'What precious thing lies hidden in this paper?' he asked, producing the letter, and smiling as he opened it. 'Surely there must be something besides writing--some inestimable powder, or some bank-note of fabulous value--wrapped up in all these folds?'
The Dead Secret, Wilkie Collins' fifth novel, opens at a high pitch--a strong-willed former actress, whose underlined and annotated acting prompt books surround her on her deathbed, makes theatrical allusions to Hamlet before dictating a last minute confession to her reluctant lady's maid. She intends for the signed confession to be given to her husband as soon as she dies, but what with threatening to "come to you from the other world" if disobeyed and exacting down-on-the-knees hand-on-the-Bible promises from the poor young woman not to destroy the letter, or to take it from the house if she should leave, Mrs. Treverton winds up dying before the maid swears to do just that.
And of course, once Sarah, the maid, sees the now-widowed Captain Treverton comforting the little crying daughter in the nursery, she knows the secret contained within the letter should not be revealed. Fortunately, the story is set in an enormous mansion, Porthgenna Tower, situated on the west coast of Cornwall and there's an entire wing to the house that's never used, with tons of rooms, so that the superstitious Sarah can hide the letter in one of them and hope that maybe Mrs. Treverton won't haunt her from beyond after all.
Then, after a detour to the church graveyard, Sarah --who I forgot to mention has preternaturally grey hair to symbolize some as-yet-unspoken-of shock or sorrow--vanishes.
And the story picks up 15 years later, with the marriage of the Trevertons' daughter to her childhood sweetheart--now blind--who has inherited Porthgenna Tower from his father, who bought it from Captain Treverton, who was too sad to live there after his actress wife died. Rosamond is beautiful and kind, a little too friendly with the servants sometimes, and her husband is honest and kind, a little too snobbish not to remind her not to be so familar with the hired help. You can't help but like them.
And you can probably see where this is going, and who's going to find the letter, and who it may concern, and that's okay, because that isn't a secret Collins wanted to keep from his readers, much to the distress of some of his earliest reviewers.
And you can probably tell from my tone that I found this all a little over the top. I kept imagining how the elements--the feminine subversions, the transgressions of class and position, the significance of illegitimacy in society, the mental illness--would be handled if the book were written today, and thinking how I must have instinctively known I wouldn't do well with his books or, considering the number of people I know who adore him, I would have gotten around to him sooner. I don't do so well with Charles Dickens, either. George Eliot and George Gissing and, as of this year, Anthony Trollope are the Victorians for me. I'm willing to give Collins another chance or two at some point, but the books will be started more out of a sense of obligation than delight.
The Dead Secret is regarded as a transitional work in Wilkie Collins' career, the last novel before he hit the big time, his first "sensation" novel and one that thematically prefigured The Woman in White.
Published in a 23-part series in 1857 in Dickens' Household Words under Collins' first byline in the journal (previously he published only short anonymous pieces written in the the house style), The Dead Secret was also serialized in the United States and republished in a two-volume set later that year.
(My apologies to anyone coming over from the Classics Circuit with their hearts set on a review of No Name. I notified the Circuit back in October that I'd be without my Kindle, therefore my copy of No Name, until Thanksgiving since it had been left behind on a trip to visit family, and thought I ought to switch to another title so that I would actually have time to read it. I went with The Dead Secret since no one had signed up for it, and, more importantly, the library had a copy.)