“Very strange!” he said to himself, vacantly. “It’s like a scene in a novel—it’s like nothing in real life.”
Norah and Magdelan Vanstone find out shortly after the unexpected death of their parents that they are illegitimate and have lost their inheritance, they are Nobody’s Children. Left to the merciless resolution of their uncle, Michael Vanstone, brother to Andrew Vanstone (father of the girls), he feels no compassion or inclination to do right by his nieces since he still holds a bitter grudge and unwavering resentment towards his brother for a perceived slight years ago. He feels he’s finally received the inheritance he was cheated of and turns Norah and Magdelan out of their home leaving them penniless.
“She is a nameless, homeless, friendless wretch. The law which takes care of you, the law which takes care of all legitimate children, casts her like carrion to the winds. It is your law—not hers. She only knows it as the instrument of a vile oppression, an insufferable wrong. The sense of that wrong haunts her like a possession of the devil. The resolution to right that wrong burns in her like fire.”
Each sister deals with this news differently, Norah strong and resilient, accepts this reality and moves forward into her new lifestyle with the help and support of lifetime friend and governess, Miss Garth. Magdelan on the other hand is doggedly determined to get what rightful belongs to her by means of her father’s will to leave his daughters well provided for.
Magdelan runs away from Norah and Miss Garth and works as an actress to earn the money she needs to finance her plans for revenge, or I should say, for attaining the inherentance due her and her sister. When Magdelan encounters distant relative Captain Wragge, things take several unexpected turns. Magdelan employs a disguise as “Miss Garth” in an attempt to appeal to another Vanstone, Noel (her cousin) since her uncle died while she was devising her plan under the tutelage of Wragge.
Wragge, a moral agriculturalist or S-W-I-N-D-L-E-R (yes he spells it out just like that when referring to himself) is up for his equal in the person of Mrs. Lecount, faithful housekeeper of both Vanstone men. She was the one who uncovered Magdelan’s earlier scheme although she doesn’t have all the proof she needs. So when Wragge and Magdelan work on their next scheme, Lecount is as keen as a predator ready to pounce.
“Does there exist in every human being, beneath that outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change?”
Unlike The Woman in White (my favorite Collins), No Name doesn’t keep you reading to unravel the mystery, the sensation element, until the end. We know what’s going to happen to the Vanstone family Haut by reading the synopsis. But even with that knowledge, I was still surprised when it happened early on in the book. So now what? How does Collins manage to keep the story going for several hundred pages?
The suspense builds from scene to scene as we follow Magdelan’s journey to met out justice in recovering the lost inheritance. In typical Collins fashion, we laugh at Wragge and his schemes, we sympathize with Magdelan’s plight, even cheering her on in her quest. Collins rapidly pushes the book ahead with something called, ‘In Between the Scenes,’ a sort of bridge between the narratives through letters or journal entries.
This book was over 700 pages but because Collins managed to thicken the plot and the plight of some formidable characters, I could hardly pull myself away from reading ahead each week during my readalong in November. I think the intrigue of this novel relies on the readers ability to empathize with Magdelan’s situation, but also in the question of human conscience. How far is someone willing to go to right a wrong? This book felt like a battle of matching wits in characters, almost like a game of chess, who can outsmart or out maneuver the next. My favorite way to sum up this book was going in the introduction to the book (in another addition I have) which I’ll conclude with –
“It is a tale of trappers trapping trappers, devised by a novelist who, we are continually reminded, is himself an addictive contriver.” – Introduction from the Oxford World’s Classic editon of No Name by Wilkie Collins
What elements of a book, especially longer ones, are essential for keeping you engaged as a reader?
If you’ve read any Wilkie Collins do you have a favorite? If you haven’t read please do me a favor and read The Woman in White. My review is here.