Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford University Press)
Pages: 361 including notes – plus introductions (Paperback)
Form: Collection of Novellas
Wilkie Collins brought to the novella all the qualities for which his full-length fiction is renowned: gripping situations, an atmosphere of mystery and menace, and page-turning suspense. The fast-paced Miss or Mrs? (1871), with its extraordinary heroine, features attempted murder, blackmail, clandestine marriage, and commercial fraud. Eerie and psychologically absorbing, The Haunted Hotel (1878) is set in a modern hotel converted from an ancient Venetian palazzo that houses a grisly secret. The Guilty River (1886), one of Collin’s most haunting tales, blends nostalgia and violence as two alienated men find themselves attracted to the same woman.
All three novellas reflect the prevailing themes of Collin’s later work: the exploration of legal aspects of marriage, his preoccupation with the figure of the Outsider in Victorian society, and the depiction of unconventional relationships. This edition sets Collins’s novellas in the context of his literary career, and the late-Victorian reading public.
This was my first time reading Wilkie Collins. It’s something I’ve intended to do for years and simply never got round to, so when one of my goodreads groups suggested we do a group read of The Haunted Hotel I dusted my copy off and eagerly got down to it. Although not quite what I was expecting and far from perfect as either a ghost story or a murder mystery, I enjoyed the story so much that instead of picking up another book I went straight back to page 1 and got started on the other novellas in this collection. And while I would love to say they didn’t disappoint, the truth is that the last one did. However, each story had some strong things going for it, and each well worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of gothic literature.
The first story in this book, Miss or Mrs? is the most grounded and mundane. The atmosphere and threat come not from a sinister setting or some supernatural force, but a brutally human antagonist. Richard Turlington is your typical nasty, controlling, older man who plans to marry a girl in her teens and has an unpleasantly strong influence over her father to make it happen. To be honest there is nothing particularly interesting about him – he’s heavily hinted to be a very bad guy from the first chapter and then goes on to prove himself a very bad guy. What was interesting was the heroine – Natalie is fifteen years old and mixed race (mostly of white extraction but with visible signs of her ‘Negro blood and French blood‘). There are some unfortunate implications that it is her non-white blood that makes her sexually mature at such an early age but, for the most part, her appearance is described without unpleasant fetishisation, as both beautiful and desirable – tall, dark, and a little bit booby, she’s about as far as I can imagine from the stereotypical Victorian ‘damsel in distress’. And she’s got a likable personality too, I wasn’t shouting at her not to be an idiot at any point – she doesn’t love Turlington, she has no intention of marrying him and defies his commands to stop her seeing her friends, but at the same time she’s a fifteen year old nervous at the thought of eloping with the man she does love and abandoning her father and that conflict was well played out. She actually read like a (mature) teenager rather than either an adult or a child, as often happens. A modern audience does need to take in account the time period when considering the hero however, cause whatever way you look at it and however much he may love her, he’s still a man in his twenties getting it on with his fifteen year old cousin (strangely enough at fifteen I would have been less bothered by the age than the ‘cousin’ thing while now at 23 it’s the other way round).
Overall though it was an enjoyable story. The legal intricacies and hypocrisies of the law that Collins uses were an interesting way to go about trying to solve the conflict and the clandestine marriage, at least, was directly taken from an incident in Collins’ own life which always adds another layer of interest. The contrast and relationship between Natalie and her best friend, who married for a title and money and now regrets it, was a nice example of female friendship (even if their conversations, by necessity of length, all revolved around men) and the comic banter between Natalie’s father and her aunt constantly interrupting each other was well played and not too exaggerated. In the end, however, Miss or Mrs? turned out to be one of those awkward-length stories where an ending that would be absolutely fine in a shorter story just feels rushed and not-quite-right once you’ve spent this much time getting to know the characters. It’s a danger with the novella form, and one that’s hard to avoid, but I just felt a little…cheated I guess with how quickly everything resolved itself at the end.
