“Valeria! if you ever discover what I am now keeping from your knowledge – from that moment you live a life of torture; your tranquility is gone. Your days will be days of terror; your nights will be full of horrid dreams – through no fault of mine, mind! through no fault of mine! Every day of your life, you will feel some new distrust, some growing fear of me – and you will be doing me the vilest injustice all the time. On my faith as a Christian, on my honour as a man, if you stir a step in this matter there is an end of your happiness for the rest of your life!”
While living in the country with her uncle and aunt, Valeria Brinton meets and falls in love with Eustace Woodville. The two plan to marry, but Mr and Mrs Starkweather have reservations about the match, particularly when it is made clear that Eustace’s own family strongly disapproves. However, Valeria is of age and in possession of a respectable fortune, and as there is nothing they can do to prevent the marriage, the Starkweathers give up their objections. Valeria’s first act as a married woman is to mis-sign her name in the register: an act which her aunt, with gloomy satisfaction, interprets as an ill-omen.
As the Woodvilles depart on their honeymoon, Valeria is almost overwhelmed by her new happiness – but when she looks up into the face of her new husband, she finds tears in his eyes…
In Ramsgate, from where the newlyweds are to depart on a yacht cruise, Valeria is walking on the beach when she encounters a woman whom she recognises from a photograph as her new mother-in-law. Unsure how to introduce herself, Valeria is relieved when she sees Eustace approaching – but when he introduces her as his wife, his mother reacts with anger and bitter contempt. This scene is witnessed by the Woodvilles’ landlady who, fearing for the reputation of her house, makes her own inquiries and discovers that Eustace’s mother is a Mrs Macallan, and that Valeria has been married under a false name – if indeed she is married…
Nor, when Valeria questions Eustace, does he assuage her fears. He first attempts to impose an obviously fabricated story of his mother’s eccentricity upon her, and then, when Valeria refuses to be placated, suddenly breaks down, passionately declaring his love and swearing that the problem is only one between his mother and himself. Valeria, however, cannot rest. Without Eustace’s knowledge, she finds her way to Mrs Macallan and begs her for the truth. Mrs Macallan confirms that Eustace has married Valeria under an assumed name, but adds that she is certain the marriage is nevertheless legal. More than this she will not say – other than to warn Valeria, if she values her marriage and her peace of mind, not to seek to know any more.
At Eustace’s request, the two return to London, where Valeria is reassured about her legal position. However, when her attitude makes it clear to Eustace that she cannot do as he wishes and ask no more questions, or pretend that nothing is wrong, he warns her in the strongest language that if she inquires any further into his motives, she will shatter their marriage and destroy all possibility of happiness for them both.
To Valeria, these things have already come to pass. Unable to accept the thought of a life lived in the shadow of some terrible mystery, she makes up her mind to seek the truth, whatever it is and whatever the cost. As a first step, she pays a call upon an old friend of Eustace’s family, Major Fitz-David, and confronts him about her situation. The Major, an elderly roué with a deficiency of character and a weakness for pretty women, is completely dismayed by Valeria’s demand for information, but unable to bring himself to reject her plea for help outright. Telling her that he is sworn to secrecy on the matter of Eustace’s history, he also lets her know that the truth is hidden somewhere in his library, inviting her to find it if she can.
Left alone, Valeria begins a desperate search. Her first discovery is a photograph of Eustace with another woman, the back inscribed, E. & S. M. Her second, the discovery that will change her life, is the published report of a trial – a murder trial – the trial of Eustace Macallan for the arsenic poisoning of his wife, Sarah, which ended in a verdict neither of “Guilty” or “Not Guilty”, but in the unique Scottish outcome of “Not Proven”…
As is evident in many of his novels, Wilkie Collins’ early training was in the law; and in spite of the turn taken by his professional life, it was an interest he never lost. In The Law And The Lady, Collins draws heavily upon the famous case of Madeleine Smith, who was tried in Edinburgh in 1857 for the arsenic poisoning of her lover, and notoriously escaped with a verdict of “Not Proven”. This singular Scottish turn of the law forms the basis of this novel, wherein Eustace Macallan is neither convicted nor acquitted of his wife’s murder, but receives what Wilkie Collins repeatedly calls “the iniquitous Scotch verdict”. To Eustace (and to Collins), this outcome leaves upon the accused an ineradicable stain, and makes his life with Valeria impossible, once she has become aware of his ambiguous situation.
