Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Classics Circuit: The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

'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.

Oh, well.

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.)


  1. oops, sorry the schedule hadn't been updated with the proper title. I do remember that you'd switched books and we'd had it in a different schedule with the updated title!

    I read that The Dead Secret was kind of a disappointing serial since he gave up the secret right away. I agree it does sound over the top.

    I do hope you give Collins another chance sometime as I didn't find The Woman in White to be too over the top.

  2. Oh, I hope the date in the new schedule wasn't changed and I missed it! I've been slack about things the last several weeks, I know.

    It wouldn't be fair to judge him on an apprenticeship novel, so I do intend to try Wilkie Collins again at a later date. Maybe reading Dan Simmons' Drood will put me in the mood!

  3. A well done and honest assessment. I happen to like overblown Victorian novels but have to be in the mood to enjoy them. I gasped when you said you were Kindle-less. I was worried you were going to say it had broken or been lost. Glad it is fine. I love reading classics on mine!

  4. No no, just the title thing that you'd emailed about. no worries ;)

  5. I am so happy to have the Kindle back! It's the best thing for classics.

    The library here does not have much of a collection of Trollopes and I'm a month behind in starting The Claverings for the yahoo group I'm reading with. But I can already tell it's going to suit my tastes much better than the Collins.

  6. Shoot! I'm finishing up "No Name" right now and I would have loved to hear what your thoughts were. Oh, well. Maybe when you give Collins another chance, you'll give "No Name" a try, though I really think you should probably start with "Woman in White" I'm not too surprised that you didn't "Dead Secret." Collins' earlier work doesn't seem to be as good as some of his later stuff: Woman in White, Moonstone, No Name, and Armadale.

    But then, Collins pioneered the "sensationalist" fiction genre, which was pretty much all about insane coincidences and somewhat over-the-top plots so you might not like him either way. He was sort of the Dan Brown of his day, only I'd argue that Collins was a much, much better writer and his best stories make you forget how contrived some of the plots are.

    Sorry to hear you didn't like this one. Maybe your next Collins experience will be better. If not, well, different strokes, right? Hope you're liking the other things you're reading more.

    Also, I can't wait to hear what you think of "Howard's End on the Landing." I've heard mixed things about this one, though I'm definitely interested in reading it.

  7. Out of all the Wilkie Collins novels I've read this is definitely the weakest--I hope you won't base his work on this one and feel only an obligation (rather than a desire) to read more--he really is a much better story teller than this one would have you believe. That said, I found this entertaining enough, but I like far fetched and over the top Victorian thrillers. And if he isn't your thing, that's okay, too--there's certainly plenty of Victorians to choose from when it comes to reading material.

  8. I will definitely read No Name at some point, and will be looking forward to your thoughts on it, Joy. I've wanted to read it since LitLove read it several months back.

    Danielle, I read your review of The Dead Secret a few days ago and wished I could loosen up enough to have fun with these books the way you do. My sister likes to annoy me by telling me I have no sense of humor, so I definitely have a tendency to take things too seriously for my own good sometimes.

    I've got Howards End is on the Landing beside me at work tonight, so if it gets quiet around here in another hour or so I hope to start it.

  9. That's funny you say that as I think I tend to do too much of this sort of reading and need to be more serious and take more risks with my reading--read more outside my comfort zone. Now I wonder what I wrote and will have to go back and read it. I always admire your reading as mine tends to verge a little too often on the fluffy side!

  10. I love the overblown stuff, myself, for a sensation novel -- I think of this as a thriller, not a Serious Classic. I think there's more to Dickens than to Collins, though, especially to his best, like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Some of Dickens is caricature, but some of it is truly great stuff.

    I agree with you about Eliot and Trollope, though. And the more Victorians I read, the more I appreciate them.

  11. I still haven't read anything by Collins. This book sounds like another one I need to add to my list but I think I need to read Woman in White first.

  12. Interesting review--I haven't read much Collins myself, and I'm definitely not as big a fan of his as I am of Eliot and Gaskell, in particular. I think the Victorian reading public adored him, however, which is one of the reasons I want to read more of him--more of a sociology endeavor rather than a strictly literary one.


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