Category Archives: Wilkie Collins

Book Review – The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Haunted Hotel Wilkie Collins Don’t you just love this cover? I read this on my iPhone Eucalyptus App so I didn’t have the pleasure of having the lovely Penguin copy, but I might tempted to buy it.

I chose The Haunted Hotel as one of my Venice Reads and as I usually find with Wilkie Collins novels, it didn’t disappoint.

The Haunted Hotel is a sort of ghost story-come-mystery. The tale opens in England, where a wild-eyed Countess Narona visits Doctor Wybrow in a state of distress, convinced that she is going mad. Her husband-to-be, Lord Montbarry has jilted his kind-hearted fiancé, Agnes for her. The Countess is convinced that Agnes will somehow bring about her downfall. After the marriage, the Countess and Lord Montbarry move to Venice where they stay in a decaying palace. The plot thickens when Lord Montbarry dies, leaving £10,000 insurance money which is claimed by his widow, and simultaneously the wife of Montbarry’s close servant, a courier named Ferrari, receives an anonymous note containing £1,000. The courier has also mysteriously disappeared. The palace is later turned into a fashionable hotel where ghostly goings on occur in room number 13A.

As with many of Collins’s novels, The Haunted Hotel has a strong theme of destiny. The book opens with a satisfying sense of doom and the suggestion that something gruesome is yet to occur. Despite being a comparatively short novel at 240 pages it felt surprisingly in-depth. Collins spends time setting the scene and building up the suspense carefully. I have to admit that there were a couple of points at which I found myself losing concentration in the middle part of the book and wondering where it was all going, but this was more than made up for by the last third of the book which was genuinely creepy!

If you’ve read my comments on Armadale and The Moonstone, it will come as no surprise that I’m a bit of fan of Wilkie Collins, especially in the way that he dramatises his characters, for example in his description of the Countess:

“Every human creature, with the slightest claim to a place in society, knew the Countess Narona. An adventuress with a European reputation of the blackest possible colour- such was the general description of the woman with the deathlike complexion and the glittering eyes.”

His sharp descriptions of comic (Mrs Ferrari) or sadly unattractive (Mrs. Rolland) comments are also very witty.

“A person of unblemished character, evidently – but not without visible drawbacks. Big bushy eyebrows, an awfully deep and solemn voice, a harsh unbending manner, a complete absence in her figure of the undulating lines characteristic of the sex, presented Virtue in this excellent person under its least alluring aspect. Strangers, on a first introduction to her, were accustomed to wonder why she was not a man.”

I loved the narrative voice, especially at the end of the novel where I felt a bit as if I was listening to a proper ghost-story.

Collins also manages to combine humour and mystery with sensitive moments. There is a passage where Agnes is discussing the pain of being jilted that demonstrates poignantly the pain of love lost.

I’m starting to feel that there is a bit of a rather dark theme to the books I’ve read which are set in Venice (Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, Don’t Look Nowby Daphne DuMaurier and Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers). It seems to be the setting for unusual happenings, with danger lurking under the surface. The sense of an unsettling atmosphere is used to great effect in The Haunted Hotel. It is the kind of book that I would call a ‘proper old-fashioned ghost-story’ and well worth a try when you fancy something spooky to read.

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

Happy new year everyone!

Who knew that the Christmas holidays would be so busy? I had so many books I planned to get through and have only managed to finish just oneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins which I was reading as part of The Sensation Season. It took me rather longer than I expected but was worth the read. Finally, here’s my review…

The plot of The Moonstone revolves around a magnificent Indian diamond. The gem is given to Rachel Verinder by her uncle on her eighteenth birthday, but it is a tainted gift as it is believed to bring ill fortune upon the owner. Only a few hours after the diamond is received by Rachel, it is stolen away on the very same night. But who stole it? The mysterious Indian jugglers? Rachel’s cousin Franklin Blake? Or could Rachel herself be responsible for its disappearance in order to cover some private debt? Inspector Sergeant Cuff is brought in to investigate.

The Moonstone is generally considered to be the first detective novel written in the English language. Serialised in 1868 around the time that the notorious Victorian Road Hill House murder case was being investigated, Wilkie Collins was obviously heavily influenced by events. The detective in charge – Sergeant Cuff’s investigation of events, behaviour and personality mirrors that of Jack Whicher (the detective who led the case at Road Hill House)  including a very close reference to a little quirk – his fondness for roses. Another parallel is in one of the clues that Cuff identifies as key to the case of the disappearing Moonstone, which is a stained petticoat which was an item identified by Whicher to be of key significance in the murder at Road Hill House. Having read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, very recently (the review is here), I found it absolutely fascinating to notice the similarities between the factual case and Collins’ novel.