(Of course, whether the verdict of “Not Proven” was really as “iniquitous” as Wilkie Collins clearly believed probably depends upon where you stood with respect to it. To Eustace, conscious of his own innocence, it is an intolerable insult. To Madeleine Smith, however, whom pretty much everyone believed guilty except her jury – actually, scratch that, including her jury – it was in all likelihood extremely welcome.)
Wilkie Collins stands apart from most other prominent male novelists of the Victoriam era not only because of the sensational subject matter with which he habitually dealt, but for his attitude towards women. I never get any sense from the novels of Charles Dickens, for example, that he actually liked women; as symbols, possibly; but not as real people. Anthony Trollope is far more positive in his attitude – but only up to a point – only towards those of his female characters who are content to live their lives within some extremely narrow parameters. A step outside, and the result is generally punitive.
Wilkie Collins, however, although he was certainly not above exploiting their legal and social inequality for his own advantage, clearly did like women; and perhaps more importantly, he understood them. Above all, he knew that they were far from being the unimpassioned and straightforward creatures that convention demanded, and that most novels described – and was not disturbed by that knowledge. One of the enduring pleasures of Collins’ novels is their wide variety of female characters, who are nearly always handled sympathetically – even the “bad” women. Especially the “bad” women.
In drawing upon the law for his plots, Collins often displayed a particular interest in the way that legal anomalies effected women in a society in which a woman’s status was wholly determined by her family and marital standing, and was thus to a very large extent beyond her control. So it is in The Law And The Lady, a story told in the first-person by its heroine, who is one of the more remarkable creations of Victorian literature – not least because she represents perhaps the very first female detective in literary history, as she sets out to discover the truth about the death of her husband’s first wife, and to prove the innocence of which she has no doubt.
Ill-omens abound at the marriage of Valeria Brinton and Eustace Woodville; and we are not much surprised at the rapidity with which things go wrong. The nature of the mishap does, however, catch us off-guard. Nothing we have learned about Eustace, even allowing for the partiality of Valeria’s account of him, makes him strike us as the kind of cad who could deliberately take advantage of a woman’s trust – yet that is exactly what, it appears, he has done. The failure of the woman whom she knows to be Eustace’s mother to react when introduced to (presumably) another “Mrs Woodville” bewilders her daughter-in-law, who can only wait for the arrival of her husband to clear the matter up.
But the arrival of Eustace brings with it not merely more bewilderment, but a growing fear. When he does, and obviously with reluctance, introduce Valeria to his mother as his wife, the older woman reacts with outrage and scorn – all of it directed at her son.
Wilkie Collins wastes no time here in letting us know exactly what is at stake for Valeria – not only her private happiness, but her public reputation. The Woodvilles’ landlady is a witness of these scenes, and makes it her business to inquire into the truth; and although it is absolutely clear that Valeria is at worst the innocent victim of deception, she is inexorable in her subsequent rejection of her boarder:
“I am in a position to tell you, madam, what your mother-in-law’s name really is. She knows nothing about any such person as Mrs Woodville, for an excellent reason. Her name is not Woodville. Her name (and consequently her son’s name) is Macallan. Mrs Macallan, widow of the late General Macallan. Yes! your husband is not your husband. You are neither maid, wife, nor widow. You are worse than nothing, madam – and you leave my house.”
And the landlady is only getting started. Although she admits that whatever is wrong is none of Valeria’s doing, she does not care. Valeria’s standing as a woman is equivocal, and that means (and the word is used repeatedly) that she is “tainted” – and a tainted woman infects everyone with whom she comes in contact; infects the very building that houses her.
