Wilkie Collins wrote about 25 novels and many short stories but the four novels that he published in the decade from 1859 are the most highly regarded and the ones for which he is best known. They are The Woman in White (1859), No Name (1862), Armadale (1864) and The Moonstone (1868). The Law and the Lady (1875) is arguably a less dazzling performance than any of those four, but it is nevertheless entertaining, well plotted, full of surprises and well drawn characters. The first of its three volumes recounts the marriage of its central character, Valeria Woodville, and its immediate aftermath.

Valeria at first signs the register of marriages with what she supposes is her new, married name, Woodville, instead of her original family name of Brinton. Her aunt sees this as a bad omen, though it simply means that she has made a bit of a mess of the register: she immediately signs again with the correct surname. The fact that nobody thought to warn her in advance that she should write her old name suggests a certain lack of preparation for the event. Her aunt and uncle, who have been her guardians, are not happy about the marriage, but (as soon becomes clear) Valeria is strong-willed and difficult to deflect from her chosen course of action.

If the mistaken signature is not a bad omen, it is nevertheless significant. It’s not long till Valeria sees that her new husband must have married her under an assumed name. “Woodville” is not his name, so can it really be hers? And, if she is not Mrs Woodville, who is she? The landlady of the boarding house in Ramsgate where the couple are staying while waiting to board a yacht in which they are to spend their honeymoon touring the Mediterranean, has doubts as to whether she can be validly married at all, and asks the couple to leave the boarding house. She can’t afford a scandal.

Of course the marriage is valid, as Valeria is eventually advised, but at first she is not at all sure of her status. Her mother-in-law, whose family name, she discovers, is Macallan, thinks the marriage is valid (and all the more regrettable for that), but can’t give a definite answer. In this novel, then, as in the earlier Armadale, there’s a suggestion that misconceptions about marriage were not uncommon. Two years ago, writing about Armadale, I said that Lydia Gwilt acted on the seriously mistaken belief that to have married one man named Allan Armadale would bolster her claim to be the widow of another man of the same name. In The Law and the Lady, nobody except the lawyer whom Valeria consults seems to be quite sure what is the effect of marrying (unknowingly, in her case, though not in her husband’s) under an assumed name.

The Marriage Act 1836 had made a fundamental change in the legal status of marriage in England and Wales. Before that, the institution had been governed by ecclesiastical law, and under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts. The 1836 Act had brought marriage under the jurisdiction of the common law courts and statute law. The Law and the Lady is set almost 40 years later (and Armadale almost 30), which one might have thought was long enough for the new laws to become widely understood, but these two novels suggest that this was not the case.

Of course, Valeria has much more serious problems than that of working out by what name she should be known. Now that she knows that her husband isn’t who he claimed to be, he will refuse to live with her, apparently out of embarrassment, unless she is willing to accept the situation and not demand to know any more about his reasons or his past. Nobody will tell her what he is embarrassed about or what he is hiding. Mrs Macallan advises her to:

“… make the best of your position. Be satisfied with your husband’s affectionate devotion to you. If you value your peace of mind, and the happiness of your life to come, abstain from attempting to know more than you know now.” (p. 43)

Valeria isn’t willing (even if she were able) to remain passively in the dark about her husband’s history. She approaches Major Fitz-David, whom she knows to be a friend of her husband. Like Mrs Macallan, the major assures her that he is sympathetic towards her predicament, but says he is unable to help:

“… At a certain period of his past life, a terrible misfortune fell upon him. The secret of that misfortune is known to his friends, and is religiously kept by his friends. It is the secret that he is keeping from You. He will never tell it to you as long as he lives. And he has bound me not to tell it, under a promise given on my word of honour …” (pp. 65–6)

Indeed, knowing that Valeria was likely to question the major, Eustace persuaded him to “renew” his promise.

“… The result is that I am doubly bound to tell you nothing, by the most sacred promise that a man can give. My dear lady, I cordially side with you in this matter; I long to relieve your anxieties. But what can I do?” (p. 67)

Valeria accepts, as she must, that the major is honour-bound not to disclose Eustace’s secret to her. She assures him that she does not expect him to break his word to her husband and will not attempt to get him to do so.

“You have convinced me that I must not ask you to forget, on my account, the promise which you have given to my husband. It is a sacred promise which I, too, am bound to respect — I quite understand that.” (p. 69)

But she is not yet ready to give up. She persuades the major to agree that she can ask, and he can answer, questions not directly touching on the subject matter of the major’s promise. When she had tried the same approach on Mrs Macallan, her mother-in-law had refused to be drawn:

“… If I answered you, I should only lead to other questions; and I should be obliged to decline replying to them. I am sorry to disappoint you. I repeat what I said on the beach — I have no other feeling than a feeling of sympathy towards you …” (p. 42)

The major is made of more malleable stuff than Mrs Macallan, and Valeria quickly sees that he is easily charmed by a beautiful woman. In response to her questions, he confirms that there is somewhere in his library evidence of the “misfortune” that had befallen Eustace, and agrees to allow her to search the room. It seems that he regards his binding obligation to Eustace as a matter of form rather than substance, but in the major’s defence it should be added that he doesn’t expect Valeria to succeed in finding the evidence. He leaves her alone to search, but comes back a short time later to ask her not to read any letters of his that she might find while searching.

