Everybody knows this Victorian novelist for his ultra-popular The Moonstone and The Woman in White. However, Wilkie Collins’s lesser known novels are also worth reading. As part of the Classics Challenge, I have read his novel No Name and now regret not placing more of Collins’s books on my Classics list. In my opinion, No Name is a lot better than both of the author’s more popular novels, and I wonder why it isn’t better known.
The greatest achievement of the novel is the protagonist, Magdalen Vanstone. World literature hasn’t produced many images of strong, resourceful, intelligent women. This is why rare exceptions such as Collins’s heroine are so priceless. Magdalen is a woman with a cause, a plan, a dream that she pursues single-mindedly and without any reservations. Thankfully, this dream does not consist of snagging a rich husband with a big mansion, which makes Magdalen very unlike the insipid protagonists of Austin’s novels.
No Name has a very complex plot where two powerful, resourceful women scheme against each other. At a first glance, it seems that the object of their scheming is money. However, one soon realizes that it isn’t about money at all for either of the heroines. Of course, as women of the comfortable, educated class of society, they need some financial means to maintain an existence that will not be too degrading to their sensibilities. However, their struggle for the inheritance allows them to exercise their intelligence in a way that no other pursuits available to women of their class at the time would be able to do.
The ending of the novel is particularly curious. Behind an apparent concession to the patriarchal norms presenting women as pathetic, fragile flowers, the readers can see an alternative vision of reality, one where women remain untamed and undaunted no matter what befalls them.
It’s interesting how the novels with weak and pathetic female characters survive and preserve their popularity a lot better than novels with powerful and complex female protagonists. Everybody is besotted with the inane, weak and weepy protagonists of Pride and Prejudice Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, etc. but who has heard of Magdalen Vanstone and Aurora Floyd? Bear in mind that the absolute majority of the readership of these novels is and has always been female.