Quality-wise, it is one of the most ambiguous books I have ever read. You know that it is always easier to follow the plot lines of Wilkie Colliens than any of his contemporaries because Dickens is verbose, Bronte is coldly reserved with the hidden passion inside, and Gaskell is somewhat academic. These contemporaries have distinct styles, and Collins’s is the most engaging.
On the other hand, he is also somewhat simplistic and rustic. And if his two most-famous oeuvres, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, contain a certain level of literary sophistication, this one is blatantly and conspicuously sensational. The novel deserves three stars only because it represents an original idea in literature (a mystery novel), at least two of its characters are very tangible and bigger-than-life, and finally, it kept me guessing till the very end.
Valeria, a main heroine, is way too independent for the historical setting of the novel, but her independence succumbs to the overpowering feeling of love. This creates a certain inconsistency for a modern reader, but a woman who was ready to sacrifice her ambitions, desires, and prior commitments was nothing extraordinary in the 19th century. Conversely, her husband, a total pushover, eventually acquires features of a demanding and needy husband, and Valeria is more than happy to indulge him.
Miserrimus Dexter is a true gem in the literary realm of the nineteenth century discourse. He was intentionally created as a bigger-than-life character, but his magnitude is quite inundating – he is a cripple, born without the lower extremities, he is independent, hedonistic, creative, resourceful, and emotionally unstable.
Structure-wise, the novel is the account of the past events, told by Valeria Woodville, but Collins relies on other techniques he has been using in his novels – there are chapters representing the epistolary genre as well as the trial excerpts that solidify the verity of the situation for a potential reader.
On the personal note, I experienced certain technical and anachronistic issues with the book. Because the novel was written at the cusp of the industrial revolution, a reader comes across the technical reality of the Victorian life, namely trains, chemical analysis of a certain letter, wheelchairs, and telegraph. Victorian literature in terms of physical times covers several decades, and it takes a while to incorporate those changes into the image of the world, created by Victorian writers. Most of them lived through the period of drastic changes, and some of their novels do not allude to technical innovations while others, later novels, reflect the ever-changing life they witnessed and portrayed. So every time, the telegraph or any other technical innovation was casually mentioned, my mind went through a certain check, ‘Aha! This one was already invented/ discovered/ implemented/ used!’. Oh, well, the pleasures of reading books that take place during the industrial revolution. I am sure our reading descendants will be significantly confused about our time with its turbulent, influential, and reality-shaping inventions.