Basil (Collins)

Basil - Wilkie Collins

An early novel by Collins (though the introduction, in the Kindle version I read, indicated that this was a later edition that Collins had revised). It's also a shortish novel by Collins standards, so once the action gets going, it zips along at a fair pace. The opening chapters, admittedly, are slower going. The narrative conceit is that of a retroactive confessional/autobiography by a hypersensitive young man (Basil, of course) who appears to have contrived to get himself exiled from his family by some disgraceful behaviour (unspecified at this point, and never, in my modern view, sufficient in any way to justify both physical and emotional estrangement). In this first section we learn chiefly that he worships his sister Clara, and is emotionally estranged from his harsh father and black sheep brother, Ralph. We then learn that he managed to develop a massive crush on a young lady (Margaret) based solely on a peep at her face round her veil on a public omnibus. Margaret is, predictably, the dark lady to Clara's fair.


Jump forward some weeks later, during which time we have explored the social gulf between the name-proud aristocracy (Basil's family, particularly his father) and the nouveau riche in the suburbs (Margaret's family, which is if anything more dysfunctional than Basil's, and which - oh the horror - resides in a house where everything is much too new). After some preliminary stalking and bribing of servants, Basil gets himself admitted, and once he naively drops the word "marriage" to papa, his harsh reception turns to rapturous welcome. However, since Margaret is only 17, Basil is somehow convinced to marry her immediately, but refrain from letting the marriage be publicized, let alone consummated, for a full year. He somehow manages to miss this rather large red flag. In the process of keeping his secret, he also damages the already rather distant relationship with his rank-obsessed father, and when the secret eventually comes out (after a sequence of traumatizing events that include sexual infidelity barely hinted at and a violent fight graphically described) he is, of course, disinherited on the spot, his page in the family genealogy being literally torn out and crumpled before his face.


Red flag number two missed by the hapless Basil is the reappearance in Margaret's home of a mysterious male stranger who appears to disturb both Margaret and her downtrodden mother. Mannion is the man's name, and his primary characteristic is that his face is entirely affectless. This notwithstanding, he manages to obtain Basil's trust, positioning himself as an enabler of Basil's still entirely virtuous interactions with Margaret. It's during Basil's main interview with Mannion that Collins finally stops contenting himself with little bits of pathetic fallacy and starts up with the full-blown Gothic: "... at the moment when I addressed him, a flash came [of course there's a thunderstorm], and seemed to pass right over his face. It gave such a hideously livid hue, such a spectral look of ghastliness and distortion to his features, that he absolutely seemed to be glaring and grinning on me like a fiend, in the one instant of its duration." From this point onwards, Mannion becomes more and more monstrous, in Basil's PTSD/fever-dreams, in the actual aftermath of the furious beating that the unhinged Basil deals out upon discovering that Margaret & Mannion are sleeping together, and finally in Mannion's character of maimed, relentless, vengeful fury through the wilds of the Cornwall coast, where he finally meets his dramatic end. I couldn't help thinking of Frankenstein's monster, though the comparison is not exact.


There's a bit of a feeble back-story about why Mannion bears Basil (or rather, his father) an enormous grudge, but it's not well integrated (i.e. Mannion doesn't mount his campaign of revenge until, by enormous coincidence, Basil floats into his sphere). It would be better, I think, to have the monster be a vengeful and motiveless force; an Iago.


Do I need to mention that Basil eventually lands back in the care of his much-better-than-advertised family, Margaret having conveniently made a pathetic death of typhus earlier on?


I don't know whether Collins was intimately familiar with the Cornish coast, or whether, perhaps, he had taken a trip there and been impressed by it, but he describes a sea cave and its perilous surroundings very particularly, along with the force of the water and spray, as the setting of his climactic incident. That description, along with the disgusted description of the "too new" house of the tradesman, are the two points in the book that for me bore the freshness of real and personal observation.


Anyway, for a lover of the Gothic, Basil is a happy little read, well worth pushing through the longueurs of the initial chapters.