"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 15, 2011

"Basil" by Wilkie Collins (Book review)

Basil was Wilkie Collins' second novel (1852) - after a best forgotten attempt to copy Bulwer-Lytton in a historical narrative - and his first so-called "sensation novel." The concise work is set squarely in the present time and would be his best novel of the whole decade. It is the story of a secret and unconsummated marriage, followed by an act of adultery that shocked Collin's contemporaries. The protagonist has to struggle with insanity and other horrors. The  atmosphere of the novel is passionate and at times sensual enough to engage also modern readers.

The narrator Basil is the second son from an ancient aristocratic family. Besides a father, whose pride in his lineage borders on the fanatical, Basil has a devoted younger sister, Clara, and an elder brother, Ralph, who likes to sow wild oats but is basically good in character.

Basil wants to be a writer and therefore likes to observe people. One day, he boards a London omnibus for that purpose and falls instantly and hopelessly in love with the young woman sitting opposite him. He stalks the dark beauty, seeks out her address, her name (Margaret Sherwin) and other particulars; and by bribing the servants he also finds a chance to speak to her. At the same time he knows this is an impossible situation: she is the daughter of a linen draper and totally unacceptable to his father as his wife.

But nothing can stop Basil, his infatuation borders on madness, so strong is the sexual spell under which he has fallen. He writes a letter to the mercantile father, meets him, gets permission to marry Margaret... a girl he hasn't talked to for more than five minutes and whose character must be a mystery to him. This may seem unrealistic, but it can be explained from the character of Basil. He is honest and serious and this is his first love - he wants to act honorably (as his practical brother later tells him, he should have seduced the girl...).

A deal is struck: he is to marry Margaret immediately, in a private ceremony, but may not consummate the marriage for another year because she is till too young (17, although she is physically well-developed). So a strange life starts for Basil: every evening he visits Margaret in the presence of her mother, but he is not allowed to see her alone or touch her. At the same time, he keeps his marriage a secret from his family, knowing that Margaret is unsuitable as his wife. But he is acting rather strange all the time and this leads to strained relations with his father. His sister Clara, who symbolizes the "good girl" in the novel tries to help him, but he doesn't take her into his confidence.

Basil now also comes to notice certain peculiarities in Margaret's character - she is vain and materialistic, and in fact only interested in his wealth and status. This unreal situation is further complicated when Mr Sherwin's head clerk, the sinister Robert Mannion, returns from a long business trip to France. There seems to be some mystery between Margaret and Mannion and at the end of his celibate year, just the day before his marriage will become real, Basil follows Margaret and Mannion to a seedy hotel where they make love while Basil listens outside their door. Basil looses control of himself: when the secret pair comes out of the hotel, the infuriated Basil attacks Mannion and almost kills him. Mannion is terribly disfigured for life. Practical brother Ralph helps Basil (who goes almost insane at this stage) straighten things out with Sherwin, but his father will never see him again after learning about the secret marriage. Margaret elopes with Mannion, but when she visits her lover in hospital, she catches typhus and dies.

But the story is not yet over, for Mannion is also an old enemy of Basil's father and bent on destructing Basil. He follows him through the country, never granting Basil peace, and finally on the wild coast of Cornwall, in a howling storm, follows a fight on life and death. The ending is a bit melodramatic, but basically this is a realistic novel displaying a keen psychological insight. And what is best of all: there is no Victorian or other moralizing, in fact the novel is quite ambiguous.

Get Basil from Gutenberg. Librivox recording of the novel.