Intriguing, suspenseful, and exciting, Man and Wife is another excellent work by Wilkie Collins. Though commonly associated with sensation fiction, most of his works were themed around the ambiguities and inadequacies of the law to protect citizens, especially women. In Man and Wife, Collins resumes the theme, this time taking on the irregular nature of Scottish marriage laws and their impact on the couples involved. The lax nature of the law and the irregular procedures made it impossible to judge for certain whether a marriage contract is concluded between the parties or not. The case law and authorized texts differed in their opinions and so were the legal professionals. This precarious nature of the law was detrimental to the parties and more so for women, for since there was enough room within, to manipulate, it was easy for husbands to disclaim the marriage if they wanted to. Ever sympathetic to the position of women, Collins picks his thread from a woman’s position and writes Man and Wife to demonstrate the distressing position of a woman who is subjected to Scottish marriage law.
As is his custom, Collins picks an honest and courageous heroine who would immediately win the readers’ sympathy. With easy grace, he pens the story so that we readers become interested in her. As the story progresses, we become involved in it and suffer indignation on her behalf. That is the extremity of the connection that Collins builds between his heroine and readers. While he is thus presenting a charming heroine, he also presents two admirable heroes, one young and one old to fight her cause. While the young one performs the noble duty of protecting the reputation of our distressed heroine, the old one performs the more formidable duty of establishing her position as a respectable woman in the eyes of society. Not forgetting the customary wicked villain and the comic relief, Collins brings a contrasting yet impressive and interesting cast to this compelling story.
Man and Wife is a powerful story that is written with a sympathetic voice. The important themes that are raised and the earnest manner and the grave tone in which they are exposed directly appeal to the heart of the readers. Yet, at the same time, Collins ease the readers’ heavy heart with his humour. The employment of comical relief through his chosen channel (this being always a character, and here it’s being a titled lady) lightens the reader immediately with a good outburst of mirth.
This work is one of Collins’s best. There is no doubt. He has done his research meticulously and carefully formed a story that would raise important social and legal issues. But in doing so, however, Collins hasn’t lost sight that this is fiction. He employs an interesting cast and engages in a grave and humorous style of writing creating an entertaining work of literature that will stay for a long time in readers’ minds. Two works of his have already become my favourites and this one will now join their hands. When a literary work becomes my favourite, it will be, in my subjective perspective, a complete work. And Man and Wife is complete in the importance of its themes, the characters, the writing, and the emotional connection created with the story.