Published in 1875 The Law and the Lady was written a few years after the death of Charles Dickens, a close friend of Wilkie Collins. With his own failing health came a reliance on opium to relieve his symptoms and who knows - perhaps there was a certain pleasure to be had in its recreational value. In any case, a note of the bizarre proved to be an asset with this book and once settled into the landscape I was stealing every moment possible to get stuck in.
The first chapter is titled The Bride's Mistake. There is no pussyfooting around, the reader is presented straight away with the crux of the matter. Written in the first person, Valeria describes her new husband's physical appearance which sounds suspiciously like Collins himself but nevermind. Next comes the anxiety when she discovers quite early on that the name she has taken on, Woodville, is not the family name her husband grew up with. A chance meeting with her mother-in-law while visiting the beach in Ramsgate only results in more confusion when Mrs Macallan declares pity for her family's newest member. On a quest for answers, Valeria, sets off for London and becomes entwined with Major Fitz-David. He would willingly accept the description of himself as an aging Lothario and yes, all the hand-kissing is a bit cringeworthy but he is also incredibly helpful so I quite liked the fellow. In the meantime, unable to discuss his past, Eustace flees to Spain leaving his wife to get to the bottom of things.
Valeria's character has been described as one of the first female detectives and while there were times when I would have given the lily-livered Eustace a good slap instead of a kiss I did admire her tenacity. And let's face it, after spending six days as a married woman it was in her best interests to prove she hasn't been a fool.
The story takes on a mild Gothic tone with the introduction of Miserrimus Dexter. Born without legs he speeds along the passageways of his crumbling pile in a wheelchair, his oiled locks flowing behind him. More than a tad eccentric he has a penchant for his pink jacket in quilted silk and other such showy adornments. He also plays a harp when he needs a delay tactic and picks up his embroidery to help him think. When impatient, Miserrimus 'leapfrogs' about using his hands to propel himself from place to place, he's also quite skilled at peeking in keyholes. He keeps Valeria on her toes trying to anticipate his next move...or motive. Major Fitz-David describes him...
'He is a mixture of the tiger and the monkey. At one moment, he would frighten you; and at the next, he would set you screaming with laughter. I don't deny that he is clever in some respects - brilliantly clever, I admit. And I don't say that he has ever committed any acts of violence, or ever willingly injured anybody. But, for all that, he is mad, if ever a man was mad yet.'Ariel is Miserrimus's faithful companion, she runs his errands using a pony and cart and favours men's clothing. Her jealousy of anyone in contact with her master is so acute that she sniffs at Valeria's gloves to find out whether she has touched or groomed him. Described in Victorian terms as an 'idiot' the reader can safely assume that as a cousin of Miserrimus, madness runs in the family.
The plot of The Law and the Lady is the unravelling of secrets surrounding an incident so traumatic as to lead a man to conceal not only his association with it but his identity. So well-paced are the tidbits that as a serialized story in the Graphic I can easily conjure up images of customers champing at the bit while waiting for the next installment to hit the shops, or the docks.
Having really enjoyed Collins's No Name I promptly bought up a few of his other more popular works. I must confess that The Woman in White didn't do a thing for me so it came as a relief that The Law and the Lady has me back on track as a fan of Wilkie Collins' highly entertaining writing style. Were it not for a Barbara Pym Reading Week soon underway I would promptly head back to my shelves for Armadale or The Moonstone!
Victorian mourning brooch