For me, one author stands out as the 20th-century heir of Wilkie Collins’ virtuosity with secrets and lies. That author is Barbara Vine, the well-known but under-rated English crime novelist whose real name is Ruth Rendell.
Under her pseudonym, Rendell writes gripping novels of mystery and suspense. Like Collins, she deals with the dark secrets hidden behind the respectable facade of English middle-class life. Both novelists specialise in penetrating the surface of domestic harmony, uncovering marital distress, parental envy and sibling rivalry. Wilkie Collins shows us Victorian families with murderous husbands and adulterous wives; Vine describes the lives of sisters who kill and cousins who blackmail one another.
Collins highlights the problems of the most vulnerable members of Victorian society. His fiction deals with the legal and economic position of women: domestic violence, property rights, a girl’s subjection to her father’s authority or her husband’s will. Laura Fairlie (The Woman in White) is imprisoned in a lunatic asylum on her husband’s orders; Marion Halcombe tries to defend her, but she must work against the far more powerful resources of Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde.
Barbara Vine depicts women who are at risk in different, later times. Her first novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye (1986) is set in Britain’s post-war years, at a time when single women were ostracized if they failed to conform to the sexual double standards of the day. “Promiscuity” and illegitimacy were heinous social sins, and it is in this context that Vera’s murder of her sister Eden takes place. A Fatal Inversion (1987) and Asta’s Book (1993) also show the extraordinary lengths that women deprived of children will go to. King Solomon’s Carpet (1991) and The Chimney Sweep’s Boy (1998) portray women who are victimized by frighteningly dominant men.
This is not to say that Collins’ and Vine’s women are saints while the men are sinners. Lydia Gwilt (Armadale) is capable of cold-blooded murder; Rosanna Spearman ( The Moonstone) is a liar and a thief. The most vulnerable family member in Vine’s The Minotaur is the son; his mother and sisters are terrifying women. In The Brimstone Wedding and The House of Stairs, it’s the female characters you have to watch out for: Gilda, who will do anything to keep her husband; Bell, who is determined to inherit the money that will ensure she will never have to work.
Ruth Rendell once said that ‘Fiction is possibly the best vehicle of all for getting a message across.’ Try reading her novels, and the work of Wilkie Collins, to grasp the message that domestic bliss and women’s lives are not always what they seem to be.