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The Evil Genius (thoughts)

December 14, 2010

The Evil Genius is a great example of why I love Wilkie Collins. It’s one of his less-well known books (in fact, it’s out of print) and quite short (just a touch over 300 pages), but it’s so Wilkie through and through. The plot hinges on the lack of women’s rights in Victorian times, there are a couple marvelous female leads, a kindly lawyer, a staggering coincidence or two, and enough comic relief to make me giggle, even while I was frantically turning the pages to see what would happen next. There’s a reason Wilkie is one of my very favourite authors, and the one I’d first recommend to anyone hesitant about Victorian lit in general!

Much of the comic relief I mentioned comes from Mrs. Presty, the mother to the wife/mother-in-law to the husband, and a piece of work at that. Here’s a taste of her style of talking:

“I wish we lived in the Middle Ages!” said Mrs. Presty.
“What would be the use of that, ma’am?”
“Good heavens, Mr. Sarrazin, don’t you see? In those grand old days you would have taken a dagger and the gardener would have taken a dagger, and you would have stolen out, and stabbed those two villains as a matter of course. And this is the age of progress! The vilest rogue in existence is a sacred person whose life we are bound to respect. Ah, what good that national hero would have done who put his barrels of gunpowder in the right place on the Fifth of November! I have always said it, and I stick to it, Guy Fawkes was a great statesman.” 

Heehee! Isn’t she hilarious? She’s also so *real.* You can tell that she honestly loves her daughter, and wants the best for her, but at the same time she’s so completely oblivious to the fact that her daughter’s emotions aren’t the exact same as hers that she alienates her all too frequently. I’ve been blessed with a marvelous mother, who always manages to strike the balance between being supportive and letting me be my own person, but a lot of girl friends have much rockier maternal relationships. And Mrs. Presty reminded me of some of the stories I’d heard from them! At the same time, I was disturbed to see a little bit of myself in her. You see, she interprets the world through her own lens, and once she’s made a judgment, she sticks to it through thick and thin. She’s more concerned with being true to her own opinions than compromising, even if a few compromises would make her daughter’s life better. Obviously, I don’t have a daughter. But there is someone very close to me right now who is going through a lot of relationship drama (don’t worry; she doesn’t know about my blog). From my external observations, the guy involved has treated her horribly for a long time now, has pretty much no redeeming features, and should be cut completely out of her life (they have broken up, but they still see each other regularly). But she still loves him, and it drives me *crazy* how many excuses she makes for even his worst behavior. She wants nothing more than for them to get back together, while I think that would be the worst mistake of her life. But in the end, it’s not my life, and I can’t magically make her see things from my perspective. So I’ve been taking some deep breaths lately, trying to remind myself not to be a Mrs. Presty.

I didn’t mean to veer off into the personal! But isn’t that the most magical thing about reading? When we pick up a book, purely through whim, and discover that it’s speaking to us personally, perfect for the exact experiences we’re having right now?

Back to the book; it’s difficult for me to talk about the social commentary Wilkie’s made without giving away the plot of the first half of the novel. And I would rather leave that for you to discover on your own. ;) But I will say that, unlike Gaskell’s Ruth or Dicken’s Oliver Twist, The Evil Genius wears its political opinions lightly. Wilkie made me feel the injustice, because the characters I’d come to love and identify with felt that injustice: there was nothing artificial or forced about it. He also created well-rounded characters; no one is ever entirely evil or entirely good, which I think made the book so much richer. I’ll leave you with a piece of dialogue from the book, in which I think Wilkie himself was speaking through a character:

“Say at once,” he answered, “that I know you to be a mortal creature. Is there any human character, even the noblest, that is always consistently good?”
“One reads of them sometimes,” she suggested, “in books.”
“Yes,” he said. “In the worst books you could possibly read-the only really immoral books written in our time.”
“Why are they immoral?”
“For this plain reason, that they deliberately pervert the truth. Claptrap, you innocent creature, to catch foolish readers! When do these consistently good people appear in the life around us, the life that we all see? Never!” 

You say it, Wilkie! ;) While The Evil Genius is out of print, I was able to read it from my local library. There are cheap editions to be found at online used book sites and, if you have an ereader, you can get it for free from Project Gutenberg. If you’ve been curious about Wilkie but don’t want to commit to one of his chunkier novels, I think this could be a fun introduction.

