"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 16, 2011

"Hide and Seek" by Wilkie Collins (Book review)

Collins' third novel Hide and Seek (1854) is a big step down from his second, Basil. After that novel for and about adults, with deep psychological insights, Collins befriended Dickens and apparently came under the spell of the famous man. Dickens usually writes about children - mistreated children, poor children, or at the other end of the unrealistic scale, angelic children. It is the kind of manipulative Victorian literature that I can't stand. To make it palatable for the masses, the author (Dickens and in this case also Collins) pours a whole pot of treacle over it.

Hide and Seek is about Madonna (Mary) a deaf-mute (!) girl whose origin is a mystery (!) but who has been lovingly (!) taken into the house of struggling (!) minor painter Valentine and his wife Lavinia, who is an invalid (!) - both ladies are of course angels (!). The only clue to Madonna's original identity is a hair bracelet that Valentine keeps carefully hidden - he is not interested in discovering the truth about her as he doesn't want to be parted from her. Next we have Zack, a wild boy with a very religious sermonizing father (and of course a loving, angelic mother!) who is friends with Valentine and Madonna and wants to become a painter to get away from the office where his father has placed him. During a wild night on the town, Zack meets Mat Marksman, a trapper a la Fennimore Cooper, with a skull cap instead of his original scalp, just arrived back home from the wild Americas. Mat is looking for his sister who twenty-three years ago was ostracized and kicked out of the family (while he was already away across the ocean) because of an extra-marital pregnancy. Without coincidences we have no novels: of course Madonna is later revealed to be the daughter of Mat's dead sister. Mat searches for the guy who has the dishonor of that sister on his consciousness in order to take revenge and who else is the man in question... but the sermonizing father of Zack. Without coincidences we have no novels! Zack is therefore the half-brother of Madonna. Good they found this out in time, otherwise we would have had a story that would not have been fit for children.

In other words, this is the low-end of Victorian fiction. Like in Dickens, the writing is full of caricatures as well. One redeeming point is the description of Valentine's dedication to art, even with little talent, and his atelier - Collins' father had been a painter and also Collins himself had taken up the brush before the pen. The second attraction is that Collins hated preachers and their shamming and liked to make them into villains.

Get a copy on Gutenberg.