So I’m just finishing up the Goodreads discussion on No Name, by Wilkie Collins. Which means I’ve finished the book! I really ought to have read it sooner and I’ll tell you why. It has SO much in common with Of Moths & Butterflies it’s almost frightening. In fact, if you take my suggestion and read it, and if you’ve read Moths, you’ll probably have a hard time believing this book didn’t inspire mine. But it didn’t. It was actually my uber-fantastic illustrator B. Lloyd who suggested I read it. And yes, as I said, I should have done it sooner.
The book starts out with two sisters. Norah and Magdalen. Now, knowing that Collins and Dickens were best friends, you can probably bet that name Magdalen means something. Only not quite what you’d think. Well … not quite what I thought. He does what he does best, gives us clues and then leads us astray, only to bring us round again so that we’re looking at an issue from an angle we hadn’t expected, or would not have chosen for ourselves. (I love this about George Eliot, too, particularly in her treatment of the Jewish culture, family, and gentlemanly honour in Daniel Deronda.) Magdalen is no Magdalene by the common understanding. (For more on the topic of the Victorian Magdalene and Magdalene societies, I’ll have an upcoming post.) What she is, but does not know, is the illegitimate child of her parents who, for most of her life, were never married. They couldn’t marry, you see, because, like George Eliot’s life companion, George Henry Lewes, he was already married. But then his wife dies. His girls are nearly women. He marries the mother of his children, then learns, by a peculiar condition of law, that a man’s will, upon his marriage is void, and must be rewritten.
Up to that moment he, like many other persons, had been absolutely ignorant that a man’s marriage is, legally as well as socially, considered to be the most important event in his life; that it destroys the validity of any will which he may have made as a single man; and that it renders absolutely necessary the entire reassertion of his testamentary intentions in the character of a husband.
Only he doesn’t get the chance. And so, Norah and Magdalen are left with nothing. Their father’s fortune transfers to an estranged uncle, and then to a cousin upon the uncles death. Neither of them will lift a finger to help the disenfranchised sisters. And the law, to the detriment of Nora and Magdalen, is all on the side of the men who inherited. The girls are illegitimate, they have No Name to claim for their own and are cast upon the world to make their way. Only they go about it very differently. Nora accepts her lot, but Magdalen, again drawing a comparison to Daniel Deronda’s Gwendolyn, refuses to sit back and accept misfortune as her lot.
And here is where the coincidences begin to rain down. Magdalen, in an attempt to regain her fortune by any means she can, determines to marry her cousin Noel. She marries him, under an assumed name, and by fraudulent means. And so the question of marriage and the validity of it comes in. (Of which I’ve already written a post, but will be writing another, so keep an eye out for that as well.) She is also warned, by a sort of strange relation (her mother’s half brother or step brother or some such) who she has enlisted to help her, that a third party might challenge the validity of the marriage while her husband lives.
“If Mr. Noel Vanstone ever discovers that you have knowingly married him under a false name, he can apply to the Ecclesiastical Court to have his marriage declared null and void. The issue of the application would rest with the judges. But if he could prove that he had been intentionally deceived, the legal opinion is that his case would be a strong one.”
“Suppose I chose to apply on my side?” said Magdalen, eagerly. “What then?”
“You might make the application,” replied the captain. “But remember one thing—you would come into Court with the acknowledgment of your own deception. I leave you to imagine what the judges would think of that.”
“Did the lawyer tell you anything else?”
“One thing besides,” said Captain Wragge. “Whatever the law might do with the marriage in the lifetime of both the parties to it—on the death of either one of them, no application made by the survivor would avail; and, as to the case of that survivor, the marriage would remain valid. You understand? If he dies, or if you die—and if no application has been made to the Court—he the survivor, or you the survivor, would have no power of disputing the marriage. But in the lifetime of both of you, if he claimed to have the marriage dissolved, the chances are all in favor of his carrying his point.”
There was some debate amongst the reading group as to what this meant. I don’t understand what need Magdalen would have of challenging her own marriage after Noel died. She would have the money and she’d be free to marry again if she wished. In my mind, and having researched marriage law for Moths, I decided what he was warning her was that NO survivor could challenge the marriage, including any interested third party who wished to deny her of her inheritance. Or perhaps he’s just warning her that once this is done, it cannot be undone.
Of course in Moths, this is all switched, and it’s he who marries under a false name and she who is coerced into it (which would also make it invalid). The marriage was conducted in good faith on the part of the gentleman. The fraud came in by that third party, and it could be challenged by another party. But, most likely, it would stand. That it would ever be annulled was likely not possible, but it was a threat nevertheless and one that was used to keep the parties in question obedient to the wishes of the controlling uncle.
Back to No Name, Magdalen’s attempts to get the money through her cousin are frustrated (they’re always being frustrated) and so, making another attempt, she goes in disguise to the house of the next in line to inherit and hires herself out as a servant.
