Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady (1875)

The Law and the Lady is actually a reread. The first time around, perhaps 5-6 years ago, I had just discovered Wilkie Collins and I was crazy about it, so I just stuffed myself indiscriminately with wads of suspenseful, complicated plots about moral integrity, blood lines, false marriages, disappearances, bigamy and dark filial secrets. I swallowed The Law and the Lady in big chunks, but took no time to digest it, and soon moved on to the next, so that story and characters got all mixed up in my fuzzy memory (once upon a time, I had no blog and kept no notes about my reading!).

The re-read was a lot more careful and just as satisfying as the first time around. I had more time to enjoy the Victorian settings and try to see the novel as contemporary readers must have received it. I also took the time to make a little research on the net and it was quite fascinating.

The Law and the Lady starts with a conventional love story: a pure and intelligent young woman, Valeria, falls for a gentleman, Mr. Woodwill, and soon marries him. It’s no accident that she is an orphan, although with a proper guardian, pedigree and independent means. I guess that Victorian readers would scoff at the idea that her parents would have agreed to a wedding without taking all the reinsurance about the gentleman’s background. Anyway, right on her honeymoon, Valeria finds herself in a Victorian nightmare: her husband is not the man he seems to be. His real name is not Woodwill but Macallan. Who is he? Why has he lied?

This is the start of a very typically Victorian crisis, in times where respectability hangs essentially on status and name, all the more for women who totally depend on their husbands’ or fathers’. Not being sure of your name, of your status is enough to be shameful: Valeria is soon suspected to be the mistress of M. Macallan, or worse, to be the wife of a polygamist!

The truth is no better, when she finally gets to it: her husband has been suspected of poisoning his first wife in his Scottish homestead, and the local legal peculiarity has failed to solve the case: he has been tried but the verdict has been “not proven”, which means neither innocent nor guilty. Because the doubt lingers, his respectability (and hers) is tainted.

Eustace Macallan is an odd character in Victorian standards. He’s a gentleman – when he offers to release Valeria of her wedding promises, to divorce her (pronounced against him) and give her money, but he has tricked her into a false marriage, and he doesn’t do anything to clear his name, preferring to run away abroad. He’s weak and does nothing to warrant Valeria’s persistent love, in 19th or 21st century’s eyes.

His defection leaves it to Valeria to investigate and clear his name, at least in her own eyes. Her decision to do so, rather logic now, seems shocking to everyone then: to her husband, to her mother-in-law, to her husband’s best friend etc. As if it were a lot worse for her to disobey his instructions of leaving the matter alone and resign to her fate than to solve the respectability issue of a whole family. As the mother-in-law warns:

“Greatly as time and suffering have altered him in many respects, there is no change, Valeria, in the aversion—the horror I may even say—with which he views your idea of inquiring anew into the circumstances which attended the lamentable death of his first wife. It makes no difference to him that you are only animated by a desire to serve his interests.

In the other event—that is to say, if you are still determined to persevere in your hopeless project—then make up your mind to face the result. Set Eustace’s prejudices at defiance in this particular, and you lose your hold on his gratitude, his penitence, and his love—you will, in my belief, never see him again.”

The other singularity of The Law and the Lady is the Gothic character of Misserimus Dexter, friend of Eustace Macallan, witness to the alleged crime, and only source of information for Valeria: he is a cripple and a madman, at times exalted, terrifying, barking mad or terribly intelligent. Long chapters are devoted to Valeria trying to extort from him what Misserimus saw and understood of the first wife’s death, and it’s quite odd because the tone of the story hesitates between pre-Sherlock Holmes and early 19th century Mysteries of Udolpho, never quite taking a decisive turn for one or the other. There are a lof of dark undertones with disturbing innuendos by Victorian standards.

I found an interesting analysis available online by Karen Beth O’Dell on “Fear of Detection”. She highlights how “except for Valeria, the characters tend to prefer ignorance to knowledge. […] Their reasons center on not wanting to get to the bottom of the psychological abnormality that presumably underpins both criminality and deformity.”

This paper made me more aware of the subtleties of Collins’ subversion in Victorian standards and also of the two different ways of detection that overlap in the novel: the first is the gothic detection, based on emotional approach (deemed typically feminine), not rational but relying on circumstantial evidence and intuition; the second one is the rational, inductive detection: “Since the facts do not speak for themselves and cannot be determined from deductive reasoning, and since inductive reasoning puts unnatural constraints on her female intuition, Valeria moves fluidly between rational and gothic detection, using whichever method suits her needs at the time.” When Valeria relies on her confrontations with Misserimus Dexter, the novel is quite close to the earlier horror genre.

The resolution of the mystery is quite unusual too, because even as Valeria resisted every objection and threat against her looking for the truth, she eventually settles for ignorance and decides to hide this very truth to her husband. To me, it highlighted that Valeria acknowledges her husband’s essential weakness, and that this weakness made him not blameless in the tragedy of his first marriage. Eventually, it confirms the verdict of Not Proven, in my eyes.

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2 thoughts on “Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady (1875)

  1. I’ve only read (or rather listened to) The Woman in White and it was very enjoyable, even though I found his female characters a little weak (literally, the heroine faints a lot as I remember). Valeria sounds tougher. The two styles of detection sound interesting and quite different from our harder 21st century sensibilities.

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