When Mr and Mrs Vanstone are killed in an accident, an understandable oversight and the misogynistic vagaries of Victorian law have left their daughters, Magdalen and Norah, orphaned and penniless. The Vanstone estate passes in its entirety to their embittered uncle who refuses to recognize the justice of their claim against his brother's wealth. A sanguine, disappointed and much more conventional Norah resigns herself to her fate and takes up a position as governess to support herself. But a furious and defiant Magdalen refuses to accept the loss of what she knows is rightfully hers and her sisters. With the help of an unscrupulous con artist, Captain Horatio Wragge, Magdalen embarks on a labyrinthine Machiavellian scheme to steal back her birthright.
In his own preface to NO NAME, Wilkie Collins acknowledged that while he wanted to use the success he had achieved with his first ground-breaking "sensation novel", THE WOMAN IN WHITE, he also wanted to push his story-telling into new divergent directions. Far from being a purely gothic or atmospheric mystery, NO NAME is astonishingly realistic and down to earth. Norah's and Magdalen's illegitimacy in law and their loss of social status and inheritance rights are all entirely believable. Beginning a theme which he returned to later in MAN AND WIFE, Collins used his writing as a platform to examine the legal, moral and social issues of Victorian law as it related to marriage and the status of women. And he certainly didn't hesitate to use that platform to express his deep dismay over the inequities that he perceived in those laws.
Interestingly, while Magdalen's quest to recover her fortune by any means available was quite understandable and, even to the most establishment bound Victorian reader, somewhat justifiable, she is not a particularly likable heroine. The dubious choices she made were certainly a substantial part of what made NO NAME such a scandalous book in its time and, equally certainly, are part of what makes NO NAME an enduring classic that allows readers to judge for themselves the virtues of what she does in the name of justice.
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