I am fast becoming a total devotee to Wilkie Collins. I love the way that the narrative of The Moonstone is developed through the narratives of various characters as it is in The Woman in White. I find it a wonderful technique as you hear the story through a variety of voices and you as the reader get to make up your mind about their own personality from their own words. For example I was entertained by the character of Miss Clack, who believes herself to be quite pious but just can’t refrain from catty comments, such as her description of Mrs Verinder’s “autumnal exuberance of figure”. Later, she is described by another character as a “rampant spinster”! which made me laugh out loud.

I liked the characters in The Moonstone. I loved the old servant, Gabriel Betterage and his obsession with Robinson Crusoe, felt duly sorry for the sad character of Rosanna Spearman and, although it took me a good while to warm to Rachel Verinder, when all was revealed I could understand her mysterious and rather frustrating silence. I couldn’t help but almost fancy the dashing Franklin Blake – is that a strange, simply from a narrative?!

I loved the plot line – a fabulous exotic gemstone, a fraught romance, murder, meddling and detective fever, but also appreciated the interesting perspective on ‘Hindoo customs’, and the way in which Collins represents the servants and their position in society.

One of the things I found both spooky and beautiful were Collins’ descriptions of the bay. The shivering sand – a deadly quicksand captured my imagination and Franklin Blake’s description of the shoreline was so evocative I could almost smell the sea air.

“The sunlight poured its unclouded beauty on every object that I could see. The exquisite freshness of the air made the mere act of living and breathing a luxury. Even the lonely little bay welcomed the morning with a show of cheerfulness; and the bared wet surface of the quicksand itself, glittering with a golden brightness, hid the horror of its false brown face under a passing smile.”

I did find The Moonstone of a slow-burner in the sense that after the initial theft and drama, there was a lot of character narrative and mis-direction, however after finishing the book I felt that this was necessary to build up the story and the suspense. Although, I didn’t love it quite as much as Armadale, (which is definitely my favourite Wilkie Collins novel so far) The Moonstone is a brilliant detective tale with a wonderful cast of characters, and I enjoyed getting a good measure of “detective fever” myself.

Have you read The Moonstone? What is your favourite detective story?

Wilkie Collins’ Armadale – Simply Sensational

ArmadaleArmadale first came to my attention through Savidge Reads’ Sensation Season. At 750- odd pages, it is a pretty chunky book, but after reading the synopsis I was raring to go;

When the elderly Allan Armadale makes a terrible confession on his death-bed, he has little idea of the repercussions to come, for the secret he reveals involves the mysterious Lydia Gwilt: flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband-poisoner. Her malicious intrigues fuel the plot of this gripping melodrama: a tale of confused identities, inherited curses, romantic rivalries, espionage, money – and murder. The character of Lydia Gwilt horrified contemporary critics, with one reviewer describing her as ‘One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction’. She remains among the most enigmatic and fascinating women in nineteenth-century literature and the dark heart of this most sensational of Victorian ‘sensation novels’.

The novel centres around two distant cousins, both named Allan Armadale whose lives are tied together by the terrible secret which the elder Alan Armadale confesses on his death bed. Both Armadales meet again at the ages of 21 and 22 respectively and become friends (one of them under an assumed name). The curiosity of their shared names, the secret and a premonition leads them on a path that leads the reader to question whether they are simply hapless victims of fate. The books femme-fatale, Lydia Gwilt appears on the scene halfway through the book intent upon becoming the heiress to one of the Alan’s fortunes and turns everyone’s lives upside-down.

I don’t want to give much away about Armadale, except to say that I absolutely loved it. Collins uses letters and diaries throughout the novel to give the reader an intimate insight into the characters’ unique personalities. Lydia Gwilt is just the most fantastic villainess who I secretly wanted to be successful in her wicked plans. From a female point of view I find it funny because Collins often makes sweeping statements about womanly traits that are at first slightly offensive, but in reality he writes such strong and complex female characters who can surely only come from the mind of a writer who was forward thinking. I can’t get over how skilfully, Collins creates entertaining characters that are also very human. His writing is witty and absorbing in a way that makes you feel happy that the story is so long. I also love the fact that I couldn’t predict what would happen at the end.

If you’ve never read sensation fiction or thought that a book from this era would be dry and boring, I would urge you to pick up Armadale or another Wilkie Collins, and allow yourself to be swept away in a brilliant plot.

I just wanted to finish with a quick quote which made me giggle, where Lydia considers why jumping out of the window would be a bad idea:

“I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.”

Have you read any / many sensation novels? What do you like about this genre and if you haven’t read any what puts you off?