“I have merely to add (speaking from my own experience) that he is an exceedingly shy man. He is also — according to his own account of it — subject to some extraordinary delusion, which persuades him that he can never marry. My own idea is, that this is a mere excuse; a stupid falsehood invented to palliate his conduct to my sister.”

Charles's impression of his elder brother Wilkie

painted by brother Charles Allston Collins

Read the short story before the day of Wilkie Collins’s birthday. This story, by far, is the most light-hearted one I have ever read by him; it has no concerns of fatality and poignancy certain characters, with a backdrop set in a residency of detached house located in the suburb of England; yet without those classic traits of Wilkie Collins, still comes out as an enjoyable read and putting a crack of smile on one’s face.

It is about a story narrated by Mrs Lois Crossmichael but under the instruction of herself that it is to be revised and edited by Wilkie Collins. Mrs Crossmichael is not the chatelaine of the house, which is occipied by her father and mother, Reverend Skirton and Mrs Skirton, as well as her younger sister Salome Skirton. However, she is the spotlight of the abode aside them, being the autocratic one and taking in charge of the house affairs as possible. Here is the synopsis:

Mr Otto FItzmark, who has just returned to England from America to get back to his family who live in the suburb of London, as well as to visit his next-door neighbour and love interest, Miss Salome Skirton, “a kind of sleeping Venus was Dudu, grey eyes, plentiful hair, bright with the true golden colour”, but hindered by a pure pale complexion, mild smile and weak little chin. However unexpectedly Miss Skirton’s love and promise of marriage is at stake by a girl who was a fair physician attending Otto’s father, named Sophia Pillico (an activist in Woman Movement), “a finely developed young woman, with brown hair and eyes, warm rosy cheeks, dressed to perfection in a style of simplicity”. A connoisseur would have recognised the discrepancy of beauty defined by the two women. Anyway, it is within the officious Mrs Crossmichael’s obligation to protect her sister’s love affair and nuptials by plotting a plan against the cunning fair physician.

After reading the synopsis, does that remind you of an author who famously good at writing farce? I thought of Wodehouse instantly while reading the story:

“I have been carefully watching Sophia and your young man, and I have arrived at the conclusion that his doctor is certainly in love with him. (Haven’t I told you to listen? Then why don’t you let me go on?) I am equally certain, Salome, that he is not in love with her. (Will you listen?) But she flatters his conceit — and many a woman has caught her man in that way. Besides this danger, she has one terrible advantage over you: she is his doctor.”…

” ‘There’s one thing more you must do — provoke his jealousy. The mother of that other young fellow who is dangling after you is just the person you want for the purpose. I heard her ask you to fix a day for visiting them at Windsor…In the language of Miss Pillico, my dear, he wants a stimulant. I know what I am about. Good night.

Still not satisfied? I’ll write out a checklist:

Autocratic chatelaine: Mrs Crossmichael

Rivalry: Sophia Pillico

Feeble / Distraught / Distrait young man: Otto Fitzmark

Mischievous youngsters on eavesdropping: Sulking Young John and Sour Bess

Hero (heroine) to save the day: Mrs Crossmichael

Lord Emsworth-like master of the house good at wool gathering: Old John (Otto’s father)

Tiff-tiff and bickering couple actively involved in the story.

The bit I like the most is of course the epistolary writing by the characters, but not least the plots and mischief of Sophia in trying to postpone Otto’s thought of marrying Salome.

It is a cheeky comical story and rare gem of Wilkie Collins’s work, with obviously the classic trait of underpinning the strength and empowerment of femininity in neglect and expense of male characters. Great read and cornucopia of plots and prying to liven you up! (However not so many delightful metaphors as to Plum’s ones)

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