A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins
Rating: 5 out of 5
First sentence: "I am going to try if I can't write something about myself."
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.
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!
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