Here in my rural fastness the weather is uncertain; one minute the storm lashes the eucalypts, the next the magpies are chortling and the sun sparkles on the leaves. Inside the fire is blazing and we are churning through the wood. Perfect weather to read a good meaty Victorian novel.
I decide on Basil by Wilkie Collins, having memories of enjoying The Woman in White, and The Moonstone, although they were written some years after Basil, and were his most successful books.
Basil, on the other hand, was the second book he published, and it shows.
The story is narrated by Basil, one of three children in a family so lofty he cannot give the name for fear of impugning the family honour. He is the second son, who, while he will have a comfortable income, will not have the task of managing the family estates, and bearing the true honour of the family name. He has a younger sister Clara, one of those angelic young women one often encounters in the works of Dickens.
Ralph, his older brother, does not take his responsibilities as first-born son seriously.
Ralph had never shown much fondness at home, for the refinement of good female society. Abroad, he had lived as exclusively as he possibly could, among women whose characters ranged downwards by infinitesimal degrees, from the mysteriously doubtful to the notoriously bad. The highly-bred, highly-refined, highly accomplished young English beauties had no charm for him.
Their father becomes seriously displeased with Ralph, and on several occasions is closeted with him expressing this displeasure. But there is never any suggestion that Ralph will be disinherited. Whatever he has done is acceptable for a young man and does not bring shame on the family. What then could Basil, good dutiful Basil do, that causes him to so shock and anger his father that it is he who has his name torn from the family bible?
One day on an impulse, Basil gets into a public omnibus. He is an aspiring writer and likes to observe people. Two women get into the carriage. The young one is wearing a veil. But still…
Still there was enough left to see – enough to charm. There was the little rim of delicate white lace, encircling the lovely, dusky throat; there was the figure visible, where the shawl had fallen open, slender, but already well developed in its slenderness, and exquisitely supple; there was the waist, naturally low, and left to its natural place and natural size…
And that’s it. He’s gone. He follows her home, finds out the name of the family, bribes the maid and discovers the girl’s name. His stalking is successful and in no time he’s in the house and making a deal with the girl’s father. Because he wants to marry her. But it emerges that she is only seventeen. A deal is cut with the father. In all this of course the girl is consulted very little.
But what is the great flaw in this marriage to an innocent school-girl? Is it because she is tall and dark, and his modest sister is small and pale? Look further, dear reader. It is the occupation of her father that is the issue. He is a linen-draper. A nouveau riche of the commercial class. This is the unforgiveable sin that Basil commits.
A linen-draper’s shop – a linen-draper’s daughter! Was I still in love? – I thought of my father; I thought of the name I bore……
But the lure of those dark eyes is too powerful for Basil and he signs on the dotted line, too afraid to tell his father.
Basil is not the most sympathetic hero. He lacks empathy. He is self-obsessed. Of course, this book is written in hindsight, where his regret for his neglect of his sister and his rash actions is writ large. The book was considered quite shocking when it was released, and I was expecting a major sex scene. But it is all very third hand, and we just have to believe Basil has heard what he has heard.
By the end of the book he has to be rescued by brother Ralph and nursed back to health by self-sacrificing sister Clara.
For me the most enjoyable pages of this little book (only 300 pages, small by Wilkie Collins usual standards) were the descriptions of Ralph’s life, descriptions of interiors and always, weather.
The sky was unusually black; the night atmosphere unusually oppressive and still. The roll of distant thunder sounded faint and dreary all about us. The sheet lightning, flashing quick and low in the horizon, made the dark firmament look like a thick veil, rising and falling incessantly, over a heaven of dazzling light behind it. Such few foot-passengers as passed up passed running – for heavy, warning drops were falling already from the sky.
If you like a novel set in Victorian London, where issues of class loom large you may well like this.