So, a drawing master goes to teach watercolors to some ladies (a rich boring one and her poor but awesome half-sister) and falls in love with the one you'd expect, but she's engaged because duh, she's rich. So he goes away, but not before seeing some crazy lady dressed in white who he ran into on his way to this job while she was running away from the Asylum. Said crazy lady knows Bad Things about the envied fiance and looks curiously like Lady Love. Then a whole lot of Victorian drama happens, and also some curiously 20th century drama (seriously, someone burns to death), and somehow one lady ends up in the Asylum and one ends up dead and WHO IS WHO, I ask you. Oh, and also there's a political group called "The Brotherhood," and if you betray them, you get drowned in France. Fun times for all.
So this was a delightful little mystery that was extremely British. A lot of the narrative force comes from rules about inheritance and people whose nerves are far too fragile for legitimate bargaining. For a while, I thought that Collins was going to go super-modern on us and show how rich people aren't always the nicest, but he doesn't go quite that far.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) To be honest, I actually felt kind of bad for Sir Percival who, aside from being a giant douche with a terrible temper, really gets the short end of the stick for failing to be born into a legitimate marriage. It was a little hard to identify with the "good guys" on that point, because that's just bullshit. Being a bastard should not automatically mean that he must be poor and on the street (especially if you take this book out of its cultural context) so I get why he did what he did. (SPOILERS OVER)
I really enjoyed Collins's technique of the multiple narrators, which he also utilized in The Moonstone to put all of the events together. I like this technique in general, but in Collins's work it makes for a curiously self-conscious story. It is intended to prove the "truth" of the events through several objective narratives curated by one of the narrators, but of course there's always the possibility that it only tells the truth as the compiler (the drawing master in this case) wants it to be known. If, say, Sir Percival or Count Fosco had compiled this narrative, it would look very different.
Also, can we discuss how freaking HILARIOUS Frederick Fairlie's chapter is? I legitimately laughed out loud through the entire thing. I can only imagine that Collins's experience of writing it was akin to J.K. Rowling's experience of writing Luna's commentary on a Quidditch match - done purely for shits and giggles. For example:
I am about to make a remark. It is, of course, applicable to the very serious matter now under notice, or I should not allow it to appear in this place.
Nothing, in my opinion, sets the odious selfishness of mankind in such a repulsively vivid light as the treatment, in all classes of society, which the Single people receive at the hands of the Married people. When you have once shown yourself too considerate and self-denying to adda a family of your own to an already overcrowded population, you are vindictively marked out by your married friends, who have no similar consideration and no similar self-denial, as the recipient of half their conjugal troubles, and the born friend of all their children. Husbands and wives talk of the cares of matrimony, and bachelors and spinsters bear them. (p. 346)I'm going to stop myself here, but I could quote on and on. Do yourself a favor and read this chapter, even if you have no interest in the book itself.
I don't have much else to say about this book except that it's fun, exceedingly British, and well worth your time. If you dislike sickly sweet happy endings, avoid the last few pages and you'll be good to go.
*So you're obviously wondering whatever happened to my masterwork and where you can get a copy. After finishing my novel, I looked at the publication page of a book I liked and mailed a copy to the address I found there. The publisher was Random House. Several months later, I received what I realized even then was an extremely kind rejection letter, which included advice on finding an agent for my novel and imprints that might be more appropriate for it. I then gave up all hopes of publishing it. Or I had just lost interest after all that time, which is far more likely.
I read this for my Classics Club list - 9 down, 41 to go! Woot!