Master Victorian entertainer Collins’s fourth novel, and the first to be serialized in weekly installments, dates from 1857. It begins at Porthgenna Tower, the Cornish estate of Captain Treverton, at the deathbed of the Captain’s wife. Before she dies, she insists on having her trusted maid, Sarah Leeson, write her husband a letter giving an account of a secret only the two women share, and swear, on pain of haunting, not to destroy the letter or to take it away from Porthgenna herself. Scrupulously following her mistress’s bidding, Sarah hides the letter in an unused room of the Tower, leaves a note telling Treverton that his wife confided a secret to her she is afraid to reveal to him—and then vanishes from Cornwall, leaving the house, which Treverton has come to hate, to be abandoned, then purchased by a family whose blind son, Leonard Frankland, marries the Captain’s daughter Rosamond years later when the real complications get underway.
Modern readers, who will have no trouble figuring out the dead secret long before the characters do, are more likely to be engaged by the Dickensian minor characters, the hints of long-dormant intrigue, the heavy-breathing melodrama Collins would bring to perfection only three years later in The Woman in White, and, almost as an afterthought, the implied portrait of a whole social order few novelists in our more knowing time would ever attempt.