Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mount TBR #21

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

Correction of miscount

Hide and Seek – Wilkie Collins

First published in 1854, this is an early novel of the writer of the still read The Woman in White and The Moonstone. In Hide and Seek, a deaf and mute girl is rescued from exploitation under the big top. To minimize the risk of losing her, her adopted father hides her origins under the cover of a modest middle-class family life. But her security and a family secret are threatened by a surly figure from the past, seeking the truth of the girl’s origins and bent on revenge.

Always clever and inventive, Collins also shows a kind tender side as he introduces us readers to the quiet life of a unsuccessful artist who has endearingly opted for a career of painting portraits of family members, dogs, and horses of crude manufacturers in order to provide comforts for his bedridden wife. This lovely couple has adopted the afflicted young girl. The murky origins of the girl are revealed as the surly stranger gets on her trail.

This book, then, is almost a detective novel. Of course, the probability of events happening in this world is quite low, but one always trusts Collins to carry our interest through admittedly long-winded sections or coincidences that in another writer (Dickens in Oliver Twist, say) would make us snort in indignation.  At only 29 years of age, in only his third novel, Collins got a handle on what he was doing as a writer.

Collins focuses our interest on a variety of characters. The action is not sensational, as much action was to be in 1860s efforts such as The Woman in White. Unusually for a novelist of that time, Collins sets up a person with a disability as a main character, drawing on John Kitto’s deafness memoir The Lost Senses. Moreover, the character is happy, able to establish relationships with others, helpful to an invalid in the house  and ambitious for a career of her own. She is never an object of pity, though she does star in some sorrowful scenes. What helps, of course, is that she is a beautiful as a Pre-Raphelite Madonna:

It is impossible to describe how deliciously soft, bright, fresh, pure, and delicate this young lady is, merely as an object to look at.... Even her face alone--simply as a face--could not escape perpetual discussion; and that, too, among Valentine's friends, who all know her well, and loved her dearly. It was the oddest thing in the world, but no one of them could ever agree with another ... as to which of her personal attractions ought to be first selected for approval, or quoted as particularly asserting her claims to the admiration of all worshippers of beauty.

The other remarkable point in this novel is Collins’ comic sense. Collins could see humor in situations such as the drunken son sneaking back into his father’s house or the incompetent artist boring his audience with contradictory explications of the symbolism in his clichéd paintings. The novel opens with a narration of the typical Victorian Sunday which is both humorous and critical of conventional religion. I’m probably overstating this, but I find Collins’ humor much easier to take than Dickens’ facetiousness.

This novel was published about ten weeks after the outbreak of the Crimean War. Collins always felt that public attention was accordingly distracted and hurt sales of the book. In about 1860, he revised it by cutting verbiage and tacking on a happy ending. Indeed, it is a better novel – more bittersweet and thus more realistic - if the reader doesn’t read the final three paragraphs.

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