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51 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2010 4:14 am

    Ooh – I discovered Wilkie Collins this year (how did I pass 26 years?!), but this isn’t one that I’ve read. It sounds great – *off to check library catalogue*

  2. December 14, 2010 5:07 am

    Wilkie Collins is brilliant! I love the characters in his books. The Evil Genius looks fantastic. I’ll have to see if I can find this. I would love to read a shorter novel from him.

    • December 16, 2010 5:57 pm

      I hope you can get ahold of a copy! :) Another one of his shorter novels that I enjoyed was The Law and the Lady.

  3. December 14, 2010 5:50 am

    Thank you! Off to go download it right now.

  4. December 14, 2010 6:24 am

    I love Wilkie Collins too and have read everything I can find that’s in print or in my library, but I haven’t come across this one yet. I think I’ll have to download it for my ereader. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it!

    • December 16, 2010 5:58 pm

      I’ve still got a ways to go through his canon, but I’m enjoying myself! :)

  5. December 14, 2010 6:37 am

    Wilkie Collins is such a funny guy. Miss Clack in The Moonstone invariably makes me giggle helplessly. I love the passage about stabbing people as a matter of course!

  6. December 14, 2010 6:40 am

    I actually considered reading this for the Wilkie Collins Classics Circuit last year — the library has copies and the length was appealing. I’ll have to move it up on my to-read list.

    I’ve been watching too many kids’ movies lately — Evil Genius always makes me think of Megamind or Gru from Despicable Me (both of which were wonderful, by the way). Or Dr. Evil from Austin Powers!

    • December 16, 2010 5:58 pm

      Yep: I read our library’s copy. :) I took my niece to see Despicable Me: it was so cute! Haven’t seen Megamind.

  7. December 14, 2010 6:55 am

    I don’t know how it is that I haven’t gotten around to Wilkie Collins but I’m clearly missing out…

  8. December 14, 2010 8:49 am

    I’ll have to hunt this one down! I love Wilkie Collins, but I try to limit myself to one a year. I know I was very sad when I realized I’d read everything Jane Austen wrote and didn’t have any new Austen to anticipate. I don’t want that experience again with Wilkie Collins!

    • December 16, 2010 5:59 pm

      I’m trying to limit myself to two or three a year, since he has such a bigger backlist than Austen. But I do that with all the marvelous authors I discover, so I understand!

  9. December 14, 2010 9:13 am

    You know what? This might be the book to start Collins with for me. Off to download!

  10. December 14, 2010 9:49 am

    It seems like of late there has been a real Wilkie Collins renaissance so hopefully all of his books will wind up back in print. It is for reasons like these that I do love having an ereader!

    • December 16, 2010 6:00 pm

      It’s for that reason that I asked for an ereader for Christmas. ;)

      I’d love to see all of his stuff back in print, but that’d be quite the undertaking!

  11. December 14, 2010 10:52 am

    Thanks for the review. I lived in London as a child and the old lady who lived next door was once a suffragette. She entertained me with many stories of her life.

  12. December 14, 2010 12:26 pm

    This sounds like a great book to read and I love going to Project Gutenberg to read e-books during my breaks at work — you know you don’t have to have an ereader to access books on their site – they have html copies too. :) Now I’m off to go read … thanks to you I have an idea of who I’ll be reading.

    • December 16, 2010 6:01 pm

      I do know that; I just can’t read on my computer for long amounts of time, and I strongly prefer reading bigger chunks of a book at once (vs a page or two), so I haven’t used it that way. :)

  13. December 14, 2010 12:51 pm

    Oh I have a friend just like yours. They never learn. I haven’t read any Wilkie Collins yet, but I hope to soon.

    • December 16, 2010 6:01 pm

      I’m afraid she never will learn. :(

  14. December 14, 2010 2:21 pm

    After rereading The Woman in White I’ve been in the mood for more Victorian literature -and for more Wilkie Collins. This book sounds just perfect! I’m now reading Trollope, but after that… Ok, keep your fingers crossed that our library has this book. I’m off to check…

    Greetings,
    Tiina

    • December 16, 2010 6:02 pm

      Hope your library has it! I want to reread Woman in White next year. And isn’t Trollope lovely?

