For my next reading, I cycled back to the classics and found myself another Wilkie Collins novel, No Name. This is the longest one of Collins that I’ve read so far with 786 pdf pages worth of reading, excluding the Preface. This one’s a bit different from his usual creations because he called the main divisions of his work as scenes (instead of Books). In between the scenes, he used an epistolary form of narration to continue the story. It’s not really one of my favorite Collins story, but it did give me some things to think about. There were truths here that I’ve always taken for granted and seeing them in story form made me realize that they are important insights, even in our time.
No Name is a skillfully woven tale of two young women born out of wedlock who lost their inheritance because of a legal technicality. Norah Vanstone, the older sister, chose to accept their fate and opted to create a life that was very different from what she was used to. In contrast, Magdalen Vanstone, chose a much darker path than her sister’s. For Magdalen, the lost inheritance was stolen property that she needed to recover, both for her sake and her sister’s.
This story mostly revolves around Magdalen’s attempt to recover this lost inheritance. Throughout the book, readers will see her scheme and collaborate with a known con-man to execute her plans. Not surprisingly, most of those plans failed and each failure made her more and more desperate. By the end of the story, readers will see a very different Magdalen from the character depicted in the earlier parts of the book.
In this story, Collins gave us a character that exemplified the struggle between good and evil. This was the main theme of his story. In addition to this reality, I picked up 5 more which brings me to 6 truths that No Name taught me. Cutting short this introduction, I now present the 6 realities revealed by reading No Name:
As always, there are spoilers ahead.
1. The law isn’t always our friend
In his younger days, Andrew Vanstone (Norah and Magdalen’s father) met a very attractive woman. She was so attractive that he ended up marrying her. Sadly, this marriage didn’t work out. What’s sadder still is that there was no legal basis for a divorce. So both husband and wife agreed to separate from each other with the condition that Andrew will continue to support her financially through an annual allowance.
A few years later, Andrew met Miss Blake. This time, the love between them blossomed and gave the world Norah and Magdalen. They weren’t married, but they were living together like husband and wife at Combe-Raven. When Andrew’s wife died, Andrew immediately married Miss Blake. You would think that finally getting married would be a good thing. In this situation, this second marriage only made things worse.
While married to his first wife, Andrew already drew up his last will where he left his fortune to Miss Blake, Norah and Magdalen upon his death. In Collins’ time, children born out of wedlock do not have inheritance rights. Only a last will ensures that each child can get something when their father died. When he married Miss Blake, the last will that he drew up was suddenly invalidated. A very small technical detail that changed the fate of the two sisters.
The marriage between Andrew and Miss Blake only made the relationship between them legal, but it didn’t change the fact that Norah and Magdalen were born outside of marriage. In the eyes of the law, they were still considered illegitimate. Only a new will can protect their best interests, which never really happened because Andrew Vanstone died even before a new one was created. Worse still, Mrs. Vanstone (nee Blake) also died shortly after Andrew’s death. In an instant, Norah and Magdalen found themselves penniless.
This law about illegitimate children was real in Collins’ time. Back in those days, the law does not recognize children born outside of marriage. Surprisingly, this law lasted for centuries. It was only much recently that some changes were made regarding inheritance rights of illegitimate children.
Personally, I don’t like that term, illegitimate. It makes one think that something is wrong with the child if he’s got parents who weren’t married. It’s not really the offspring that’s illegitimate. It’s the relationship between the parents that the law considers to be illegitimate. I think this was one of the reasons why no such rights were given to children born outside of marriage. The law wanted to send a message that it doesn’t tolerate illicit relationships. Unfortunately, this intolerance punishes those who are innocent as well.
Thankfully for those with similar situations like Norah and Magdalen, this law is no longer our reality (or at least it’s not for countries that already recognize the rights of such individuals). In most countries, children born outside of marriage already have inheritance rights. It’s just a sad reality that the law isn’t really perfect. It took centuries for people to realize that this was a harsh law that punishes innocent people too. While the law oftentimes protects our best interests, it can also be our worst enemy in its imperfect form.
2. Just because you didn’t break the rules doesn’t mean you’re really nice.
When one loses an inheritance, this means that someone else gained one. Andrew Vanstone’s mistake suddenly made Michael Vanstone rich by 80,000 pounds. As the nearest living relative, the law dictates that ownership of the Combe-Raven fortune should be transferred to Michael (Andrew’s older brother). William Pendril (Andrew’s lawyer), didn’t easily give up the fight for Norah and Magdalen. He found his last hope in Michael. He figured that if he appealed to Michael’s good side, it just may be possible that Norah and Magdalen may get a share of the Combe-Raven fortune after all.
