The Law and the Lady

by Wilkie Collins
1875 / Kindle / 436 pages /
rating B+

I think this must have been a pot-boiler in its day.  Collins does so well with women – he was apparently the only male author of his day who presented them as wonderfully well-rounded and realistic – internal thoughts and all.  Dickens’  female characters tended toward the stereotypes and Hardy’s,  even a bit later, almost idealized them in some way.  Not Collins.

In The Law and the Lady the 1st person narrator, the Lady of the title,  the orphaned Valeria Brintin,   has married a man who,  unbeknownst to her at the time,  has a very shady past.   He was  accused of the murder of his prior wife and received the final judgement of  “Not Proven”  – called a Scotch Verdict at the time.  After that her new husband,  Eustace MacCallen, changed his name to Woodville and met,  fell in love with, and married Valeria.

Valeria finds out about this past and is devastated.  So ever faithful to perceived Victorian notions of propriety and love,  Eustace leaves Valeria  for fear she will always suspect him – no way to live in a marriage.   But Valeria does not suspect Eustace in the slightest – she firmly and totally believes in his innocence and sets out to solve the mystery of who or what  killed Sarah MacCallen?  So she sets out to prove her beloved’s innocence – not something ladies did in that very proper era.

The story has many twists and turns with fascinating characters strewn all around  including  Benjamin, Valeria’s father’s faithful clerk,  Eustace’s  mother,  his friend the ugly, crippled and  very peculiar (insane?)  Misserimus Dexter,  Dexter’s devoted (and possibly mad) assistant Ariel,    and Eustace’s attorney,  Mr. Playmore.

This book is quite a romp – it’s been neglected by the critics and readers in favor of Collins’ The Moonstone and The Woman in White and it maybe isn’t quite as well done as those two –  but Valeria may be the first woman detective of literature.

Also, when this was written,  the whole field of “detecting” was just opening up thanks to Francois Vidoc  (Paris) in about 1809.  He brought his methods to London and helped set up the Met Police (Scotland Yard) in the 1820s.  In 1842 a detective branch was set up there and Jonathan Whicher was one of the first detectives.  In the 1860s Whicher worked on the case of Constance Kent – a highly sensational murder case of the times.  Although Constance confessed,  it went against all Victorian codes that a woman could murder a child.  Whicher used ‘modern’ detecting techniques to devise a scenario in which Constance was protecting the real killer,  her younger brother.  That idea was thrown out.

The point is that in The Law and the Lady Collins uses the most modern thinking of the times in terms of women and marriage and also of the science of detection.

For an absolutely stunning history of the case and times see The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Sommerfield.


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