I love reading the books that inspired or influenced other writers, particularly in the way authors both male and female have depicted female characters to either challenge the expectations or reaffirm them.
Wilkie Collins' much more famous The Woman in White contains numerous examples of both challenges and affirmations, so I approached The Law and the Lady with avid curiosity. I was not disappointed.
Though Edgar Allan Poe is usually credited with inventing, if you will, the detective story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Collins certainly took the form to a much grander level. He also granted his female characters -- or at least some of them -- powers of observation, analysis, perseverance, and intelligence more often reserved in Victorian fiction for the male characters.
In The Law and the Lady, Collins presents the reader with young Valeria Brinton who marries, against nearly everyone's wishes, one Eustace Woodville. Eustace is soon revealed to be not at all the man he has led Valeria to believe he is. Shamed when she learns a portion of the truth, he abandons her just days after the wedding.
Steadfast, however, Valeria resolves to learn the rest of the truth. As the narrator of the tale, she vehemently and frequently professes her undying love for this man in classic Victorian heroine fashion. Through her, Collins examines the "angel in the house" ideal of the woman who bears all, in silent and saintly patience, to make her man look good.
Victorian readers might have fallen for it; this reader of the twenty-first century suspects she knows better.
Collins himself never married, though he had long-term relationships with two women, Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, and for many years maintained those relationships concurrently. He was close friends with Charles Dickens; Dickens, though married, treated the institution with a certain amount of contempt through his liaison with Ellen Ternan.
It's virtually impossible, therefore, to read The Law and the Lady without taking Collins' experience and environment into account.
The writing itself is quite classic Victorian, far more "tell" than the "show" modern readers are accustomed to. Letters between Valeria and other characters are related verbatim, as are other documents which she locates in the process of her search. The reader 140 years after its publication may find this tedious or contrived, so be warned.
The structure of the novel is far more interesting, to both the reader and the critic.
The reference to Du Maurier's Rebecca was an afterthought of mine. There are striking similarities between the two novels, though Jane Eyre is more commonly cited as the inspiration. But there are also striking similarities in the authors' lives that may prove even more interesting. Connections to the theatre -- DuMaurier's father Gerald was a stage actor, as was Ellen Ternan; Wilkie Collins had acted in many of Dickens' theatricals. Gerald brought his mistresses home with him.
But there are other, perhaps less obvious connections, in a kind of six or five or seven degrees of separation . . . or fewer.
Gerald DuMaurier's father was cartoonist and author George DuMaurier, who wrote Trilby, the story of the tone-deaf singer who is hypnotized by Svengali and becomes a diva. George was also the father of Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies, whose five sons inspired James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. (Those sons, of course, were Daphne DuMaurier's cousins. Do you see how tangled this web is?) Trilby inspired Gaston LeRoux's Phantom of the Opera, but Trilby was published in 1894, Phantom in 1910. Yet there is an earlier Svengali in The Law and the Lady!
Who knows how many other connections there are to be discovered? it will take some great detective work. . . .