I read this book on the 12 hour trip back from Edinburgh, and it was the ideal read for that sort of situation. A proper door stop example of the Victorian novel, with a genuinely gripping storyline.
In some ways it represents a Victorian era Sense and Sensibility, with two sisters incarnating those values suddenly plunged out of their position in society and responding in vary different ways. There are some striking parallels in what happens to them subsequently, particularly the younger one, who falls for a handsome but worthless young man before subsequently being nursed from a serious illness by a much older man. I suspect that the similarities were conscious ones, given that the names in No Name echo those in Austen: Norah and Magdalen for Elinor and Marianne.
There are significant differences though. While Elinor and Marianne were merely reduced to genteel poverty, Norah and Magdalen were ostracised completely from polite society. In addition to this, while the Dashwoods largely were forced to await events that would change their situation – a trip to London was the extent of their positive action, Magdalen is far more enterprising and boldly sets out to correct the situation on her own account.
Magdalen’s activities lead to the big difference between the two novels. Sense and Sensibility remains a human drama concerned with relationships and emotions. No Name becomes a thriller, with the brilliantly described battle of wits between Captain Wragge and Mrs Lecount as surrogates for Magdalen and Noah Vanstone as the highpoint.
The two drawbacks to the book are in its ending and its lack of humour. Collins makes plenty of incisive observations on society but hasn’t Austen’s waspish irony and if Mrs Wragge is intended as a comic character she fails in that task utterly, with Captain Wragge’s continued cruelty to her undercutting the authors attempt to humanise him through Magdalen.
As for the ending, from the moment of the marriage the book loses its way. Magdalen’s activities would be shocking even to a modern audience, to a Victorian one they were clearly beyond the pale and the rest of the book makes a desperate and transparent attempt to rescue her moral character, leaving a narrative which is not only implausible in itself, but also offers no explanation for what she did intend on having achieved the change to Noah’s will. Given how carefully thought out her plans had been to that point it seems unlikely she had no thoughts as to what would occur next. That these flaws do little to detract from the overall enjoyment of the novel indicates its significant strengths.