On the back of my OUP edition of these three novellas by Wilkie Collins, there’s a quote from T S Eliot, “Melodrama is perennial and the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied.” Melodrama should have been Wilkie Collins’s middle name. Along with Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I can’t think of any 19th century author who does melodrama as well as Collins. He’s best known for the great sensation novels of the 1860s, The Moonstone, The Woman in White, Armadale & No Name. But, his career lasted into the 1880s & he was writing novellas & short stories to satisfy the magazines of the day throughout his career. This selection of novellas highlights some of the themes of his longer works. Miss or Mrs? further explores the themes of the anomalies of the marriage laws. Collins also explored these in his novel Man & Wife that I read earlier this year. The Guilty River returns the one of Collins’s favourite themes, the Outsider, with one character returning to England after many years abroad & another, a deaf man, who is bitter about his disability. Both men fall in love with the same girl & abduction & tragedy follow.
But, the story I enjoyed the most was The Haunted Hotel. This is a story of fate, destiny, unrequited love & murder. As is often the case, the most vibrant character is a wicked woman. Countess Narona is a mysterious figure. She engages our interest when she visits a doctor & asks him if she is going mad. She presents an odd appearance, extraordinarily pale (her complexion is described as corpse-like) but with beautiful, glittering eyes. She speaks with a foreign accent, dresses well, a handsome woman in her early thirties, apart from her pallor & “a total want of tenderness in the expression of her eyes.” The Countess is going to be married to Lord Montbarry, & the marriage is the subject of some scandal because Montbarry has jilted another woman, Agnes Lockwood, in order to marry the Countess. The couple met at the gambling tables of Europe & Montbarry was immediately captivated by her. Agnes has been noble in releasing Montbarry from his vow. She still loves him although everyone, including his own family, condemns him for his behaviour. Montbarry’s brother, Henry Westwood, is in love with Agnes & is patiently waiting for her to forget her love for the man who jilted her.
Montbarry & the Countess are married but not before the two women have met at a social function. The Countess is a woman much influenced by signs & prophecies & she feels that she & Agnes are doomed to meet again & that Agnes is fated to destroy her. After their marriage the Montbarrys travel to Italy accompanied by the mysterious figure of Baron Rivar who is said to be the Countess’s brother but some uncharitable gossips call him her lover. The Montbarry’s marriage seems to be unhappy. Montbarry regrets jilting Agnes almost as soon as the marriage has taken place. He distrusts his wife & resents the Baron asking him for money to fund his strange chemical experiments.
While they are in Venice, Lord Montbarry is taken ill & dies. The courier travelling with them, Ferrari, has mysteriously disappeared not long before. Ferrari was an Italian married to Agnes Lockwood’s former maid & Agnes had allowed her name to be mentioned to her former lover in an effort to get the post for Ferrari. Mrs Ferrari becomes obsessed with the idea that her husband has been murdered. Lord Montbarry had insured his life for a great sum of money just after his marriage & the insurers send out investigators to Venice to discover the circumstances of his death.
The prophecy of the Countess regarding Agnes is fulfilled when Montbarry’s family, the Westwoods (including Agnes, who is staying with the family of the new Lord Montbarry, brother of the dead man) travel to Venice to stay in a new hotel, partly bankrolled by Henry Westwood. This hotel is in the very same palace that Montbarry & the Countess stayed in & where he died. The palace has been completely refurbished but, the room where Montbarry died & the room above, where Baron Rivar slept, have been left intact. One after another, the Westwood siblings unknowingly stay in the room where their brother died. One by one they are driven from the room by strange happenings. One experiences disturbing dreams, another is driven out by a horrible smell, another is afflicted by a sense of desperation & depression. The culmination of these experiences is when Agnes stays in the room & fulfils the Countess’s prophecy that Agnes will be her doom.
There are some truly gruesome scenes in this story. I don’t think Collins used the atmosphere of Venice very well. The hotel could have been anywhere. He certainly doesn’t exploit the atmosphere of the canals & waterways of Venice as Daphne Du Maurier did, for example, in her short story, Don’t Look Now. But this is a truly creepy story. The character of the Countess is enigmatic. Her gradual descent into madness is well done & her confession written in the form of a playscript is different, to say the least. In a story of just over 150pp there’s a lot of very convoluted plot & not everything is tied up eg the true relationship of the Countess & the Baron is left unexplained. But, if you love Wilkie & want a story that grabs you in the first few pages with the appearance of the Countess & doesn’t let go until the last page, I’d recommend The Haunted Hotel.