Valeria manages to hold her landlady at bay for a short time with the suggestion that Mrs Macallan was twice married (recognising as she does so that even were this the case, she would hardly have failed to react to the name “Mrs Woodville”), and goes to confront her mother-in-law.
Mrs Macallan, however, gives her little comfort – beyond the assurance that, legally, she is Eustace’s wife. That some terrible secret lies behind Eustace’s deception is clear; but Mrs Macallan is unmoved by Valeria’s pleas for the truth:
“I believe you to be lawfully my son’s wife; and I say again, make the best of your position. Be satisfied with your husband’s affectionate devotion to you. If you value your peace of mind, and the happiness of your life to come, abstain from attempting to know more than you know now.”
Valeria gets the same advice from her main sympathiser, her late father’s old clerk, Benjamin, who has known her since childhood, and to whom she tells her troubles:
“Leave things as they are, my dear. In the interest of your own peace of mind, be satisfied with your husband’s affection. You know that you are his wife, and you know that he loves you. Surely that is enough?”
But of course, it isn’t enough.
The detective story is so embedded in our culture now that we don’t think twice about its conventions, or question why its protagonist, professional or amateur, will persist in his or her search for the truth despite hardship, danger, violence, and in many cases people dropping dead on all sides. Such was not the case, however, when Wilkie Collins penned The Law And The Lady, in which he is doubly constrained by the sex of his detective. His answer to this conundrum, or one of them, is to cast Valeria’s quest in acceptably feminine terms: she is fighting to save her marriage; to vindicate her husband; to rehabilitate the reputation of the father of her child. What could be more womanly?
But in reality, it’s all much simpler than that. The most critical and revealing moment in this novel comes late in the story, when Valeria has succeeded in opening up a new line of inquiry about the death of Eustace’s first wife, and there is an excellent chance of the whole truth being discovered at last. Prior to this, Valeria has been in contact with Eustace, although without his knowledge. After leaving Valeria, Eustace enlists as a medical aide during the ongoing Spanish civil war. When he is wounded, Valeria immediately goes to him, to nurse him – but only while he is unconscious or delirious; only while he cannot know her. When he begins to recover, she withdraws. Afterwards, Mrs Macallan tells Eustace of this, and this evidence of Valeria’s generosity and enduring love breaks down his resolve. He sends, via his mother, a plea for a reconciliation – but upon one condition: that Valeria give up her quest:
“I laid down the letter, and did my best (vainly enough for some time) to compose my spirits. To understand the position in which I now found myself, it is only necessary to remember one circumstance. The messenger to whom we committed our enquiries was, at that moment, crossing the Atlantic on his way to New York.
“What was to be done?
“I hesitated. Shocking as it may seem to some people, I hesitated…”
And here we cut to the heart of the matter. Valeria may explain and excuse her conduct in terms of her love, her marriage, her pregnancy, but in the end her motives are even more fundamental, more primal, than that: Valeria has to know because she has to know.
But this was not, in its time, an acceptable reason for a woman to step outside the bounds of conventional behaviour, as Wilkie Collins makes abundantly clear in an early confrontation between Valeria and Eustace, wherein we find to our astonishment (and very likely, to our disgust) that Eustace considers himself the injured party:
“‘If you could control your curiosity,’ he answered, sternly, ‘we might live happily enough. I thought I had married a woman who was superior to the vulgar failings of her sex. A good wife should know better than to pry into affairs of her husband’s with which she has no concern.'”
One of Collins’ concerns in this novel is the often impossible situation of “the good wife”, expected to be blind and deaf – and dumb – if it suits her husband’s convenience. To modern readers, the idea that Eustace’s love is “enough”, and that Valeria should spend her entire married life pretending that nothing is wrong between them is simply outrageous; but that this was not necessarily so for contemporary readers of The Law And The Lady is very evident from the tone of the ensuing tale.
