26 April 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins

     April is at an end? Already? Well, thankfully I did finish No Name by Wilkie Collins in time to participate in the Reading To Know bookclub. The book was chosen by Tim at Diary of an Autodidact. This review will contain spoilers. 

Reading to Know - Book Club
     This was my first Wilkie Collins book, and I hope it won’t be my last. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Being a contemporary and close friend of Charles Dickens, there shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when I tell you that the two authors are similar in style. I do think Dickens is the more masterful (and also more verbose) of the two, but that is a personal preference thing. Also, I’m not fully qualified to make that judgment since I’ve read countless Dickens books and only one Collins book. Anyway, I loved it. I rated it five stars on Goodreads, so that should say something.
     There is something wonderful about reading “the classics.” It might just be in my head or it might be just a purely emotional attachment, but I feel wholesome while reading it. I feel like I’m reading a great story, written by someone who has withstood the test of time. I feel like the book is adding to my life and bolstering my soul. I tightly cling to a (perhaps mystical, but perhaps not) belief that the things on earth that we find Beautiful or True or Good (note the capital letters) are teeny insights into the joy we will experience in heaven. So, I hope I’m not being too unorthodox when I say I believe reading a great novel, is a little bit like being in heaven.
     No Name is part revenge thriller and part social commentary. Collins spends a fair amount of time exploring the theme of illegitimate children, and how the law is particularly harsh on innocent children for the sins of their parents. I do think Collins deserves credit for not being too preachy on this theme. He is definitely exploring the social aspect of the illegitimacy laws, but folding it into a very fascinating story of a young girl seeking revenge for herself and her sister.
     Magdalen Vanstone and her sister Norah find out very early on in the book, so I don’t feel bad about revealing it, that their mother and father were only very recently married, and died before they could make a will leaving their money to their children. Thus, their father’s fortune was given to their cruel uncle, who only gave the girls a pittance to help them start their lives. Norah, the elder sister, resigns herself to her fate and goes to work at once in order to support herself. Magdalen, the younger sister, steels up her heart and works toward revenge at any cost. And I mean, ANY cost.
     Now, I don’t think the treatment of illegitimate children in this age was very good; however, these days we have way more illegitimate children. In fact, more than half of the children born to women under 30 are illegitimate. So, in actuality, illegitimacy is the norm. Perhaps if the consequences of illegitimacy were harsher, there would be less illegitimacy? Please don’t hear me saying that Magdalen and Norah deserved what they got. I don’t believe they did. But I don’t think we in the 21st century have the right to look down on the laws of the 19th  and assume we have progressed as a society. Yes, we don’t necessarily have a problem of innocent children being stripped of their inheritance by heartless uncles, but we have fatherless children and high rates of abortion and kids who don’t even know their family background. I think when looking at the past we often fall into two ways of thinking that are unhelpful. We either think, “Wow, things were SO much better back in the day. That’s the simple life. Things have seriously gone downhill.” Or we think, “Wow, things were SO much worse back then. It’s a good thing we’ve progressed so much further than our backwards ancestors.” In the historical profession these two ways of thinking are Nostalgia and Progressivism. From now on I want all my readers to avoid these two ways of thinking. Got it? Great.
     This story kind of reminded me, in a way, of Rebekah trying to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son. God had already told her that the “older will serve the younger” in chapter 25 of Genesis, but instead of trusting God to bring His own plans to fruition, Rebekah goes through an elaborate scheme to make sure her younger son is given the blessing. Jacob, the younger son, goes along with his mother’s schemes and lies to his father and supplants his older brother. Now, the analogy falls apart because we do know that was how God intended things to work out and Esau wasn’t exactly a model citizen, but in No Name we see the younger sister lying and manipulating and ruining her reputation to try and claim what is “rightfully hers.” Whereas Norah, the older sister, takes her fate in stride and sets out in gentleness and humility to make her way in the world. As it turns out, the injustice is set to rights mainly by Norah’s quiet humility and less by Magdalen’s striving and conniving.
     This was a wonderful story and accomplished author to add to my “Completed” list, and I’m grateful to Tim and Reading to Know for the opportunity.   
     I’m sad to report there weren’t any funny reviews on Goodreads to add to this one, but instead I’ll point out that No Name is actually the name of my favorite doughnut from Voodoo Doughnuts, a popular doughnut shop in Portland, OR. It’s just a chocolate frosted doughnut, but with rice krispies and peanut butter on the top. It’s delicious. I actually thought it would be fitting to eat one of the donuts while I read the book, but this never actually came together, sadly.
     Anyway, I have every intention of reading another. Blogger EmmyD put it bluntly by commanding me “Get thee to A Woman in White.” I will definitely comply.


Emmy D said...

I have only read about 1/3 of No Name, but in my opinion A Woman in White is his superior work. I am sure you will enjoy it!
Now, it's my turn to have that book back...

BerlinerinPoet said...

Great! I look forward to it!
And yes, it will be very soon on it's way. I thank you for your sacrifice.

Carrie said...

K. Seeking to avoid Nostalgia and Progressivism. :D

I'm glad you read along. And while Women in White is likely the superior work, I think there are characters and dialogue in this one that ought not to be missed.

Sorry you didn't get your doughnut out of the deal though! :D

Diary of an Autodidact said...

"I believe reading a great novel, is a little bit like being in heaven."

Yes indeed!