A calculating antihero charms his way to wedded bliss and prosperity in this early (1856) novella from the lively pen of the great Victorian melodramatist.
Frank Softly, black-sheep son of a hardworking physician (and, in Frank’s own words, “probably the most impudent man of my age in all England”), fails to follow his father’s professional example, but earns “pocket money” as a caricaturist (“Thersites Junior”)—not enough, as he’s imprisoned for debt—before turning to portrait painting, then art forgery. During Frank’s disgraceful young adulthood, he’s banished from his family but given a kind of reprieve contingent on his ability to outlive his grandmother Lady Malkinshaw, an alarmingly hale and hearty beldame who survives more perils and pratfalls than Buster Keaton in his heyday. Repeatedly given employment for which he’s spectacularly unqualified, Frank becomes secretary of the snooty Duskydale Institution (of science and literature), where he continues to underachieve, before meeting renegade “chemist” Dr. Dulcifer and his splendiferous daughter Alicia, with whom the rogue is instantly, irretrievably smitten. There is, of course, a mystery surrounding the Dulcifers, and when Frank gains entry to their country estate, he becomes unwittingly involved in the sinister doings of the Bad Doctor (who may be thought of as an early version of The Woman in White’s villain par excellence Count Fosco). Collins’s genius for clockwork plotting is happily wedded to Frank Softly’s racy, urbanely egomaniacal voice, as the Bow Street Runners descend on the Dulcifer domicile, Frank loses and regains Alicia with head-spinning rapidity, and the tale’s presumably unhappy dénouement in fact metamorphoses into confirmation of Frank’s conviction (so to speak): “Nothing will ever persuade me that Society has not a sneaking kindness for a Rogue.”
A neglected gem: one of Collins’s most enticing fictions, and one of Hesperus Press’s happiest rediscoveries.