On January 1 I dove right into Back to the Classics Challenge with a new-to-me Victorian sensation novel, The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins. Despite being a Collins fan I hadn't heard of it until it was recently reprinted by Persephone Books which immediately placed it on my reading radar.
One of Collins' shorter novels, it's the story of Mercy Merrick, an otherwise saintly and perfect Victorian lady who through no fault of her own, has a checkered past -- she was once forced to work as a prostitute. Having since left prostitution through a women's Refuge, she's now working as a nurse in France. The story begins in a small cottage where she is nursing French soldiers, under attack from the advancing German army (the book was published in 1873 so this must be the Franco-Prussian War). There is another woman in the house, Grace Roseberry. a lady by birth but in reduced circumstances. Grace had been in Rome with her father, who traveled from Canada for his health, but ended up dying there. Grace had been en route to England, for a job as a lady's companion, when she was caught up in the war and trapped on the frontier. She has nothing but her papers, and even the clothes on her back belong to Mercy Merrick, as her own dress is drying by the fire in the next room.
Also adapted as a silent film in 1912!
To pass the time while the women fear the advancing German army, Mercy tells Grace of her own sad history as a fallen woman. Then the unthinkable happens -- a shell hits the cottage, and Grace is killed. Mercy is evacuated with an English journalist, and on a sudden impulse, she grabs Grace's dress and all her papers, and assumes her identity. She sees this as a final chance for a better life, and Grace is beyond help, so no harm done there.
Fast-forward several months, back in England. The newly renamed Grace is ensconced as the beloved companion of the steely but kind Lady Janet Roy, a wealthy and childless woman, and engaged to Horace Holmcroft, the journalist who -- coincidentally! -- is the son of one of Lady Janet's oldest friends. Horace has naturally fallen in love with the beautiful and perfect Grace, and his connection to Lady Janet is but the first of several amazing coincidences. Although Grace has had several idyllic months as Lady Janet's companion -- practically her adopted daughter -- her world will soon be turned upside down when her identity is called into question, and the truth of her sad and checkered past comes to light.
I enjoyed this novel. It's a pretty standard Victorian sensation, with amazing coincidences, intrigue, swooning, scandals -- the usual. What's different about this one is the fairly serious subject matter of prostitution and forgiveness. Wilkie Collins points out the hypocrisy of the upper classes who are all talk and no action when it comes to Christian values. He does go over the top with the character of Merry who has literally no faults -- except for the prostitution, which literally is not her fault, as she explains in great detail. Collins also points out how few choices there were for Victorian women, particularly poor women.
I did find the plot a little predictable and it was a little one-note -- it's only about 400 pages, short for a Victorian, so there's no room for sub-plots. It also seemed to have an abrupt finish, but there's an epilogue which explains what ultimately happens to Mercy, in the form of letters which are actually rather amusing. This would definitely be a good introduction to anyone interested in Victorian sensation novels who is put off by some of the triple-decker doorstoppers like The Woman in White or Man and Wife.