Friday, March 21, 2008

"Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait"

According to novelist Wilkie Collins (contemporary of Charles Dickens) this is the recipe for a good novel. I'm not certain that he's made me cry yet, but he certainly has made me laugh and even more certainly made me wait for the answer to the mystery.

I should say mysteries, because so far I've been able to read the two best known of his novels, The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Both of them, though slightly dry for the first few pages, soon picked up speed and completely absorbed me- even though The Woman in White was on my laptop and I could only read all 800+ pages on my laptop screen. (The books are free to download from Project Gutenburg- but I opted to buy The Moonstone.)

The novels could be catagorized as "gothic" (as many novels in those days were) and yet they are just as likely to be called the first in the long and prosperous line of detective novels. They are mysteries, as well as romances, with a touch of the strange (though not unnatural). They are English, yet they are connected to things foreign.

The Woman in White first came to my attention when I was in London, as the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber was playing at the time and there were posters for it everywhere. Then it continued to follow me by being mentioned several times over at Narniaweb by members that I respected. Finally I downloaded the thing onto my computer (being at the time away from a library) and proceeded to read it on my laptop.

I had cheated, however, to make sure that it wasn't a ghost story, by reading the Wikipedia synopsis of the musical. The book, however, is quite differant and there were several surprises still in store for me.

The Woman in White is the tale of a young art teacher, Walter, and two half-sisters Marian and Laura (his students). He falls in love with Laura, the younger (and more beautiful) of the sisters, but their differance in situation makes it impossible to marry. She is, furthermore, promised to marry an old friend of her father's. Things become more complicated, however, when a woman dressed in white appears, warning Laura against the marriage. Laura, however, honors her dead father's wishes and marries her betrothed, but not without premonitions of the evil that is later to befall her and her sister under the man's roof. Marian (the ugly sister and the book's real protagonist) and Walter must set out on a quest to unravel the mystery intent on distroying their lives. Murder, madness and mistaken identity weave their way through this narrative, ending in a most astonishing solution.

However, even more astonishing in conclusion is The Moonstone, which, unfortunately, was once again somewhat spoiled for me by having seen the Wishbone version as a child. The novel holds so many more layers, though, that there was a great deal I was unaware of.

In this one, a famous Indian diamond, used in Hindu religious rituals, is stolen by a British officer, who then maliciously bequeathes it to his niece to revenge himself against his sister. He knows that the Indian priests will stop at nothing to recover the diamond. True to his expectation, woe is wreaked upon the house of Verinder, and young Rachel turns against her faithful suitor, who then mounts an investigation to discover what really happened to the diamond.

In both of these novels Wilkie Collins employs an unusual but effective narrative style. Both books are "compilations" assembled by the heros (Walter and Franklin), consisting of individual narratives of the principle charaters at the point in the story when they were present. These narratives consist of firsthand accounts from the heros, one heroine, one butler (who turns to Robinson Crusoe in any difficulty), a coroner's report, a zealous but misguided reformer, a doctor specializing in opium, an invalid uncle with impossible nerves, and finally (to top it all), a report from one of the villians himself.

The mixed narrative style is fascinating, giving a depth and amusement to the book, as well as a sense of realisim, since in real life, it is minor characters (like butlers) who see the most. It also preserves the mystery of the novel, since we are kept guessing at things (such as why Rachel has turned so adamently against Franklin) that would be quite clear if the heroine herself had narrated the novel.

So if you're looking for early 19th century literature, and you're not in the mood for Austen or Dickens, and feel like trying a mystery...I heartily recommend Wilkie Collins.


Rose Marchen said...

Sound interesting! As soon as I finish "Cheaper by the Dozen" and sequel, I shall look into them! =)

Abby said...

Do you think I would like them?

Elenatintil said...

Yes, I think you would. You do tend to enjoy some of those older classics that everyone else dispairs of reading...and I would love to discuss them with you!

~ Shannon said...

Hi! I came over from Clare's blog :) I recently read both of these novels, and liked them very well indeed! And, like you, I had seen the Wishbone version of "The Moonstone!" A very good review; I enjoyed in thoroughly. You might also like "Poor Miss Finch" -- I found it quite interesting, and just as exciting as the other two.

Yours in Christ,