“It only struck me a moment since, upstairs, that my letters might embarrass you. In your place, I should feel some distrust of anything which I was not at liberty to examine. I think I can set this matter right, however, with very little trouble to either of us. It is no violation of any promises or pledges on my part, if I simply tell you that my letters will not assist the discovery which you are trying to make. You can safely pass them over as objects that are not worth examining from your point of view. You understand me, I’m sure?” (p. 79)

Valeria’s moral struggle with the major, followed by her search of his library, take up the final two chapters of the first volume. The search ends with her finding the report of a murder trial held in Edinburgh three years earlier. Eustace Macallan had been tried for the murder by poison of his first wife, Sara, and the jury had brought in a verdict of “Not Proven”. Valeria hadn’t known that he’d been married before, let alone that his first wife had been murdered. That first marriage had not been a love match, at least not on Eustace’s side.

Sara had fallen for him but he hadn’t returned her affections. However, when she was discovered in his room, he resolved to marry her, to rescue her reputation. This decision was made all the easier for him because the woman he actually loved, Helena, had just married a younger man in rude good health, someone who in all probability has a long life to look forward to. Of course, Helena is widowed in short order, leaving Eustace with plenty of leisure to repent his own marriage.

The unusual details of Eustace’s marriage to Sara echo those of the marriage of Zachary Thorpe in Collins’s third published novel, Hide and Seek (1854). Thorpe is the rigidly disciplinarian, Calvinist father of two of the novel’s main characters. Late in the story, he admits to being the “Arthur Carr” who twenty-three years earlier impregnated and (unintentionally) abandoned a young woman who not long afterwards died of starvation and exposure. Having been unable to reestablish contact with that young woman, he married another woman “under circumstances not of an ordinary kind” (Hide and Seek, p. 414). The first edition of the novel included a passage that was cut from later ones, stating that Thorpe had married his wife “more out of honour than affection” (Hide and Seek, p. 440, n. to p. 414) on learning that she was in love with him and that he might have unwittingly given her encouragement.

In both these instances, Collins may be implying that it’s generally foolish for a man to marry more out of a sense of honour than affection. Collins himself did not marry, though he maintained two households and had several chilren.

Eustace is horrified that Valeria knows that he was not wholly exonerated of his first wife’s murder (the “Not Proven” verdict indicating that, though there was not enough evidence to convict him, a degree of suspicion still attaches to him). Valeria is determined to find out the truth and clear his name, but almost everybody, including Eustace himself, his mother, the major, her father’s former clerk, her uncle and (at first) the agent (equivalent to a solicitor) who acted for Eustace at his trial all assure her that it’s impossible that she should succeed and that, in making the attempt, she will expose herself and those around her to misery, disgrace and despair. To all of these, Valeria repeatedly insists that she can’t let the matter drop. They all advise her that it would be best for her simply to accept that the question was incapable of being resolved, and made the best of the circumstances in which she and Eustace found themselves. But Valeria can’t bring herself to do that.

Eustace leaves her and goes off to work for the Red Cross in Spain, while Valeria begins her investigation in earnest. It’s clear that Helena Beauly perjured herself at the trial, so she seems the most likely suspect. With some difficulty, Valeria goes to see Miserrimus Dexter, who also gave evidence on Eustace’s behalf, indicating by the way that he had a theory about the case that he could not outline as a witness because it was based on conjecture, not fact. Valeria wanted to know what that theory was.

Dexter was born without legs, and uses a wheelchair to get around. He is intelligent, handsome, highly eccentric and apparently bipolar. He denies that he suffers from delusions. He is looked after by his sister, Ariel, who is devoted to him though he plays cruel tricks on her. He was in love with the victim and had tried to persuade her to leave Eustace. Eustace considers him a friend but the agent, Mr Playmore, tells Valeria that Dexter had ceased to be Eustace’s friend the day the latter had married Sara.

Dexter had seen Helena Beauly acting suspiciously on the night that Sara died and he assures Valeria that her suspicion is well grounded: Helena was indeed the killer. Almost immediately, however, Valeria learns that there is a relatively innocent explanation for Helena’s subterfuge (one that suggests that Eustace might be a bit priggish), so she then begins to suspect Dexter himself, who obviously knows much more than he has been prepared to disclose. It eventually emerges that Dexter had during the trial documentary evidence that would have exonerated Eustace, but was prepared to make it public only if Eustace had been convicted. He would save his former friend from the gallows if necessary but otherwise, for reasons having to do with his love for Sara and his wish to protect her reputation, the document must remain secret.

So, once the verdict was pronounced, and Eustace was no longer in danger of hanging, Dexter tore up the document. The fragments were thrown into the dust-heap in the grounds of Eustace’s house, where they remained undisturbed for three years. By the time their existence and whereabouts are discovered, Valeria (now pregnant) has been reconciled with Eustace, who was hit by a stray bullet in Spain and has been convalescing slowly, and has given up her investigation, under protest. The search is continued by Benjamin and Mr Playmore who eventually recover the torn pieces and are eventually able to reassemble the jigsaw.

The story it tells reveals that the prophets of doom had the right idea all along: the truth that she has discovered would clear her husband of all suspicion but only at the cost of destroying his peace of mind, his newly recovered health, and the good name of his deceased first wife. So, she seals the document in an envelope, tells her husband that it contains proof of his innocence but that it would cause him intolerable distress, as well as other untold evils, to read it. She implores him to leave the envelope sealed.

And he agrees! Unlike her, he apparently is capable of living indefinitely in uncertainty, of making the best of their admittedly imperfect situation. He has always known he was not guilty; now he is prepared to forgo sharing that knowledge with the world. He will continue under a presumably dissipating cloud of suspicion, as he has been doing since the “Scotch verdict”. After Eustace’s death, their son will have the responsibility of deciding whether to reveal the truth, if it is still of interest.

Editions: The Law and the Lady and Hide and Seek are both cited from Oxford World Classics editions, 1992 and 1993 respectively; all emphasis original.