Sarah Leeson is a ladies maid to Mrs. Treverton, her husband Captain Treverton is the owner of Porthgenna Tower, somewhere in west Cornwall. Mrs. Treverton is dying, although she is not that old as she has a five year old daughter, Rosamond. On her death-bed she makes Sarah write a confession - a huge secret that she has not had the nerve to tell her husband. Sarah is reluctant - terrified in fact - and does not want to do this thing. Her employer makes her promise that she will give the letter to her husband after her death and if she doesn't she will come back to haunt Sarah.
Petrified, Sarah decides against handing the letter over. Instead she hides it in a disused part of the mansion and promptly leaves the house, only stopping to leave a brief message for Captain Treverton hinting at what has happened. They search for Sarah but do not find her. After the tragedy of losing a wife and mother the family leave Porthgenna Tower and move to the Midlands.
Fifteen years later Rosamund has married recently blinded, Leonard Frankland. The Frankland family bought Porthgenna Tower some years before and the couple decide to return to Cornwall to live in the old house. It takes some time to renovate the place and by that time Rosamond is heavily pregnant. She wants to have the baby in Cornwall but events intervene and on the way there they have to stop in a village in Somerset as the baby is on the way.
Delivered of a baby boy it's necessary to find a nurse. The doctor goes to a local family to ask if they know of anyone and the owner suggests the loan of her housekeeper, a Mrs. Jazeph. Arriving at the inn, it seems Mrs. Jazeph knows rather too much about the family and Porthgenna Tower. It scares Rosamund, and when the woman whispers to her that she must not go near The Myrtle Room in the old house, Rosamond has the woman sent away. But who is she? The next morning Rosamond is calmer and sends the doctor after her. But Mrs. Jazeph has gone, dismissed from her employment. Rosamund and Leonard need to find her and solve the mystery of what this servant knows about their house and family.
I'm not sure whether this is my first Wilkie Collins or not. I *think* I might have read The Woman in White and maybe The Moonstone but if I have it's so long ago I've retained no details of them whatsoever. At some stage I'll read both and I'm sure they'll feel like new books to me. To all intents and purposes therefore, The Dead Secret is really my first book by Wilkie Collins. I enjoyed it... very much as a matter of fact.
If you're looking for a deep mystery where you can't guess the secret then this is probably not it. Anyone who reads mysteries on a regular basis will be well ahead of the game while reading this story and the outcome will be no surprise. The joy of this book is in the telling. It's beautifully written in that old-fashioned Victorian style, with lots of detail about how people were treated as servants, authentic dialogue, and the surroundings - such as the house and various landscapes. I tried to decide where in Cornwall Collins set this but couldn't. He may have had Lanhydrock House in mind apparently:
Clearly not that setting though, as that house is not on the coast, west of Truro, (it's very much inland, near Bodmin, and east of Truro) and nowhere near any fishing village.
None of this matters a jot. This is a lovely Victorian gothicky sort of novel. Quite densely written but not a difficult read at all. It's huge fun to follow Rosamund and Leonard as they go on this sort of treasure hunt, sorting clues and coming to conclusions, writing letters that they have to wait days for answers to and going a bit mad with the anticipation of it all. I loved it and am now wondering what my next Wilkie Collins book ought to be. Pat at Here There and Everywhere will be able to tell me no doubt as Wilkie Collins is one of her very favourite authors and I can quite understand that. Her thoughts on The Dead Secret are here.
And a last word goes to the beautiful cover of this book:
It's called, Figure in the Moonlight and it's by John Atkinson Grimshaw. I absolutely love his work and this suits The Dead Secret perfectly in my opinion.
Happy autumnal reading.