Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1772
First published: 1862
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Domestic romance
Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century
Andrew Vanstone, a country gentleman
Mrs. Vanstone, his wife
Magdalen, their daughters
Noel Vanstone, a cousin and Magdalen’s first husband
Captain Wragge, a distant relative
Miss Garth, a nurse
Mr. Clare, a neighbor
Frank Clare, his son
Captain Kirke, Magdalen’s second husband
The Vanstone house at Combe Raven was one of contentment and ease. In it were Andrew Vanstone and his wife, their two lovely and charming daughters—Norah and Magdalen—and a wise, kindly nurse and governess, Miss Garth. It was a household in which cook and servants enjoyed immunity from scolding, pets were allowed to range freely, and the affairs of the house ran as smoothly as an old but trustworthy clock.
One morning, Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone broke the quiet routine of the household with the announcement that they must go immediately to London on urgent but secret business. This announcement came after the arrival of a letter postmarked New Orleans. They were gone for almost a month. On their return, they refused to reveal by any statement or hint the nature of their trip.
Shortly after their return, a stranger made his appearance in the neighborhood. The girls learned only that his name was Captain Wragge and that he was distantly connected with Mrs. Vanstone’s family. She sent him away without revealing to her husband the circumstances of his arrival or departure. It was apparent that Captain Wragge was attempting to obtain money from his kinswoman.
The Vanstones had an eccentric and surly neighbor, Mr. Clare, a scholar and cynic who frequently asserted that he hated most of mankind. Frank, his son, had been the childhood playmate of Magdalen Vanstone, and Mr. Vanstone had secured a position for him in a commercial house in London. Mr. Clare held a low opinion of his son’s abilities; consequently, he was not disappointed when Frank was dismissed by his employers as being of little account in the business. Despite his shortcomings, however, Magdalen was still attracted to her old playmate. Mr. Clare commented ironically that some people always flocked after the worthless of the world—a view he felt confirmed when Mr. Vanstone arranged to have Frank given another chance in the business firm in London rather than have him sent to China to work in the tea and silk trade.
Magdalen and Frank played in some private theatricals given in one of the country houses nearby. Magdalen did so well in her role that a theatrical agent who saw her performance gave her his card as a reference in case she should ever decide upon a career in the theater.
Mr. Vanstone was unexpectedly killed in a train wreck. His wife was overcome by grief and died before she could put her name to a paper that her husband’s lawyer was anxious to have her sign.
Then the mystery of the Vanstones came to light. Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone had been married during their hurried trip to London. They had not been able to do so before because of Mr. Vanstone’s earlier marriage to an adventuress whose death had been reported at last from New Orleans. Because Mr. Vanstone had died before he could make a new will, the legitimacy of his daughters was not recognized in the English courts; therefore, the Vanstone fortune reverted to an uncle, a selfish and bad-tempered old man who refused to recognize his brother’s daughters or to share the inheritance with them.
Frank Clare could no longer look forward to marriage with Magdalen after she had lost her fortune. Without Mr. Vanstone to back him, he was forced to take the offer of work in China.
Miss Garth took Norah and Magdalen with her to her sister’s home for a time. It was decided that the girls should find employment as governesses there. One day, Magdalen suddenly disappeared. Captain Wragge discovered her after a reward had been offered for news of her whereabouts; but instead of claiming the reward, he took her home to Mrs. Wragge, a sad giantess of a woman. Learning of Magdalen’s desire to be an actress, he promised to train her and act as her manager.
The uncle who had inherited the Vanstone fortune died. Magdalen disguised herself to resemble Miss Garth and went to see his son, Noel Vanstone. He proved to be a weak, miserable creature, as miserly as his father had been.
At last, Magdalen received a letter from Frank Clare, a cruel, whining message in which he reproached her for allowing him to leave England and repudiated his engagement to her. Magdalen went on the stage. Without revealing her whereabouts or her occupation, she corresponded infrequently with Norah and with Miss Garth. Norah, in the meantime, had hired out as a governess.
Magdalen had been hurt by Frank Clare’s selfish and spiteful letter; she decided to marry Noel Vanstone and thus secure the fortune she believed rightfully hers and her sister’s. Using the money she had earned as an actress, she established Captain Wragge in a cottage near Noel’s house. She herself passed as Miss Bygrave, the captain’s niece.