  15. December 14, 2010 2:27 pm

    I enjoyed reading your review, Eva! I loved the fact that your review, didn’t reveal anything about the plot – there was no inkling even :) I liked your description of your book – “quite short (just a touch over 300 pages)” :) Well, if 300 pages is short, what is the average size? :)

    I liked that passage that you have quoted, where Mrs.Presty talks about the middle ages. It is humorous and makes the reader think too.

    Sorry to know about your friend. It is complex, being in a relationship, and it is difficult to let go. Hope she gets what she wants (the person she likes changes magically or she sees things from your perspective) and she finds happiness and joy.

    • December 16, 2010 6:03 pm

      Lol: I prefer not knowing anything about the plot, so I assume my blog readers do too! :) And I meant it’s short for a Wilkie Collins novel, lol. I think around 300 pages is ‘average’ for most books, but not those Victorian classics. ;)

      I wish the guy would magically change…but instead I think she’ll just end up throwing her life away. *sigh*

      • December 17, 2010 12:24 am

        I liked very much your comment – “I think around 300 pages is ‘average’ for most books, but not those Victorian classics” :) After reading ‘Middlemarch’ I thought I will read all of George Eliot’s books, but when I saw them I discovered that most of them were as thick as ‘Middlemarch’! I will still give them a try though – I am not planning to give up :)

      • December 17, 2010 3:42 am

        You’ve got Silas Marner at least! ;)

      • December 17, 2010 8:49 am

        Yes, yes! I haven’t read ‘Silas Marner’ yet, but I love its size :)

  16. December 14, 2010 3:32 pm

    I still haven’t read Woman in White (crazy, I know) but I did download this one for my Kindle. I had to pay 99 cents but that seemed a bargain and now I know I’ll have the book at my fingertips when I’m ready to read it!

    • December 16, 2010 6:03 pm

      Wonderful! The Woman in White is marvelous, but this one would be just as fun to start with. :)

  17. December 14, 2010 3:55 pm

    I am curious about Collins, if only because you love him so. I have one of his books on my TBR… maybe next year :)

    • December 16, 2010 6:03 pm

      Yay: I hope you do read him next year!

  18. December 14, 2010 7:52 pm

    I’m looking forward to reading my FIRST wilkie book in January for the RaL. :)

    • December 17, 2010 3:36 am

      That’s definitely something to look forward to! :D

  19. December 14, 2010 9:31 pm

    Sounds like lots of fun! I have Poor Miss Finch on my shelf unread but I do hope to acquire all of these at some point….How sad that it is out of print! I wonder if Oxford UP is going to bring it back; it looks like they’ve been doing lots of the Collins’ lately….

    • December 14, 2010 9:32 pm

      btw, does this cover look Victorian to you? LOL

    • December 17, 2010 3:37 am

      I hope OUP brings them back! I do love their newest cover approach. :)

      Also, that edition you linked to is unbelievable! So horrible! lol Someone must’ve just read the title and nothing else.

  20. December 14, 2010 10:27 pm

    I feel bad I haven’t read any of Wilkie Collins books before. This one sounds fun and as you said a good introduction.

    • December 17, 2010 3:38 am

      Don’t feel bad: that just means you have more treats in store in the future! :)

  21. December 15, 2010 10:05 am

    I’ve only read “The Woman in White” and Collins and I… well, we just didn’t click. Maybe a short, light story is what I need!

    • December 17, 2010 3:39 am

      Erm…I can’t help you there since I loved Woman in White. I didn’t click with The Moonstone, though, which was my first Wilkie experience. So there’s hope yet if you give him another chance! ;)

  22. December 15, 2010 9:09 pm

    I have The Woman in White on my classics project list, but I love the sound of The Evil Genius (love the title) too! Perhaps I’ll add it as well.

    • December 17, 2010 3:41 am

      There’s always room for more Wilkie! Isn’t the title great? It cracked me up.

  23. December 16, 2010 9:09 am

    I haven’t read The Evil Genius (yet) but I will search it out now. Just finished The Woman in White — I love Collins focus on women’s status in his society — all his books seem to have that awareness. Armadale (my fave) and No Name are the last two I read that really shine a light on it as well.

    • December 17, 2010 3:42 am

      I love Wilkie for his focus on women’s issues too! I got a hundred pages into Armadale a few months ago, realised it was the last huge Collins I had left to read, and decided to save it for a rainy day. LOL

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