No Name is one of the four major works that Collins produced in the 1860s – the period that many readers and critics consider to be the peak of his creative powers. Concerned with the experiences of the ‘adventuress’ Magdalen Vanstone, the novel followed the enormous success of The Woman in White (1859-60). Collins’s most famous novel had significantly boosted the sales of All the Year Round, making Dickens keen to commission another serialised novel from his young protégé. Despite the critical consensus that No Name did not match the achievement of The Woman in White, Dickens was not disappointed and thought it Collins’s finest novel. The novel was serialised in All the Year Round between 15 March 1862 and 17 January 1863. It first appeared in volume form with Sampson Low in 1862. Collins was paid the enormous sum of £3,000 for the rights of the volume edition and the publisher printed 4,000 copies of the novel, most of which were sold on the first day of publication.
No Name explores a number of key concerns, such as the social and legal treatment of illegitimacy, the issue of female agency, and tensions around class identity. Indeed, identity in its broadest sense is central to the novel, and Collins’s exposure of the theatricality and performativity of identity still reads as curiously modern. In Magdalen Vanstone, we have one of Collins’s most interesting female characters; like Marian Halcombe before her and Lydia Gwilt after, Magdalen demonstrates Collins’s skill in presenting fascinating, independent and forceful heroines. Notwithstanding Dickens’s general admiration for No Name, he advised Collins to make Magdalen a more conventional heroine, finding the character too transgressive and subversive in her ‘masculine’ assertion and agency. However, he also praised Collins’s creation, which he admitted was ‘wrought out with truth, energy, sentiment, and passion, of the very first water’ (Letters, III, 304). Some reviewers did not appear to share this latter view. The critical response to No Name, in keeping with the general reception of Collins’s work during this period, was decidedly mixed. Henry Mansel included No Name in his review essay on ‘Sensation Novels’, for the Quarterly Review in 1863, thereby drawing Collins more firmly into the controversy over sensation fiction during the early 1860s. Mansel was exercised by the dubious morality of No Name, whereas other reviewers criticised what they perceived to be the implausible characterisation. The North British Review, for instance, dismissed characters such as Magdalen, Mrs Lecount, and Captain Wragge as having ‘no representatives in the living world’.
Overshadowed as it is by the dazzling success of its immediate predecessor, No Name does not always receive the recognition it deserves – for its formal innovations, as well as for the thematic and plot interest. In the preface to the novel, Collins drew attention to the careful thought he had put into the technical effects employed: ‘My one object is to enlarge the range of my studies in the art of writing fiction, and to vary the form in which I make my appeal to the reader, as attractively as I can.’
Anne-Marie Beller and Andrew Mangham