Tuesday, 4 March 2014

No Name by Wilkie Collins

published 1862







[Magdalen is impersonating her older governess in order to meet people she considers her enemies]

The same quick perception of dangers to be avoided and difficulties to be overcome which had warned her to leave the extravagant part of her character costume in the box at Birmingham now kept her mind fully alive to the vast difference between a disguise worn by gas-light for the amusement of an audience and a disguise assumed by daylight to deceive the searching eyes of two strangers. The first article of dress which she put on was an old gown of her own (made of the material called "alpaca"), of a dark-brown colour, with a neat pattern of little star-shaped spots in white. A double flounce running round the bottom of this dress was the only milliner's ornament which it presented—an ornament not at all out of character with the costume appropriated to an elderly lady….

[Some time later]After placing these dresses side by side on the bed, she looked into the wardrobe once more. It only contained one other summer dress—the plain alpaca gown which she had worn during her memorable interview with Noel Vanstone and Mrs. Lecount.




observations: Should be read with earlier entry on the book.

A lot is made to ride on this dress, perhaps a little unconvincingly, including Mrs Lecount crawling round the floor near the chair in which Magdalen sits, in order to cut out a tiny bit of the skirt. This is going to be ‘proof’ of the impersonation; with some dramatic irony Magdalen keeps almost getting rid of the dress, but doesn’t, leaving herself open to discovery.

Alpaca turns out to be a fabric ‘invented’ – if that is the word - by the textile magnate Sir Titus Salt. Apparently after coming across bales of wool of the alpaca, a kind of lama, he had it worked into a lustrous cloth which became very popular. (The Duchess of Denver, in Dorothy L Sayers Busman’s Honeymoon, claims that Jane Eyre gets married in alpaca – ‘so gloomy to have your bride, however bigamous, insisting on grey alpaca’- see this entry, though actually it is ‘a sober black satin and pearl-grey silk’ as we find here.)

I explained in this entry that it is always quite difficult to find pictures of clothes with spots on – I have no idea why this is. In general the picture above is an impressionistic illustration: no spots, and more of a reddish-brown. But it is an actual governess picture, of roughly the right era, by Vasily Perov


Earlier Collins (who gives us plenty of detail about clothes) describes Magdalen’s mother and sister: ‘the first dressed in dark brown, with an Indian shawl thrown over her shoulders; the second more simply attired in black’ which matches nicely this picture by  Alfred Stevens:

 


-- he obviously had a couple of shawls in the studio and made good use of them: they appear in many of his pictures. He has featured on the blog before here. The picture is from the Athenaeum website.

Collins' Woman in White has also featured on the blog.


13 comments:

  1. Moira - You know, I hadn't thought of it, but you're right; Collins did give a lot of description of clothes. You see that in The Moonstone as well. Interesting! And maybe bits of this book are unconvincing, but I do like the way Collins builds suspense.

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    1. I love Collins for many reasons, and his careful clothes descriptions is just one of them. And yes, he certainly could do suspense.

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  2. Wouldn't spotty fabric be hell to paint? ;-)

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    1. It probably is, but they should welcome the challenge! and it is also true that it is hard to find photos....

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  3. Sorry - not today (or any day, I hasten to add)...

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    1. NO surprise, though I honestly think you might like him if you gave him a chance... it's quite a commitment though, long books. There's a short one coming up by him though. MIght convince you to try a free download from Kindle.

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    2. ok - eyes peeled then....

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  4. Well, we have already decided this is too long for me. I am currently reading my 2nd very long book of the year (after The Little Shadows). It is 525 pages and I am proud of myself.

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    1. What's the new long book? Can we expect a review soon? You are doing well! I like to read a long book when I have the chance to really get stuck in to it - but there is a lot to be said for short books....

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    2. It is Touchstone by Laurie R. King. A review for sure, soon... well, depends on how long it takes to read. I am trying to be more relaxed about reading and not stress if it takes me awhile, but I feel like a book that takes a long time isn't getting my best attention. But between the cat and the husband and the job and movies and TV, and the call of book blogs, sometimes I get distracted.

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    3. And me putting on pressure too! take no notice of me, I just enjoy your reviews. I read that book years ago and can't remember much about it, but I think I liked it...

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  5. Fascinating! When I saw your comment on Twitter, I thought you must be writing about East Lynne, which as you know features a woman who is thought to be dead disguising herself as a governess to be close to her own children. And what about Sarah Waters' Fingersmith which also relies on dress to indicate class in a terrific plot twist? I think I have a copy of No Name somewhere. So many books, so little time . . .

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    1. I know! And No Name is no light undertaking, but I did enjoy it. And great reminder of East Lynne and the Waters - and there must be more...

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