Basil by Wilkie Collins

This is another book from my 2011 Reading List and it’s the fifth book which I’ve read by Wilkie Colllins. It was first published in 1852 and was the second book which he wrote. Although The Woman in White is his most famous book it isn’t my favourite, I think that that is still The Moonstone and I even enjoyed Basil more than TWIW.

Basil is the 24 year old younger son of a man of property and wealth. Basil’s father is in fact a terrible snob and the most important thing to him is his family name and its noble pedigree, he’s a very proud man and he likes everyone to know their place in society, and to stick to it.

So when Basil falls in love/lust at first sight with a beautiful young woman whom he meets on an omnibus, and he subsequently discovers that she is the daughter of a linen draper, he knows that his father would never approve of the situation. Such is Basil’s infatuation that he contacts the 17 year old Margaret Sherwin through one of her family servants and after only a few meetings with her Basil meets her father and agrees to a marriage with Margaret within a week. Mr Sherwin stipulates that the marriage must be kept a secret and, reading between the lines, unconsumated, for one year as Margaret is young and he hopes that Basil’s father will then accept the situation.

The book is just full of class snobbery with Mr Sherwin and his daughter being portrayed as vulgar gold-diggers, which is to be expected of someone in ‘trade’. Basil’s life falls apart and he eventually realises what a fool he has been.

If you enjoy Victorian melodrama and thrillers then you should give this one a go. There’s a lot more plot than I have written about.

I think it is quite funny that I was reading this book just before the William and Catherine wedding because I remember that James Whittaker commented quite recently that William wouldn’t marry Kate because her mother had been an air hostess (shock horror) and they were in trade, and we couldn’t have an heir to the throne marrying into that sort of family! Two fingers up to James Whittaker then!

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

or The Murder at Road Hill House.

I got a hardback copy of this book as a birthday present but just about every charity shop that I have been in recently has had a paperback copy, so it looks as if everybody has already read it.

Kate Summerscale wrote this book which is based on a true crime which took place in 1860 in a large detached Georgian house in Wiltshire. The family woke up one morning to discover that their small boy was missing from his cot. The house and grounds were searched and eventually his body was found. The grieving family are suspects.

Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard is sent for, he is a famous detective at the time that the profession is in its infancy. The whole country is horrified by the case and Whicher is sent letters from all over the country from people who think they can help him solve it.

The case inspired Wilkie Collins, Dickens, Conan Doyle and Mary Elizabeth Bradden amongst others, but it was years before the true identity of the murderer was known.

Kate Summerscale has interspersed the story with other cases from the era. It is breathtaking how stupid the murderers often were. They seemed to be good at leaving articles of clothing behind at the crime scene, which just happened to have their names sewn into them! Or maybe Mr. Whicher did a lot of ‘fitting up’.

He does seem to have been one of those detectives who decided immediately who the culprit was, because he didn’t like the look of them. I doubt if he was always correct.

Unfortunately there are still detectives around like that today and it takes years for their victims to have their convictions overturned. At least nowadays they aren’t hanged.

I did enjoy this book, although it does skip around a bit between various different cases. If you enjoy a Victorian sensationalist novel now and again, you should like this taste of the real thing.

Miss or Mrs? by Wilkie Collins

This was a very quick read at just 87 pages, I suppose it is a novella really. It was written in 1872 and I think if it had been written earlier when Collins was on the opium then he would probably have managed to work it up into a full sized novel.

Whenever I start reading a writers work, I like to work my way through as much of it as I can, so I’m glad that I could tick this one off. But I don’t think it would make anyone’s list of favourites.

It is really just a straightforward Victorian romance, with an unwanted dastardly suitor thrown in for good measure, and a dollop of suspense of course.

Book buying

I’m supposed to be using the library instead of buying books nowadays as we will probably be down-sizing at some point in the nearish future, due to the fact that we don’t want to be rattling around in a big family house when the family has flown the nest.

Unfortunately, we recently discovered a great second-hand bookshop which is only about a two mile walk away from our house. It’s just impossible to resist, and as my husband said – there are worse vices to have.

