Little reviews on little (and big!) books

The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

on November 25, 2013

‘A man in my place would have lost all patience, and would have given up the struggle in disgust. Being a woman, and having my end in view, my resolution was invincible.’

Most readers will already be familiar with Collins’s classic novel, The Woman in White, but I would like to delve into his other masterpieces a little more. Of course I will be writing on The Woman in White at some point, but I thought it would be nice to give some credit to the rest of his work, the novels which have been to some extent ignored over the years in favour of the more popular ones 🙂 To be quite honest, I used any excuse to write on Wilkie Collins at University – I love his books! The Law and the Lady has got to be one of my favourites. Linking back to the concept of the female detectives I discussed in earlier reviews, the 1875 novel is about Valeria Woodville, a newlywed who finds out that her husband Eustace had previously been on trial for the murder of his first wife by poisoning, but had received the verdict of Not Proven. This meant that there was not enough evidence to charge him, but equally not enough to prove that he was innocent, essentially a kind of limbo position we have in the law here in Scotland. On learning this, Valeria takes it upon herself to adopt the role of the amateur sleuth in an attempt to clear her husband’s name once and for all, leading one critic to cite her as ‘one of the very first detectivettes.’

Along the way, she encounters many challenges to her task, not least her own husband willing her to give up the investigation, but she is spurred on by her tenacity to complete her investigations. To a patriarchal society where the wife is simply supposed to submit to her husband’s requests, she controversially defies his instructions in order to satisfy her own inquisitiveness. Valeria really does love her husband, but this role allows her to emerge from the shadows of the submissive Victorian domesticated ideal. She probes people for information and, when necessary, uses her feminine charms to get what she wants. She reads diaries and trial transcripts in order to understand her husband’s position, arriving at 3 distinct questions she has to solve. Did the woman die poisoned? Who poisoned her? What was their motive? After this, she takes the initiative to set up meetings with people she deems crucial to help her answer these questions. Throughout the novel, she seems to define herself as the woman doing the man’s work, and becomes the assertive partner in the relationship – let’s just say her husband Eustace is a bit of a wimp! Her transgressive behaviour is the making of Valeria – her stubborn attitude culminates in the truth finally being revealed, something the law system failed to do. Again, I won’t ruin the ending, but I’ll just leave a little hint – it’s very frustrating (not just for the reader, but for Valeria herself).

I couldn’t possibly review this novel without mentioning Miserrimus Dexter, an old friend of her husband and a key help (and sometimes hindrance) to Valeria’s investigations. The first time I read this book, I’ll embarrassingly admit that the description of him scared me senseless! A half-man who hops about his darkened home on his hands, a ‘frantic creature,’ a ‘fantastic and frightful apparition, man and machinery blended in one.’ Pretty creepy! His mood swings are unpredictable, and along with his almost Frankenstein-like helper, Ariel, they add the Gothic element to the novel. To sum up, I would say that The Law and the Lady is a great attempt by Collins to contribute to novels about female detectives which deserves far more credit than it has been given. It is an exciting and gripping read – I honestly couldn’t put the book down and read it all in one day! 🙂 However, my advice would be to take your time with this book – it’s definitely worth a few re-reads.


3 responses to “The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins

  1. turningpagesandtea says:

    This novel looks so interesting! I’ve read The Woman in White which is definitely one of my favourite books ever. I think I might have to give this a read! 🙂

    • emma says:

      It’s really good – you’ll enjoy it! I’ve still got a few of his other novels to read, but I’d highly recommend the ones I’ve actually completed – The Moonstone, Armadale, and No Name 🙂 They’re brilliant, so I’ll be reviewing them soon as well!

  2. Thanks for writing about this. I haven’t heard of this one before. I was so taken with The Woman in White. I’m adding this to my list of winter reads.

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