Book Review: No Name

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Men, being accustomed to act on reflection themselves, are a great deal too apt to believe that women act on reflection, too. Women do nothing of the sort. They act on impulse; and, in nine cases out of ten, they are heartily sorry for it afterward.

No Name, by Wilkie Collins

This term, I’m taking the last course I need for my English major, which focuses on Victorian detective fiction. Considering my interest in crime fiction, taking this course was a no brainer (although there was another very tempting seminar on A Song of Ice and Fire…). After reading the requisite number of Sherlock Holmes stories, we’re currently studying Wilkie Collins’s No Name. While not a detective story in the traditional sense, No Name combines elements of sensation, revenge, and crime.

At 600+ pages, No Name is undoubtedly long. The book is structured into different scenes, as though it were a play, with various letters inserted between scenes. Documents are integral to No Name, with the plot revolving around a will.

In No Name, Magdalen Vanstone, a headstrong young woman, is living an idyllic life when everything suddenly goes awry. It is revealed that her parents were living as an unmarried couple, leaving Magdalen and her older sister, Norah, legally illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit her father’s wealth. Instead, that wealth is relegated to her uncle, Michael Vanstone, who refuses to give Magdalen and Norah their intended inheritance, resulting in Magdalen and Norah being forced to make their own way through life. While Norah passively accepts this fate and seeks employment as a governess, Magdalen plots to obtain the money she believes is rightfully hers.

The plot of No Name is an exciting one propelled by fascinating characters. Magdalen is a strong-willed, bright young woman that would exemplify female agency even by today’s standards, let alone more conservative Victorian attitudes. Her primary accomplice, Captain Wragge, and the primary antagonist, Mrs. Lecount, are both so adept at manipulation and deceit that it’s akin to spectating a professional ping-pong match and just being wowed by the speed and accuracy of their manipulative actions.

I loved the characters’ quick wit, the improbable and entertaining plot, and the power given to female characters, who find agency through their femininity. Magdalen is a beautiful and graceful young woman, and uses that to her advantage by seducing the men around her, and even Mrs. Lecount exerts pressure on her employer, Noel Vanstone, through her domestic position as his housekeeper. Even though Magdalen and Captain Wragge employ unscrupulous methods to achieve their means, the narrative ensures that you remain on Magdalen’s side. It’s always made clear that she’s only aiming to take what she thinks is “right”, although the novel makes you question your own morals.

YES OR NO?: YES. No Name is a highly entertaining read that will also get you thinking about identity, justice, gender roles, and countless other topics. However, I do acknowledge that it isn’t for everyone (although I can’t think of a book that is). The book is a tad long, and while I personally found the mind games exciting, I’m sure others wouldn’t. That being said, it is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read from the Victorian era.

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