December 1, 2009

Basil by Wilkie Collins: Review

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So in our hands is the confession of Basil who is out on the west coast of England hiding from someone out to get him. It's all very hush, hush with fake names and the whole sha-bang. Basil starts his narrative telling us about his family, specifically his father who is super vain and proud of his lineage. Basil has an older brother and a sister too. More about them later.

One day Basil is on an ominbus and hot pretty girl walks in and sits down. He gets stalkerish, follows her home and skulks around her garden. He does a little sleuthing and finds out that the girl, Margaret Sherwin, is a wealthy linen draper's daughter. The Horror! Immediately he tells the girl he's going to marry her despite her station. Here's the problem:
  1. He's known her for 5 minutes.
  2. His father is going to freak out.
Basil suggests that he marry Margaret in secret, so he has time to break the news to his father. Margaret's dad isn't too pleased with this but agrees as long as Basil doesn't 'claim' her as his wife (wink, wink) for a year, at which time she'll be 18! This has bad idea written all over it but Basil is so smitten he doesn't care.

Basil spends his evenings with Margaret and her mother as chaperon. She doesn't seem to have much personality but he attributes this to her youth and her station. He figures he can mold her into the woman he wants her to be, so it's all good. Enter Mr Mannion, Mr Sherwin's clerk. He's an enigma. He has no past, no friends or family. No one knows anything about him but he has a strange power over everyone in the house.

The year is almost up and Basil still hasn't told his father of his marriage but he's optimistic. Then a scandalous event occurs and Basil is on the run. Then more secrets! and plot twists! right until the end.

The first half of Basil took me awhile to get into. The characters are one dimensional and the foreshadowing is rather obvious. At the beginning, Basil has a dream of a fair woman who makes him feel happy and a darker woman who scares him. The fair woman is clearly his sister and the darker one, Margaret. Clara is meek and gentle, blond and kind. In other words a perfect woman. I found this annoying. Basil himself annoyed me- he's such a schmuck and I didn't think anyone would marry a girl he just met without massive amounts of alcohol being involved. I don't think I'm the first one to feel that way. Collins is quite defensive in his Dedication. He insists such things happen in real life.


Basil touches on the Victorian fears of the classes intermarrying. The whole world will go hell in a hand basket if that happens! And when Basil marries Margaret, well, there you go. It's perfectly fine for his brother Ralph to have a middle class mistress though, as long as precious Clara isn't sullied by her presence.

Basil is quite the melodrama. People swoon, break out into cold sweats and fall into nervous fevers at the drop of a hat. The bad guy is seriously bad and there is sort of a chase scene. Ralph steals every scene he's in. He adds a little levity to the story. Despite all the negatives, the second half is fast paced and quite entertaining.

I suspect that Basil isn't Wilkie Collins best, but it's still pretty good.

Recommended

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14 comments :

  1. I'm glad you liked it even though it wasn't Collins' best. I have read some summaries (with spoilers) and it really intrigued me how Collins treated sexuality in this book -- for the age, it seemed quite remarkable.

    Dickens hated how Collins always wrote long prefaces explaining himself. Did it seem like too much to you? Was he too "lecturing" in tone in this book?

    Thanks for joining the Circuit!

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  2. His "Dedication" at the front of the book was more of a lecture than anything else. He used it to defend Basil. It was written 10 years after he first published the book. He seemed bitter about the criticism. Not all copies include it (according to the book jacket).

    The book didn't feel that way though.

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  3. What an interesting review - it's nice to read about some of Collins less known works. Glad you still enjoyed it even though it wasn't a Moonstone or Woman in White!

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  4. I haven't even heard of this one by Collins. I love how Victorians (and their predecessors, to be fair) are so very dramatic. As though people could have fainted THAT OFTEN...

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  5. It might not be the best, but you have still made it sound like lots of fun!

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  6. I almost can't believe that you found the characters in a Wilkie Collins one-dimensional! Lol. Great character sketches are always one of the things I like best about Collins books. "Basil" definitely sounds like this isn't Collins at his best. I'm glad you still enjoyed it, though. If you're up for reading more Collins, I'd recommend "No Name." It's a great showcase for how well Collins can draw a character - or characters.

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  7. Oh that's a great review! I like your disbelief that someone would instantaneously marry without capacious amounts of alcohol. I agree :)

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  8. JoAnn- One of these days I'm going to read Woman in White.

    Aarti- I laughed at one point because his sister faints from the tension.

    JS- I know! But they were: Sister = goodness, brother= the rake, father= proud. They could have worn signs.

    Amanda- It was hard to suspend disbelief on that one.

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  9. I just picked up my first Wilkie Collins yesterday, and I can't wait to read his stuff. I need to know what all the hoohah has been about all these long years! And I was prompted by The Thirteenth Tale. How could I not read his stuff after that book?!

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  10. I've been wanting to read one of Wilkie Collins ever since I read Drood. Glad to see you enjoyed this.

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  11. Andi- Give him a try!

    Kathy- I have Drood here. I just have to read it.

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  12. The Collins book I'm reading at the moment is pretty heavy on the obvious forshadowing too, but I'm still enjoying it. His way with words amazes me.

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  13. Doesn't it seem like lots of the classics have a fair amount of melodrama? If I'm not in the mood for it, it can get on my nerves :)

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  14. Hmm...I think I'll pass on this one. Thanks for the review though.

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