The Queen of Hearts by Wilkie Collins

The Queen of Hearts is a collection of ten short stories set within a connecting narrative. It was published in 1859. I had read one of the short stories in an anthology for detective fiction and had been looking to read the story in its original context ever since. But The Queen of Hearts is not a detective story collection. The stories are a mixture of adventure, romance, suspense, mystery, etc, etc.

‘The Queen of Hearts’ is the nickname of Jessie Yelverton. Jessie’s father had arranged in his will that she should spend at least six weeks with her elderly guardian, Mr. Griffith. Mr. Griffith lives with his two brothers, Mr. Owen and Mr. Morgan in an isolated house called The Glen Tower in South Wales. The three elderly gentlemen set out to delay her departure for ten days so that she may still be there when Mr. Griffith’s son, George comes home from the war. What follows is a sort of Arabian Nights or Decameron Nights type of story telling, where the three brothers tell a different ‘true’ story each evening.

The first day Brother Owen, who was a clergyman in his youth, tells the story of The Siege Of The Black Cottage. This is an early example of a brave and quick-witted female character by Collins. This is also a real short story because it is really short but packs the right amount of excitement. A great little adventure story.

The second day Brother Griffith, who was a lawyer, tells the story of The Family Secret. This is a sad and heart warming tale of a young man who seeks the truth about a family tragedy that no one wants to talk about. This story is a little longer than a short story but it is still a good one.

The third day Brother Morgan, who was a doctor, tells the tale of The Dream-Woman. Any reader of suspense/ fantasy/ horror genre would be able to guess what the story is about fairly early on. But that doesn’t mean the thrills aren’t there. I felt a chill down my spine as Isaac Scatchard, the protagonist, wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night at a lonely inn, paralyzed with fear!

The fourth day is for Brother Griffith’s story of the Mad Monkton. It is a distinctively Gothic story in every way. This story is long drawn out and loses its edge because of that. But the narrative is still engaging enough.

The fifth day Brother Morgan tells of The Dead Hand. This is a sappy little piece about the curses of illegitimacy. Quite dull and boringly long. Curiously, one of the main characters in the story bears a striking resemblance to the character of Ezra Jennings from Collins’ The Moonstone.

The sixth day’s story is Brother Griffith’s The Biter Bit. This story was originally published as ‘Who is the Thief?’. This is the story that I had originally read that led me to this book. The Biter Bit is very possibly the funniest detective story ever written. It is told in the form of letters and is hilarious to say the least. Even if one is not interested in the detective genre I request everyone to please read this little gem of a story because it is just that GOOD!

The seventh day is for Brother Owen’s story of a puritanical parson in The Parson’s Scruple. It’s a good story but once again feels a little drawn out.

The eighth day brings us to Brother Griffith’s story of A Plot In Private Life. This, along with Mad Monkton, are two of the longest stories in the collection. The narrator of the story is William, the faithful servant of Mrs. Norcross. When the widow marries for a second time misfortune befalls her as her new mercenary husband torments her. Mrs. Norcross is once again a strong woman caught up in an unfortunate situation like so many of the other Collins heroines. A  lawyer’s clerk, Mr. Dark comes to the rescue. Mr. Dark is a most unlikely looking detective with a round face and jolly manners but he is more competent and sharper than he looks. William’s relationship with Mr. Dark foreshadows the relationship between Betteredge and Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone. The story is good but is way too long and my interest started to wane after a while. It also makes rather racist remarks about a person of mixed origins.

The ninth day’s story is Brother Morgan’s Fauntleroy. This is a piece of historical fiction about the life of Henry Fauntleroy, the last man hanged in England for forgery. This is a really short story and is pretty good.

The tenth and last day, Brother Owen tells the story of Anne Rodway. It is told in the form of a diary of a young working woman Anne Rodway who looks for clues to the death of her best friend Mary, after the latter dies under mysterious circumstances. The story shows the appalling working conditions and the bleak, harrowing lives of poor lonely women in Victorian London. This story features possibly the first fictional female detective, Anne Rodway, a resourceful and independent young woman. She is another example of Collins’ strong heroines. This is a good and engaging story.

All of the short stories are fairly good. But about the connecting narrative I’m not so sure. Sometimes it made me lose patience and sometimes it made me smile. I really don’t like romance so the romantic nature of the motive behind the story telling may have something to do with it. Jessie Yelverton the so called ‘Queen of Hearts’ of the story is okay. She’s nothing great. Mr. Griffith annoyed me.

One thing I really liked about the book is the fact that most of the stories portrayed the female characters as complete human beings with both good and bad sides to them.

This book is an example of what Wilkie Collins can do with any given genre. His writing is very good and entertaining in this book.

Even though I myself didn’t like the connecting narrative, everyone else might because I presume people like romance more than I do. I also know that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for short stories. But The Queen of Hearts is such a good piece of literature that I feel bound to recommend it wholeheartedly. Rarely do I find a book were almost all of the stories are good. So, from me definitely highly recommended.

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  1. I love Wilkie Collins but haven’t read this book yet – though I’ve read The Dream Woman and The Dead Hand, which both appeared in another collection. I’ll try this book next time I’m in the mood for some short stories.

    1. I have read only three Wilkie Collins books so far, The Woman in White, The Moonstone and The Queen of Hearts. The Queen of Hearts is my favourite among these three. While I can’t call him one of my favourites I do like his works reasonably well.

      I hope you like The Queen of Hearts as much as I did when you eventually read it. 🙂

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