Noel was completely under the influence of his housekeeper, Mrs. Le Count, who was suspicious of the supposed Miss Bygrave from the beginning. Convinced that the girl was the person who had impersonated the elderly Miss Garth some time before, the woman was unable to confirm her suspicions. She was successful, however, in thwarting Magdalen’s attempt to win a proposal from Noel. At last, Captain Wragge tricked the housekeeper into going to Zurich to visit a supposedly dying brother. Before she departed, Mrs. Le Count learned from Captain Wragge’s stupid wife the details of the conspiracy in which the captain was involved, and she wrote Noel a letter to warn him against Magdalen. Captain Wragge intercepted the letter. A date for the wedding was set. As that day approached, Magdalen shrank from carrying through the scheme she had so carefully planned, but at the last minute, she stiffened her resolution and married Noel.
Mrs. Le Count arrived in Zurich and there realized the trick played on her. She returned to England and began a search for Noel. Tracing him to Scotland, she arrived there shortly after Magdalen had gone to London to see her sister. Noel was shocked when the housekeeper revealed the conspiracy of which he had been a victim. Never in good health, he grew rapidly worse and died after making a new will that gave his fortune to Admiral Bartram, a distant kinsman. Mrs. Le Count had also persuaded him to write a codicil by which George Bartram, the admiral’s nephew, was to inherit the money if he married, within a specified time, a woman approved by the admiral. Magdalen was notified that her husband had died suddenly without providing for her and was also informed that the will was valid only if the codicil were properly executed.
Meanwhile, George Bartram had met Norah and had become engaged to her. His uncle had no objections to his nephew’s marriage to Norah, but the inquiries he made so hurt the girl’s pride that she refused to marry George within the time specified in the codicil. The delay made Noel’s will invalid.
Not knowing the nature of the codicil but hoping that its terms might work to her advantage, Magdalen hired out as a parlormaid in the Admiral’s household in order to search for the document. She eventually found it, but by that time the situation had grown even more complicated. Admiral Bartram died and left his fortune, including his inheritance from Noel Vanstone, to his nephew. Too proud to ask for her share of the money and without funds, she contracted a fever and was desperately ill. While she was being taken to a London hospital, she was recognized by Captain Kirke, an admirer little regarded when she was planning to marry Noel for his money. He provided for her until word of her illness could be carried to her sister and Miss Garth.
Good fortune came to her during her convalescence. Norah wrote to say that the codicil had been discovered and that by its terms the money bequeathed by Noel Vanstone was legally hers. Captain Wragge appeared to announce that he had grown prosperous through the manufacture of a patent medicine. Mr. Clare wrote to say that Frank had married a wealthy widow. Magdalen felt that Frank’s marriage broke her last tie with her unhappy past. She could look forward to the future as Captain Kirke’s wife.
In NO NAME, Wilkie Collins made a serious attempt to overcome the sentimental stereotypes that had reduced Victorian heroines to unbelievable cardboard figures. While Collins sometimes suggested that most females are delicate and easily shattered creatures, his heroines are made of sterner stuff. Although not the intellectual equal of George Eliot’s female protagonists, Magdalen Vanstone is superior to most of Dickens’ women and shows herself to be a young woman of exceptional resilience and tenacity.
Written after the great success of THE WOMAN IN WHITE, NO NAME did not follow the formula of the previous novel; NO NAME is suspenseful, but it is in no way a mystery tale. Collins dared to risk his popularity with a theme that was extremely controversial in the middle of the nineteenth century: the injustice of society’s treatment of illegitimate children. Perhaps he was drawn to the subject because of his own three illegitimate children. In any case, the sincerity of the author’s feelings emerges when his characters speak out against the unjust laws of the period.
Collins observed the Victorian household very carefully, particularly those two female institutions so prominent in nineteenth century fiction: the housekeeper and the governess. There is no sentimentalizing in the portraits of either Mrs. Le Count or Miss Garth; and Mrs. Wragge, the enormous, slovenly, slow-witted wife of Captain Wragge, provides a portrait of quite a different type of woman. It is also interesting to note that, with the exception of Captain Wragge, most of the men in the novel are either weak or grasping types, and they are far less interesting than the women.
In NO NAME, Collins suggests that the society of a hundred years ago was based on hypocrisy and injustice, but his message is woven skillfully into one of the complicated plots that he was a master at spinning.