28 FEBRUARY 1885, Page 19

"I SAY 'NO.' "*

EVtar now and then it strikes one as quite extraordinary in literature how much more important manner is than matter. This is not usually believed to be the case in novel-writing, where it.is apt to be supposed that form is disregarded for substance. If this be true in general, it is not true of the book in hand. In I Say No, Mr. Wilkie Collins has provided himself with about as bad a plot as can be imagined. The whole interest of the book centres on an event which took place, not during the progress of the story nor jest before it begins, but some four years before. The event is, of course, involved in mystery. But nothing happens on the discovery of the mystery ; it makes no practical difference to any Personage in the book when the mystery is solved ; and a large, perhaps the larger, part of the book is taken up with the keeping back from the heroine that there is any mystery at all. The mystery is, of course, connected with a crime, and almost equally, of course, with a crime of the bloody order, involved in the death of the heroine's father. There is not a single incident in the hook which is really dramatic. The story is full of in,consequences, improbabilities, and absurdities, — incidents which. lead tonothing, incidents which could not have had the result they are made to have, and incidents which are • stale and silly. For instance, the first half of the book is taken:up with the efforts of a governess, an aunt of the heroine, her old servant, and the drawing-master of the school, who becomes the heroine's lover, all separately concerned, for some inexplicable reason, to keep from her the fact that herIather died, not, as she bad been led to suppose, by disease, but by violence. Eventually, she actually reads the account of the inquest on him in the Times. Knowing that some mystery is being kept from her, and knowing that his name was James Brown, she Jet entertains no suspicion' that he was her father, and thinks it must have been "the other Mr. Brown." When she is at last told that the said James Brown was her father, she dismisses herlover for having kept the fact from her, and only reinstates him when he finds out who it was that actually killed her father. Again, merely for the purpose of frightening an .old woman, two chapters of West Indian magic are introduced,. though, when the old woman is frightened, nothing comes of it. Yet,, in spite of such absurdities and blunders, the novel is infinitely superior to the usual sensation-novel. "Even in our ashes live their wonted fires ;" and Mr. Wilkie Collins at his worst, with a poor lot of coals and a very ill-constructed grate,. contrives to keep the interest and curiosity of the reader, if not at white-heat, as in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, yet, at all events, at a red glow that few other novel-writers can succeed in producing, even by fits and starts. No one can accuse Mr. Wilkie Collins of marring a curious tale in the telling of it. No one could have told a more ordinary tale with such curious skill. We are led in the course of the story to suspect one after another, a governess at the heroine's school, the heroine's aunt, her aunt's servant, a Northern baronet's butler's wife, the butler himself, and a white-handed, white-pocketbandkerchiefed clergyman, of being the causes of Mr. James Brown's mysterious decease ; and, after all, it is,—but it would not be fair to say who it was. It is needless to say that the personages of the story are as mysterious as usual. There is the dark-robed, gloomy, sallow woman, with the relies of great beauty ; the raw-boned,. imperious, mysterious faithful servant ; the eccentric household of the aged couple ; the fiery-souled cripple in a mysterious tower, near the sounding sea, and so forth, not excepting the. suspected, white-handed, mellifluous parson aforesaid. This last gentleman, the Rev. Miles Mirable, is the centre both of the comic and of the tragic interest in the book. His favourite amusement is to sit on a sofa, with not one, but two, youngladies, and his arm round the waist of each. This he does even in the ball-room at the country-house where he is staying ; and as each young lady gets free of her partner, she flies to the enclosure, jealous of the last who was there, and anxious to inquire his opinion of her. "I do it everywhere else," hesays, innocently ; "why not here ?" "Why not, indeed, with that delicate complexion and those beautiful blue eyes, with the glorious golden hair that rests on his shoulders, and the. glossy beard that flows over his' breast? Familiarities forbiddento a mere man become privileges and condescensions when an angel enters society, and more especially when that angel has enough of mortality in him to be amusing..." This "Indies' bosom friend" is artful enough in all his innocence to be careful never to speak ill of any of the young ladies. "His large. experience Warns him that they will tell each other what he thinks of them when they retire for the night, and he is careful. to say something that will bear repetition." E.ven of the ugly, ill-tempered, sullen, and envious West African, Mies de Sor, he says, "I see in Miss de Sor the resolution of a man tempered by the sweetness of a woman. When that interesting creaturemarries, her husband will be—shall I use the vulgar word—henpecked. Dear Miss Ply m, he will enjoy it, and he will be quite Tight too, and if I am asked to the wedding, I shall say, with ' heartfelt sincerity, 'enviable man.'" All which, and much more of the same kind, though exaggerated and somewhat unreal, is, nevertheless, amusing enough. One of the young ladies of the book, Emily Brown's female bosom-Mend, is really-a, fresh and natural creation. Her name is Cecilia Wyvil, whose beauty " dazzles " Mr. Mirable so that he cannot give an unbiassed opinion. We are first introduced to her—surely Mr. Wilkie Collins has been sitting at the feet of Mies Rhoda Broughton —in her bedroom and in her nightgown. Happily it isat a young ladies' school ; and all the young ladies, including the heroine, are there in their nightgowns and all hungry. .The hungriest of all is the "gentle Cecilia,, sitting on the floor surrounded by good things, with her lovely blue eyes resting tenderly on the tarts." Her tenderness for tarts is no secret, as when she is told to cut the cake with herscissors, she is also told not to keep the largest bit for herseli.

This taste for tarts afterwards develops into a more wholesome love for good dinners in general, though she still sticks to her first-love ; and when she goes abroad, next to the ttdorable Mr. Mirable, whom she meets there, she describes with most gusto the dinners which she and a young bride, Lady Doris, who shared her sentiments, had in their bedrooms, by "private arrangement with the cook." She confesses,—" If there is anything in me to be proud of, I think it must be my admirable appetite. And, if I have a passion, the name of it is pastry ;" and Mr. Wilkie Collins agrees with her. "Is a lovely girl, whose face possesses the crowning charm of expression, whose slightest movement reveals the supple symmetry of her figure, less lovely because she is blessed with a good appetite, and is not ashamed to acknowledge it ?" Quite the contrary ; and it is refreshing to find a novelist who will present a young lady with this novel attraction. Of the other characters in the book, Miss de Sor is a very unpleasant personage, and the rest are somewhat shadowy —mere agents in the development of the plot. But we hardly go to Mr. Wilkie Collins for character-drawing. His characters are, after all, only what the background is to the stage. The real interest is in the plot, and in that—poor as it is—our interest is sustained throughout.