I’m a big fan of Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s gothic fictions, especially Carmilla and Green Tea, but until now I hadn’t sampled any of his sensation novels. After reading his 1864 novel Wylder’s Hand I can see myself tracking down lot more of his work in this genre!
The sensation novel was a kind of Victorian ancestor to the detective novel, with a crime as the lynchpin of the plot but generally without an actual detective as hero, and with a pinch of melodrama.
The plot of Wylder’s Hand is convoluted and contrived to an extraordinary degree, but I’d see that as a plus rather than a minus. It was really a convention of the genre (and I suppose it’s a convention of crime fiction in general) to have a fiendishly complicated plot.
The Wylder and Brandon families are in fact branches of the same family, and the vast Brandon estates have for generations passed back and forth between the two families. It’s become a tradition for the current holder of the estate to leave a devious will that renders the future ownership of the estates open to all kinds of legal wranglings and bitter family disputes. As the novel opens the provisions of the latest will have made it highly desirable for a marriage to take place between the young and beautiful Dorcas Brandon and Mark Wylder, a marriage that would unite two fortunes and clarify the complex ownership situation. Which would be all well and good, apart from the inconvenient fact that Mark isn’t especially attracted to Dorcas while Dorcas dislikes Mark quite intensely, and Mark has an unexpected rival.
There’s an important sub-plot involving Mark’s impoverished brother, the Reverend William Wylder, and the machinations of the unscrupulous lawyer Josiah Larkin. Other important players are Rachel and Stanley Lake, brother and sister and belonging to yet another branch of the same family tree.
The main plot unfolds slowly, with a mysterious disappearance and dark hints of past crimes and shameful secrets. The fairly leisurely pacing works well, building the tension very effectively.
While the plot is highly melodramatic the characters are complex and sometimes surprising. The chief villain is not a stock villain out of melodrama at all. He’s certainly selfish and ruthless, but as the narrator points out there’s no actual malice in him. He won’t hesitate to hurt anyone who gets in his way, but he won’t inflict injury for the mere pleasure of doing so. The secondary villain is much more sinister. He is a chilling portrait of hypocrisy in action, a man who has even managed to convince himself that he is virtuous whilst he commits the most outrageous frauds.
Wylder’s Hand is a must for any fans of the Victorian sensation novel.