It is said that Wilkie Collins was at the height of his powers in the 1860s, when he wrote the books generally acknowledged to be his four great novels:
The Woman in White (1860)
No Name (1862)
The Moonstone (1868)
I wouldn’t argue with that. They were the first four of his books that I found and read; and they are the books that I knew that I loved dearly, even when, years after my first readings, many of the details were lost to me.
I’ve re-read two of them, and I was wondering which of the other two to re-visit next, when a copy of another book appeared on the library shelf. ‘Man and Wife’ was the next book after the ‘big four’, it looked intriguing, I really wasn’t sure if I had read it before or not, and so I picked it up; curious both to read it for its own sake, and to see what had changed to make that book not so well regarded as the books that came before.
I found the answer to that question quite quickly, and I have to say that this is a book with many failings; but it is also an intriguing tale, I loved what the author wanted to say, I had to keep turning the pages, and I flew through this big book so quickly.
It begins with a lengthy prologue, set a dozen years or so before the events at the centre of the story.
John Vanborough had parliamentary ambitions, but he knew that the woman he had married stood in the way of his hopes. His clever young lawyer, named Delamayn, knew that the marriage had taken place in Ireland and was able to find a loophole in that country’s marriage laws that allowed John Vanborough to annul his marriage and take another, more suitable, bride.
His abandoned wife, Anne Silvester, and the daughter who shared her name were taken in by her oldest friend, Blanche. Fortunately Blanche had married well and married happily. She and her husband, Sir Thomas Lundie, also had a daughter who had been given the same name as her mother.
As the years passed that clever young lawyer had risen in society and become Lord Holchester, but he had never forgotten the Vanborough case. He knew that he had done his duty to his client, but he knew that there had been unhappy consequences for the cast-off wife and her child, and he vowed to help them of ever he could.
Anne and Blanche senior had both died, and Sir Patrick had remarried. He too had died, not long after that. His title and estate passed to his brother, Sir Patrick Lundie, a retired lawyer in his seventies, while his widow, the second Lady Lundie, took charge of Blanche and Anne.
The story proper begins in 1868 at Windygates, the Perthshire home of Lady Lundie. Blanche was eighteen and Anne, acting as her governess, was a little older. Among the house party were Sir Patrick; Arnold Brinkworth, who wasengaged to Blanche; and Geoffrey Delamayn, the younger son of Lord Holchester and the school friend who once saved Arnold’s life.
Geoffrey was secretly engaged to Anne; and he regretted the entanglement, while she was eager to move things forward. He agreed to meet her at a remote inn, where they could be married privately. She left the house first, and before he could follow a message arrived from London, saying that Lord Holchester was gravely ill. Geoffrey seized the chance of escape, and persuaded his friend Arnold to go to the inn in his place, and make arrangements foe Anne to stay there until he could return.
Arnold had to present himself as Anne’s husband, to avoid a scandal, and he did everything that he was asked and behaved immaculately.
But Geoffrey didn’t come back. Anne knew that she was ruined, that there was no going back, and that she had to determine her own future.
What nobody knew was that under Scottish Law two people were legally bound by simply presenting themselves as married.
They would all find out.
Anne did everything she could to find out what her situation was, and to protect her friend.
Arnold only learned the implications of his visit to the inn after he had married Blanche.
And Geoffrey did everything he could to manipulate the situation to his own advantage.
There is much to admire in this book.
The elaborate plot twists and turns wonderfully. Sometimes I thought I knew what must happen, but at other times I was taken by surprise.
There was a wonderfully diverse cast of characters: I wanted the best for the heroes and heroines to hoe and pray for; I despised the villain; I was intrigued by woman who clearly had a terrible secret; I appreciated so many different things that the supporting players brought to the story.
The set pieces were wonderful. Sir Patrick brought all of the concerned parties together to determine what must be done; that was wonderfully dramatic and suspenseful.
The very best things were the points that were made about the absurdities of marriage laws and the inequity of men and women in marriage. They were powerfully made and they were utterly right.
That is both this books greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
The author seems over-bearing when he addresses the reader directly; and his wish to make his point sometimes bends his characters and their stories out of shape.
The sub-plot of Geoffrey’s career as an athlete felt odd and unnecessary.
There are some ridiculous contrivances and coincidences. The terrible secret was revealed in time. It was a wonderful story, but it didn’t sit well in the book and I couldn’t believe in the scenario that allowed it to be told. The whole final act of this book didn’t work.
But, for all of that, the story, the wonderful human drama, held me from start to finish.