Monday, August 6, 2012

Basil by Wilkie Collins

Original Publication Date: 1852

Genre: Mystery

Topics: Secret marriages, classism, secrets, Victorian fears.


So… in our hands is the confession of Basil who is out on the west coast of England hiding from someone out to get him. It's all very hush, hush with fake names and the whole sha-bang. Basil starts his narrative telling us about his family, specifically his father who is super vain and proud of his lineage. Basil has an older brother, Ralph,  and a sister, Clara, too. More about them later.

One day Basil is on an ominbus and hot pretty girl walks in and sits down. He gets stalkerish, follows her home and skulks around her garden. He does a little sleuthing and finds out that the girl, Margaret Sherwin, is a wealthy linen draper's daughter. A linen draper’s daughter! The Horror! And also, he must have her! Immediately he tells the girl he's going to marry her despite her station. Here's the problem:

  1. He's known her for 5 minutes.
  2. His father is going to freak out.

Basil suggests that he marry Margaret in secret, so he has time to break the news to his father. Margaret's dad isn't too pleased with this but agrees as long as Basil doesn't 'claim' her as his wife (wink, wink) for a year, at which time she'll be 18! This has bad idea written all over it but Basil is so smitten he doesn't care.

Basil spends his evenings with Margaret and her mother as chaperon. Margaret doesn't have much personality but he attributes this to her youth and her station. He figures he can mold her into the woman he wants her to be, so it's all good. Enter Mr Mannion, Mr Sherwin's clerk. He's an enigma. He has no past, no friends or family. No one knows anything about him but he has a strange power over everyone in the house. The year is almost up and Basil still hasn't told his father of his marriage but he's optimistic. Then a scandalous event occurs and Basil is on the run. Then more secrets! and plot twists! right until the end.

The first half of Basil took me awhile to get into. The characters are one dimensional and the foreshadowing is rather obvious. At the beginning, Basil has a dream of a fair woman who makes him feel happy and a darker woman who scares him. The fair woman is clearly his sister and the darker one, Margaret. Clara is meek and gentle, blond and kind. In other words a perfect woman. I found this annoying. Basil himself annoyed me- he's such a schmuck and I didn't think anyone would marry a girl he just met without massive amounts of alcohol being involved. I don't think I'm the first one to feel that way. Collins is quite defensive in his Dedication. He insists such things happen in real life.

Basil touches on the Victorian fears of the classes intermarrying. The whole world will go hell in a hand basket if that happens! And when Basil marries Margaret, well, there you go. It's perfectly fine for his brother Ralph to have a middle class mistress though, as long as precious Clara isn't sullied by her presence.

Basil is quite the melodrama. People swoon, break out into cold sweats, and fall into nervous fevers at the drop of a hat. The bad guy is seriously bad and there is sort of a chase scene. Brother Ralph steals every scene he's in. He adds a little levity to the story. Despite all the negatives, the second half is fast paced and quite entertaining.

I suspect that Basil isn't Wilkie Collins best, but it's still pretty good.