a lot about Kay Boyle this year. The best thing I read by her was a heartbreaking early story about failed pedagogy called “Life Being the Best” (read it!), but the book I spent the most time with was this 1936 novel about an American heiress who falls in with fascist sympathizers in pre-Anschluss Austria. I can’t say I liked the book all that much, but I was utterly fascinated by it and I enjoyed wrestling with its slippery politics. You can read my essay, along with many other wonderful pieces, here.

A Wreath of Roses and Blaming—Elizabeth Taylor

These are two of the best books I read this year, but they’re wrapped up in guilt for me because I promised someone a piece about them and never delivered. (Not yet, anyway…. I still want to, though!) I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Taylor, but these are the best of the bunch. Blaming (1976), her last book, is about what happens to a middle-aged woman after the unexpected death of her husband. It manages to be both rueful and acerbic. A Wreath of Roses (1949) is a masterpiece and if it were in print in the US I would have taught it this semester for sure. Less histrionic than Bowen’s Heat of the Day but similarly a novel of what the war did to England, it’s also a story of female friendship that earns its epigraph from Woolf’s The Waves. Genuinely haunting: I read it in June and still think about it regularly.

The Secret Place—Tana French

French doesn’t need me to sing her praises. Everyone already knows she’s the best crime writer today. Some thought this latest book—for some unaccountable reason I held off reading it for almost a year—in the Dublin Murder Squad series a falling off, but I adored it. I especially loved the echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. French is such a genius because she writes super suspenseful books that are ultimately about something quite different: they are fascinated to the point of obsession with the idea of friendship—interestingly, romance or sex features hardly at all—especially how friendship intersects with the partnership between detectives. Yet again French proves she writes vulnerable men better than anyone.

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Other good things: Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City is a brilliant essay-memoir and I would have written more about it here but it’s late and I’m tired (the Open Letters piece is good, though); The Hare with Amber Eyes (again, everyone already knows it’s amazing—I most liked a surprising Arkansas connection!); Emma (enjoyed re-reading this and wrote about the experience here and here); bits of Balzac (the last 100 pp of Pere Goriot, which practically had me in tears; the scene in Eugenie Grandet when Eugenie wakes at night to see her father and his servant taking his gold downstairs: hallucinatory); Wilkie Collins (I liked both The Dead Secret and The Law and the Lady). Also, good light reading: Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (urban fantasy—smart and funny: read the first two this year and mean to finish the series in 2016); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 books (engaging Norwegian homage to Golden Age crimes, locked room mysteries and the like); Ellis Peter’s Cadfael books (read the first: surely the beginning of a beautiful friendship).

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Reading is a passionately solitary experience, but also a joyously communal one. That’s true (mostly) in my classroom and, increasingly, on social media and the Internet more generally. Sometimes I find the constant stream of books to read that come through my Twitter feed a little daunting, but mostly I’m thrilled to know that so much reading is going on, so vigorously and passionately.

Thanks to everyone who read this blog in 2015, especially those who encouraged me and prompted me to think harder or differently about the books. It is wonderfully strange for me to speak so much with people I haven’t for the most part even met about something so important to me.

Thanks too to those who published me this year, especially the wonderful people at Open Letters Monthly. Here’s to more writing next year, and of course to more reading.

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.