Ioláni; or, Tahíti as it was. A Romance

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

The publication of Ioláni has been eagerly awaited by Collins scholars and enthusiasts since the re-emergence of the manuscript in New York in 1991, when it was sold by the bookseller Glen Horowitz to an anonymous buyer. That discovery alone, a lost first novel by one of the major literary figures of the nineteenth century, is a romance in itself, coinciding with the continued revival of interest in Collins’s life and work. Admirers of Wilkie Collins are fortunate that the generosity of the new owner has allowed swift publication, as many private collectors would have been tempted to keep the purchase to themselves, fearing publication might damage the future market value of the manuscript.

Most authors’ first novels are rejected by publishers, and are usually never seen by anyone again. CertainlyIoláni can only have been read by a handful of people in Collins’s lifetime. Because the author later became famous, in the words of the dust-wrapper blurb, “the novel casts new light on Collins’s development as a writer and on the creation of his later masterpieces.” It is from this perspective, inevitably, that this novel will be read and studied.

Collins wrote his first novel at the age of twenty, while working for a tea merchant, Antrobus and Company, and it is easy to imagine his thoughts faraway in Tahiti, rather than on the duller reality of the commercial day. A career as a writer offered the hope of escape from a job for which he knew he was entirely unsuited. His choice of subject, Tahiti before the arrival of Europeans, provided an opportunity to create an exotic blend of history, paganism and dramatic situations. An historical subject probably seemed to offer the best likelihood of acceptance by a publisher, since historical novels were at that time popular with both critics and public, and almost every author of note turned their hand to the genre. Despite its author’s youth, Ioláni shows Collins was already scrupulous in his research, paying careful attention to recent works on the setting and its history. Once the novel was written, Collins was confident enough of its merit to ask his parents to advance him some money on account to pay for a trip to Paris.

The title character, Ioláni, is a villainous priest, with a seductive influence which proves irresistible to island maidens. In accordance with tradition, the first-born child of his relationship with Idía is to be sacrificed soon after birth, and it is the birth of this child which precipitates events. Idía flees with her baby and young friend, Aimáta, and Ioláni pursues them relentlessly. Much of the interest lies in Collins’s depiction of these two intrepid women, and it is likely they will be seen as the first of a long line of resourceful heroines. The young Collins also displays his appreciation of female beauty, taking a voyeuristic pleasure in describing his younger heroine’s sleeping form and disarrayed clothing (15). Collins is convincing in the depiction of his villain and in Idía’s continuing obsession with the priest, dwelling on her attraction to the priest even while hating him. The novel also offers an early example of one of the grotesque characters he was to later employ, in the mysterious outcast wild man, another of Ioláni’s victims.

Although there is plenty of action, the novel is at times slow moving, partly because there is so little dialogue. There is in fact none until the twenty- second page, and what there is consists of what Robert Louis Stevenson was to call ‘tushery’, studded with “thees” and “thous”. Ioláni thus has more in common with Gothic novels and the historical novels of Walter Scott and Edward Bulwer Lytton than the fiction which was to earn Collins lasting fame. Its strengths are the descriptions of landscape and Tahitian life, and the atmosphere created through weather and painterly scenery is written with real verve. Collins dedicates passages to the life and history of Tahiti, but it is not as overburdened with factual details as his first published novel, Antonina (1850), where a whole chapter is devoted to the history of the walls of Rome. There are some strong resemblances to Antonina with its battle scenes, and the women characters are forerunners to the Goth women of the later novel. The theme of religious extremism is developed further in Antonina with the pagan priest Ulpius and his equally fanatical Christian brother Numerian.

The manuscript of Ioláni was rejected by Longmans and Chapman and Hall in 1845, and Collins later suggested the lurid nature of some of the scenes contributed to their lack of enthusiasm. This reason seems unlikely, as historical novels of earlier Victorian years were frequently allowed an excess not permitted in fiction with a contemporary setting; for example Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia (1853) contained the notorious scene of the naked heroine torn limb from limb by a group of rampaging monks, andAntonina is violent on occasion and contains the Gothic touch of a corpse presiding over a banquet held by starving nobles. When the latter was published, Collins was hailed as the natural successor to Bulwer Lytton and he rarely pleased the critics so unanimously again. Although popular at the time, Antonina has few admirers today, but, like Ioláni, it is entertaining in parts and carefully researched.

If Ioláni been published in the 1840s it would have made exotic reading, with its sorcerers and description of wrestlers (121), and would surely have proved popular with the reading public of the time. The book is divided into three books for narrative purposes, but it would not have been long enough to be published as a three volume novel, and its relative shortness may have deterred publishers. Had Collins chosen later in his career to resubmit the manuscript, it is quite likely a publisher would have looked more favourably upon it, if only to capitalize on his fame. As it was, Collins thought enough of the setting to use it again for a short story, “The Captain’s Last Love” (1877).

Ira B. Nadel is to be congratulated on his informative introduction, providing the history of the manuscript after Collins gave it to the theatrical impresario Augustin Daly, exhaustively mapping the probable sources for the novel, pin-pointing the origins of the names of characters, adding detailed information about the manuscript, and compiling a list of variants and deletions.

The explanatory notes, however, are rather sporadic and erratic: for example, the occurrence of ‘wend’ on page 89 is explicated, surely unnecessarily, though an early occurrence on page 10 passes unremarked. As a book it is handsomely produced, with attractive layout, a facsimile from the manuscript, and appropriate dust-wrapper illustration. For a hardback it is very reasonably priced.

For those hoping for a lost classic, a mystery on a par with Collins’s best work, there will, inevitably, be some disappointment. Judged next to them, the style is dry and it is a fairly tough read. Ioláni is the first novel of a very young man, and none the worse for that, but its chief interest lies in the many hints of the author he became. As such it is a wonderful opportunity to chart his development as an author, and it is an addition no admirer of Wilkie Collins will wish to be without.