The Haunted Hotel is, I believe, the best known of these three novellas – and not without reason. As I said before, it’s not at all what I was expecting going in and it’s not ‘perfect’ as either a ghost story, murder mystery, or relationship drama and occasionally the three threads don’t always mesh well together, but it’s a very enjoyable read and certainly not without merit. Here I confess I found the opposite problem to Miss or Mrs? and found the plot far more interesting than the characters. Agnes is alright I suppose, her refusal to blame the ‘other woman’ for her fiancée leaving her is definitely admirable – since the other woman didn’t now he was engaged I’d have had less sympathy with Agnes if she had. And her conflicted feeling after he dies mysteriously shortly after his wedding are believable and well portrayed. But eeeeugh, Henry. I just can’t stand men who go by the theory ‘if I ask her enough she’ll say yes eventually’. No! If you keep pressuring a girl who’s not interested all you do is make her uncomfortable. In fairness this was actually well portrayed and other characters did tell him off for his timing, but he still gets the girl in the end. The one character I really liked though was the villainess of the piece – the strangely pale and beautiful Countess Narona who snatched Lord Montbarry away from the virginal Agnes by being way more interesting but a lot less nice. A victim of numerous scandals, you’re never sure quite how much she deserves and quite how much of it is malicious gossip that in turn drives her even further away from societal norms and into more scandal.
But onto the plot. I was very surprised to that almost the whole first half of the novel is set in England, rather than Venice and that the Hotel barely features until the latter chapters. The early stuff sets up the characters, the relationships, and the mystery – Lord Montbarry’s death in a Venetian palace while on his honeymoon – but the supernatural gothic stuff I was expecting doesn’t show up at all until the last half. Which results in a slightly disjointed story and me wondering slightly why the supernatural stuff was included at all. Don’t get me wrong the idea of a dead man’s relatives staying in the room where he died and each experiencing supernatural visions, odours, or dreams that hint at his death being a concealed murder is a powerful idea. As a plot for a ghost story I like it, it just doesn’t quite work with there being such a very long and mundane set up to it. It feels a bit awkward and out of place, especially when all the clues needed are already there to work out what happened. I’ll give Collins a little credit here and say that the familiar murder-mystery trope used probably wasn’t as overused in 1878 as it is now in 2012, and that Victorian audiences probably hadn’t been quite so exposed to it, but I still managed to solve the murder within a paragraph of the first real clue appearing – well before any ghostly activity at all.
I was a little disappointed too that not much had been done with Venice itself. It’s such a beautiful, unique, and almost intrinsically gothic city that I wanted to see it getting a bit more love – but the haunted hotel might as well have been anywhere else in the world for all the use that was made of the setting of the city itself. We get lots on the Venetian architecture within the former palace, but very little of the rest of Venice, not even just to add to the already creepy atmosphere. Buuut, that’s just my love of Venice speaking. The atmosphere is well created by just the Hotel and it’s a compelling story, even if you do get to the conclusion before the characters. It also leaves you with plenty of interesting questions, particularly about the Countess, whilst wrapping the plot itself up quite nicely. Is the Baron really her brother as she claims? Or her lover as is strongly implied by everything else in the story? Personally I think definitely the second, but quite possibly both. Is her folly self-inflicted or spurred on by some supernatural force? Her premonition that Agnes would destroy her genuine? or merely self-fulfilling paranoia?
And now, The Guilty River, the weak link of the book. And it started so well too, a sympathetic protagonist, a sympathetic antagonist, a feisty love interest but then… Eugh, the protagonist lost my sympathy when he refused to condemn the antagonist’s threatening and scary behaviour towards the love interest. When the girl who you fancy’s father says ‘my lodger threatened to kill anyone who tries to take my girl away from him’ the appropriate response is not to think the father must have wound him up into saying something silly. When a girl makes it clear she finds a man’s advances uncomfortable and threatening you don’t feel sympathy for the guy and admire his patience and devotion against adversity. You just don’t. And I don’t care that he’s a pacifist and not the jealous type – you don’t need to be an overprotective jerk to realise that that behavior is totally out of line and not something to sympathise with. It shows a basic lack of respect for the girl that had me hoping that neither of them got her.
And the antagonist – obviously I lost sympathy with him too for this behavior. Suddenly losing your hearing might excuse you from being incredibly depressed and a dick to people for a while but it does not excuse you from sexual harassment. And then the ‘its in the blood’ excuse. Oh of course, you’re a villain because your father abandoned a girl, your uncle cheated at dice and your father was a murderer! Clearly the descent into villainy was almost predetermined! Yeah – not buying it.
Despite a wonderfully realised setting, some humourous fish-out-of-water moments with the protagonist trying to get to grips with Victorian high society, and an interesting storyline, the characters just bothered me too much to rate this one any higher than a 3 star. The only character I felt genuine concern for in this tale of murder and jealousy was the loyal, evil-detecting, dog.
Overall though I think there’s something to appreciate in each of the stories. Although it took me a while to get through the last story I am glad I read the whole book instead of just stopping after The Haunted Hotel. Wilkie Collins writing is much more accessible than I had expected and am now really looking forward to reading The Woman in White for another group next month.