The Legacy of Cain (1888) by Wilkie Collins

Millais, John Everett, 1829-1896; The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare
The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare, by John Everett Millais

“I resigned myself to recognize the existence of the hereditary maternal taint, I firmly believed in the counterbalancing influences for good which had been part of the girl’s birthright…With the great, the vital transformation, which marks the ripening of the girl into the woman’s maturity of thought and passion, a new power for Good, strong enough to resist the latent power for Evil, sprang into being, and sheltered Eunice under the supremacy of Love.”  – The Governor

The Legacy of Cain, a book with a name of biblical connotation, written by Wilkie Collins in his late years, is another novel carried out with a “mission”. This book actually tries to elaborate some of his published works that he touched on before; but the main theme here is the argument over the term of hereditary moral characteristics (nature). One’s reputation is important, once ruined it is irretrievable, which will then be passed on to next generations. Its reputation is not confined to pecuniary deterioration as in other novels of the contemporaries, but it is actually the ruin of moral character. It might be genetically shared and looked down upon by the general public. Wilkie Collins explicates that this might not necessarily be the case. In many Victorian novels, many protagonists forbear and defeat destitution through diligence and fortitude. In Legacy of Cain, under the general stigma regarding the passing of motherly sins and characteristics to the daughter, positive nurture and upbringing however prepare heroines to forbear future obstacles. Most importantly, it is of her individual cultivation of good and inner strength which assist her to confront the hardship in the end. In general it is individual virtue and peace of triumphing the bad and public stigma.

“There are inherent emotional forces in humanity to which the inherited influences must submit; they are essentially influences under control – influences which can be encountered and forced back. That we, who inhabit this little planet, may be the doomed creatures of fatality, from the cradle to the grave, I am not prepared to dispute. But I absolutely refuse to believe that it is a fatality with no higher origin than can be found in our accidental obligation to our fathers and mothers.”  – The Governor

One of the obstacles in The Legacy of Cain is human emotions. The intense plot constitutes a sisterly competition for the love of a handsome but a weak gentleman of a respectable background. It echoes a resemblance of the charismatic preacher, Mr Miles Mirabel in I Say No.

The story-line and characters induce a bit of interaction and guesswork for readers. For example, I keep guessing who is the daughter of a ruined mother as well as the adopted one in the family. Of course, it is a test which tempts and reveals to readers that their judgement are not always the truth. Eunice is the simple-minded character in the beginning. She is more impressionable than her sister, Helena. Helena, on the other hand, shines and always contrives to win others’ heart over Eunice with her cleverness and beauty (You might have guessed it correctly who the adopted daughter is! But you know, once you are indulged in Wilkie’s narratives, it is not easy to see 🙂 ). This didactic approach might remind readers of Man and Wife, in that case, athleticism – the revival of manly virtue is set to compete against personal nourishment of virtue in good and kindness. In Legacy of Cain, it is the artifice of beauty against the unblemished virtue of humility in competition of love and confrontation of obstacles.

To compete for one’s love turns out ugly; it derives an emotional force which overrides hereditary morality, and is one of the most tainted, fatal and incurable flaws existing in human nature – an emotion of jealousy. Jealousy is the tool in the story which induces one’s rage, fury, and desperation so as to unveil mortal masquerades and to see clearly of the counterbalancing and conflict of intrinsic good and evil in an individual’s heart and character. In Eunice’s case, she lets jealousy subside instead of linger. She chooses the “giving-up-and forgiven-all” attitude to her sister Helena as well as to her lover. It might be an exemplary virtue which is always exhibited in many pure female characters in Wilkie Collins’s works – the considerate, and caring ones in the family, a character who has gone through a process to enlightenment and self-realisation to become a better person – it might be heart-wrenching; however, readers who are familiar with Wilkie Collins’s stories would know him to be a considerate author as he always gets you a warm feeling to know that fate is destined to restore true lovers in the end.

I hope Penguin, Oxford and other publishers could do more Wilkie’s titles with introduction and explanatory notes. I am running out of ideas!

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Wong Sarah

Making reading the essential part of my life

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