Monday 15 July 2013

Review: Basil, Wilkie Collins (1852)

Wilkie Collins’s Basil (1852) is a novel which asks life’s important questions – should I marry a girl if I happen to fall in love with her on an omnibus? (Er…no). Should I leave my marriage unconsummated for a full year if her father wishes it? (Again…not such a good idea). The eponymous Basil is the first person narrator for most of the novel and the cast of characters small by Collins’s standards (dark, passionate, tradesman’s daughter Margaret Sherwin, fair virtuous sexless sister Clara, reformed reprobate brother Ralph, handsome clerk Mannion, with his mysterious past, and a host of incompetent and ineffectual parents). The plot is relatively straightforward with few reversals of expectation but the elements which would become central to the age of sensation in the 1860s are all there – familial strife and secrets, violence, mental anguish with an almost proto-Freudian obsession with dreams and the subconscious and a focus on the destructive potential of female sexuality. 

Title page to Basil
For the general reader: Basil is very readable and a manageable length, but clearly the work of a writer learning his craft. There are imperfections here and don’t expect the narrative shocks of a whodunit. Basil as a narrator can be a little frustrating as the other characters, with the exception perhaps of Clara, are on the whole much more interesting. Yet the novel does appeal in its openness about sexual subject matters (for which it was heavily criticised), which makes it seem very modern, in the realistic details it gives about London’s merchant communities in the period and in its unexpected move to dramatic Cornish landscapes in the closing chapters. I’d recommend it to those who have already had a taste of Collins and want to give one of his lesser known works a go. 

For students: This is a good one for unpicking Collins’s working methods as it is not as tightly plotted as the later novels but shows him toying with several ideas which he would return to (for instance, multiple narration, including different media, as in The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1859), and the use of coincidence on a structural level in order to discuss the idea of Fatality, which is most central in Armadale (1866)). The changes made to the novel after its lampooning by the critics for its perceived immorality are also interesting – infrequent enough to get to grips with, while significant enough to merit comment. If you don’t have time to read the whole novel, the prefatory ‘Dedication’ (to Collins’s friend Charles James Ward) is still a must-read, as it discusses the relationship between Fiction and Drama which is so important to the Collins canon. Anyone interested in Collins’s biography and personal life may also want to look at the presentation of Basil’s literary pursuits, as the character’s historical novel seems to recall Collins’s previous work Antonina; or the Fall of Rome (1850), and at the character Ralph’s successful relationship with a woman who lives with, unmarried, in circumstances recalling Collins’s own life with Caroline Graves.

What's your favourite Collins novel? Have you read Basil? Let me know below! Stay up to date with all things Victorian by following The Secret Victorianist on Twitter (@SVictorianist) and liking The Secret Victorianist on Facebook.


  1. Basil marries below his station because he is super turned on and obsessed by a dumb but hot teenage girl that he meets on a bus; marries her, waits an entire year to consummate the marriage but doesn't, then gets horribly sick and pursued by a psychopath who ruins his reputation in Cornwall where he goes to hide from society and still doesn't get laid, in fact never gets laid. Give me profligate but funny brother Ralph anytime.