So, in the last week I have bought:

Vanity Fair by Willliam Thackeray – I’m blaming Jane GS for this one.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – We only had a paperback.
Swan Song by John Galsworthy – I had to complete my set.
The Novels of Thomas Love Peacock – Only had a few before.
Basil by Wilkie Collins – I’m blaming The Classics Circuit.
Miss or Mrs? by Wilkie Collins – DITTO.
Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer – DITTO.
The Battles of the Somme by Martin Marix Evans – I’m blaming
Gabrillo Princip for that one.

One of my grandfathers was at the Somme and we’ve been to visit one of the preserved battlefields where the Canadians had been in the front line.

Well worth a visit if you get the chance.

The removal men complained enough when we moved here, about the number of heavy boxes of books which we had. We’ve had more than 20 book buying years here since then. I suppose we should get rid of a lot of them – in fact I have given a lot to charity over the years. Often I’ve regretted getting rid of a particular book and wonder why on earth I parted with it.

I suppose there are worse problems to have, but I can hear that book shop shouting to me. Well, I forgot to buy their copy of Anna Karenina.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’m not going to do an in depth review of this book, I’m just going to make a few observations. It’s a fairly hefty tome at 627 pages, this is partly because it was originally printed in a weekly magazine and I suppose the editor wanted so many words each week to fill the allotted space for it. You can down-load it in instalments if you want to go for the authentic Victorian experience and I think I might have preferred that, then you get the cliff-hangers which Collins wrote for the end of each piece. Also, I imagine that if you are waiting a week for the next instalment then you are bound to think about it more and try to guess which turn the story is going to take.

I did think whilst reading it that the Count Fosco – Sir Percival relationship was what the Victorians would have deemed to be ‘unnatural’. There was the constant repetition that Count Fosco had a strange power over Sir Percival and in my Penguin edition on page 214, Marian describes Sir Percival as having a mania for order and he is upset even by flower-blossoms which have fallen on the carpet.

I think that Victorian readers would have seen such behaviour as ‘womanish’ and definitely suspect in a man. Coupled with Count Fosco’s flamboyant clothes and Sir Percival’s assertion that there was no chance that Laura would be having any children, it does seem to add up to me, but nobody else seems to have noticed it so I might be going off at a mad tangent with that thought. However I see from the introduction which I have just read – I always keep that for last – that Oscar Wilde was given the nickname of Fosco when he was a student.

So, it’s very wordy with masses of description and doesn’t really have much in the way of humour in it. Mrs. Catherick is a tragic/comic figure in her determination to appear to be respectable, but I did enjoy reading it although I probably wouldn’t read it again.

I reviewed this book as part of the Thriller and Suspense Reading Challenge.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

I have to thank JaneGS and The Classics Circuit for encouraging me to read Wilkie Collins because I don’t think I would ever have got around to him otherwise. I’m on my third one of his now, (The Woman in White) but I read The Haunted Hotel over the Christmas holidays. Although I enjoyed it I was quite happy that it was a really short one, as I have so much of a backlog now.

Lord Montbarry has jilted his fiancee Agnes and married Countess Narona instead. As Agnes is well loved by everyone, they all turn against Lord Montbarry, however it seems to me that he was never a popular person. Even his brothers didn’t seem to get on with him, so the mystery to me is why Agnes was so in love with Montbarry in the first place? But such is life, I suppose.

Things don’t go well for the newly weds from the beginning and Lord Montbarry becomes very stingy with money. In an effort to save on hotel bills he rents a dilapidated, damp palace in Venice and his new wife’s ‘brother’ joins them there. The servants who have been brought from England are appalled at the behaviour of their mistress with her so-called brother and decide to leave for home as soon as they can.

When Lord Montbarry’s family in England hear that he has died they aren’t too surprised at first but then they discover that two insurance policies have been taken out on him and their suspicions are raised.

What had really happened to Lord Montbarry? Well I’m going no further so as not to spoil it for anyone.

I would recommend this one as an introduction to Wilkie Collins as it is a lot less wordy than some of his others. I can only suppose that at the time he wrote it he wasn’t being paid by the word – as so many authors were – and that was always a great incentive for them to pad things out. Either that or the opium that he had become addicted to by this time had exhausted him so much that he didn’t have the energy or the inclination to make it longer.