So yes, I sort of wished I’d read this earlier. But I think I got my facts all straight and that it all works. It is sort of reassuring to know that these plot devices have been used before. It’s like evidence that it could have been done, or that others have made it work. There is a great deal of Moths that was borrowed from the works of others, as I think I’ve said before. Moths has a bit of Tess and of Nicholas Nickleby, of Our Mutual Friend and Daniel Deronda and clearly some Collins, too!
Returning to Collins, I would like to point out that there are some great lines in No Name that are certainly worth remembering.
The lasting preservation of a secret is a miracle which the world has never yet seen.
Giants of both sexes are, by a wise dispensation of Providence, created, for the most part, gentle. If Mrs. Wragge and a lamb had been placed side by side, comparison, under those circumstances, would have exposed the lamb as a rank impostor.
The one thing needful is never to let Mrs. Lecount catch you with your wits wool-gathering.
There is also a priceless soliloquy on the moral responsibility of the Swindler:
Who, and what am I? Carry your mind back to our conversation on the Walls of this interesting City, and let us start once more from your point of view. I am a Rogue; and, in that capacity (as I have already pointed out), the most useful man you possibly could have met with. Now observe! There are many varieties of Rogue; let me tell you my variety, to begin with. I am a Swindler.”
“Don’t be shocked,” proceeded the captain; “don’t be astonished. Swindler is nothing but a word of two syllables. S, W, I, N, D—swind; L, E, R—ler; Swindler. Definition: A moral agriculturist; a man who cultivates the field of human sympathy. I am that moral agriculturist, that cultivating man. Narrow-minded mediocrity, envious of my success in my profession, calls me a Swindler. What of that? The same low tone of mind assails men in other professions in a similar manner—calls great writers scribblers—great generals, butchers—and so on. It entirely depends on the point of view. Adopting your point, I announce myself intelligibly as a Swindler. Now return the obligation, and adopt mine. Hear what I have to say for myself, in the exercise of my profession.—Shall I continue to put it frankly?”
“Yes,” said Magdalen; “and I’ll tell you frankly afterward what I think of it.”
The captain cleared his throat; mentally assembled his entire army of words—horse, foot, artillery, and reserves; put himself at the head; and dashed into action, to carry the moral intrenchments of Society by a general charge. (I love this!)
“Now observe,” he began. “Here am I, a needy object. Very good. Without complicating the question by asking how I come to be in that condition, I will merely inquire whether it is, or is not, the duty of a Christian community to help the needy. If you say No, you simply shock me; and there is an end of it; if you say Yes, then I beg to ask, Why am I to blame for making a Christian community do its duty? You may say, Is a careful man who has saved money bound to spend it again on a careless stranger who has saved none? Why of course he is! And on what ground, pray? Good heavens! on the ground that he has got the money, to be sure. All the world over, the man who has not got the thing, obtains it, on one pretense or another, of the man who has—and, in nine cases out of ten, the pretense is a false one. What! your pockets are full, and my pockets are empty; and you refuse to help me? Sordid wretch! do you think I will allow you to violate the sacred obligations of charity in my person? I won’t allow you—I say, distinctly, I won’t allow you. Those are my principles as a moral agriculturist. Principles which admit of trickery? Certainly. Am I to blame if the field of human sympathy can’t be cultivated in any other way? Consult my brother agriculturists in the mere farming line—do they get their crops for the asking? No! they must circumvent arid Nature exactly as I circumvent sordid Man. They must plow, and sow, and top-dress, and bottom-dress, and deep-drain, and surface-drain, and all the rest of it. Why am I to be checked in the vast occupation of deep-draining mankind? Why am I to be persecuted for habitually exciting the noblest feelings of our common nature? Infamous!—I can characterize it by no other word—infamous! If I hadn’t confidence in the future, I should despair of humanity—but I have confidence in the future. Yes! one of these days (when I am dead and gone), as ideas enlarge and enlightenment progresses, the abstract merits of the profession now called swindling will be recognized. When that day comes, don’t drag me out of my grave and give me a public funeral; don’t take advantage of my having no voice to raise in my own defense, and insult me by a national statue. No! do me justice on my tombstone; dash me off, in one masterly sentence, on my epitaph. Here lies Wragge, embalmed in the tardy recognition of his species: he plowed, sowed, and reaped his fellow-creatures; and enlightened posterity congratulates him on the uniform excellence of his crops.”
In the end I felt that Collins was trying to persuade his readers to be more understanding of those whose circumstances are less than ideal, but whose circumstances were beyond their control. It was a trying age, full of hypocrisy and unjust laws. They knew it then. Noel even admits it is unfair he had Magdalen’s money, but the law is on his side, and he’d be a fool to give back what the law has given him. I suppose one might also say that it shows how patience and submissiveness as Norah exemplifies has it’s rewards. Magdalen’s efforts came to nothing, after all, save to reduce her nearly to death. But that final point, I think, might be up for some debate. The story was about Magdalen, and Magdalen, in the end, did prevail, even if it was only over her darker self.
This was a fantastic read, and I highly suggest it to anyone who loves Victorian literature. B. Lloyd also recommended Armadale. And so I’ll be tackling that one next. And from now on, I’ll not procrastinate following her wise counsel!