Here, Valeria has been deceived by her lover from the moment of their first meeting. She has been married under false pretences; and, having been so, is now expected to live her life in the shadow of a lie. She has been kept in the dark not only about the circumstances of the death of her husband’s first wife, but even about her existence – and also about her husband’s secret love for another woman, not his wife. Yet to ask why? is to behave with unpardonable temerity; to persist beyond the first rebuff is to be a vulgar, inferior woman.
A good wife, we understand, asks no questions. A good wife looks the other way. She does not confront; she does not insist. She lives a lie if she must. She “suffers and is silent”.
But Valeria, by Victorian standards, is in many ways a very bad wife…and therein lies the enduring interest of this novel.
Even with the absolute prohibition of her husband upon her (who she has, presumably, only a few days since promised to obey), Valeria persists in her inquiries. She gets what she was seeking – more than she bargained for – with the passive assistance of Major Fitz-David, who won’t break his word to Eustace by telling Valeria the truth, but obliquely points her in the direction of finding it. Opening the transcript of Eustace’s trial, she reads no further than the bald title statement of her husband having stood accused of the murder of his wife before, between shock and exhaustion, she faints. Upon regaining consciousness, she demands to see Eustace. Her only thought is to convince him of her belief in his innocence.
For Eustace, however, the mere fact that Valeria knows his secret means an end to everything. Waving aside her protestations of love and loyalty, he insists that now it is only a matter of time before suspicion and distrust grows between them; that through her stubbornness and disobedience, Valeria has made it impossible that the two of them can go on together.
And having made arrangements for her financial security, Eustace leaves his wife of only a few days, determined never to return. Valeria, then, when she begins her quest, is one of Victorian England’s unacceptable women – a deserted wife.
Valeria is, after a fashion, supported in her search for the truth by a number of reluctant allies: Mrs Macallan; Major Fitz-David; Mr Starkweather; Mr Benjamin; and Mr Playmore, Eustace’s former legal counsel. All of them react to her determination to reinvestigate the death of her predecessor with a mixture of horror at her dogged refusal to behave like a woman – that is, to be passive, to do nothing – and condescending amusement at the idea that she could discover the truth where The Law (i.e. men) failed to do so. From the unanimity of their reactions, we are to understand that even Valeria’s untenable social position is hardly sufficient excuse for her subsequent behaviour. Indeed, Valeria thinks so herself – or at least, she says she does.
As narrator of this novel, Valeria is able to tell her own story in her own way – and in the process spends much time criticising her own behaviour, exclaming in disbelief at her own outrageousness, and pleading with the reader to somehow try and understand what she concedes cannot possibly be forgiven.
This is, at all points, a case of the lady protesting far too much. The question is, who is really speaking here? – and how far do they believe what they say? Is this Wilkie Collins, thinking that Valeria’s behaviour needs this much excusing – or thinking that his readers might think so, and anticipating their negative reaction to his heroine? Is it Valeria, honestly describing her perception of her own behaviour? Or is it simply a tactical manoeuvre on her part, a veil of fluttering femininity thrown over over a series of actions that are, by the standards of her day, anything but properly feminine?
And in fact, The Law And The Lady spends much of its time pondering questions of “masculinity” and “femininity”, although rarely explicitly. Valeria evidently feels that her own strength of character is something that requires an apology; while ironically, all the time that Mrs Macallan is recommending a traditionally unquestioning and submissive role to Valeria, it is increasingly apparent that she, too, is made of much sterner stuff than her son. Eustace himself displays very few “manly” qualities: what his loyal wife excuses as “acute sensitivity” strikes the less sympathetic reader as a mixture of weakness and cowardice. His impulse to run and hide constrasts strikingly with Valeria’s own to stand up and fight; so much so that by the end of the novel, it is impossible not to believe that in spite of Valeria’s repeated claims to be striving for a traditional life as a traditional wife, for this strong-willed woman Eustace’s weakness is a large part of his attraction.
The most startlingly feminine man in the book, however, is also its most indelible creation: Miserrimus Dexter, a man born with the lower portion of his body missing; who has become almost one with his wheelchair; and whose disturbingly inappropriate handsomeness conceals a mind teetering between brilliance and insanity.
