Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wilkie Collins' BASIL, written in 1852, is all about class

Wilkie Collins’ BASIL, written in 1852, is all about class
I read Wilkie Collins’ second novel, BASIL, not expecting a masterpiece like the THE WOMAN IN WHITE.  Yet I liked it for its comparative brevity, urgency, and shocks.  Considered a precursor to the detective story, there are telling clues only seen as important in retrospect by Basil, the narrator.  The second son of an aristocratic family whose lineage goes back to the Norman kings, at the beginning, Basil is exiled from his privileged life to the coast of Cornwall. Heartbroken with shattered nerves, Basil writes to save his life and fears it will be forfeit before he can finish. An almost demonic force threatens him and, though you think he may be crazy, you have to read on.  The story begins with his family, particularly his father, whose pride in his ancient heritage, the conviction that virtue is based on class, is pivotal to this mystery.  How Basil ruined himself is the subject of his narrative.

His brother Ralph is a typical eldest son, a popular boy good at sports, who patronizes Basil.  He becomes a flighty profligate, who courts women of bad morals and refuses any profession. This decadent fun-seeker, earns his father’s despair but not his censure. Basil, more introverted and less successful in school, considers himself the moral superior of his brother. He’s most attached to Clara,  his sister, and considers her an influence for peace and harmony, a person who helps others discover their higher purpose. She’s virtue personified, completely obedient to her father and devoted to her brothers.  Clara’s pale with light eyes, and her instincts are aesthetic, spiritual and true.

It’s no wonder Basil becomes quickly infatuated with the dark beauty of her opposite, a veiled woman he sees on a streetcar.  He’s so transfixed by Margaret’s physical perfection that he follows her home. And even decides to marry her, though she’s the daughter of a store keeper who sells fabrics. Somehow Basil assumes that eventually his father will come to feel as he does about Margaret.  And because he needs time to figure out how to reconcile his love with his family, he doesn’t object to the strange condition set by her father on the marriage.

Because of her young age, he’s to marry her but leave her at the church. For a year, he can visit her in the presence of a parent but not claim her as his wife.  Basil agrees and soon finds the invalid mother preferable to the boorish father, though he’s perplexed by her strange outbursts about her daughter. His secret romantic idyll is the light of his life, despite his estrangement from his family, until one day Mannion returns from a business trip. The father’s right hand man and Margaret’s former tutor, Mannion is strange and enigmatic, and a bit sinister.
Mannion appears a gentleman in a position beneath him.  And he’s so self-possessed, his face and manner never reveal emotion. He exudes a curious influence over the family, a kind of personal magnetism, that only the mother avoids. Mannion gives Basil no personal information until one night when he shelters in his flat during a storm. Oddly, he proposes to help Basil to manage Margaret’s father to his benefit. Though Mannion says he simply wants to help, a sudden lightening flash makes him look a demon. Basil believes the vision is a trick of the light.  And, at year’s end, he happily prepares to claim his bride. 

Though Margaret’s mother has given him hints that all is not well, he’s dismissed her, like the rest of the family. But Basil’s greatly dismayed to discover that on that special evening, Margaret’s gone out with Mannion to a party. He follows them to a shoddy hotel and learns their horrendous secret. Enraged with the ruin of his family and the loss of his happiness, he attacks Mannion and then collapses. Delirious with fever, Basil rants Margaret’s name. His sister realizes he's decimated by some loss and betrayal. Worse yet, Margaret’s father presses for his daughter’s rights, extolling her innocence. Basil is disowned, when his father learns he’s married the daughter of a common tradesman. Then Ralph, at Clara’s urging, salvages Basil’s mess.   

But Mannon, a madman with an ancient grudge, vows to pursue Basil. To protect his family, he flees for Cornwall.  There, in a rocky point of the coast, he finally is released from the man’s persecution. Basil’s ordeal marks him for life, but makes him a compassionate person. Collins’ book is rich in how it sends up the hypocrisies of class.

Despite melodrama, the "penny dreadful quality of the story. there is much humor in the aristocratic lord with the dissipated heir, the prideful linen draper, a “man of commerce,” whose daughter schemes for dresses and carriages. There’s  the illusions of privileged Basil about noble behavior and romantic love, while Margaret’s thinking if he really loved her he would not wait a year no matter what he promised. There’s also good deal of real pathos in the timorous invalid mother who sees the truth and is routinely disbelieved. And Mannion is an unforgettable villain, a man born of a gentleman with the “mark of the gallows.”  Love this book.