CAFE READS: Marian Halcombe, by Brenda Clough

Marian Halcombe by Brenda W. Clough

Marian Halcombe: A Most Dangerous Woman picks up where Wilkie Collins’ famous The Woman in White leaves off. So a few words about The Woman in White.

It first appeared in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round from 1859-60, and is generally regarded as the first of the Victorian “sensation” novels.

When it came out, it wowed the reading public so much that marketing got behind it: there were “Woman in White” perfumes, hats, and clothes.  There was “Woman in White” music to draw customers into shops to buy the sheet-music (remember most entertainment was do-it-yourself). The names from the book turned up in baptistry registers—Walter was considered a hot commodity for male names.

Not only did it reinvent the melodramatic romantic gothics of earlier years, it combined them with a new form: the detective novel, which drew heavily on the “true crime” penny dreadfuls, which were fictionalized criminal cases. Gruesome and weird stuff still happened, but no longer in sinister and mysterious German castles (though those didn’t entirely die away—far from it!) but right at home, to people like those next door. There was still plenty of blood and thunder and implied UST with handsome but dastardly cads menacing virtuous women, but with a bit more realism worked in.

It also introduced a new kind of heroine in Marian, who was strong instead of delicate, distinctive rather than beautiful, intelligent instead of passive, and active instead of die-away. Readers of both sexes were electrified by Marian’s daring.

So, at the end of The Woman in White, the beautiful, sensitive and passive Laura gets her happy ending, as does Walter, the villains are defeated . . . and the terrific, dynamic Marian is confined to Victorian spinsterhood, dedicating herself to her sister’s family, a fate the adventure-loving, intelligent, and brave Marian doesn’t deserve.

Brenda Clough decided to fix that.

This isn’t the first time that Collins’s story has been retold or reexamined through text, most notably in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.

What I admired about Brenda Clough’s Marian Halcombe is that Clough doesn’t stuff a 21stCentury woman into more-or-less Victorian clothes. That’s not to say there isn’t room for such stories, because of course there is, and an enthusiastic audience who wants exactly that.

But if you, like me, appreciate more of a period feel without having to slog through two-page paragraphs with trainloads of subordinate clauses, you might appreciate the skill with which Clough matches tone and the details of Collins’s novel before beginning Marian’s adventures.

It begins with Marian getting a new journal from her sister, in the hopes that she will now get to do something with her life and to attain the happiness she deserves. Clough does a terrific job of matching the humorous, vigorous tone of Collins’ writing as she paints a picture of domestic contentment, but introduces a sinister note in a newspaper article about dangerous Balkan spies and derring-do in the Austrian Empire.

A cracked tooth in old Mrs. Hartright sends Marian off to London to accompany Walter’s mother, where she meets Theo Camlet, a local publisher, and his two small children. Camlet, a widower who’d been abandoned by his wife, is cautious, but the two swiftly become friends over books.

And so the adventure begins, with cliff-hanger chapter-endings, coming to a satisfactory conclusion. Brenda Clough has written a series—each borrowing from popular genres of the time, while carrying forward the mix of detective work, sensationalism, and drama of the original. There’s a Ruritanian one, there’s an “adventure lost at sea” one . . . and so on. Each resolves, but they build the story of Marian and her family—they are, I found, highly addictive.

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