Friday, October 01, 2010

Evil Genius

Evil Genius. Wilkie Collins. 1886. 348 pages.

The gentlemen of the jury retired to consider their verdict.
Their foreman was a person doubly distinguished among his colleagues. He had the clearest head, and the readiest tongue. For once the right man was in the right place.
Of the eleven jurymen, four showed their characters on the surface. They were:
The hungry juryman, who wanted his dinner.
The inattentive juryman, who drew pictures on his blotting paper.
The nervous juryman, who suffered from fidgets.
The silent juryman, who decided the verdict.
Of the seven remaining members, one was a little drowsy man who gave no trouble; one was an irritable invalid who served under protest; and five represented that vast majority of the population -- easily governed, tranquilly happy -- which has no opinion of its own.

While I didn't love The Evil Genius as much as The Moonstone, I did enjoy it. What should you know? Well, it is NOT a mystery. It is a "domestic story." You should also know that it has a forty-page prologue (of sorts) that establishes the background of one of its main characters.

Readers first meet Sydney Westerfield as a child. Her father has died; her mother--at best--is disinterested. Her mom is all about her son. When her mother remarries and moves to America, she leaves her daughter in the care of her sister. Of course, she takes her beloved son. The aunt? Well, she's super-excited because she can use Sydney as a servant and a teacher-in-training. So poor Sydney has not known love in many, many years. Perhaps since her father died.

The novel opens when Herbert Linley seeks a governess for his daughter, Kitty. He brings home the young, the beautiful, the pathetic Sydney. After hearing her story, after seeing her kicked out of her aunt's home, he had to hire her. Mrs. Presty, his mother-in-law, is skeptical. She's been married twice, and she's convinced she knows a thing or two about men. And the fact that Sydney is so young, so beautiful, so innocent, so in need of love and acceptance, so sweet, well, she thinks that it is unwise to have her in their home. (Yes, Mrs. Presty lives with her daughter and son-in-law.) But Mrs. Linley meets Sydney and is enchanted. Her heart is big enough to accept Sydney without doubt, without reservation. And Kitty? Her daugher? Well, Kitty loves, loves, loves her governess! So it looks like Sydney may have found a happy home at last....

But. One late night stroll in the moonlight finds Mr. Linley and Sydney unexpectedly thrown together--they're locked out of the house--and Mr. Linley fancies himself in love with this ever-grateful young woman. He confesses as such. As soon as those words are spoken, both know that they cannot remain in this situation...

The Evil Genius, like Anna Karenina, focuses on marriage, adultery, divorce, and scandal. But it is so VERY different from Anna Karenina! Both Mrs. Linley and Miss Westerfield are sympathetic. And Mrs. Presty is great for comical relief! (Is she "The Evil Genius" of the family that contributes to its downfall?) The Evil Genius is never boring. It's extremely readable. 

I enjoyed it. There were places I loved it.
"Is there any human character, even the noblest, that is always consistently good?"
"One reads of them sometimes," she suggested, "in books."
"Yes," he said. "In the worst books you could possibly read--the only really immoral books written in our time."
"Why are they immoral?"
"For this plain reason, that they deliberately pervert the truth. Clap-trap, you innocent creature, to catch foolish readers! When do these consistently good people appear in the life around us, the life that we all see? Never! Are the best mortals that ever lived above the reach of temptation to do ill, and are they always too good to yield to it? How does the Lord's Prayer instruct humanity? It commands us all, without exception, to pray that we may not be led into temptation. You have been led into temptation. In other words, you are a human being. All that a human being could do you have done--you have repented and confessed." (324)

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous said...

Great review, Becky - I'm really looking forward to it now. L.

Ed@Notebookonline said...

It sounds like an interesting book, but I get the feeling that it's not the book you hoped/thought it would be?

Or am I being unfair here...

Becky said...

No, I really enjoyed it. I didn't love, love, love it--in the way I did Moonstone. And I don't think it's as wonderfully complex as Armadale. But. I really, really liked it. I enjoyed the writing very much. And the characters were good too!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I'll add another one to my list. As with every author, Collins can't be great all of the time. But I'll settle for enjoyment with Collins any day of the week.