Learning that not only was Dexter visiting Eustace at the time of Sarah Macallan’s death, but that he spoke up for Eustace at his trial, Valeria determines against all advice to visit him at his isolated house, where she finds him attended only by his half-witted cousin, a woman he derisively dubs “Ariel”, and whose literally dog-like devotion to her “master” is both touching and unnerving.
The encounters between Valeria and Dexter have about them something of the quality of a fairy-tale – or of a nightmare. At first, Valeria is bested by Dexter, who easily reads her thoughts and feelings and skilfully manipulates her, particularly with regard to Mrs Beauly, the “other woman”, who Valeria rather too eagerly comes to believe was the real murderer. But over time, Valeria’s understanding of her ally-adversary grows, and with it her ability to manipulate him. Convinced that Dexter knows the truth of Sarah Macallan’s death, Valeria pulls him into a battle of wits, determined to draw the truth from him with or without his volition, and whatever the ultimate cost…
The Law And The Lady does not share the broad palette and extensive cast of varied characters of Wilkie Collins’ best-known novels, but in this single aspect it can compete with the best of them. Although his sketch is tinged with contemporary assumptions about the nature of mental illness to an uncomfortable degree, in Miserrimus Dexter Wilkie Collins succeeds in creating a character who is in turns pathetic, amusing, and terrifying.
Writing in 1875, Wilkie Collins cannot, of course, tell us explicitly what is missing from Miserrimus Dexter, his “half man, half machine”, but he makes his point by loading Dexter with traditionally feminine characteristics: his love of bright colours and interest in fabrics; his talent for cooking and needlework; and above all, the extreme emotionality of his nature and his tendency to go into hysterics. However, while Dexter is, in all overt respects, much more feminine than Valeria, this is not simply a contrast between a feminised man and a masculinised woman. Rather, Collins uses Dexter’s extreme outbursts to disguise the extent to which he and Valeria are alike, particularly in the way that both of them (consciously or unconsciously) use heightened female behaviour to disguise their more masculine impulses.
Dexter, indeed, is presented in such skewed terms that his declared obsessive love for the late Sarah Macallan seems like a joke – until suddenly, frighteningly, that obsession transfers itself to Valeria, and is revealed as anything but platonic. Valeria, on the other hand, uses her position of control as teller of the story to throw a feminine smokescreen over the clear intelligence with which she reviews the trial transcript and related testimonies, and the strength and determination with which she pursues her ends – in the process repeatedly defying a range of male authority figures, all of whom are of course presumed to “know better” than she.
At the same time, Valeria can be feminine enough, when it suits her; when she chooses – which is exactly Collins’ point. In Eustace and Valeria, as in Miserrimus Dexter and Mrs Macallan, we see the absurdity of pre-determining abilities and behaviours as “naturally” masculine or feminine; character isn’t that simple. For Valeria, traditional femininity is a disguise that she dons when she needs to, whether to excuse her behaviour to the reader – forgive me, I’m only a woman – or to impose her will upon a man. We see this in her various approaches to Major Fitz-David and to Dexter, both susceptible to the attractions of a womanly woman. And finally – and in a twisted sort of way, fittingly – we see it in her reconciliation with Eustace.
Circumstances do bring Valeria and Eustace back together before the mystery of Sarah Macallan’s death is solved. At that time, the promise to give up her quest, over which Valeria so shockingly “hesitated”, remains ungiven – and when Eustace presses her for it, she hesitates again. It is now only a matter of time before the truth is uncovered, as Valeria well knows. So close to the end, can she bring herself to give it all up? – as, surely, a good wife would do, at her husband’s first word.
By now, I doubt anyone will be surprised to hear that, no, she cannot. But how to put off the equally determined Eustace? Simple: she asks in turn a promise of him – that the subject not again be mentioned between the two of them until after the birth of their child – by which time Valeria confidently expects to have the truth in her possession, as indeed it proves.
A woman using her pregnancy as a weapon to get her own way—what on earth could be more feminine than that?