False hope was the only thing that Michael gave Mr. Pendril. There was just too much hate in Michael’s heart to show some mercy. In their younger days, Michael was disinherited by his own father due to a family quarrel. To that day, Michael blamed Andrew for this falling out. Michael believed that Andrew influenced their father to disinherit him. So when Andrew’s fortune suddenly found its way in Michael’s pocket, it just felt like justice being served. He didn’t care about Norah and Magdalen. He only felt scorn for the two women because Andrew took in a mistress. William Pendril failed in this battle.
Legally, Michael Vanstone didn’t do anything wrong. He was unforgiving and greedy, yes, but he certainly didn’t break the law by being such a person. He had every right to the Combe-Raven fortune, but it didn’t really make him a better person. Sometimes, a little mercy is all that’s needed.
3. Only in a crisis will you see the true character of a person.
Miss Harriet Garth had been with the Vanstones for 12 years serving as governess. In those years, she raised both Norah and Magdalen as if they were her children too. As these two women grew up under her care, she got to know each one really well. Well, she thought she knew them well. It was only after Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone’s deaths that she realized how wrong she was.
Magdalen had always been the cheerful one while Norah was mostly reserved. Among the two, Magdalen is more likable because she exudes a very jovial disposition in life. It was always easier to read Magdalen because she’s not afraid to express herself. In contrast, Norah tends to keep to herself. When Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone died, there seemed to be a sudden reversal of roles.
For the first time, Miss Garth saw Norah openly acknowledge how she felt. She witnessed Norah’s various stages of grief until Norah was able to rebuild her life again. Magdalen, on the other hand, surprised her. The usually boisterous Magdalen became secretive and less expressive. She didn’t realize until much later that Magdalen was capable of anything devious just so she can get their lost fortune back.
In those 12 years that Miss Garth served the Vanstones, she only saw Norah and Magdalen in their happiest moments. There had been no crisis then. The loss of their parents and their fortune was their first major setback in life. Such setbacks can really test one’s true character. The more reserved Norah was able to adjust to her situation and move on with her life. The exuberantly joyful Magdalen held on to certain beliefs that proved detrimental to her spirit. So if Miss Garth never saw the true nature of both women, it was because she never saw them react to a real crisis before. It is only when faced with a truly devastating event that you can see the true nature of a person.
4. We can be very creative when we want to justify our actions.
In the first scene, readers will see that the story revolves around the Vanstones, including Miss Garth. These are the major players of the story. It was only in the second chapter of the first scene that a Captain Horatio Wragge entered the picture where readers will see him depicted as a creepy man following Miss Garth, Magdalen, and Norah. Later in the story, Collins revealed that Mrs. Vanstone is sort of related to Captain Wragge who paid him constantly for keeping her once forbidden relationship to Mr. Vanstone a secret. Yes, Captain Wragge knew they weren’t married before and he was taking advantage of this to extort money from Mrs. Vanstone.
In later scenes, readers will see that Captain Wragge will play a much larger role in the story as Magdalen’s accomplice in her plan to recover the Combe-Raven fortune. Magdalen chose the perfect man for the job because of his natural roguish nature. Captain Wragge is a professional con-man and a particularly good one at that.
Captain Wragge shamelessly admits that he is a swindler, but the way he describes swindling can be amusing. We all know that swindling is really nothing more than cheating. Captain Wragge, however, makes it seem like a noble profession by describing himself as a moral agriculturist which he eloquently defines as
a man who cultivates the field of human sympathy
So deep, but really more deceiving than profound. It simply means that if you’re gullible enough to believe his lies, then you’d find yourself giving away your prized possessions to this man with such an inventive vocabulary.
If there’s anything to be said about Captain Wragge, it is that he can be very creative when he wants to justify his own actions. As much as I’d hate to admit it, we all have a Captain Wragge within ourselves. Not necessarily a swindler, of course, but that creative side that makes the best excuses in the world just to convince others (or maybe ourselves) that what we’re doing is okay.
