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Wylder’s Hand (Le Fanu) — book review

Putting together my new page of reviews reminded me that I used to put up book reviews a lot more frequently than I have been doing recently, so I thought I would put up a review of this classic mid-Victorian sensation novel, which I read alongside The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

Review below the fold.

This novel is by the same Le Fanu who wrote Carmilla (the YouTube adaptation of which I’ve reviewed before), but the supernatural elements of this tale are surprisingly limited. In the same style as Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, those Gothic elements that might be put down to the supernatural—lurking figures in white clothes, for example—are eventually explained by perfectly ordinary events. It might be easy for readers, led on by the apparent ghostly apparition and threatening black cat that trouble the narrator in the first few chapters, to be disappointed by this turn of events (I admit I was!). However, Wylder’s Hand is, by and large, a crime novel, turning on the dual meaning of its title: are the letters purporting to be from Mark Wylder in his hand, or is the long-dead hand emerging from the undergrowth his instead?

The novel follows the fate of Mark Wylder and his betrothed, Dorcas Brandon, along with their cousins, Rachel and Stanley Lake. The narrator, a friend of Wylder’s in particular, and an acquaintance of Stanley’s, drifts in and out of the novel’s events with little real purpose in the narrative except to tell its story. The narrator is, unfortunately, the most flawed thing about the novel. His verbosity and the many irrelevances that he introduces mean that the story drags. We might be inclined to forgive such things if the character himself were drawn in greater detail, and his place in the novel—or his motivation for narrating it—of firmer substance. As it is, he is an irritation, but without good cause.

The most sympathetically portrayed character is Rachel Lake, whose abiding sense of honour and duty guides the novel at several of its key points. Along with Dorcas Brandon, it is Rachel who really drives the tale forward. Dorcas’ love for Stanley—requited but rather ill-founded—leads to her breaking off of her engagement with the disappeared Mark, and in due course she and Stanley marry. Stanley’s own machinations, against Mark for Dorcas’ hand, and then against pretty much everyone in pursuit of wealth and a seat in Parliament, seem ineffectual in comparison to the plans that Rachel and Dorcas enact.

This is a bit of a shame, as Stanley’s efforts to acquire a seat in Parliament are really rather interesting. It is one of the few mentions of divisions (parliamentary votes) and the like that I’ve come across in Victorian literature, and more political content might have made an interesting addition. The romance between Stanley and Dorcas being mostly absent, and the affair of Mark’s disappearance and possible demise being long-drawn-out and rather tiresomely deferred, it is the subplot of Jos Larkin’s illegal and unethical efforts to enrich himself at the cost of his clients, in particular Mark Wylder’s Reverend brother, that proves to be most fascinating. Larkin is well characterised, being both deeply loathsome and amusingly skewered. The detail with which the legal to-ing and fro-ing is described is both in keeping with his character and with his method of duping his victims through careful behind-the-scenes planning, playing multiple actors off against each other while manipulating all of them. His comeuppance is the most satisfying event in the novel.

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