Wilkie Collins was a pioneer of the sensation novel, the genre often considered a precursor to detective and suspense fiction. I’ve long been a fan of his work, particularly The Woman in White and The Moonstone though I also enjoyed No Name and Armadale. I’m less familiar with the other 20 or so novels and novellas he wrote from the mid 1850s until his death in 1889 so I decided to delve into his earlier work. But it’s clear from reading one of those, The Dead Secret, that even this maestro had his off days.
The Dead Secret was the fourth of his novels to be published, unveiled in 1857 to Victorian readers in serial format in Household Words, the magazine edited by his friend Charles Dickens. It was the first full length novel that Collins wrote specifically for serialisation. According to his introduction to the book format published later in the year, he wrote it to show ‘the influence of a heavy responsibility on a naturally timid woman, whose mind was neither strong enough to bear it, nor bold enough to drop it altogether.’
The plot centres on a deathbed confession written as a letter by Mrs Treverton, a former actress, to her husband Captain Treverton. She makes her servant Sarah Leeson swear an oath to deliver it to the Captain. But Sarah disobeys her dying mistresses’ wishes. Instead she hides the letter in a disused room at the Treverton home at Porthgenna in Cornwall. And then she disappears.
Fifteen years or so pass during which time Mrs Treverton’s only daughter Rosamund gets married. By one of those coincidences that happens only in novels, Sarah Leeson (under an assumed name) obtains a post as servant to Rosamund and conveys to her the cryptic warning “when you go to Porthgenna, keep out of the Myrtle Room”. Rosamund, being the headstrong girl she is, immediately upon hearing that warning resolves that she absolutely must go to Porthgenna. And must of course, find that room and discover the secret.
To explain any more about the story would spoil the mystery. There are plenty of really big clues dropped by Collins however so it doesn’t take any ace detective skills to work out the nature of the secret well before the end. Along the way we get plenty of sensational episodes. The novel opens with a wonderfully gothic death bed scene; later on we find the servants tremoulousy making their way through the disused rooms of Porthgenna, fearful that at any minute they will meet a ghost. The cast of characters tremble, faint and declaim whenever they are not engaged in hand-wringing or tears that is.
Most of the characters are not particularly memorable. The few exceptions are really in the minor parts. I would have been delighted for example to spend more time in the company of the hilariously hypochondric Mr Phippen.
Wherever Mr. Phippen went, the woes of Mr. Phippen’s stomach went with him. He dieted himself publicly, and physicked himself publicly. He was so intensely occupied with himself and his maladies, that he would let a chance acquaintance into the secret of the condition of his tongue at five minutes’ notice; being just as perpetually ready to discuss the state of his digestion as people in general are to discuss the state of the weather.
With his aversion to anything that might disturb his constitution and equanimity, this ‘A Martyr to Dyspepsia’ was clearly a prototype for Frederick Fairlie in A Woman in White. Equally engaging was the devious servant Mr Shrowl, a man with an eye always open for the chance to get one up on his employer. I’ll pass discreetly over Rosamund, one of the most irritating characters I’ve encountered in a novel for many years, to talk about Sarah, the servant whose actions drive the plot and whose behaviour, though bizarre at times, does at least compel our sympathy..
Collins creates a mystery about her from the first time we encounter her, making much of her distinctive appearance. Though she has the face of a young woman, her hair is prematurely grey. This is a woman we’re told who has experienced suffering.
Much in her manner, and more in her face, said plainly and sadly: I am the wreck of something that you might once have liked to see; a wreck that can never be repaired—that must drift on through life unnoticed, unguided, unpitied—drift till the fatal shore is touched, and the waves of Time have swallowed up these broken relics of me forever.
Only much later do we discover the traumatic event responsible for her looks and why she is drawn to the grave of a young man killed in a mining accident. By the time she meets up with the Treverton family again, Leeson feels she is a haunted woman, fighting to keep her emotions in check so the truth of the past and her part in it, is not revealed.
As interesting as some of these characters are, this is a novel that is overlong, has a shaky plot and a secret that is far too obvious to justify the reader’s sustained interest. Contemporary critics were not over enthused by it, The Athenaeum published a lengthy review but judged it only moderately successful, with “too much made of too little mystery.”
Given these flaws it’s astonishing that in just over a year, Collins could rectify these defects and produce The Woman in White, one of the great mystery thrillers of the nineteenth century. Its intricate plot and superb characterisation (who can possibly forget the incomparable Count Fosco and his adversary Marian Halcombe) make The Dead Secret pale into insignificance.