5. There are no rules in self defense.
The Combe-Raven fortune changed hands again when Michael Vanstone died. This time, Noel Vanstone (Michael’s son) inherited everything that Michael owned. Along with his father’s fortune, he also inherited (sort of) his father’s most faithful servant – Mrs. Virginie Lecount.
Obviously, Magdalen’s original plan for recovering their lost inheritance didn’t work. So when Plan A didn’t work, she had to go to Plan B. Plan B was to marry Noel Vanstone so that when he DIES, she’d inherit the Combe-Raven fortune back. This is where Captain Wragge’s roguish methods come in. Plan B requires some catfishing, and Captain Wragge expertly provided the new identities for Magdalen, himself, and his wife.
Noel Vanstone finally met Magdalen in the guise of Susan Bygrave. He also met Captain Wragge as Susan’s uncle, Mr. Bygrave. As a Bygrave, Noel had no objection to Magdalen and was easily swept off his feet. This plan was working very well. Magdalen’s only stumbling block was Mrs. Lecount.
Mrs. Lecount is a sharp one. She saw through Magdalen’s disguise, even if it took her a while to figure things out. Several times, she attempted to expose Magdalen in front of Noel, but Captain Wragge was always there to save the situation. Eventually,
Captain Wragge managed to poison Noel’s mind against Mrs. Lecount so that Noel stopped believing anything Mrs. Lecount had to say against Magdalen.
Mrs. Lecount didn’t easily give up. What she needed most was undisputable evidence that Susan Bygrave and Magdalen Vanstone were one and the same. Of course, she can’t expect to get that evidence from either Magdalen or Captain Wragge, so she needed to find another way. She watched and observed until an opportunity presented itself. While Magdalen and Captain Wragge were out of their home, Mrs. Lecount sneaked in and snooped around.
By breaking into someone else’s home, Mrs. Lecount knew that she was crossing the lines of decency. Yet what can she do to defeat a formidable enemy like Captain Wragge? It is in situations like these that we see that we sometimes need to break some rules when we’re defending ourselves. In Mrs. Lecount’s case, she was defending her master. In a way, Mrs. Lecount was as bad as Captain Wragge was. In circumstances where no life is at stake, Mrs. Lecount’s actions may have been unacceptable. In this situation, it was necessary. There are no rules when we’re defending ourselves.
6. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that they’re not trying hard enough.
For Mrs. Lecount, Magdalen is a nuisance that she had to contend with. Ever since Magdalen made her demands known to Michael Vanstone, Mrs. Lecount considered Magdalen as an enemy. So when Mrs. Lecount discovered a bottle of poison among Magdalen’s possessions, she hastily concluded that her suspicions about Magdalen were correct – Magdalen wanted to kill Noel Vanstone. In a way, Mrs. Lecount may be correct.
Magdalen originally purchased this bottle of laudanum for herself. At some point in her plot to snag Noel as her husband, she hesitated with her plans which led her to contemplate suicide. Only a game of chance saved her from this fatal thought.
Magdalen lived on and married Noel Vanstone, a man she secretly can’t stand. After all, she only wanted to inherit back the Combe-Raven fortune. She didn’t have to like him back. When Noel drew up his last will naming Magdalen as one of his heirs, her plan was almost complete. All Noel had to do was die for Magdalen to recover her family’s lost fortune. She definitely had a motive to kill. She also possessed the means. Yet, readers will see that she didn’t kill him. In my opinion, Mrs. Lecount may have been more responsible for his death than Magdalen was.
Magdalen always struggled between continuing with her dark plans and going back to Norah. On that particular day that she left Noel behind, the part of her that loves Norah so much won. It was also that day that Mrs. Lecount finally cornered Noel to make him listen to the truth. After all of Magdalen’s and Captain Wragge’s efforts, Mrs. Lecount finally won the battle, but at the expense of Noel’s life. The shock was just too much for his already frail health. Shortly after, Noel died, but not before Mrs. Lecount forced him to draw up a new will disinheriting Magdalen.
If Mrs. Lecount had been harsh in dealing with Magdalen, it was because she only saw the evil that Magdalen was capable of. She didn’t know the struggle inside Magdalen. She didn’t know that Magdalen vacillated between the good that is still inside her and the evil that her misfortune created in her. These inner struggles are not visible to everyone, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. We may not always see how others struggle with their conscience, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not trying hard enough. Readers saw how Magdalen tried so hard, but Mrs. Lecount didn’t.