‘The Captain’s Daughter’ by Alexander Pushkin

Venerated as Russia’s mythic national bard, The Captain’s Daughter is regarded as Pushkin’s finest prose work. It is dedicated to the events of the Pugachev’s Rebellion in Russia in 1773-1775.

The priviliged Pyotr Andreyich Grinyov, just 17 years-old, is sent by his father, himself a former officer of the Imperial Army, to his military service in Orenburg in the Urals. He is accompanied by the elderly loyal servant, Arhip Savelyitch. Taking several days to reach his destination, Grinyov is posted to the isolated Fort Belogorsky under Captain Ivan Mironov.

Pushkin’s relatively short narrative is one of unfolding events rather than overt deep philosophical, political or psychological reflections. The boy is a Romantic looking for adventure and love – and gets it. Within days of arriving at this new posting, he falls in love with Mironov’s daughter, Masha. But he has to contend with Shvabrin, a spurned suitor who refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer.

As far as adventure is concerned, that follows quickly after falling in love – Pugachev and his men besiege the fort with the Cossacks of the Imperial Army stationed at Belogorsky defecting to the rebels. Mironov is executed but, having already met Pyotr on the road to Orenburg, Pugachev has taken to the young gentleman and packs him off to the military centre as a messenger.

More adventures follow as historical facts and pure fiction are interwoven. The Captain’s Daughter is a lovingly written, easily read young officer’s memoir with its ode to love, excitement (and singular focus) to battle – along with the unexpected ending where Masha mirrors the hero rescuing the heroine.

‘The New Magdalen’ by Wilkie Collins

It may not be Collins’ best fiction, but The New Magdalen remains a superior piece of psychological Victorian Gothic and ‘novel with purpose’. Insightful social commentary and a high level of realism was a trademark of Collins (he was a good friend of Charles Dickens, afterall), content that added to the suspenseful page-turning readability.

Originally published in a serialised form, the narrative moves at a relatively brisk rate to induce that level of suspense. Twentysomething Mercy Merrick, having committed to the impersonation of a person she believes dead, risks being exposed in polite nineteenth-century London society.

Hers is a sad tale as, from a life of poverty and degradation, she now battles with a terrible conscience and betraying the trust invested by those around her. It’s a story of the hypocrisy of that polite society as, having taken on the identity of Grace Roseberry, Mercy navigates social etiquette and expectations, as well as the fact she is engaged to be married to Horace Holmcroft, the young friend of her benefactor, Lady Janet Roy.

Naturally, Grace is anything but dead – merely convalescing in a hospital in Germany following the injury that Mercy thought had killed her. And naturally, once she has regained her wits, Grace is determined to gain her rightful place in the comfortable Kensington home of Lady Janet. But there’s the rub. In spite of her (hidden) low birth, a beautiful, graceful and demur Mercy has totally won the heart of the older woman – as well as the heart of Horace Holmcroft.

The arrival of the heartless and shrew-like Grace upsets the household equilibrium, so determined to avenge the imposter she fails to see the poor impressions she makes. So much so that Lady Janet will not even hear of the truth – instead choosing, eventually, to buy off the real Grace on condition she leaves for Canada. Only her nephew, a young, fiery clergyman, Julian Gray, knows the true identity of each of the women.

There’s no question as to where Collins’ sympathies lie. Mercy’s past may be socially unacceptable in Victorian England but Mercy’s determination to atone and improve her own station are paramount to the message of a ‘novel with purpose.’ It is further highlighted by the behaviour of the more socially trained Grace who accepts money (as did Mercy, once upon a time) and Horace, who naturally breaks off the engagement.

The New Magdalen caused controversy on publication, accused of profligacy and a direct attack on virtue and honesty. But the title intimated more than a little as to where it was going, along with the first name of Mercy. Like many of Collins’ earlier works, The New Magdalen occasionally slips into the literary verboseness of its time. But it remains an engaging read where the slow ticking of the grandfather clock and the occasional striking of horses hooves in the outside streets can be heard through the pregnant pauses in dialogue as truth, at least in private, will be out.

‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

Commonly regarded as one of the first ‘mystery novels’ and an early example of detective fiction, Collins’ The Woman in White is a true nineteenth century literary classic.

First published in serial form in 1859 and set in Victorian England, the story examines the twisted circumstances surrounding the arranged marriage between young, innocent heiress, Laura Fairlie, and the older Sir Percival Glyde.

It’s the tale of social mores, class, gender inequality, love, treachery, mental illness, fraud – and a murder conspiracy investigation that made it so popular in its day. And it being written by Wilkie Collins, it’s also a prime gothic melodrama!

A young, handsome art teacher, Walter Hartright, is appointed tutor to Laura and takes up residence at the isolated Cumbrian estate of Limmeridge. A ward of her invalid (hypochondriac) uncle, Frederick, Laura lives a sheltered life with her half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Unencumbered with wealth, looks or social expectations, Marian is intelligent and feisty – and almost immediately befriends Hartright. 

Love develops between teacher and Laura – socially unacceptable in Victorian England – and he is forced to curtail his three-month appointment. His departure is made more crucial by the imminent arrival of Sir Percival Glyde, a man betrothed to Laura at the wishes of her beloved father on his deathbed. A charming aristocrat who wins over the Limmeridge household, he is, of course, not what he seems. A dastardly, short-tempered older man in severe financial trouble is his reality, with creditors queuing for their monies – and a grand conspiracy unfolds with Laura, now Lady Glyde, the innocent victim and Marian, by her position as a woman in Victorian England, almost equally powerless. It’s only on the return of Hartright from self-imposed overseas exile that justice can move forward. 

Told by a series of narrators central to the events as they unfold, The Woman in White stands out from novels of the time in that Collins has written complex, spirited and believable female characters. Whilst Marian Halcombe herself may talk of her limitations as a ‘mere woman’, it is unquestionably ironic, as Collins has created a woman of action who is not afraid to say what she thinks. 

True to its time (and the fact it was published in serial form), The Woman in White is drawn out, verbose and occasionally pompous. It takes more than 600 pages to tell its tale as Hartright, Halcombe, family lawyers, doctors, housekeepers, maids all have their say and contribution to the narrative. Interestingly, the fraudulent conspiracy and its reveal take up only a little over half the novel: the social unmasking of the complexities of the dastardly deed take up a great deal of planning and careful scrutiny in the latter part of the novel.

It’s an entertaining and involving read, if occasionally long-winded. And whilst gender politics may grate by today’s standards, for it’s time The Woman in White is remarkably forward thinking (as well as an insight into English attitudes towards foreigners! Judging by comments proliferating social media today regarding Brexit, little has changed in more than 150 years…).