book: The Haunted Hotel (1879) by Wilkie Collins

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A Collins novel that’s deservedly among his lesser-known pieces yet is still thoroughly entertaining, this combines mystery with the supernatural to generally good effect.

All London is aghast when the highly eligible Herbert John Westwick, First Baron Montbarry, chooses to dump his long-time fiancee, the sweet Agnes Lockwood, and marry the Countess Narona, a continental of dubious reputation. Off the couple go on honeymoon, accompanied by Baron Rivar, supposedly her brother but, according to scandalized gossip, in reality her lover. By the time this odd trio settle down for a while in a crumbling palazzo in Venice, complete with an English maid and a courier, it’s widely bruited that the marriage is already on the rocks thanks to the countess’s presumed adultery and her husband’s extreme tightfistedness.

All of this we learn from the viewpoint of relatives and others back in the British Isles, notably Agnes, still steadfast in her love for Lord Montbarry, and Henry Westwick, a younger brother of Montbarry’s who has for long loved Agnes unrequited.

Lord Montbarry dies in the Venice palazzo, after the maid has resigned and returned to England and the courier has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The countess and her brother, having collected the insurance money, head off to the US, where he dies of a fever. The palazzo is bought by a group of investors, including young Henry Westwick, to be converted into a swanky hotel. There’s a sense that everyone’s picking themselves up again after a tragic digression.

But then Henry spends a night at the hotel he co-owns, sleeping in the room where his brother breathed his last . . .

As I say, this novel is in part a murder mystery (although there’s no real detection involved) and in part a ghost story. The supernatural manifestations do help in the resolution of the riddle, so they’re not just tacked on; at the same time, the tale might have been stronger had Collins written it as an unadulterated mystery. That said, he knew his readership better than I do so that’s probably an asinine comment of mine.

Of especial interest is the portrayal of the countess. In the opening scene she consults a London doctor, seeking some sort of release from the evil she’s convinced inhabits her, and the destiny which that evil has charted out for her. (He tells her he can’t help.) It’s an intriguing conundrum: the sinner who seeks to rid herself of sin is surely no sinner, unless the concept of redemption is illusory. In other words, the countess is a femme fatale against her will, and, although she becomes an accomplice to crime, the blame for the tragedies that ensue from the marriage between her and Montbarry really lies at his feet, as we shall learn, rather than hers.

Back when I was in my late teens and early twenties I read most of Collin’s novels thanks to the efforts of the London publisher Anthony Blond, through his Doughty Press, to bring a bunch of them back into print; the excellent St. Bride’s Library, near where I worked in Fleet Street, stocked not just those but a number of Collins’s other works. More recently I’ve reread The Moonstone and The Woman in White with great enjoyment, especially the latter. I’ve kept meaning to read/reread more, but it’s only now, with The Haunted Hotel, that I’ve actually gotten around to it. I was pretty certain this was one of the ones I hadn’t read before; I’m now even more so. As noted, it’s very decidedly a lesser work and has some highly visible flaws. Yet I found it a compelling read — a great shocker! — and enough fun to encourage me to dig out some more of Collins’s books (thanks, Project Gutenberg!) to read in the not-too-distant future.

10 thoughts on “book: The Haunted Hotel (1879) by Wilkie Collins

  1. I recall looking at this when Vintage reissued it a few years ago, but I never quite got around to buying it at the time. Sounds like a good one for a dark winter’s night – the unwilling femme fatale aspect seems particularly intriguing. Thanks for the enticing reminder. I may have to indulge….

    • I’m surprised you could resist it, given the splendid cover that Vintage put on it! I actually read it as an ebook from Gutenberg, but when I came across the Vintage cover yesterday I almost wished I’d gone out and bought a copy of their printed edition!

  2. I enjoy your take on the Countess as a femme fatale against her will. One thing I always wondered about, and maybe left the book a bit wanting, is that I didn’t get why the first Lord Montbarry left Agnes for the Countess. I always struggled to understand Lord Montbarry as a character, and because of that always felt a bit confused. How did you understand Lord Montbarry?

    • I wondered if perhaps Montbarry’s reasoning was along lines that Collins couldn’t really put into a Victorian novel without offending moral sensibilities in all directions: that Montbarry reckoned he’d have more fun with a woman more of his own age whose reputation suggested she was experienced than with an innocent young chit half his age. What Collins’s two mistresses might have thought of such an implication is of course another thing!

      That said, I’m not sure anyone can get too far trying to understand Montbarry as a character. I think he’s just there as an instrument of the plot, that Collins makes no real effort to flesh him out. I also got the impression that Collins was, perhaps despite himself, far more fascinated by the countess than he was willing to let on to his readership.

      • I do get that Montbarry was just an instrument, but at the same time, I do think that the whole story actually bases himself on Montbarry as a character. I don’t think Montbarry needs to be a purely good or bad character, but it’s as you point out, it changes how we read the character of the Countess and Montbarry’s demise. The Countess’s whole femme fatal against her will can be read in relation to her brother, but I think it’s more relevant for Montbarry. In what way we should read her femme fatal-ness is then relative to how we read the character of Montbarry.

        I also agree that Collins was quite fascinated with the Countess as a character. Collins is known for writing strong female characters, and I won’t be surprised if one of his goals with this story is to show the complexity of women like the Countess. Maybe he even wanted to if not redeem, at least explain why she does as she does.

  3. Pingback: The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins – Lesser-known gems

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