The Marriage Plot and other stories

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

A million years ago, in December, I had a massive case of reading-block and spent the whole month labouring over No Name by Wilkie Collins. Then I cured myself by reading The Marriage Plot in the week between Christmas and New Year. I am in no way suggesting that the latter is superior to the former, it is just interesting to note how reading-block can strike even when you are involved with your favourite authors. I enjoyed No Name while I was reading it, it was just a monumental effort to force myself to turn off the TV and pick up the book.

No Name is classic Wilkie Collins intrigue, with the twist of the secret being revealed in the first part. For the rest of the novel we follow the beautiful and vengeful Magdalen as she seeks out retribution with the help of the audacious fraudster Captain Wragg. I don’t want to give away too much in terms of spoilers (my pro-tip is don’t read the blurb on the back of the book until you’re safely past the big reveal), but I really enjoyed the sparring between Captain Wragg and Mrs Lecount. I also liked Magdalen when she was being brave and clever, but then all her resources crumbled and she had to be rescued by a man. I love 19th Century novels more than anyone, but as I get older I find it harder to roll my eyes and chuckle about the patriarchy over the way some of the female characters are portrayed. Wilkie is one of Dickens’ friends though, so I shouldn’t be surprised. He is also the creator of Lydia Gwilt, from Armadale, one of my favourite fictional characters, so I guess he is forgiven.

It almost seemed a shame to tear through The Marriage Plot so quickly, as it is one of the few books that I allowed myself to buy this year, and a hardback no less! It was all down to my weird self-imposed rule that I have to start a new year with a new book. Jeffrey Eugenides’ third novel details the participants of a college love-triangle in the early 1980s, and after complaining so much about No Name ending with a marriage or two it seems appropriate to talk about The Marriage Plot. Madeleine, beautiful and rich and clever, is a literature major who has written her thesis on the marriage plot in 19th century literature. Madeleine has at least two boys after her, Mitchell and Leonard, and her preoccupation with them, and their’s with her, drags on after graduation and into that tricky first year in the real world.

As a former student of 19th Century Literature, I can of course smile coyly and tell you all how this novel struck a chord with me, how familiar it all seems. Sadly I am neither beautiful nor rich, nor even especially clever, so the only thing I could do was nod enthusiastically every time the name of a novel I’d read was mentioned. When I read The Virgin Suicides as a depressed teenager it was a genuinely transformative experience for me and I will always love Eugenides for that. The Marriage Plot is another coming of age story, and to me it seems to be another tale of a young woman sacrificing her future and holding back from adulthood. Madeleine comes out of the novel apparently unscathed, but we never find out what happens to her, or even what her thoughts on the marriage plot actually are.

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