I’ve just finished reading The Queen of Hearts by Wilkie Collins. For this review, I want to talk about the structure of this book, without giving away any of the plots points of the stories themselves. Yes, stories (plural)—this book is ten short stories, included inside of a framing story. The first forty pages starts out with three elderly brothers, a lawyer, a doctor and a clergyman, all of them retired and living together at The Glen Tower. They each have their own distinct personalities and eccentricities that are revealed in the first few pages of the book. One of the brothers, Griffith, is guardian to his dear friend’s daughter, Jessie Yelverton, who comes to stay with them for a few weeks. We are only given a tiny glimpse into Jessie’s character and humor through one brief incident when she and three of her schoolmates dance a quadrille (which is a square dance) dressed up as the Queens of Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs. In this one scenario, Jessie is the one dressed as the Queen of Hearts and this is her given nickname throughout the book and the book’s title. The brothers want to keep Jessie at Glen Tower for a key plot point that I won’t reveal here, and so they go to great lengths to bend over backwards for her by writing and reading a short story each night for ten nights to entertain and keep her from leaving them. We know she has some amount of personality from the initial Queen of Hearts reference, but then she is just sitting and listening to these stories for the rest of the book. Why is she worth all of this effort? The book is not necessarily about her as an individual, but I still think that Wilkie missed an opportunity to give us more insight and understanding into her character which he could have done without giving away the ending. I felt the few paragraphs he gives us about her are not enough for me to feel like all the effort by the brothers was worth it.
Wilkie is consistently the consummate storyteller. He uses women as heroes in his stories, and I am pleased to say that most of the short stories are good enough in my opinion to have become their own novel-length books. A couple of the stories (read on the sixth day and the tenth day), I could have done without and having to read through ten of them to get to the end of the book seemed too many for me during these two stories. The end of the book is only five pages after the last short story. This was a major disappointment; for some reason I was expecting more in the ending.
Some characters give over-the-top, melodramatic reactions to their circumstances, but this is consistent with the Victorian times of the 1800s and with Wilkie’s style. A common theme throughout the stories, including the framing story, is love and/or marriage, and some of these include dysfunctional relationships as encountered by the brothers through their individual professions as lawyer, doctor and clergyman.
Since I’m already an invested Wilkie Collins’ fan, no review could keep me from reading any of his books, but I’m on the fence when it comes to recommending this one. If you have not read his books before, I recommend that you start with The Woman in White, Armadale or No Name.
But you really can’t lose because this book is in the public domain which means it’s free for you to read or listen to on Gutenberg.org or Librivox.org. If you decide to place your bets on The Queen of Hearts, find a quiet place and read or listen to this one.