No Name by Wilkie Collins

published 1862





Her headlong course down the house stairs; the brisk activity of all her movements; the incessant sparkle of expression in her face; the enticing gayety which took the hearts of the quietest people by storm—even the reckless delight in bright colours which showed itself in her brilliantly-striped morning dress, in her fluttering ribbons, in the large scarlet rosettes on her smart little shoes—all sprang alike from the same source; from the overflowing physical health which strengthened every muscle, braced every nerve, and set the warm young blood tingling through her veins, like the blood of a growing child. On her entry into the breakfast-room, she was saluted with the customary remonstrance which her flighty disregard of all punctuality habitually provoked from the long-suffering household authorities. In Miss Garth's favourite phrase, "Magdalen was born with all the senses—except a sense of order."

Magdalen! It was a strange name to have given her?


observations: You might think Magdalen was going to be something of a Lydia Bennet: silly and then shameless and impure. But Magdalen is a lot more complicated than that, and so is the plot of this bizarrely tortuous book – it gives away its origins as a long-running serial (cliffhanger at the end of each episode) and the fact that the poor man was quite ill when he came to write the end of it. But if you can run with it, it’s a good rollicking read, and with a couple of strikingly unusual female characters: Magdalen is described by someone as ‘a land-shark in petticoats’, rather a splendid and apt phrase.

Nick Hornby writes very entertainingly about this book - in his monthly column in the Believer magazine he recommended No Name after reading a couple of hundred pages. In the following month’s column, after finishing it, he completely withdrew the recommendation, saying the book was almost unreadable in its later stages, and that it was a full-scale battle to get through it at all. I can see what he means, but I didn’t find it that bad – you have to go with the flow, and do a bit of skimming.

Hornby also points out that the key plot element is not revealed until p130 (in my edition) – that is unless you have read the back of the book or virtually any plot summary, blurb or description, all of which have spoilers. It is, in all conscience, difficult to say much about the book for this reason. Warned by Hornby, I could guess but did not know for certain exactly who would have No Name, and why, and what would happen then.

But there are other things of interest in the book to amuse and entertain. There is a round of amateur theatricals – always a Clothes in Books favourite , and always a favourite of Collins himself and his great friend Charles Dickens. Magdalen will find, in a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals, that she is a very good actress, a talent she will put to unusual use throughout the book. "If airs and graces make an actress, ma'am, Magdalen's performance will astonish us all" says Miss Garth the governess.

The book is both entertaining and very funny. There is a rather unusual aphorism: 
Men some to business, some to pleasure take, But every woman is at heart a rake. 
And this great description of one of the characters: "If he had any brains in that monkey head of his, what a rascal he would be!"

There will be more entries on this book – Collins was good at clothes descriptions….

Collins has featured before, with guest entries on the wonderful Woman in White

The woman standing at the fireplace is by Tissot.

The other  picture, the seated woman in a yellow striped gown, is by William Merritt Chase

Comments

  1. Is the Tissot girl in fancy dress? Those American three-name painters are so good, aren't they!

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    1. Just a casual daytime outfit.... Yes, once you start digging around there are such great artists and pictures to be discovered.

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  2. Moira - I always give Collins credit as one of the founders of the modern detective story. And you're right; he was good at putting in cliffhangers. It's interesting that you'd bring up the wit in this one. There's a thread of humour through his novels that I don't always think gets recogntion.

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    1. Yes I agree Margot - there's something very modern about him. Detective stories, extremely adventurous women, and clever jokes - makes for a good book whether it's 1862 or 2014.

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  3. I'd love to share you enthusiasm but.....

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    1. It probably was the hard-boiled of its day, and quite racy, but I don't blame you - it's a big commitment.

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  4. The Tissot picture is exactly the way I would imagine Magdalen to have been gotten up for her role in "The Rivals". It looks like the model was wearing an actual dress of c. 1785 when she posed, not an unusual practice at the time. A newly made-up costume would have missed some of those details. Meanwhile, she would have been wearing crinolines of the period when the hooped skirt was at its widest. On top of loud colours from newly invented aniline dyes and a fashion for flounces and fluttering ribbons, those skirts wobble and bounce like captive balloons if the wearer isn't exercising the whole of her attention on their control. In my imagination, at least, I see an extra dimension of dynamic energy extended and magnified by vibrating spring steel hoops.

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    1. You always add such fascinating details Ken - thanks as ever. I love the skirts wobbling and bouncing 'like captive balloons' - great phrase. Madeleine is an intriguing and complex character, and I think would be delighted to draw attention to herself in a striking outfit....

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  5. I almost forgot this was Wilkie Collins when I was reading your post. I think I would enjoy it if it was not so long. I have wanted to try The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but am always dismayed by the length. Maybe someday.

    Both images are very nice, especially the one at the top with the pug(?).

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    1. It is a big undertaking, it really is very long. Probably best to start with the other two you mention, both very good.

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  6. I believe that the phrase you quoted "every woman is at heart a rake" is a quote from a poem by Alexander Pope, and not original to Collins.

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    1. Very helpful, thanks for the information.

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