The advent of the sexual revolution, or whatever it chooses to call itself, has brought with it the promise of equal rights in equal endeavours – a noble aim, regardless of its feasibility. It is not so much that men and women cannot or should not be equal; in intellectual matters there is no distinction apart from what detractors will impose. Rather, we face the age-old question of the physical equality that cannot be, simply because man will always carry an advantage of violence that cannot be reciprocated by his female counterpart. As a result, two unbalanced sides will necessarily obtain, as in this story.
The initial conceit involves two brothers sitting together one lonely night after dinner and poring over "a collection of famous Trials, published in a new edition and in a popular form." True crime has always fascinated us because our repulsion contains some elements of attraction and curiosity, as much the case one hundred thirty-five years ago as it is today. It is the second brother, the non-reader in this case and a clergyman, who turns pale upon beholding the book as it reminds him of a famous trial from his youth, a trial in which the accused was ultimately acquitted. And what does the clergyman aver about this wicked time? "I know this," he said, "the prisoner was guilty." They speak no more about what happened, although the clergyman also indicates that there were "circumstances connected with that trial which were never communicated to the judge or the jury." Only on his deathbed does he become more voluble and reveal what he had concealed within his heart for almost an entire adult life.
It is many summers ago when his brother "was on [his] way to India" that the preacher, from whose perspective the tale is now recounted, has completed his studies at this university. He chose law instead of his father's preference, which would have been for his son to join the clergy, and with this familial disappointment hanging as a black cloud over his everyday existence, he regales himself on what he can of the urban and urbane existence his choice permits ("I had no serious intention of following any special vocation. I simply wanted an excuse for enjoying the pleasures of a London life"). One fine evening, walking through the public gardens that can only be properly enjoyed at high summer, he hears a foreign female voice warning an unseen male to take his leave. He steps in and averts further confrontation (the perpetrator, in any case, is drunk and quickly accompanied off the grounds by a policeman), and then turns his attention to the voice and the shape from which it emanates:
Her figure was slight and small: she was a well-made miniature of a woman from head to foot. Her hair and her eyes were both dark. The hair curled naturally; the expression of the eyes was quiet, and rather sad; the complexion, as I then saw it, very pale; the little mouth perfectly charming. I was especially attracted, I remembered, by the carriage of her head; it was strikingly graceful and spirited; it distinguished her, little as she was and quiet as she was, among the thousands of other women in the Gardens, as a creature apart.
Other colors are added to her portrait: she is impoverished, "resigned to her lonely life among strangers," and without her parents for many years now. She is French, of course, and yet, particularly in one cruel instance, "her temperament had little of the liveliness which we associate in England with the French nature." They begin what could loosely be termed a courtship, although their relationship at every moment becomes more and more tenuous owing to the presence of another man in her life. Our narrator asks as timid lovers tend to ask while being very afraid to know, and learns next to nothing: "He might be living, or he might be dead. There came no word of him, or from him." It is only when the narrator's mother, on her own deathbed, presses him to change his vocation that he quits Jéromette, abetted by the fact that she has just received a letter confirming that her love will soon return.
Unless you rank among the most ingenuous of readers what happens next cannot really be spoiled by commentary. Our narrator, now indeed a man of the cloth, is appointed to a benefice in the West of England. His steady income does not satisfy him, so he takes on a few students in need of help to gain entrance into the prestigious universities whose names their families covet. The first two students are harmless teenagers, but then our narrator gives a sermon at his church about "the discovery of a terrible crime" which has held England in its thrall. After this passionate lecture, of which, alas, we are given but a quoteless summary, the narrator receives a note written in pencil from a young man, "a member of my congregation, a gentleman," who wishes to see him as soon as the preacher has an opportunity. The man leaves his own father's name as a reference, and it is verified as belonging to "a man of some celebrity and influence in the world of London" – the world, we remember, that our narrator wishes he had never left. They meet and the narrator tells us all we need to know:
The women, especially, admired his beautiful light hair, his crisply-curling beard, his delicate complexion, his clear blue eyes, and his finely shaped hands and feet. Even the inveterate reserve in his manner, and the downcast, almost sullen, look which had prejudiced me against him, aroused a common feeling of romantic enthusiasm in my servants' hall. It was decided, on the high authority of the housekeeper herself, that 'the new gentleman' was in love – and more interesting still, that he was the victim of an unhappy attachment which had driven him away from his friends and his home.
The man in question is in his late twenties and yet has never been a college student. And how could this be? A dissolute life of excess is the hardly contrite explanation. But our clergyman has been trained to detect human motivations in the depths of our being, and we can say without fear of perjury that, with this fellow, he does not like what he sees.
Without going further, it is remarkable how the narrator is presented with both sides of an equation, but at different times and from the perspective of different professions, so that the fabulous structure of an otherwise simple tale becomes more involving without becoming more intricate. Collins is most famously the author of two other works, a superb if overly long novel of suspense and one of the great literary mysteries of the nineteenth century, both of which can be recommended without reservation. To Collins's great credit, there is little difference in style between the passages that develop his characters and the passages that develop his plots. The same sure, curious hand instructs all forces to act and obey his whims. I have always told myself that my predilection for Victorian storytelling has to do with the comity of its personages, who act with full acknowledgment of the laws of both beauty and morality, even if at certain times they choose to transgress them. There is a gallantry to our clergyman narrator, an odd adherence to basic human goodness that should not strike us as odd at all. But in our times of cynicism and vulgarity, little space is allotted to the simple virtues that we have not only taken for granted, but cast by the wayside with no small contempt. That is not the reason, mind you, that I have omitted the story title's second half – the reason for that was its sounding a bit too quaint for my taste. Far more quaint, however, than the notion of falling in love with a woman whose soul is hopelessly and dangerously possessed by another. That tale, I think, we all know far too well.