Author: Wilkie Collins
Publication Date: 1856
The Dead Secret, as with Collins's later works, centres around a socially and morally questionable event, from which all incidents derive, and towards which all characters inevitably move. The secret, identified with the Cornish mansion Porthgenna, has all but ruined the life of the young servant girl Sarah Leeson; 15 years later it comes back to confuse and haunt Rosamond, the heir of Porthgenna. Collins's talent for eccentric characters is given full scope in the misanthropic hermit, Andrew Treverton, his bullying servant Schrowl, and the actress whose powerful will lies behind the secret. The Dead Secret is a relentless quest to uncover a forgotten crime; the heir's detective work must finally lead to a disastrous revelation.-Summary from Goodreads
This is the fourth Wilkie Collins book that I have read and I still think he has the easiest writing style of any Victorian author out there. It is a classic and thus will take you longer to read than your average YA book, but it’s not like some classics where you just HOPE that you understand half of it. Collins’ style is simple and enjoyable.
That being said, I would not recommend The Dead Secret to someone who is new to Collins because it is not his best work. I guess my main issue with it was lack of focus. I couldn’t tell who the main character was in this story. The story follows the plot to whichever character sees its advance. The main character seemed to be Sara Leeson at the beginning, but then it changed POV and I thought it would be Rosamund, but she took a long time to fill in to her role as a main character before it switched again. And there were some chapters which were told from the POV of Dr. Chenney, Uncle Joseph, Arthur Treverton, Treverton’s servant, etc. The way it was set up didn’t make it easy to connect with the characters. In Collins’ defense he was writing this story and publishing it weekly in a magazine. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been to publish while writing.
The characters themselves were not always likeable, but they were realistic. Uncle Joseph, the old German, was the most likeable of the bunch. He is so friendly with everyone that even the servants were offended by his familiarity. Sarah is a hard character to like, she’s so nervous and frazzled that reading from her POV made me feel like I was starting to lose my mind, but once she got a chance to tell her side of the story to a sympathetic listener, I was finally able to (almost) like her. Rosamund is hard for me, I like how she doesn’t care about social standing and treats everyone the same, but I didn’t always like her temper. She’s overall a good character, but never consistently likable.
This is the one of the few Gothic novels that I’ve read and it was fun picking out the clichés. There was a rundown mansion which held a dreadful secret, a woman who was driven mad by the secret, tales of a ghost, and all set on the moors of Cornwall. I enjoyed the Gothic feel and sometimes it even felt creepy to me, but mostly it felt like overkill. I had an idea about the secret from the beginning and, while I got the details wrong, I had the right idea and everyone’s reactions seemed a bit over dramatic. I know it was a different time, but come on! There is one scene where Sarah tells Rosemund (very mysteriously) not to go into the Myrtle Room and Rosamund screams. Everyone seems to overreact! But I guess that might be part of the fun of the story. I now understand why Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey.
In the end, The Dead Secret is a good representation of a Gothic novel and has a great resolution to the story. If you’ve read a ton of Wilkie Collins books then this one might be the next on your list, otherwise I would recommend The Moonstone, The Woman in White, or Armadale (in that order) before this book.