Monday, November 9, 2009

A Rogue's Life -- The Wilkie Collins Blog Tour

A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins

Pages: 156
Rating: 5 out of 5
First sentence: "I am going to try if I can't write something about myself."

Today I'm happy to welcome Wilkie Collins to my blog as part of the Wilkie Collins Blog Tour, the brainchild of Rebecca and her friends over at The Classics Circuit.  Check this page for the rest of the stops on the tour, as well as stops previous to this one.

When I signed up for a spot on the tour, I did so with not a little fear and trembling.  For one thing, although I had heard of Wilkie Collins and his more famous novels such as The Moonstone, I had never gotten around to actually reading any of his work.  Part of it was an inability to believe that his writings could possibly be as good as the conventional wisdom thought they were -- this, despite the fact that his work has survived for the past 150 years or more.

So I signed up for the blog tour as a way of literally forcing myself to read some Collins.  But then, which work should I choose?  I picked A Rogue's Life not for its synopsis or characters, but for the most mundane reason of all:  it is a short book.  I figured that, if I just absolutely hated the book, it would be a limited torture.  I am happy to report that that was not the case.  Reading A Rogue's Life was a delightful experience and it whetted my appetite for more Collins.

A Rogue's Life was first published in installments in the weekly periodical Household Words in 1856.  As might be anticipated from the opening sentence above, the novel is in the form of an autobiography of Frank Softly, the "rogue" of the title.

Frank is born into a well-connected family, but one that cannot give him much of a start in life as far as money is concerned.  So his early adult life is a tale of bouncing from one profession to another, and failing or getting bored with all of them.  He eventually ends up in debtor's prison.

It is here that Collins introduces the 19th-century equivalent of a running gag into the story.  Frank's brother-in-law, a Mr. Batterbury, comes to visit him in prison to bring him word that Frank's grandmother, Lady Malkinshaw, has left an inheritance in her will to Frank's sister Annabella.  There's one catch: Frank must outlive Lady Malkinshaw, or Annabella (along with her slightly odious husband) gets nothing.  So the Batterburys suddenly take a sporadic but intense interest in Frank's welfare, bailing him out of prison and in general serving as a kind of humorous "deus ex machina" whenever Frank gets into a financial scrape, which is frequently.

Upon getting out of prison, Frank takes up with a forgery ring that specializes in forgeries of old masters such as Rembrandt.  It's at the offices of the leader of this ring that he first sets eyes on the love of his life, a beautiful but mysterious young woman who remains a mystery, since he has no way of finding out her name or where she lives.  The forgery ring soon falls apart, and Mr.Batterbury steps in again to save Frank from ruin by arranging his employment as secretary to a Literary and Scientific Institute.  (Part of the humor of the Mr.Batterbury gag is that he shows up only when Lady Malkinshaw's health has taken an unexpected and undesirable turn for the better, or has had some catastrophe happen to her and has survived it better than anyone would have thought.)

Frank's efforts to sell tickets to a ball being sponsored by the Institute put him in the path of the young woman again, and he finally learns her name -- Alicia Dulcifer .  This encounter begins the central and most exciting part of the novel.  Alicia's father appears to be a scientist and former physician, but Frank learns that he is looked upon by the community with fear and distrust, with the result that Dr. Dulcifer and his daughter are essentially pariahs.  Frank is told by an associate that Dr. Dulcifer is hiding something in his country home, and Frank eventually discovers what it is: Dr. Dulcifer runs a complex counterfeiting operation out of his home, where he and three other men turn out near-perfect copies of gold coins.

It's in this section of the novel that Collins shows his mastery of the art of storytelling.  What had been a pleasant, albeit antiquated, story in the early part of the novel suddenly turns into a page-turning thriller worthy of a James Patterson or a John Grisham .  (OK, I suppose I am exaggerating just the tiniest bit.  But I found the page-turning part to be absolutely true.)  At the risk of spoiling any more of the story than I already have, I'll say no more about the plot.  But the story does have a completely unexpected but entirely satisfying happy ending.

One thing in general that pleasantly surprised me about Wilkie Collins (besides his prodigious storytelling skills) was his deft use of humor.  This novel is not actually a comedy, but still Collins slyly injects humorous episodes and even just funny turns of phrase into the story.  The scenes concerning Lady Malkinshaw's escapes from death are genuinely funny, and they definitely increase the reader's enjoyment in what might otherwise be a slightly darker book.

Collins also does a wonderful job with the main courtship scene between Frank and Alicia in the book.  Suffice it to say that he takes a scene that has the potential to devolve into something quite maudlin and turns it into an utterly charming episode.

All in all (in case you couldn't tell), I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to anyone, whether they are a Wilkie Collins fan or not.  If you enjoy a well-told tale, you will enjoy this book, and who knows -- it might turn you into a brand-new Collins fan, like me.  Thanks, Wilkie!


  1. This sounds great -- I had NO idea Collins wrote so many good works, I'd mostly heard of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. I'm looking for this one already.

  2. Oh this sounds like fun! A good review and your enthusiasm is quite infectious!

  3. Thanks Karen and Stefanie -- so glad you stopped by and enjoyed the review!

  4. I am so glad that this short work tempted you! While I haven't read this one I can definitely relate to the things you like about it -- the page-turner quality was one that really surprised me when I read the Woman in White. And the humor sounds just wonderful.

    Thanks for joining the circuit with such a great review!

  5. I am so glad you fell in love with Wilkie Collins like I did. I just finished The Woman in White last night for my tour stop and I am now of the opinion that Collins is an exceptional author and storyteller.

  6. Rebecca: Thanks for your kind words. I can't wait to read some more Collins now. I think I actually have a copy of The Moonstone somewhere that I have never read -- it's going straight into my TBR pile!

    Lola: I agree -- I think in many ways, Wilkie Collins approaches the literary level of his friend Charles Dickens. He is definitely an underappreciated author.

  7. This is one I haven't heard of before, having a counterfeit operation at the centre of the plot sounds interesting.

  8. I became a Collins fan with The Moonstone and The Woman in White. This one sounds great, too, and at just 156 pages it must be the Collins equivalent of a short story! Thanks for the review.

  9. We are huge Collins fans at our house and I thought I had nearly all the novels. But not this one, so I guess we'll be adding to our collection. Thanks for the review.

  10. I haven't read this one, but one thing I've also noticed about is that Collins' descriptions of his characters can be so observant of human character, and sometimes amusing!

  11. Sorry I'm so tardy in visiting your site for a Wilkie fix.

    >This novel is not actually a comedy, but still Collins slyly injects humorous episodes and even just funny turns of phrase into the story.

    I just finished The Moonstone, and felt the same way about it. He does have a sense of humor, and I think I detect a twinkle in his eye in the photo I've seen of him.

    This sounds like a fun, quick read, and that's saying something for a Victorian novel!

    Good review for what sounds like an enjoyable book. On the list it goes :)