Wilkie Collins is the King of sensation novelists. No one else could write a story of wronged women & villainous men as he did. Man & Wife is one of his more didactic novels as he’s concerned to make a point about the abominable state of the marriage laws of Ireland & Scotland in the 19th century. The Introduction to my OUP edition quotes Swinburne’s couplet, What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?/Some demon whispered –“Wilkie, have a mission!”, on what was seen as a flaw in Collins’s fiction after the glory days of the 1860’s.
Man & Wife was published in 1870 after a decade of masterpieces such as The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. I can’t say I agree that Man & Wife has less sensational excitement than his best work. My eyes were propped open several nights trying to finish just one more chapter before falling asleep. There is more reliance on outrageous coincidence & the narrator is a bit too full of dire warnings & doom-laden woe on a few occasions but it was such an absorbing story that I didn’t care.
The novel opens with a Prologue forty years before the real beginning of the story which sets up the themes of betrayal & loyalty that dominate the novel. Two young girls are about to be parted, perhaps for life, as Blanche goes out to India as a governess & Anne stays in England to go on the stage. They swear undying love & friendship. Some years later, Anne is married to a man who is tired of her & he asserts that their marriage, which took place in Ireland, is invalid. This is legally, if not morally, true. Anne is left deserted with a young daughter, also Anne, & her faithless husband marries again but leads a miserable life which he thoroughly deserves, the cad. Blanche, now Lady Lundie, returns to England in time to look after Anne who has been caring for Blanche’s daughter, another Blanche, & the friendship between the two daughters is just as strong as between their mothers. The elder Anne dies, leaving her daughter in Blanche’s care. The elder Blanche dies on a return voyage to India & her husband marries again.
The story proper opens with Lord Lundie dead, his new wife looking after her stepdaughter Blanche, attended by Anne Silvester as her governess. Are you still with me? Anne has become entangled in an improper relationship with Geoffrey Delamayn. He has promised to marry her but he’s already growing tired of her. The whole party is on holiday in Scotland when Anne forces the issue with Geoffrey & he promises to marry her privately at a remote inn. She leaves the house to meet him there but he convinces his friend, Arnold Brinkworth, to go to the inn with a letter for Anne after he’s called away to London to visit his sick father. To preserve Anne’s reputation, Arnold is convinced that he must ask for her as his wife when he arrives at the inn & this is where the trouble begins. Scottish marriage law was so unclear that the act of referring to each other as husband & wife may mean that Anne & Arnold are married in the eyes of the law. Arnold, of course, has just become engaged to Blanche. Geoffrey cruelly deserts Anne, leaving her ill & abandoned. Arnold has no idea of the legal mess he’s in until after he & Blanche have married.
There are some great set pieces. The scene in London when all the protagonists are brought together to thrash out the truth of Anne & Geoffrey’s relationship is full of tension. There are some terrific characters in this book. Wilkie Collins always had a fondness for characters with some kind of physical deformity. Here we have Sir Patrick Lundie, Blanche’s uncle & guardian, a crabbed old lawyer with a club foot. Then there’s mysterious Hester Dethridge, a woman struck dumb by the blows of a cruel husband, who communicates by writing on a slate hanging at her side. The second Lady Lundie is a silly yet cunning woman whose meddling efforts to help her stepdaughter only make matters worse. Blanche & Arnold are the stock hero & heroine & Geoffrey is a fairly bland villain. Anne is magnificent, the true heroine of the book. She manages to conduct an improper relationship, emotionally blackmail her lover into marriage, lie to the servants at the inn, wander all over Scotland & England alone (but always with perfect dignity), yet still be presented as a woman more sinned against than sinning. Apart from M E Braddon, I don’t know who else could have done it. No wonder parents & critics were appalled at the immoral influence of the sensation novel. If you love 19th century fiction, I can recommend this book as a lesser-known work by the master of sensation.
An interesting sidelight is that a new book by Chloe Schama, Wild Romance, is just about to be published. This is a non-fiction account of the Yelverton case, one of the real-life stories on which Wilkie Collins based the plot of Man & Wife. I can’t wait to read it!