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.